In early October, during Indian Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid’s visit to Moscow, his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, unequivocally supported India's intention to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where currently India has observer status. There is no doubt that this issue will be discussed next week, during Manmohan Singh’s visit to Russia.
The question that India (as well as Pakistan) should upgrade its status from an observer nation to a full member in the SCO has been put a long time ago. It was always considered (and in many ways, this was true) that China would unequivocally support the application of Pakistan, and Russia would support the application of India. In 2011, during a visit to Moscow of the Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, the Russian leadership supported Pakistan's desire to become a full member of the organization. It seemed that the question of simultaneous acceptance of the two South Asian countries into the SCO would be resolved very quickly. However, this has not happened yet, and the issue has been caught up in a number of bureaucratic delays – no one is objecting openly, but not much progress is being seen.
Meanwhile, the importance of India and Pakistan joining the SCO (and I think, it is obvious to everyone that these two countries can be accepted only simultaneously) is obvious – especially in view of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, which is scheduled for the end of 2014. If the neighbours of Afghanistan do not wish this country to become a source of constant threats of terrorism, religious extremism and drug trafficking, it is countries of this vast region, covering a part of the Middle East, Central, South, and East Asia to some extent, which should accept the responsibility for the state of affairs in and around Afghanistan. It is important to note that both Afghanistan and its western neighbour Iran are also are observers in the SCO, so the overall success will depend on the coherent activity within the organization.
When we talk about Afghanistan and the role of neighbouring countries in the peaceful settlement of the situation in this country, we have to keep in mind the following. Both India and Pakistan have long-standing ties with Afghanistan, but each of these countries relies on different, and it is no exaggeration to say, opposing forces. Pakistan has strong ties with the Taliban, and India acts as practically the most implacable opponent of the Taliban on the world stage. Therefore, if each external force (we will add here other neighbouring countries as well, with each of them relying on certain ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan, e.g., Iran, Uzbekistan, etc.) tries to tip the balance of forces inside the war-torn country in its favour, then the situation may begin to develop towards the most unfavourable scenario – the one that was implemented in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, i.e., an all-out war.
It should be understood that the zero sum game is impossible in Afghanistan, and attempts to gain benefits at expense of the other side will inevitably lead to a lose-lose situation. In order to prevent this, we need an authoritative platform, where many controversial issues can be decided in advance, so that the interaction of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries could become characterized as cooperation and coordination of efforts, rather than confrontation. The SCO is the natural and most convenient platform for this.
The Afghan issue is the most urgent and requires the quick joining of the SCO by India, but it is just one of many problems in the region. One of the hurdles objectively preventing the full participation of India in the organization is connectivity with Central Asia, where most of the current members of the organization are located. Land routes from India to the north run either through the Himalayas, or through Pakistan, the relations with which are poor, or through Afghanistan, where war has not ceased for several decades, and threatens to continue into the foreseeable future. However, given the status of Iran as an observer in the SCO, and its possible joining as a full member in the future, membership in the SCO opens for India tremendous opportunities to promote such a half-forgotten project as the North-South Transport Corridor, which would connect ports on the west coast of India with the ports of Iran and further – through a network of railways and roads – with Afghanistan, Central Asia, South Caucasus, Russia and Northern Europe. The implementation of this project would not only contribute to a closer integration of the countries of this vast region, but would also greatly defuse the tension around Iran.
It also should be noted how the old conflicts between India and Pakistan could affect the interaction of the two countries in the SCO. Recently, an improvement of the relationship between the two countries has been observed. However, the Kashmir issue still has not lost its acuteness. Of course, the membership of India and Pakistan in the SCO will not influence the resolution of the dispute directly, as India's position remains the same – this is a matter of bilateral relations, and engaging any third parties in its resolution is unacceptable.
However, if we look at the future (even a very distant one), we can see that every possible development of multilateral integration formats can defuse even the most long-standing and seemingly unsolvable problems. Let us remember that territorial issues in Europe led to two world wars. Yet today, no one mentions the old arguments about Alsace and Lorraine, and the capital of Alsace, Strasbourg, has become the capital of a united Europe.
Of course, the conditions in Asia today are far from those that existed in Europe on the eve of the creation of the European Union. But then again, the story does not end tomorrow.