When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) holds its annual leaders’ summit in Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe on Thursday and Friday, Russia will assume the rotating presidency of the six-member bloc.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted Wednesday that Iran, India and Pakistan were all eager to become full members of the bloc, “while more and more countries are seeking observer or dialogue partner status.”
Writing in the Russian daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Lavrov said the summit would formalize procedures for admitting new members, “making it possible to start expanding the organization during the Russian presidency.”
He touted the growing influence of the SCO, calling it “an important factor in the emergence of a new polycentric world order” and referring to its members “working together to adequately respond to events in the region and the world.”
Lavrov said the SCO’s success lay in its commitment to the principles of “equality, mutual respect, consideration of each other’s interests, resolving conflicts and disputes by political and diplomatic means, and the right of nations to choose their own path of development.”
In a dig at other multilateral bodies – likely including common Russian targets like NATO and the European Union – he added, “The SCO is fully in tune with the realities and demands of the 21st century, unlike the discipline that exists within particular blocs of countries.”
Originally an initiative of China, the bloc was created as the Shanghai Five in 1996 before expanding to six members and being renamed the SCO in 2001. Stretching across the vast, energy-rich region from the Pacific to the Caucasus, its members are China, Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Together they account for one-quarter of the world’s population, and control a substantial chunk of the non-Arab world’s oil and natural-gas reserves.
Iran, India and Pakistan were first granted SCO observer status in 2005, and the government of then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad subsequently applied to become a full member.
(A year after the SCO granted Iran observer status, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented during a visit to Southeast Asia that he found it “strange” that an organization claiming to be against terrorism would admit “the leading terrorist nation in the world, Iran.”)
Despite Tehran’s formal request to join, existing members appeared to be in no hurry to expand the group, but Lavrov signaled Wednesday that this will happen on Russia’s watch.
Last Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang also expressed hope that progress on admitting new members would occur at the summit, which Iranian President Hasan Rouhani is to attend.
As the bloc is dominated by Moscow and Beijing, the long-deferred expansion now looks likely.
From the outset the SCO’s stated mission has focused on regional security, including combating terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Member-states have also participated in regular joint military exercises. The most recent one, an anti-terror drill dubbed Peace Mission 2014 and held in China in late August, involved 7,000 troops from all SCO members bar Uzbekistan.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told a press briefing Tuesday that leaders attending the Dushanbe summit would discuss issues of “major concern,” citing “complicated and profound changes” in the region and internationally.
For years SCO officials and member governments, particularly Russia and China, have played down Western concerns about the bloc, insisting that the organization and its activities are not aimed at, or a threat to, “any third party.”
Lavrov in his article Wednesday alluded to this, writing that “[t]he SCO has been clear that it does not seek to create a military-political alliance.”
“However, its core principles include preventing unlawful acts that harm the interests of member states,” he added.
Afghanistan, which is located on the bloc’s southern fringe, has long been on the SCO’s radar, and with the end of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission there drawing closer the bloc last year granted Kabul observer status.
Afghanistan featured prominently in talks between SCO military chiefs in Beijing last month, held on the sidelines of the Peace Mission 2014 exercises.
“Our major concern is the possible destabilization of the region after the pullout of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan,” Russian General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov said after the meeting, while his Chinese counterpart, Fang Fenghui, voiced concern about terrorists from Afghanistan “infiltrating Central Asia at a fast pace.”
Apart from Iran, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mongolia also has SCO observer status. Turkey, Belarus and Sri Lanka are “dialogue partners.”
SCO’s membership overlaps that of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance of former Soviet states comprising Russia, the four Central Asian SCO members, as well as Belarus and Armenia.
Amid tensions between Moscow and the West over the Ukraine crisis, CSTO secretary-general Nikolay Bordyuzha, a Russian general, said last month the CSTO would suspend its dialogue with NATO, and instead step up cooperation with the SCO.