BEIJING - Nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India will start the process of joining a security bloc led by China and Russia at a summit in Russia later this week, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Monday, the first time the grouping has expanded since it was set up in 2001.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) groups China, Russia and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, while India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Mongolia are observers.
“As the influence of the SCO’s development has expanded, more and more countries in the region have brought up joining the SCO,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told a news briefing.
“India and Pakistan’s admission to the SCO will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will play a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of their bilateral relations.”
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, two of them over the divided region of Kashmir which they both claim in full but rule in part. Pakistan also believes India is supporting separatists in resource-rich Balochistan province, as well as militants fighting the state.
India applied to join the regional security grouping last year and SCO foreign ministers gave a positive recommendation when they met in June. “We await further developments,” said Sujata Mehta, a senior foreign ministry official.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Moscow for a summit of the BRICS group of emerging markets and both he and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, will attend a special SCO “outreach” session as part of the gathering.
Pakistan’s application is being considered, said foreign ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah. “We hope they will support us for full membership,” he added.
The grouping was originally formed to fight threats posed by radical Islam and drug trafficking from neighbouring Afghanistan.
Cheng said the summit, to be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, would also discuss security in Afghanistan.
Beijing says separatist groups in the far western region of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur minority, seek to form their own state, called East Turkestan, and have links with militants in Central Asia, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
China says Uighur militants, operating as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have also been working with Islamic State.
“It can be said that ETIM certainly has links with the Islamic State, and has participated in relevant terrorist activities. China is paying close attention to this, and will have security cooperation with relevant countries,” Cheng said.
AFP adds: “Due to the spillover effect of the Islamic State terrorist activities, Afghanistan now faces a grim security situation,” Chinese vice foreign minister Cheng Guoping told reporters.
SCO leaders “will certainly have in-depth discussions on the Afghan issue”, he added. “And they will talk further about how to respond to the security situation there.”
China is seeking business interests in Afghanistan and is sensitive to any spillover of Islamic-inspired extremism from the country, which has a short border with its mostly Muslim western region of Xinjiang.
Afghanistan’s militant Taliban are seeking to halt defections to IS after some insurgents adopted its flag to rebrand themselves as a more lethal force as NATO troops depart the country.
Last month the Taliban warned the leader of IS group against waging a parallel insurgency in Afghanistan, after reported clashes between militants loyal to the two groups.
Cheng shrugged off any concerns over tense relations between Pakistan and India, saying membership “will not only help the organisation become better but will also play a productive role in promoting friendly relations between the two countries”.
He also said that China remained on guard against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) it says foments unrest in Xinjiang among the region’s ethnic Uighurs, though many analysts outside China have questioned whether any large scale organisation of the kind exists.
INP adds: Pakistan, China and Russia will conduct joint military exercise – Experts of Air Combat - in the upcoming ‘World Military Games which are scheduled to be held in August 2015. Russia has formally invited 34 international military teams to its upcoming ‘World Military Games’, which will feature a series of competitions involving tanks, fighter jets and other shows of military prowess.k