(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan on Wednesday lobbied for membership in a Eurasian security and economic bloc sometimes described as a regional counterweight to the U.S. and NATO. It also welcomed Afghanistan’s interest in closer cooperation with the group, which includes China and Russia.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit comes several weeks after Pakistan’s prime minister reportedly urged Afghanistan to recognize that its future lies with China, Pakistan’s longstanding ally, rather than with the United States.
Addressing the summit in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari urged the SCO to process Pakistan’s application for full SCO membership “expeditiously.”
“Apart from our geographical location, the geo-economic realities also encourage Pakistan to join the SCO as full member,” he said. “Our destinies are interlinked.”
Zardari also said Pakistan was “delighted” that Afghan President Hamid Karzai – also attending the gathering – had applied for SCO observer status, calling it “a welcome development.”
“We want to become an observer in this important forum and hope that the council of the SCO heads of state will respond positively to our request,” Karzai told the summit.
The SCO had enormous potential, and Afghanistan’s future was tied to the growing regional economies, he added, inviting members of the bloc to continue playing a role in rebuilding the country.
Marking its tenth anniversary this year, the SCO comprises Russia, China, and the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Pakistan, India and Iran have applied to join, although existing members have been in no hurry to expand the bloc.
Afghanistan loomed large at the summit, and both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke about its importance.
“China pledged more than 12 billion dollars of concessional loans for projects in SCO countries and actively participated in the reconstruction of Afghanistan,” said Hu. “China will continue to provide loans for projects in countries related to SCO, which has emerged as a guarantor of regional peace.”
Medvedev said Russia wanted to see deeper cooperation between SCO and Afghanistan, whose participation in the bloc carried great significance. “Security in Afghanistan affects security in our countries,” he said.
Instability in Afghanistan and its consequences for the wider region has been a central SCO concern since the early days of an organization focused on countering “terrorism, extremism and separatism.” With the approaching departure of U.S. and NATO forces, countries in the bloc are looking ahead.
“We believe that the prosperity of Central Asia and the surrounding states can only be achieved through a strong, independent and stable Afghanistan,” Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose country has chaired the SCO over the past year, wrote in a Moscow Times op-ed on Wednesday.
“It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.”
The developments could have implications for future U.S. interests in the region.
In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had told Karzai during a visit to Kabul that the U.S. had let down both of their countries. The report, citing Afghan officials, said Gilani had urged Karzai to forget about a longterm strategic partnership with the U.S. but look instead to China and Pakistan.
Although both governments denied the reports there is clearly interest on the part of the three countries to expand future cooperation.
Writing in the Communist Party-linked Global Times last week, a Chinese academic argued that China, Pakistan and Afghanistan should form “a strategic trilateral partnership to support sustainable peace and prosperity in the region.”
Li Xiguang, director of the Tsinghua University Center for Pakistan Studies, said the shifting situation in Afghanistan holds great potential for China and Pakistan, including realization of the dream of reviving historical regional trade routes.
“After the death of Osama bin Laden, China needs to redefine the issue of Afghanistan,” Li said. “China should lose no time to initiate regional cooperation among China, Pakistan and Afghanistan to realize the tremendous potential of the legendary medieval Silk Road.”
Bhaskar Roy, a veteran China analyst in India, said Wednesday that China’s expanding interest in Afghanistan will pose new challenges for the U.S.
“What China is looking to is to use its time tested ally, and willing and devoted junior partner Pakistan, to dominate the Af-Pak region after the U.S. withdrawal,” said Roy.
In other developments, the SCO leaders meeting in Astana rallied around Moscow’s opposition to the U.S./NATO European missile defense project.
“The unilateral and unlimited buildup of missile defense by a single state or by a narrow group of states could damage strategic stability and international security,” they said in a joint declaration.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also wants to join the SCO, used the event to rail against the U.S. and the West, calling for a united front against what he called “enslavers, colonialists [and] invaders.”