Beijing: India on Thursday made a strong pitch for membership of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that brings together Asian and Central Asian states, underlining the bloc’s role in dealing with key challenges and opportunities in the region, including stabilizing Afghanistan, combating terrorism, energy cooperation and increasing connectivity among member nations.

External affairs minister S.M. Krishna, in his speech at the one-day SCO meet’s extended session, noted that most of the SCO members were neighbours of India or belonged to its extended neighbourhood. Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of SCO.

Mutual support: External affairs minister S.M. Krishna with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the SCO summit in Beijing on Thursday. (Mark Ralston/Reuters)

“By doing so, we have shown our strong willingness to be meaningfully associated with this grouping. We believe SCO can potentially play a much larger role in the future, both for the security and prosperity of our region."

Besides India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia are the other observers. Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are guest invitees at the meeting.

“India would be happy to play a larger, wider and more constructive role in SCO as a full member as and when the organization finalizes the expansion modalities," Krishna said, referring to consultations under way about including English besides Russian and Chinese as official languages of SCO and other administrative issues on including new members. Russia has been pushing for India’s membership; China is keen to see Pakistan also included in the grouping as a permanent member. Some of the smaller groups are unsure about admitting India and Pakistan as full members because tense ties between the two South Asian neighbours could stymie progress in SCO.

Outlining the challenges and opportunities before the grouping in the second decade of its existence, Krishna said the most important security challenge before the bloc was the one that relates to Afghanistan. Many of the SCO members and observer countries share contiguous borders with Afghanistan or are part of its extended neighbourhood.

Though ousted from Kabul in November 2001, the hardline Taliban militia group has made a comeback in recent years and is posing a major challenge to US-led international troops in the country. After a decade of fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan, US-led international troops are preparing to leave as early as next year. In its efforts to stabilize itself and gear up for challenges after the withdrawal of US troops, Afghanistan has signed a number of strategic agreements with countries such as India and the US to help train security personnel besides economic backing and investment.

“SCO provides a promising alternative regional platform to discuss the rapidly changing Afghan situation," Krishna said, referring to the country’s unique geographical location “in the heart of Asia" and as a bridge connecting South and Central Asia besides Eurasia and the Middle East. “The economic development projects of SCO can be a meaningful additional effort for Afghanistan’s reconstruction," Krishna said, recalling India’s commitment of $2 billion (around 11,000 crore today) as aid and rehabilitation assistance for Afghanistan.

Krishna also highlighted terrorism as a major challenge for SCO to deal with. “We appreciate greater cooperation within the regional anti-terrorist structure (that deals with terrorism within SCO) as an important regional answer to this challenge. India looks forward to greater engagement with this structure," the minister said, adding that illicit narcotics trafficking and cyber security were some of the other issues needing greater collective attention and action.

“Energy cooperation is another area of interest to us," Krishna said, referring to the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) gas pipeline, for which the participating countries signed a pact in May. “The proposed TAPI project within our region is an example of cooperation that can bind us in energy linkages," Krishna said. The pipeline is expected to be operational in 2018 and supply gas over a 30-year period.

Noting that connectivity was “crucial" to keeping the bloc together, Krishna said India was ready to cooperate with countries in the region to find viable solutions to this problem and contribute to the endeavour to build bridges between South and Central Asia.

“The international North-South transport corridor, which we are re-energizing, is one such effort in this direction," Krishna said.

The original International North-South Transport Corridor Agreement was initiated in 2000 by India, Iran and Russia. Later, 10 more countries in the region signed on to the project that promises to cut the costs involved in transporting goods to Central Asia by 30%, according to the information available on the Indian commerce ministry website.

The new countries to sign up to the corridor project include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus, Oman, Syria and Bulgaria, the website says. The route connects Mumbai in India, Bandar Abbas port in Iran and another port known as Bandar Anzali in northern Iran on the Caspian Sea coast. From there, goods are expected to be transported to Astrakhan in Russia and on to Central Asia. According to the Indian government, this route is shorter than the current one through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. While the Suez Canal route takes 45-60 days, the North-South Corridor will take 25-30 days. From India’s point of view, the North-South Corridor will help India bypass Pakistan and yet reach out to Central Asia.

Flagging the contributions India can make to the development of SCO, Krishna added that the country would be happy to share its expertise in areas such as banking, capital markets, microfinance, and small and medium enterprises.

Krishna met his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in Beijing. During the 45-minute meeting, Yang said “minor differences" will not disturb the general trajectory of relations, according to officials. China will handle sensitive issues carefully, keeping ties with India in mind, Yang said. Krishna also had a brief meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday.

elizabeth.r@livemint.com

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