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Pakistan: Most Shanghai Forum Countries Welcome Membership Request

Pakistan has requested membership in the Shanghai Forum, an economic and regional security group formed by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Most of the Shanghai countries have welcomed Pakistan's request, but Tajikistan's president has said he opposes Pakistan's entry. Pakistan's membership would shift the group's traditional geographic focus, which until now has centered on China. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier examines why Pakistan wants to join and what Pakistan can offer the Shanghai Five.

Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan made a surprising request last week to join the Shanghai Forum, the group formed by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1996. Russia, in particular, was quick to hail the request as a sign of the Shanghai Forum's "growing prestige," but that sentiment was not shared by all the member countries.

The Shanghai Forum has evolved increasingly into an economic and security group, transcending its original purpose of overseeing the demilitarization of the CIS-Chinese border.

In 1999 when the presidents of the five countries met in August in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek they vowed to work together to fight international terrorism, separatism and extremism. Last year, the presidents widened their purpose to include economic cooperation.

Pakistani officials were not available to comment on why their country is seeking membership in the group, but observers say membership may offer the country a way of improving ties in the region.

Pakistan's perceived sponsorship of the Afghan Taliban movement is particularly disturbing to the CIS Central Asia states, which claim regional Islamic militants are supported by the Taliban, and by extension, groups in Pakistan. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the only countries to recognize the Taliban government.

Pakistan has long had good ties with China cemented by their common mistrust of neighbor India. But recently, China criticized Pakistan over reports that Uyghur separatists are training on Pakistan's territory. Some of the Muslim Uyghurs, who live in Xinjiang province, the region neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, want independence from China.

By joining the Shanghai Forum, Pakistan also opens a new page in its relations with Russia, traditionally an ally and a major weapons supplier of India. India, incidentally, said through its embassy in Moscow that it will "attentively look at how these plans of Islamabad are assessed by the members of the Five themselves."

Membership may also offer economic incentives. Kazakhstan, in particular, can offer much to energy-starved Pakistan. Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf was in Kazakhstan in November and oil deliveries to his country were a major part of the agenda. The route for supplies of Kazakh oil logically lies through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

But Pakistan's application to join the Shanghai Forum may show it is not so easy to become a member of the group. Aleksandr Yakovlenko, a spokesman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, welcomed Pakistan's request saying it was proof of the Shanghai Forum's "growing prestige."

China was more cautious. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said China "noticed" Pakistan's request but that the matter was one only all five members could decide through consultations. If that is true, then Pakistan will have to convince Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to change his mind. Rakhmonov, whose country shares a long border with Taliban Afghanistan, has flatly said Pakistan should not be admitted and there should not be any discussion of the matter.

Pakistani membership will likely be discussed at the next forum summit this summer in Shanghai.

(Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)