REUTERS - 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.
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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 Muslim-majority region of Kashmir which they both claim in full but rule in part. Pakistan also believes India is supporting separatists in resource-rich Baluchistan 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.