NUR-SULTAN – President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states to expand economic cooperation and in doing so to focus on the transit-transport sphere, food, and energy security during the сouncil of heads of the SCO member states on Sept. 15-16 in Samarkand, reported the presidential press service.
The summit was in the global spotlight as it brought together the leaders of the SCO member states and observer states for the first time in three years in a face-to-face format.
The SCO was founded in June 2001 by Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In June 2017 at the Astana summit, Pakistan, and India joined the organization, while after Friday’s summit, Iran is poised to become a full SCO member, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar were granted the status of SCO dialogue partners.
Addressing his counterparts, President Tokayev said the task is transforming the SCO into a global economic platform, noting the huge economic potential of the SCO member states that account for nearly a quarter of the world’s GDP or more than $23 trillion.
“Our organization unites dynamically developing world economies with enormous human, resource, and technological potential. (…) We have at our disposal the richest reserves of energy resources, coal, rare metals, and sources of renewable energy,” said Tokayev.
Priority areas for cooperation
While calling the organization’s large-scale economic projects a growth driver, Tokayev listed transit and transportation, food, and energy security as priority areas moving forward.
In terms of logistical interconnectivity, Tokayev noted the big potential of the China-Europe route and the Trans-Caspian international transport route. He also said Kazakhstan supports the efforts to expand transport routes between Central Asia and South Asia and to develop North-South and East-West trans-Eurasian corridors.
“The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, which offers the shortest route from East Asia to the countries of the Persian Gulf, has great potential. Kazakhstan’s transit and transport cooperation with the countries of Central Asia is developing dynamically. We welcome the implementation of promising projects aimed at ensuring the interconnectedness of the countries of our region,” said Tokayev.
President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, whose country chairs the SCO in 2022, called the signing of a trilateral agreement on the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad a “historic event.”
“We also call for support for another strategically important project – the construction of the Termez-Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway corridor,” he told the summit.
Tokayev also stressed the need to address food and energy security, the topic he had been repeatedly raising at regional and international meetings.
The SCO member states, according to him, possess significant agricultural potential allowing them to contribute to an uninterrupted functioning of global food production and supply chains.
“The SCO states are the largest producers and exporters of agricultural products in the world. We should stimulate the expansion of agricultural trade both within the SCO region and beyond its borders,” he added.
He also urged his counterparts to address the rational use of water resources, an increasingly problematic issue for the region and for Kazakhstan, where, according to expert estimates, the water resources are around 100 cubic kilometers, with more than 44 percent formed outside the country. Amplified by climate change, it requires urgent action on behalf of all member states.
Mirziyoyev, in turn, proposed forming a common space of industrial-technological cooperation based on what he called the new SCO economic dialogue. This platform, he noted, is designed to eliminate trade and customs barriers, form guaranteed and stable production and supply chains, stimulate joint localization and import substitution programs, and promote mutual investments, primarily in developing infrastructure, industry, and the services sector.
The potential for this economic dialogue remains yet untapped, according to Zhumabek Sarabekov, an expert at the Institute for World Economy and Politics.
“In 2021, the foreign trade turnover of the SCO member states made $7 trillion, but trade within the SCO was just $700 billion. The SCO needs new economic solutions and mechanisms. Uzbekistan, as a chair, and Kazakhstan are particularly interested in making the SCO work as an effective economic platform,” said the expert in an interview for this story. “Central Asian states are not interested in the SCO turning into a platform that conveys geopolitical rhetorics of China and Russia or other member states.”
The SCO is important for Kazakhstan for several reasons, according to him.
“We see export and investment opportunities. It is also important as an instrument for ensuring regional security. The region is still witnessing rising drug trafficking, religious extremism, and terrorism. The SCO can play an important role,” he said.
He echoed President Tokayev’s statement on the expansion of the organization, which strengthens its economic and geopolitical positions.
“The summit is taking place in a tough geopolitical time. We see that there is an escalation of the Ukraine conflict, rising tensions between Russia and the West, as well as China and the United States,” he said.
Aidar Kurmashev, head of the international studies department at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, noted that cooperation with the SCO is one of the key areas of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy strategy.
“The goals of the SCO are fully consistent with the vision of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, which adheres to the principles of openness, pragmatism, and mutually beneficial cooperation. In particular, in the work of the organization, the member states strengthen mutual trust and good neighborliness and promote their effective cooperation in political, trade and economic, scientific, technical, and cultural fields, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, and environmental protection. Building effective work in this organization allows us to protect and promote the interests of Kazakhstan in a multilateral format,” he said.
Addressing the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who traveled to Kazakhstan before heading to Samarkand, in what was his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic, described the SCO as an “important constructive force in international and regional affairs,” emphasizing the responsibility the group has to maintain peace and development of the Eurasian continent, at a time when the region sees the escalation of armed border confrontation between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“We should remain firm in safeguarding the United Nations-centered international system and the international order based on international law, practice the common values of humanity, and reject zero-sum game and bloc politics … so as to uphold true multilateralism, improve global governance, and ensure that the international order is more just and equitable,” Xi said.
Looking into the future, Xi proposed focusing on the need to increase mutual support, expand security cooperation, deepen practical cooperation, strengthen cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and maintain multilateralism.
Sarabekov also sees geopolitical challenges and economic slowdown affecting the work of the SCO.
“In terms of geopolitics, the SCO member states face fundamental changes. Global economy witnesses serious challenges. Because of the war and sanctions against Russia, the geoeconomy is fully rebooted, logistical routes are changing and supply chains are being disrupted, amplified by a continued impact from the pandemic,” said Sarabekov.