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Participants of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit 2022, including Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko Image Credit: Reuters

What began as a small regional political, economic and security bloc back in 1996 with five members — the Shanghai Five — is now the world’s largest organisation with more than 30 per cent of the globe’s GDP. And yet the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is rarely in the news unlike ASEAN, the GCC, the EU and Opec.

With China as a founding member and major economic power, the SCO has expanded slowly but surely since 2001, boasting eight member states, with Pakistan and India joining in 2017 in addition to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

At least five other nations, including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have been invited as dialogue partners.

The presidents of Belarus, Iran and Mongolia attended as observers, while those from Azerbaijan and Turkey attended as invited partners.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, gestures while speaking to Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) Image Credit: AP

The group now covers 60 per cent of the area of Eurasia and 40 per cent of the world population with Central Asia featuring as its most promising growth region; a strategic part of Beijing’s Belt and Road global initiative.

The leaders of the SCO met recently in the Uzbek capital Samarkand at the height of the war in Ukraine and the recent flare-up of border disputes among four Eurasian countries.

Member nations were interested in talking trade and bilateral relations.

“During our chairmanship, we sought to intensify practical cooperation within our organisation, to increase its potential and international prestige. Along with security issues, priority was given to enhancing trade, economic, and humanitarian cooperation,” Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in his remarks at the summit.

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Bridge between East Asia and EU

The reality is that a number of Central Asian members have important trade ties with the West. For China, these states present themselves as a bridge between East Asia and the EU. The organisation is moving to become a global player, but only if it manages to focus on trade and economic cooperation instead of ideological schisms that seem to drive the world towards a dangerous precipice.

The grouping met at the time of war in Ukraine, which has resulted in an unprecedented energy crisis, especially in Europe and disrupted global supply chains and is driving the world’s economy towards a long recession.

On global politics, member nations China and India see eye-to-eye. China would rather expand its influence through trade and investment in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. India is more interested in bolstering its economy — it has overtaken the UK as the fifth largest economy, which is quite a feat.

But while China and Russia are engaged in trade wars with the West, albeit for different reasons, the coalition has enough resources to build an autonomous trading alliance that could mark a historic departure from the era of globalisation.

For a number of Arab countries that wish to join the SCO or be associated with it, the opportunity to be part of the biggest economic bloc cannot be missed at a time when the West is battling inflation, energy shortages and sluggish growth. The East, especially Central Asia, is emerging as the next big opportunity for commerce and investments.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.