On the Year of Ecology, the Astana summit and tourism- an interview with SCO Secretary General Zhang Ming

SCo Secretary General
Photo credit: SCO Secretariat

Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Zhang Ming, in an interview with Kazinform, spoke about what final documents will be signed at the Astana summit, whether we should expect the Organization to expand in the future, as well as plans to reform the SCO and optimize its activities.

As you know, this year Kazakhstan, as chairman of the SCO, will host the Summit of the Heads of State of the Organization’s member states in Astana in July this year. What are your expectations from the Astana summit? What final documents will be signed?

Over the past year, with the support of the current Chairman of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the SCO Secretariat has been assisting member states in intensive preparations for the 24th meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States (CHS) of the SCO, which will be held on July 4 in Astana. Currently, preparations for the summit are in full swing and are nearing completion. We are confident that the meeting of the CHS in Astana will become another fruitful, pragmatic and successful summit in the history of the SCO, giving new impetus to the healthy and dynamic development of the Organization against the backdrop of an unstable and difficult international situation.

From a political point of view, along with the adoption of the Astana Declaration, we expect that the heads of the SCO member states will consider a solid package of fundamentally new documents, such as the document proposed by the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at last year’s Summit Initiative “On World Unity for Just Peace and Harmony" and the Uzbek project "Statement of the Council of Heads of SCO Member States on the principles of good neighborliness, trust and cross-border partnership of the SCO."

Security cooperation is a priority area that has been persistently and continuously strengthened since the creation of the SCO. It is expected that at the meeting of the CHS, new agreements will be reached on cooperation in such areas as countering terrorism, combating the “three forces of evil”, anti-drug activities, suppressing cross-border organized crime, and ensuring information security.

Trade and economic cooperation and humanitarian exchanges are attracting more and more attention and expectations from the leaders and peoples of the member states. The summit will examine cooperation in key areas such as the Organization's phased development strategy, energy, investment and financing, environmental protection, ecology, and tourism.

The development of the SCO is an area to which the member states attach great importance and is the focus of attention of all parties. The heads of states will consider the report of the SCO Secretary-General on the activities of the SCO for 2023-2024 and the issue of admitting a new member state, they will discuss issues of strengthening cooperation with the countries of the “SCO family”, as well as the decision of the Samarkand summit on improving the activities of the SCO. In addition, in connection with the expiration of the terms of office of the heads of two permanent SCO bodies, the CHS will decide on the appointment of the Secretary General and the Director of the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure for a new term.

We expect an interesting and meaningful discussion during the meeting in the innovative “SCO Plus” format on the topic “Strengthening multilateral dialogue - the pursuit of sustainable peace and development” with the participation of the SCO observer state - Mongolia, country leaders as guests of the presiding party - the Republic of Azerbaijan, the State of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Türkiye and Turkmenistan, as well as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, heads of the executive bodies of the CIS, ECO, CICA, CSTO and EAEU, Director General of the Islamic Organization for Food Security. A meeting in this format will take place for the first time in a long time.

This event is the last meeting of SCO bodies within the framework of Kazakhstan's chairmanship in the Organization, which, we are convinced, the partners will conduct at a high professional level. For its part, the Secretariat is ready to provide member states with the maximum assistance necessary for colleagues in organizing a summit meeting within the SCO.

As part of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in the SCO, 2024 was declared the Organization’s Year of Ecology. Please tell us more about current projects and prospects for environmental cooperation among the SCO member states. How do you view cooperation between member states of the Organization in the field of water conservation?

Currently, global climate change is worsening, environmental disasters are occurring more and more often around the world, posing an increasingly serious threat and challenge to the development and security of all countries. In the SCO space, we are also faced with several current threats and challenges, such as the shortage and uneven distribution of water resources, floods and freshets, desertification and salinization, the ecological crisis of the Aral Sea and frequent extreme weather conditions. Therefore, the SCO firmly adheres to the course of sustainable development and attaches great importance to cooperation in the field of environmental protection, environmental safety, climate change and rational environmental management.

These important areas are reflected in the Concept of cooperation in the field of environmental protection of the SCO member states and the Action Plan for its implementation, which laid a solid legal basis for the development of environmental cooperation within the Organization.

During the period of Kazakhstan's chairmanship in the SCO, great importance is attached to promoting the environmental agenda of our Organization, and intensive work is being done to draw the attention of the world community to environmental problems. At the initiative of the Kazakhstani side, the member states are increasing meaningful interaction and implementing various projects in such areas as scientific and technical cooperation, education and training, exchange of information and experience, “green” financing in the areas of environmental protection and monitoring, environmental safety, biodiversity, climate change, waste management, energy conservation and emissions reduction.

In order to implement the SCO Year of Ecology Action Plan, adopted on October 26, 2023, at a meeting of the Council of Heads of Government of the SCO member states in Bishkek, various events were organized, such as round tables, seminars, interactive games, environmental events, educational lectures, which are aimed at expanding environmental cooperation agreements in the interests of sustainable and green development of the SCO space.

The SCO Secretariat also contributes to the implementation of initiatives of the SCO member states to develop cooperation on environmental protection. With our assistance, in December 2023, the Youth Conference “SCO Model” was held on the topic “Towards a green economy: strategies for sustainable development in the SCO region”, and in April 2024 - the Interactive game “SCO Model” on the topic “Global Climate Change”. In February 2024, with our participation, a round table was held on the topic “Environmental safety in the SCO member states.”

In order to implement the decision to establish 2024 as the SCO Year of Ecology, on July 8, 2024 in Qingdao (Shandong Province, China) on the sidelines of the SCO Forum on Green Development, we are organizing the Sub-forum “SCO Year of Ecology 2024”, which includes two panel sessions on the topics: “Main environmental challenges and practical experience of the SCO countries in overcoming them” and “Efforts of the SCO countries to manage global biodiversity.” I am convinced that this forum will create a new platform and opportunities for discussing environmental cooperation between member states.

Water conservation is one of the most important and priority areas of environmental cooperation of the SCO. The SCO member states, to one degree or another, are faced with problems of water resource shortages, their uneven distribution and pollution. Water conservation affects the foundations of prosperity and stability in the SCO space. The member states attach great importance to this issue and submit it for consideration and decision at the highest level.

It is expected that within the framework of the upcoming meeting of the CHS SCO in Astana, the Statement of the CHS SCO “On ensuring the safety of drinking water and sanitation” will be adopted. The document noted the need to pay increased attention to sustainable development and rational use of water resources, their integrated management, the relevance of promoting effective and efficient water use, as well as the need to expand cooperation and partnerships in ensuring access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all.

Several draft documents in the field of ecology and environmental protection were agreed upon and approved, which cover a wide range of interaction in this area. These documents indicate the directions for implementing “green” sustainable development in the SCO space and developed measures that have been and remain very effective.

In general, this initiative is relevant against the background of existing environmental problems on a planetary scale associated with climate change and its disastrous consequences.

The member states are paying increased attention to the dissemination of advanced water-saving and irrigation technologies in the SCO space.

In 2019, at the initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the SCO Demonstration Base for Agricultural Technology Exchange and Training was established in Yangling (Shaanxi Province, China), which over the past five years has played an important role in disseminating the implementation of advanced Chinese water-saving, irrigation and other agricultural technologies in the SCO space, making a significant contribution to the conservation of water resources and ensuring food security in the member states.

In addition, the SCO attaches great importance to international cooperation in the field of protection and use of water resources. The SCO Secretariat signed a Memorandum of Understanding with FAO, one of the key elements of which is the implementation of exchange and cooperation in the field of sustainable water resources management. I recently took part in the Third High-Level International Conference on the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028.” in Dushanbe, which was organized by the Republic of Tajikistan. The event was highly appreciated by the international community, including SCO member states.

The city of Almaty has been declared the “Tourist and cultural capital of the SCO” for the period of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in the Organization. How do you assess the development of cooperation between the SCO member countries in the field of tourism and the prospects for tourism potential in the “SCO space”?

Cultural interaction and tourism cooperation, as one of the priority areas of activity of the SCO member states, play an indispensable role in promoting the rapprochement of peoples and the development of the economies of friendly countries.

2023 was declared the SCO Year of Tourism. The current chairman, the Republic of Kazakhstan, attaches great importance to cooperation in the field of culture and tourism. As part of the Action Plan for the SCO Year of Tourism and the Action Plan for the implementation of the program "Almaty - the tourist and cultural capital of the SCO", more than 20 cultural and tourism events were organized, including the SCO International Tourism Forum, the International Music Festival "Asia Dauysy", the International Hotel forum, Ballet Globe, SCO Chess Cup. These events contributed to the formation of the cultural and tourism brand of the Kazakhstani side and the SCO, and played an important role in the further enrichment of cultural and tourism cooperation of the SCO.

Last November, the SCO Secretariat, together with the People's Government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China, held the “SCO Forum 2023 - “Year of Tourism”” in Urumqi. This event served as an important platform for discussing initiatives to develop interaction between the SCO countries in the field of tourism and unlocking the tourism potential of our region.

On May 24, 2024, the next meeting of heads of tourism administrations of the SCO member states took place in Almaty, in which I personally took part. As a result of the meeting, the SCO Joint Action Plan in the field of tourism for the period 2024-2025 was adopted, which represents a specific roadmap for the SCO member states for further opening, studying, deepening and improving areas of tourism cooperation. We are convinced that through the joint efforts of the SCO member states, SCO tourism cooperation will undergo rapid development, and our peoples will experience the advantages and benefits of SCO cooperation.

It is expected that at the upcoming SCO summit in Astana a decision will be made to assign the city of Qingdao (PRC) the status of “Cultural and Tourist Capital of the SCO”. Qingdao is a historical city with a rich cultural heritage and a major modern port in China. We are confident that the Chinese side will organize several cultural and tourism events in Qingdao at a high professional level, which will help SCO tourism cooperation reach a new level.

Recently, the importance of further reforming the Organization and optimizing its activities has been discussed at SCO events. How are things going in this direction? Will these aspects be touched upon during the upcoming meeting of the CHS SCO in Astana?

More than two decades have passed since the creation of the SCO, during which significant progress has been achieved in all areas and serious changes have occurred in the international situation. As you noted, the member states consider improving the activities of the SCO as one of the key tasks and are making every effort to promote it. Work in this direction is being carried out at the level of the CHS, Council of Heads of Government, Council of Foreign Ministers and other important mechanisms of the Organization. This process was launched in 2022, when at the Samarkand summit the heads of member states decided to improve the activities of the SCO. The SCO Secretariat, as the main executive body of the Organization, actively carries out the instructions of the leaders of the member states; after the Samarkand summit, it put forward proposals for improving the work of the SCO.

In March 2023, in Astana, under the chairmanship of the Kazakhstani side, the first expert consultations on this topic took place, following which a decision was made to transfer subsequent consideration of this work to meetings of the Council of National Coordinators, the Council of Foreign Ministers and the Council of Heads of Member States.

Currently, the SCO member states have reached several important agreements on this issue and are promoting relevant work according to the plan. Since this work is still ongoing, I cannot reveal all the details yet. However, I am confident that through the joint efforts of the member states we will be able to develop a promising and constructive plan for modernization and reform of the SCO, which will help our Organization keep up with the times and bring more benefits to the peoples of the member states.

At the Astana Summit it is expected that Belarus will be granted full membership in the SCO. Are there any further plans to expand the Organization?

The process of the Republic of Belarus joining the SCO as a full member was launched at the Samarkand Summit in 2022. It is expected that this process will be completed at the upcoming summit in Astana, where the Republic of Belarus will become the 10th member state of the Organization.

At the moment, the question of who will become the 11th member of the SCO is not high on the SCO agenda. We have received applications for dialogue partner status from several countries, as well as applications for upgraded observer status from some dialogue partners. All these issues are discussed in the context of improving the activities of the Organization.

I would like to emphasize that expanding membership in the SCO is not a goal pursued by the SCO, but an objective result of the development of SCO cooperation in various fields, a direct reflection of the universality and attractiveness of the principles and goals of the Organization. I am convinced that the expansion of the SCO will give an important impetus to the trend towards multipolarity in the modern world and will also allow the SCO to play a more important role in international and regional affairs.

How do you assess the role of the SCO in strengthening the Central Asian region?

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, four countries of Central Asia, are the founding countries of the SCO, driving forces and active participants in its development, making a significant contribution to the further deepening of the Organization’s cooperation in various fields.

The status of Central Asia as the “core of the SCO” is enshrined in the Dushanbe Declaration, the Samarkand Declaration, the New Delhi Declaration and other important SCO documents. The documents emphasize that the member states support the efforts of the Central Asian states aimed at ensuring peace, security and stability in their countries and in the region as a whole and advocate the active role of the SCO in further strengthening the stability and socio-economic development of this region. This is the consensus of the SCO member states regarding the strategic status of the Central Asian region and its role in the SCO space.

Stability and economic development in Central Asia are a guarantee of security and prosperity of the SCO countries, where bilateral and multilateral cooperation between the countries of Central Asia and other states is welcomed at different levels, in different formats and in different areas. We expect from the countries of Central Asia more active support for the development of the SCO, strengthening exchanges and cooperation with other countries of the “SCO family”, deepening the integration of the interests of countries and achieving mutually beneficial results, which in turn will contribute to the development of the SCO and strengthening its authority and influence in the international arena.

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