When the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded more than 18 years ago, preserving regional security was its primary purpose.

With almost two decades of substantive progress, the SCO has not only grown into a major platform for its members to better coordinate their security-enhancing endeavour, but also begun to play an increasingly important role in bolstering trade and economic cooperation as well as people-to-people and cultural exchanges across the landmass of Eurasia. Many refer to these three areas as the “three pillars” that underpin the bloc’s development.

As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other SCO Heads of Government are gathering for an annual meeting in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, it is a good chance for the leaders to mull how to build on what the SCO members have achieved together over the years.

Combating the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism and separatism is the traditional front where the SCO members have made notable strides by expanding intelligence sharing and information exchanges, and carrying out joint anti-terror exercises.

In a Ministerial debate at the UN Security Council in September, Secretary General of the SCO Vladimir Imamovich Norov noted that the member states prevented 360 terrorist crimes and eliminated 80 underground cells last year.

SCO security cooperation has now been extended to cyber space as the member states are seeking to jointly crack down on the spread of various extremist ideologies on the Internet.

The bloc also functions as a major coordinator of the member countries’ efforts to clamp down drug trafficking and transnational organised crimes, and to handle flare-ups of regional hotspots through such mechanisms as the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group.

Vigorous economic and trade cooperation has also brought tangible benefits to SCO members.

According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, two-way trade between China and other SCO members hit 255 billion U.S. dollars in 2018 with a 17.2-percent year-on-year increase. China had invested over 87 billion dollars in those countries by April this year.

With eight full members, four observer countries and six dialogue partners, the bloc covers nearly half of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of global gross domestic product, which means even greater potential for development. And the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative has offered the SCO members a chance to tap the potential and gear up their practical cooperation, notably in infrastructure.

For example, the newly completed Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China transport corridor is functioning efficiently as one of the most important road transportation channels between China and Central Asia. The route reduces the time to transfer goods between the two ends from 10 days to two, greatly facilitating trade exchanges in the region.

Ultimately, to build what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a closer SCO community with a shared future depends on tighter bonds among the people of the member countries.

The SCO states are home to many ancient civilisations and ethnic groups with a kaleidoscopic religious and cultural inheritance. This makes the work to promote cross-cultural exchanges and mutual understanding truly necessary.

In recent years, the SCO members have been working hard to help their people know each other better through holding such events as cultural exchanges and film festivals, boosting tourism cooperation, encouraging student exchanges, and simplifying visa processes.

More than 18 years ago, it was the common task to maintain regional peace and stability that brought the initial members together in Shanghai. Today, as the SCO leaders meet in Tashkent, the members are facing some new common challenges like the rising tide of trade protectionism and economic nationalism.

With great challenges come great opportunities. In this era of profound transformation, the SCO members, with their unremitting collective efforts to deepen cooperation around the “three pillars,” have ample reasons to believe in an even brighter and more prosperous future.