ECO summit and Vision 2025
Muhammad Jamil


THE 13th summit of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) ended in Islamabad on Wednesday with the resolve to double intra-regional trade in the next five years through implementation of the ECO Trade Agreement (ECOTA) and other ECO trade arrangements. The summit was attended by all 10 ECO members, although Afghanistan was represented at a lower level perhaps at the behest of India, yet the successful holding of the ECO summit has frustrated the efforts of those who wished to isolate Pakistan. The leaders of participating countries emphasised the importance of connectivity for prosperity of the region and exchanged views on regional and global issues. At the end of the session, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said: “The successful holding of the summit is a manifestation of the desire and commitment of the member states to transform the ECO into a vibrant regional bloc.”

Intra-regional trade among the ECO member states is currently eight per cent of their cumulative external trade whereas the target is to increase it to over 20 per cent. Given the will and determination of the member countries, ECO would be a success story in the near future. In his speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stressed enhancing economic cooperation among the ECO member states and called for restructuring the ECO to make it more effective. The ECO was formed in 1985 as a successor body to Regional Cooperation Development (RCD) comprising Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. It was expanded in 1992 when former Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics joined it. The leaders vowed to collectively face regional challenges including extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking for making the region a zone of peace and prosperity. Of course, conflicts in the region stymied the progress in the past.
Other regions of the world like South East Asia, Africa and Europe had formed associations or unions like ASEAN, African Union and the European Union respectively, and the countries benefited enormously. Despite the fact that South Asia and Central Asia have forums like SAARC and ECO but these have remained non-starters so far. Muslim countries had formed the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) but their ideas of cooperation in economic field have not gone beyond noble sentiments. In ECO ministerial meeting in Herat, the countries of the region had expressed their determination to fight terrorism and poverty, and also to make it a Free Trade Area. There is need for an early implementation of the ECO Free Trade Area, as it has the potential to open up vast opportunities for the economic uplift of the people of the whole region.
The fact remains that the area is rich in oil and gas, and furthermore the ECO states are strategically located in the heart of Euro-Asian landmass with the area larger than the US. But progress on many counts hinges on the peace in Afghanistan and unless Pushtuns are brought on board, the inter-linkages of gas pipelines and energy grid would remain a distant possibility. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of its Republics emerged as independent states on the world map. And they looked southwards to the brotherly Muslim countries like Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan for joint ventures. Therefore, the need was felt to expand the ECO with a view to developing a broader economic and trade region in Asia. An extraordinary two-day session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the original ECO states was held in November 1992. Delegates from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrghyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhistan were also invited. The new states were welcomed by the participants of the conference and formally taken in the ECO fold. Anyhow, as the most logical and viable route for trade with Central Asian countries is Afghanistan; therefore the sovereign, independent and stable Afghanistan is not only in the interest of Pakistan but also in the interest of the entire region. Pakistan had espoused a lot of expectations for establishing an ideal relationship with Central Asian states that became independent countries after collapse of the Soviet Union. It was rightly so because Pakistan had played a crucial role as a frontline state against Communism. It is also due to Pakistan’s strategic position, which is a meeting point between Sinkiang of China, Iran and Central Asian Republics. Of course, Karachi was the most viable route for Central Asian states. Pakistan is now in a position to offer CARs the access to sea through Gwadar Port also, as communications network-linking Pakistan to Central Asia is in progress. Feasibility on some of the proposed projects including Turkmenistan-Pakistan gas pipeline could also be worked out when violence in Afghanistan subsides. There was almost a consensus among the member-countries that the ECO should follow the example of other regional groupings, such as the European Union, to work together to boost development, wealth and education. But for this purpose, the countries of the region should repose trust in each other and resolve their differences, as the European Union could only be established when European countries had resolved their differences. Anyhow, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries have to remember that they are bound with each other through religious, cultural, historical and economic ties over centuries. As stated above, conspiracies to isolate Pakistan have failed. It is pertinent to mention in this regard about the four-day exercise, with 37 countries taking part including the US, Russia and China with the theme ‘Together for peace’. On opening ceremony of naval exercise at Karachi Dockyard, flags of 37 participating countries were hoisted, reflective of the trust in Pakistan’s role to fight terrorism and efforts for peace. Yet, anti-Pakistan lobbies are at work; a report compiled by American think tanks has been submitted to the Trump administration advising it to use isolation threat and hardening Washington’s stance towards Pakistan if it does not stop the use of terrorism in Afghanistan and India. In fact, India has been trying hard to isolate Pakistan for the last one year, and a few American think tanks also appear to have stepped up their efforts, but they are bound to fail.