The 13th Summit of Economic Cooperation Organisation held last week in Islamabad brought together 10 ECO member states including Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to renew their commitment to the ECO’s founding principles and ideals and deliberate on fresh initiatives to rejuvenate the body. It is pertinent to note in this context that the 13th Summit marked the 25th anniversary of the establishment of ECO whose initial promise as yet remains far from being fully realized. The ECO region is a significant geographical entity, representing a vast expanse of territory that is home to nearly a sixth of all humanity. The region has enormous potential, and accounts for 16% of the world’s population but generate only 2% of the world’s trade. Further, trade within the ECO region is a small fraction of trade with the rest of the world. This region was once synonymous with the fabled “Silk Road” and was a melting pot of civilizations, a conduit for trade and commerce, as well as a corridor for culture and ideas.
The fact that eight heads of state and government attended the Islamabad Summit made it a special occasion. The heads of state and government who attended the Summit included Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Prime Minister of Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Bakytzhan Sagintayev, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Ulugbak Rozukulov, Afghanistan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal and ECO Secretary General Halil Ibrahim. Prime Minister Sharif, who was elected Chairman of the 13th ECO Summit, rightly pointed out in his inaugural address that there has never been a more opportune time to realize the common dream of shared regional prosperity. He said that the ECO’s time has truly come and to this end it was important for the member states of the Economic Cooperation Organization to make momentous advancement through better cooperation.
The core of ECO has always been described as a people-centric agenda for which more focus needs to be placed on greater connectivity and trade linkages amongst the member states. Incorporating this ethos, the theme of the Summit, “Connectivity for Regional Prosperity”, was chosen in the light of latest developments including large investments in connectivity projects. Central Asia is fast emerging as a Trans-Eurasian land bridge, with oil and gas pipelines across deserts and mountains linking their markets through railroad networks to enhance all-round connectivity.
Pakistan which is centrally and strategically located is now developing the physical infrastructure to achieve the common vision for making ECO a powerful economic bloc and an engine of growth. Pakistan not only boasts a consumer market of 200 million people, with a large and growing middle class and will soon be providing easier, quicker and cheaper physical access to markets in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
No project better symbolizes Pakistan’s vision of cooperation through connectivity than the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is now being increasingly recognized as a catalyst for energy infrastructure, transport connectivity and trade in the whole of South and Central Asia. And, going beyond energy, transport and trade, cooperation could be expanded across a vast spectrum of areas – in agriculture, in culture, in education, and in science and technology. All this can make ECO a powerful economic bloc. To this end, the regional states need to work on streamlining our institutional mechanisms. Equally important is the need to operationalise the ECO Trade Agreement because the existence of efficient trade, transit and transport corridors across the region can alone guarantee economic development and prosperity for all.
The 13th ECO summit provided an opportunity to all member states to reaffirm collective commitment to progress and prosperity for the ECO region. It also allowed the members to identify new areas of cooperation while cementing the progress on matters currently under process. The active participation by the members manifested their desire and commitment to transform the ECO into a vibrant regional bloc. The ECO leaders also welcomed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a far-reaching initiative that would act as a catalyst for the development of the entire region. The adoption of Islamabad Declaration and the ECO Vision 2025 during the summit reflects the consensus and resolve of ECO member states to collectively take on the contemporary economic challenges. The Declaration puts sustained focus on the key areas identified in the Islamabad Declaration namely trade, transport and energy can lead to transformative change across the region. The member states agreed to enhance their cooperation in the areas of common interest through effective, timely and result-oriented projects and programmes. They also reiterated their political will and strong commitment for realizing the aims and objectives of the Organization for economic development, common prosperity, regional integration, and peace and stability in the ECO region.
An urgent need in this regard is to implement the long-term sectoral priorities of ECO on development of transport and communication infrastructure; facilitation of trade and investment; and effective use of the region’s vast energy resources and to consider ways and means to promote ECO’s connectivity with other regions and augment cooperation in the areas of trade, transport and connectivity, energy, tourism, economic growth and productivity and social-welfare and environment as identified in Vision 2025.
A major issue the ECO Declaration did not address is the cancer plaguing the region, namely the specter of multinational terrorism. Security remains a most strategic topic for the ECO member states and the Summit could have focused more on fighting the menace. For, as long as terrorism remains a threat, the many projects on the drawing board for the uplift of the region will not see the light of day.
Without doubt, the ECO region has enormous potential for enhancing regional cooperation based on solid foundation of commonality of interests, common cultural heritage and geographical proximity. Located at the crossroads of important regions, the ECO region has both the potential and capacity to function as a bridge between North and South, Europe and Asia. For the past many years the ECO region leaders have come out with their grandiose designs but implementation has not matched their intentions. But the time has now come to turn paper declarations into living socio-economic realities.To this end, if the ECO presidents and prime ministers do not exert their influence for time-bound follow-up measures, the Islamabad Declaration will remain a piece of paper. ECO has been described in the past as a “glorified talking shop”. This impression should be dispelled with a firm time frame for the execution of various projects already finalized. The momentum generated by the CPEC will come in handy for the purpose.