Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) was formed in 1985 as a successor body to erstwhile Regional Cooperation Development, and expanded in 1992 when former Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics joined it. It has made little progress and its institutional framework is said to be not very effective. Intra-regional trade among the ECO member states is currently only eight percent of their cumulative external trade. The target was to increase it to over 20 percent.
Factors restricting trade in the region include differences in economic systems, logistic constraints due to inadequate transport linkages and problems with banking transactions.
The 13th summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) ended in Islamabad-Pakistan recently with calls for doubling intra-regional trade in the next five years and promoting connectivity. The summit was attended by all 10 ECO members. Afghanistan was represented at a lower level because of tensions with Pakistan over terrorism sanctuaries.
The participating countries during their deliberation emphasized the significance of connectivity for prosperity of the region. The desire and commitment of the member states is to transform the ECO into a vibrant regional bloc.
The summit adopted Islamabad Declaration and Vision 2025. The declaration calls for development of transport and communication infrastructure, facilitation of trade and investment, promotion of connectivity with other regions, effective use of energy resources and undertaking measures for making the ECO effective and efficient.
It expresses commitment to promote intra-ECO trade as an instrument of enhanced economic cooperation and revitalization in the region.
It also calls for building and promoting sea, land and air transport linkages in addition to cyberspace for giving additional impetus to intra-regional trade.
Regional cooperation in energy sector, including energy infrastructure development, intra-regional energy trade, improving access to affordable energy resources and development of environment-friendly energy technologies, have been proposed by the declaration.
Officials have been asked to explore the prospects of establishment of an ECO regional electricity market.
The outcome document says the leaders envision a more efficient and effective ECO, equipped with required capabilities and resources, to better serve the noble objectives of the organization.
The leaders tasked ECO secretariat and permanent representatives of member states to introduce reforms in the organization.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his message of regional peaceful coexistence, connectivity and trade.
The ECO summit may eventually become a small step towards the realization of an overarching regional vision. But fair and just solutions are reciprocal; meaningful action must back up the talk of trade and peace.
Prime Minister hoped that outcomes of 13th Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit in the form of Islamabad Declaration and ECO Vision 2025 would further enhance regional integration, connectivity and help advance economic prosperity in the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for laying greater emphasis on promotion of intra-regional trade for promoting harmony and cooperation in the region.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also stressed enhancing economic cooperation among the ECO member states. President Rouhani called for restructuring the ECO to make it more effective.
With everybody emphasizing enhanced connectivity, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan and President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy Dr Omar Zakhilwal pointed to continued closure of Pak-Afghan border crossings by Pakistani authorities and demanded immediate opening.
The leaders vowed to collectively face regional challenges including extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking for making the region a zone of peace and prosperity.
The summit expressed concern over ongoing conflicts in the region and called for their early resolution based on norms and principles of international law and principles of respect to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the affected states.
The leaders observed that the unresolved conflicts were hindering economic growth, preventing realization of full economic potential of the region and impeding economic cooperation on regional and broader level.
Only Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict was named in the declaration. Kashmir was, therefore, a glaring omission although highlighting the latest phase of uprising in the occupied valley has been the singular focus of Pakistan’s diplomacy since last July.
Prime Minister Sharif referred to Kashmir conflict in his concluding comments, saying “peaceful settlement of longstanding disputes, like Jammu and Kashmir, and alleviating sufferings of the Kashmiri people would greatly help in advancing the goals of stability and development of the entire region”.
The summit criticized travel restrictions and economic sanctions against Iran by the United States although the US was not directly named. It expresses support for democracy in Turkey that faced a botched coup attempt last July.
The decision by Afghanistan to downgrade its participation and send only its ambassador to Pakistan to both the Council of Ministers meeting and the final summit is an unfortunate decision. The absence of President Ashraf Ghani and even his foreign minister indicates that the Afghan government is in a mood to play damager rather than seek cooperative solutions. In this context the Afghan leadership should have been more intrepid and daring in its approach to the ECO.