Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), a successor of Regional Cooperation Development, has not been able to create any major impact at domestic, regional or global economies so far. The ten ECO member countries house 16 per cent of global population yet only contribute 2.5 per cent to global GDP. Whereas, the intra-regional trade among the ECO member states is currently eight per cent of their cumulative external trade.
It is in this context, economic analysts had low expectations from the ECO summit. However, in geo-political terms, the summit brought a win-win situation for all member countries.
Platforms like ECO, Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCO), and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are also important for Pakistan as India has successfully formed a mini Saarc comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN). The recent “Agreement on Motor Transport” among BBIN is an example of Pakistan getting effectively excluded from Saarc. In that context Pakistan was successful in bringing nine heads of states/governments to Islamabad.
Although Afghanistan’s representation was at the ambassadorial level, the mere fact that Afghanistan did not boycott the summit (as it did during SAARC summit) was a diplomatic success for Pakistan.
The summit also provided Pakistan an opportunity to mend its ties with Iran. The last visit of Iranian president was marred by the news of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s arrest. The diplomatic ties between the two countries are also affected by the perception that Pakistan is tilted towards Iran’s regional competitor Saudi Arabia. Many were anticipating that the Iranian president would not attend the summit. However, Sartaj Aziz and Jawad Zarif’s chemistry clicked. Resultantly, President Rouhani not only joined the summit, but also managed to seek solidarity from the ECO members against the US travel restrictions and economic sanctions (without naming the US though).
“(We) express concern over the attempts by certain quarters to threaten democracy, discriminatory immigration policies by some states and use of unilateral economic sanctions and coercions by some states,” the final declaration says.
Turkey has been quite vocal in criticising the US authorities for their alleged role in the recent coup d’etat against President Erdogan’s government. Its concern also find place in the ECO declaration where members acknowledged the need for supporting measures to immediately address the threats to democratic governments, including coup d’etat and foreign occupation of the territories of the member states.
The meeting between President Rouhani and President Erdogan on the sidelines of the summit was another positive output, especially because Tehran and Ankara support opposite sides in the conflict in Syria. Both leaders agreed to defuse tension and improve ties, including in the fight against terrorism.
Last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Ankara for Pakistan-Turkey’s High Level Strategic Cooperation Council’s (HLSCC) 5th meeting. This week President Erdogan was in Pakistan. The reciprocal visits in quick succession would improve follow up of 9-plus agreements and MOUs signed during HLSCC. Another positive development was that Pakistan and Turkey would sign a Free Trade Agreement by May-June 2017, paving way for Pakistani textile exports to Turkey.
Afghanistan was represented at a lower level by its special envoy Umar Zakhiwal, who remained active not only by candidly protesting the closure of border crossings by host Pakistan, but also in ensuring that Afghanistan’s importance for the stability of the region is duly recognised by other ECO members. Thus, the final declaration called for renewing the ECO’s strong desire for a secure, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan and resolving to turn “ECO Special Conference on Afghanistan” (to be held in May 2017 in Kabul) a success.
The theme of the summit, “Connectivity for Regional Prosperity” had made the CPEC very relevant for the summit. China, OIC, and the UN attended as observers. Chinese executive vice-foreign minister was successful in selling the CPEC and One Belt One Road as major tools to materialise increased regional cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, infrastructure, energy, and other areas.
It is widely believed that the CPEC’s full potential cannot be explored until Pakistan-Afghanistan political and transit problems are solved. Mindful of the fact that these problems may not be resolved in the near future, China is working on plans to connect Kashgar to Kazakhstan via Kyrgystan. A land/rail route from Kashgar to Kirgizia and from there to Almaty is not the matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. In this context, the meetings between Pakistani, Kyrgyz, and Kazak leadership were quite important and substantial.
The ECO member countries are confronted by multiple challenges of terrorism, drug trafficking, and extremism. Instead of singling out any country for being responsible for these problems, the leaders vowed to collectively face these challenges for making the region a “zone of peace and prosperity”.
Showing concern over the ongoing conflicts in the region, the ECO members 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. However, only Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict was named in the declaration. Kashmir was 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.
The summit also adopted the ECO Vision 2025 which underscores sustainability, integration, and conducive environment for promoting cooperation in the areas of trade, transport, connectivity, energy, tourism, economic growth, economic productivity, social welfare, and environment.
The mention of Post-2015 Development Agenda (Sustainable Development Goals) in the summit declaration and combined efforts to achieve these goals especially caught the attention of many observers. Most of the ECO member states are facing water scarcity. It was heartening to note they showed a resolve to work on the UN General Assembly’s recent resolution on water, “International Decade of Action 2018-2028: Water for Sustainable Development”.
These were the tangible geopolitical outcomes of the summit. However, when it comes to “economic cooperation”, the declaration is full of clichés. For instance, it 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.
I am using the term cliché as a lot needs to mobilise the political will among the members for a collective action. For instance, the declaration envisages doubling of the current level of intra-ECO trade in the next three to five years through implementation of the ECO Trade Agreement (ECOTA) and other ECO trade arrangements. However, the ECOTA, which was signed in July 2003, has not been implemented as yet because half of the members are still to accede to it.
According to the declaration, the leaders have realised the flaws and envision a more efficient and effective ECO, equipped with required capabilities and resources, to better serve the noble objectives of the organisation. They have also tasked the ECO secretariat and permanent representatives of member states to introduce reforms in the organisation.
However, they have failed to recognise lack of political will and understanding of political economy of the issues that are hampering ECO to move forward — the capability and resources of the organisation.
“(We) further acknowledge the need for supporting measures to immediately address the threats to democratic governments, including coups d’etat aimed at overthrowing the democratically-elected governments and constitutional orders of the member countries and the foreign occupation of the territories of the member states, including economic strangulation, which undermine the role of the legitimate democratic governments in pursuing their socio-economic development and programmes,” the declaration says.