Shahid M Amin
THE 13th ECO Summit, held in Islamabad on March 1, 2017 can be regarded as a success for Pakistani diplomacy. It was a reaffirmation of Pakistan’s importance in the region and beyond, and proved the futility of India’s declared policy of isolating Pakistan. The Summit was attended by six Presidents, one Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers. It included the Presidents of Azerbaijan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan, apart from Pakistan. Kyrgyzstan was represented by its Prime Minister, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by their Deputy Prime Ministers. Afghanistan declined to attend at a high level and was represented by its Ambassador in Islamabad. If anything, this showed Afghanistan’s isolation in the region.
The Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) was set up in 1985 as successor of Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), which was founded in 1963 by Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. After the breakup of Soviet Union, six of its Muslim-majority provinces emerged as independent states. They decided to join ECO in 1992, followed by Afghanistan. In a sense, ECO is a sub-group within OIC, since all of its members are Muslim states. Statistically, they account for 18% of the world’s population though their share in world trade is 2% only. Population-wise, Pakistan is largest among them with 200 million, followed by Turkey (80 million), Iran (78 million), Afghanistan (31 million), Uzbekistan (30 million), Kazakhstan (13 million), Tajikistan (9 million), Kyrgyzstan (6 million) and Turkmenistan (5.5 million). Last-mentioned three countries together equal Karachi’s population.
Much is said about the resources of Central Asian countries and how Pakistan can benfit from trade with them. The actual ground realities are less promising. Central Asian countries have small markets and export prospects are also limited. Tajikistan is poorest of the lot and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are slightly ahead. Afghanistan is estimated to have significant mineral deposits, but they are yet to be tapped. The present mineral-rich countries are Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. But oil and gas exports of these three countries go westward. Physically, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are nearer to Europe than to Pakistan. Similarly, the main trade links of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to be with Russia, due to past history. Turkey’s main trade links are also westward. Iran is mainly an oil-exporting country, but Pakistan imports most of its oil from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait. Iran has gas but the Pak-Iran gasline project has not yet materialized despite years of negotiations.
The actual record of mutual cooperation is also not very inspiring. Though RCD was set up in 1963, it never really took off, despite strong political will in the 1960s. Later on, the political will also declined. The main economic reasons were lack of supplementary in the three economies of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, apart from inadequate communication links. The same is roughly the problem in case of the revamped RCD, under the expanded ECO. Most of the trade of these countries is with the rest of the world, rather than among themselves. Only 8% of their external trade is within ECO. The ECO Summit takes place every five years. The theme of Islamabad Summit was “Connectivity for Regional Prosperity” and focused on four areas viz. energy, infrastructure, transport and trade. It ended on an optimistic note, envisioning that the group would achieve economic connectivity and integration and exercise influence on a global scale. It adopted Vision 2025 –a roadmap for the next decade— for economic integration, doubling of current level of intra-ECO trade in the next five years through implementation of ECO Trade Agreement. The ECO countries have an important geostrategic location and provide shortest trade and transit route to Europe. What is needed is a determined effort by member states of ECO to translate words into action.
The sour note at the ECO Summit was Afghanistan’s confrontational stance towards Pakistan. No doubt, Indian influence in Afghanistan has been working to Pakistan’s disadvantage. But Islamabad needs to go beyond this conclusion to try to understand Kabul’s main grievance. The latter believes that Pakistan is allowing Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan to attack targets in Afghanistan. We deny this accusation and say that we will not allow anyone to use Pakistani soil for any such purpose. Pakistan, for its part, has similar grievances, but Kabul also denies that it is supporting terrorists who use Afghanistan to launch operations in Pakistan. If both sides mean what they say, their differences and suspicions can be removed through consultations and transparency.
The main problem is gap of communications. The theme of ECO Summit was connectivity and promotion of trade, but the irony was that Pakistan has presently closed the border with Afghanistan and blocked trade. A high-level dialogue is needed between the two sides without further delay. Peace in Afghanistan will benefit Pakistan, among other reasons, by allowing gas from Turkmenistan to come to Pakistan and India through the long-delayed TAPI gasline project. Like Pakistan, Afghanistan too is a central point in connectivity for the region, since it links six out of ten ECO countries. More importantly, Pak-Afghan cooperation Is needed for elimination of terrorism which is so vital, not only for Pakistan but also for the region and the world.
The successful implementation of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) will give a new vigour to ECO by providing connectivity in the widest measure. It will usher in a new era of economic prosperity in Pakistan and also give a vital boost to Chinese economy. It will help development of western and central parts of China by opening a short route to the Persian Gulf. The Summit Declaration welcomed CPEC as a “far-reaching initiative that would act as a catalyst for the development of the entire region.” The Islamabad Summit recognized the importance of moderation as an approach to counter all forms of extremism. It expressed concern about the existing unresolved conflicts in the ECO region. Apparently referring to US President Trump, the Summit expressed concern over “the attempts by certain quarters to threaten democracy, discriminatory immigration policies by some states and use of unilateral economic sanctions.” It condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations but reiterated that “terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnicity.”
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.