ECO: OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLE?

Connectivity for Regional Prosperity was the theme for the recently concluded ECO summit in Islamabad. During the summit, the delegates welcomed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). They also adopted the ECO vision 2025 and issued the Islamabad declaration. This summit has once again raised the hopes regarding the prospect of Economic Cooperation Organization as a viable and productive economic block. Apart from original members; Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, it also includes the central Asian states and Afghanistan. ECO members hold geo-strategically significant location on the world map. On one end, it is connected to the Mediterranean via Turkey and on the other to the Arabian and the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and the Persian Gulf via Iran. According to one estimate, its population is around 471 million and the GDP is approximately one trillion dollars. Yet, it has failed to perform so far. Compared to ASEAN, another regional economic block, ECO has floundered in all areas. ECO had a few false starts (1985, 1992 and 1992-93 Quetta Plan). Throughout the 1990s, ECO failed to perform due to serious differences among the members about the region’s strategic outlook. Would it be any different this time? What ground realities have changed that would affect the functioning of ECO and transform it into a viable economic block? What are the challenges and prospects? Would this summit and the ECO strategic vision 2025 turn out to be another document that would remain unimplemented? It won’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that so far ECO has failed to perform due to differences about the regional outlook and the resultant national security policies of ECO member states and a clear lack of a regional approach and consensus. These factors made any regional understanding almost impossible. Taliban led Afghanistan and the issue of terrorism were at the heart of this disagreement. During the 1990s, the three original members of ECO as well as newly inducted ones had different goals and objectives in Afghanistan, the region and were supporting different warring factions. It was this policy difference on the future of the Afghan corridor that made any meaningful progress on any regional economic and financial activity between Central and south Asia almost impossible.  While Afghanistan still remains a major concern and the policy differences among the ECO members on Afghanistan are obvious, there is reason to be optimistic about the prospect of ECO. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a project that would transform not only Pakistan but also the region. The idea to link CPEC with transport corridors of Central Asia would definitely improve the functioning of ECO as an economic block. This explains why China was invited as special guest to the summit. If this idea materializes, it would bring Chinese money, expertise and mega projects to the Central-South Asia yet what is more important than money and expertise is the political will of the leadership of the ECO member countries to rise above political differences and adopt a regional approach. Unless this happens, no amount of aid and Chinese involvement can transform ECO into a viable economic block. Afghanistan might not be the graveyard of empires yet it is the major roadblock in the transformation of ECO into a functioning economic block. It seems, this time Islamabad is prepared and willing to bypass a fellow ECO member Afghanistan if need be and reach central Asia through west China. While this might work for Pakistan-Central Asia trade, it would weaken ECO’s prospect to function as a regional trade organization. Therefore, perhaps the first step towards making ECO a functioning regional block is to adopt a regional approach towards Afghanistan.

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