The 13th ECO summit: Beyond the challenges

Spearhead Analysis – 20.03.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Calls for economic integration and regional connectivity were reiterated during The 13th ECO Summit, Islamabad.Building upon the key objectives stipulated in the Treaty of Izmir– The 2017 Islamabad Declaration reaffirmed its commitment to the various cooperative frameworks of ECO. Furthermore, the ‘ECO vision 2025’ was also adopted—the document outlines certain key areas of focus, namely: trade, transport and connectivity, energy, tourism, economic growth and social welfare—it alongside provides a set of expected outcomes under each sector.

However, a crucial focal point of the summit remained enhancing/doubling intraregional trade– within 3-5 years. As per the text of Vision 2025- Currently, Total Intra-region trade stands well below its estimated potential, at 58 billion USD ( 9%) ; despite the former of commitment of– raising total intra regional trade volume to 20%– as outlined in Vision 2015. Some reasons have been attributed to the hiccups faced in improving the region’s economic integration.

In 2003, ECO trade agreement was devised. However, the framework still remains unimplemented due to: a. certain tensions between neighbours. b. due to certain discrepancies with national policies of some members.Secondly, enhancing intra regional trade works in tandem with transport and connectivity capabilities.

Despite, the close geographical proximities of the member states—regional disputes and wars have played a significant factor in hindering connectivity and closer cooperation.  Though, in 2016—during the 8th ECO transit transport coordination council meeting- reducing non physical obstacles such as visa issues were discussed. Moreover, certain funding limitations and technological disadvantages have also hindered proper utilisation and maintenance of existing infrastructure while halting prospective linking infrastructures within ECO.

Owing to these reasons—a certain degree of skepticism surrounds the calls articulated during the recent summit.However, in the backdrop certain reconciliatory steps have been initiated which could serve as an elixir to these issues.

Firstly, Two of the major contending parties holding back the implementation of ECO TA are Iran and Turkey—due to their differences over tariff issues. But, since last year significant steps towards improved bilateral ties on various fronts have been initiated by both— including a recent reaffirming of cooperation on the sidelines of the ECO summit—Turkey and Iran are also aiming to carve out a possible free trade agreement. Furthermore, in the opening statement for ECO chronicle 13, 2017–Mr Javad Zarif recalling his vision for genuine regionalism put forth in 2013—expressed concerns regarding the various roadblocks and urged all members to synchronize national policies with ECO vision to expedite collective economic growth. This point was reiterated during the recent declaration—and hopes for earliest possible implementation  of ECOTA appear high.

Secondly, Calls to enhance regional stability and peace were made . Especially in regards to Afghanistan—certain positive steps have been initiated. Mr Halil Ibrahim – ECO secretary general upon the request of Afghan officials who paid them a visit in September 2016- T that time, he met Mr Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah-Abdullah to discuss intraregional trade, and necessity for peace and stability in Afghanistan for improved regional connectivity. Despite the no show of Ashraf Ghani—it has been noted that Omar Zakhilwal remained active and managed to get Afghanistan’s stability added as a point to the Declaration.

Thirdly, perhaps the most crucial development was–the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister along with his observers also attended the summit. Aims to laminate CPEC projects with ECO state’s connectivity were discussed . Several members are said to have shown interest in utilizing those transport routes and infrastructures.

In conclusion:

The recent ECO summit carved out promising stepping stones. In order to further expand the ECO visions- urgent attention needs to be focused on harmonising respective national economic policies with ECO frameworks. Regular follow ups could to be conducted to analyze progress and resolve any glitches.

The Chinese involvement in the recent summit provides a positive opening; considering the fact that many powers influence the ECO region– opposing alliances of members have often led to major hindrances in the past–despite, the treaty of Izmir allowing members to forge bilateral ties with whosoever.

Therefore converging the diverse national interests under the ECO umbrella could be looked into.– for exercising a collective standing to interact with multiple powers and organisations simultaneously— this could not only reduce chances of exploitation of the periphery , but also help in negotiating prospects for bridging infrastructural and technological gaps to improve intra regional and international trade.

Lastly, none of the specialized agencies under the ECO exclusively cater to political grievances or regional security concerns. However, the recent recognition of Afghanistan’s stability could be viewed as a step towards this direction. A followup ECO Special Conference on Afghanistan is scheduled for  May 2017. The founding members of the former RCD appear to have made strides towards improved bilateral ties in the recent past- they could enhance their roles in devising broad based approaches to engage estranged regional members. As, without improved regional political unity– regional connectivity and economic integration may face  many farchallenges.