Since 1964 when Iran, Pakistan and Turkey created a platform for regional cooperation, the so-called “Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD)” and its revival as “Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)” in 1985, the Organization has come a long way by identifying areas for regional cooperation, coordination and harmonization. The 13th ECO Summit in Islamabad marked the 25th anniversary of ECO enlargement to a 10-country organization, which took place in 1992 resulting in a unique regional intergovernmental organization in this part of the world. Despite all regional cooperative frameworks and networks formed over the three decades, it is an undeniable reality that the ECO has not yet realized regional integration and institutionalization. This attests to both the imperative of continued intra-regional cooperation and interactions, and to the need for a carefully designed architecture for regional integration.
The 13th ECO summit was held on March 01, 2017, in Islamabad under the theme “Connectivity for Regional Prosperity,” which assumed special significance in the backdrop of monumental project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Representatives from all the ten member states — Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — besides a special representative from China, participated in the summit. The successful hosting of the summit in Pakistan has created new hopes to expand trade and economic relations, aimed at enhancing intra- and inter-regional connectivity in energy, infrastructure, transport and trade sectors. The Summit’s entire focus on ‘increased connectivity’ among the member states remained the key highlight.
The ECO Summit ended with the adoption of the ECO Vision 2025 and the Islamabad Declaration. The Vision 2025 envisions that “ECO will pave the way to a territory of integrated and sustainable economies as well as free trade area achieved by highly educated societies and improved governance through enhanced cooperation” while through the Islamabad Declaration, the leaders of the ECO countries have resolved “to work together, including by positioning the ECO to effectively address these challenges and to seize the opportunities for the collective benefit of the Region and its people.”
Taken together, these significant documents reiterated the desire of the member states to promote economic integration within the ECO region through doubling the intra-regional trade within the next 3-5 years and enhancing regional connectivity. There is no doubt about the desirability of these laudable objectives. The crucial question, however, is whether the member states, especially their leaders and senior officials, have the political resolve to achieve them through appropriate policy measures and sustained efforts on the ground. Unfortunately, the past performance of the ECO, despite its suitability as a regional economic organization, does not provide the basis for much optimism.
The ECO Vision 2015, adopted at the 15th session of the Council of Ministers of the ECO countries held in Astana on 1 October, 2005, had similarly proposed that the intra-regional trade be increased from 6% to 20% of the global ECO trade by 2015. According to the latest ECO documents, the total intra-ECO trade was estimated to be $58 billion in 2015, which was just 9 % of the global ECO trade amounting to $648 billion in the same year. The ECO Trade Agreement (ECOTA) signed in 2003, which was to be the main vehicle for the increase in intra-regional trade through the lowering of tariffs and the removal of para and non-tariff barriers, has not been operationalized as yet because half the member states are still to accede to it. The Transit Transport Framework Agreement (TTFA), which was adopted at the ECO Summit held in Almaty in 1998 to facilitate transport and trade among the member states, has still not been fully implemented. Unless the member states take urgent steps to fully operationalize ECOTA and TTFA, the goal of doubling the intra-regional trade within the ECO region will remain a pipe dream.
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