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ECO—into the future together

Rahim Hayat Qureshi

In 1964, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey came together and formed the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD). It was a visionary initiative as regional economic groupings were not in fashion. At a time when the world was bereft of global and regional vision and shared solutions, RCD called for effective multilateralism at the regional level and played its part as a pivotal coordinating organisation. The idea was to convert historical affinity and brotherhood among the three countries into a well-defined multilateral platform. It was envisioned that the primary focus would be on the promotion of the economy through trade and connectivity as well as further strengthening cultural bonds. Over the past four decades, ECO’s voice in regional affairs has attained a distinct significance.

RCD functioned until the Islamic Revolution ushered in Iran in 1979. After a brief interlude, it was reactivated as the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) in 1985. Later, in another historic development, after the Central Asian Republics (CARs) became independent states, the membership base of the Organisation was expanded and with inclusion of both CARs and Afghanistan, it reached 10. The common theme of economic prosperity through the building blocks of trade, connectivity, tourism, energy, and cultural cooperation struck a chord with all the members who were self-motivated to preserve their independence and also promote economic progress and prosperity.

The region that constitutes the present-day Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) is unique in many ways. The people of the region are historically known to share common bonds of faith, culture, and connectivity through land and sea. Traders in this region used to travel far and wide through various trade routes. For instance, the Silk Road was a network of various trade routes that connected the East and West since the 2nd century BC. It was central to the economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between these regions and peoples.

During contemporary times, the term Silk Road is in currency to refer to certain land and sea routes that connect East Asia and Southeast Asia with South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Near East, East Africa and Southern Europe. Commercial activity has been shifted from the major trade routes of the past to newer routes among modern nation-states. Initially, this trade activity used to be carried out without traditional protection of trade and under international free-trade agreements, which allowed commercial goods to cross borders with relaxed restrictions. However, as time is passing, innovative transportation and ideas are taking hold of modern-day connectivity and thereby trade.

All these issues will be deliberated upon during the ECO’s 15th Summit being held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on November 28, 2021 under the theme, “Into the Future Together”. The Summit is likely to be attended at the level of Heads of State/Government, coming to Ashgabat amid important developments in the world in general and the region in particular.

Over the years, ECO has undertaken major initiatives in the field of connectivity, trade, energy, tourism, and cultural, social and scientific development. It has also established its regional institutions and specialised agencies. The purpose is to enhance visibility and outreach to the peoples of the region and to reactivate the same old trading activity that is used to define the region. Some such initiatives include: (i) building trade corridors for eliminating restrictions and obstacles in the way of promoting intra-regional trade; (ii) establishing a ECO visa regime to promote tourism and people-to-people contacts; (iii) promoting scientific, cultural and educational cooperation; and (iv) establishing regional financial institutions such as the ECO Trade Bank and ECO Clearing Union to finance regional projects etc. In addition, ECO has also developed a dedicated programme for extending development assistance to Afghanistan. Various developmental and assistance initiatives have been undertaken so far under this programme.

The Covid pandemic that enveloped the entire world disrupted the regular interaction, trade and transportation. There was hardly any aspect of life that was not affected. Trade and tourism were among the worst hit sectors. The ECO region was no exception.

Under these conditions, ECO modified its operations. Virtual and hybrid modes of interaction were adopted to continue with the calendar of activities and to ensure that most of the annual work plan was executed as planned.

ECO Covid guidelines were developed to ensure that the intra-regional trade remains unhindered or at best is affected to the minimum.

In order to ensure regular representation at the Secretariat, another important decision was taken to develop a roster for regular transfer of Chairmanship every year among the Member States in alphabetical order. This regular transfer of Chairmanship was not the practice in the past.

Further, during the 14th Summit, another decision was taken to carry out a mid-term review of the Vision 2025—a key document that set the agenda of the Organisation to be achieved by 2025. The Vision document was adopted in Islamabad in 2017. The purpose was to evaluate the progress made so far and to make additional recommendations to ensure that most of the objectives laid out in the Vision document are either achieved or significant progress is registered toward their realisation. The review report produced under the Chair—Turkmenistan, and Co-Chairs—Iran and Pakistan, will be presented to the Summit.

The major breakthrough achieved in the field of transport during the current year was operationalisation of Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul Road Corridor. On October 7, 2021, two cargoes were despatched from Karachi, Pakistan to Turkey and Azerbaijan each under the TIR Convention. They conducted successful operations with efficient cooperation of the relevant authorities of Iran and Turkey.

The ECO-ITI project was first initiated in 2011 and after consistent follow up and support by the Member States—Pakistan, Iran and Turkey—as well as the ECO Secretariat, was finally operationalised to serve the cause of regional connectivity and economic integration. Its transit operations can be further improved by digitalisation of the corridor to simplify the administrative procedures involved during the border crossings and while transiting.

In the domain of promotion of intra-regional trade which was around 8.3 percent of the total foreign trade of the ECO Member States, ECOTA awaits implementation due to lack of general agreement upon its implementation on its current form. In addition, another long-awaited objective is to enhance its scope from a preferential trade agreement (PTA) to FTA. Currently, the ECO Secretariat has proposed different ideas and possibilities on reduction of tariffs to be considered by the Member States. It is yet to be seen how these ideas would prove helpful in realising the much cherished and ambitious ideal of trade liberalisation.

Another indicator for strengthening of the ECO is the enhanced commitment of the CARs towards ECO. The assumption of Chairmanship by Turkmenistan and hosting of the forthcoming 25th COM & 15th Summit is one such indicator.

ECO is also focusing on holistically harnessing the strengths of each of its members. Within the ECO region, some of the ECO Member States are bestowed with enormous natural resources while some others produce vital goods and services. Within the region, there exists significant demand for trading these commodities to benefit from each other’s resources and services. Some of the ideas in this respect include creation of integrated energy/electricity markets; implementation of ECO Energy Strategy; Visa facilitation for promotion of tourism including medical tourism; Agreement on Promotion and Protection of Investments etc. These initiatives require active follow up and implementation which is what ECO is precisely focusing on.

ECO is emerging as a significant regional organisation that forges intra-regional economic and cultural linkages. The major strength of the Organisation is its focus on economic and connectivity issues. It is endeavouring to adapt to the needs of the Member States with a view to create an enabling environment for promotion of trade and improving economic conditions.

The forthcoming event will be another watershed in the history of ECO. For the year 2022, the next Chairman in line is Uzbekistan. It would be a great step if the ECO Member States would decide to extend possible financial support to Afghanistan to proactively preclude the losing humanitarian and economic crises. Moreover, the mid-term review of Vision 2025 is likely to generate new enthusiasm among the Member States for achievement of objectives.

Overall, it will be an important high-level interaction of the leaders of the ECO region and the theme of the Summit truly reflects the collective aspiration of all i.e. “Into the Future Together”