Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) – The time has come

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As a fresh wave of dreadful terrorist violence has been unleashed upon Pakistan over past few days, majority of people – including opinion leaders and analysts – are taking it as an attempt to sabotage the plans for the final of Pakistan Super League (PSL), scheduled for March 5, in Lahore’s iconic Qaddafi stadium.

It by no means is wrong to think on those lines, either. PSL final means a revival of major sporting activities – and a rejuvenation of cricket involving international stars, in Pakistan, since international competitions of the sport have been banished from the country after the unfortunate attack on Sri Lankan national cricket team at the same venue in 2009. Such an event would undoubtedly be on the agenda of those trying to tarnish the image of a resilient, and returning-to-normalcy Pakistan.

Yet, another major coming event – with much wider diplomatic and political relevance and significance for Pakistan – failed to grab the much-needed attention in discourse highlighting the motives behind this renewed terror spree. It is the Summit of heads of state/government of the member countries of Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), to be held in Islamabad on March 1.

It would be pertinent to mention here that on the very day of the suicide attack on Lahore’s Mall Road – the first major incident of this violent wave – on February 13, the prime minister of Pakistan was chairing a meeting in Islamabad to give final touches to the arrangements for the coming summit that is going to take place after a gap of about half a decade.

The stakes are high. The memory must be quite fresh in the minds of concerned Pakistanis that how a situation was crafted to get the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] summit to be held in November 2016 in Islamabad postponed. As in the case of ECO there are not enough member states to chant a particular stance on regional affairs, the other way to be adopted by Pakistan’s adversaries is, simple, to create an atmosphere of fear. An attempt has been made. Let us hope it results only in even more enthusiasm for the Summit, on part of the concerned leaders.

It is in the ECO members’ own interest not to be bogged down by such coward tactics, join their heads together, and move towards not only getting rid of this specter of fear with joint effort, but also to kick-start an effective, meaningful and win-win regional cooperation.

It has been half a century that the organization was first rolled out in the form of Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD, in 1964), and a quarter a century since it was expanded to become ECO of today. While the point here is not to obscure what the organization has done so far, it would not be wrong to say that despite countless announcements, declarations, plans and resolves, too little can actually be witnessed on the ground that can be termed as a real credit to the grouping.  ECO Trade Agreement (ECOTA) is yet to see any tangible fruits, and had the organization acted upon Quetta Plan of Action that was announced some 25 years ago in the capital of Balochistan, south and west Asia would be one of the most interconnected regions of the world by now. These are just a couple of examples to cite.

Changing geopolitical and geo-economic realities of the region – and beyond that of the globe – signal that it is turning out to be an ideal time for ECO to position itself as one of the most potent regional groupings on the face of the planet. Turkish economy has become quite strong, Pakistan’s economy is on the upward swing after stabilization in past three years, and a post sanctions Iranian economy is resurging. As Aizaz Chaudahry, Pakistan’s outgoing foreign secretary and ambassador designate to the US puts it, the time for ECO has come.

While SAARC owes its zero-sum performance to hostile relation-ship between Pakistan and India, there is hardly any reason of this nature to explain the lackluster doing on part of ECO, so far. Lack of interest and a question of priorities, perhaps.

The theme for coming summit is ‘connectivity for regional prosperity.’ The Summit is also expected to clear ECO Vision 2025. Let us hope these will be new beginnings in the right direction, and will not remain limited to announcements and photo-opportunities.

Apart from fostering cooperation among the members, it would not erroneous to highlight here that opportunities for extended regional cooperation also abound, and one major vista among these is China’s ‘One Belt One Road (OBOR)’ strategy – of which China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the most important component. CPEC has all the potential and ingredients to practically become ECO-China Economic Belt, or Corridor.

Considering the significance of Chinese initiatives coupled with Russia’s reemergence as a major global power, another suggestion for the ECO forum is to consider and start a kind of ECO+1 (ECO plus China) and ECO+2 (ECO plus China and Russia) mechanism, on the lines of ASEAN+1 (ASEAN and China) and ASEAN+3 (ASEAN + China, Japan, South Korea) mechanisms.

ECO-Eurasian Economic Union cooperation can also be considered and planned. EC0-SCO mechanism, however it feels, may not be as fruitful considering that both Pakistan and India are moving towards membership of SCO and such a mechanism between two organizations may soon become a case of treading the beaten path, as has been the episode with SAARC.

It, beyond any doubt, is the opportunity of the century for ECO to get itself out of self-imposed obscurity and move ahead with a renewed vigor. The entire region, and its people, need it.

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