Regional connectivity is imperative for economic prosperity in our globalized and interdependent world. Though the evolving great powers’ strategic competition is not reassuring for the strengthening of regional cooperation, developing nations seem determined to improve regional connectivity in order to improve their economic situations.
The recent meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization’s (ECO) Council of Ministers (COM) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan earlier this month, has germinated optimism about the tapping of landlocked Central Asian Republics’ resources and stabilizing the fragile economy of Pakistan through regional connectivity.
The ECO is an Asian political and economic intergovernmental organization established jointly by Pakistan, Turkiye, and Iran in 1985. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan joined after the demise of the former Soviet Union. The COM is the policymaking forum of ECO that approves the decisions and annual work plan of the organization. The ECO’s priority sectors of cooperation include energy, trade, transportation, agriculture, and drug control. The charter of the organization also emphasized the sustainable economic development of member states
There is optimism about the tapping of landlocked Central Asian Republics’ resources and stabilizing the fragile economy of Pakistan through regional connectivity.
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
The ECO aimed for regional cooperation “for drug abuse control, ecological and environmental protection, and strengthening of historical and cultural ties among the peoples of the ECO region.” Pakistanis are exposed to drug abuse and narcotics trafficking. With the cooperation of ECO members, especially Afghanistan and Iran, Islamabad could successfully address this societal menace.
Pakistan’s geographical location and newly developed road infrastructure and Gwadar port operationalization with the assistance of China make the country very attractive for the ECO members’ regional and global merchandise. For instance, 6 out of 10 members are landlocked. Pakistan provides all the landlocked members with the shortest route to sea.
The ECO theme of 2023, i.e. “Year of Strengthening Connectivity” is a replica of ECO Vision-2025 and also similar to Pakistan’s economic concept. Islamabad firmly believes that without increasing economic cooperation among the regional actors; Central, West, and South Asian nations cannot resolve their economic challenges. On January 24, Pakistan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, while addressing the 26th COM conference at Tashkent, highlighted that connectivity through the development of road and rail projects, liberalization of visa regimes and the simplification of border procedures, would enable ECO countries to “act as a bridge and create mutual inter-dependencies.”
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative created an opportunity for ECO members to develop transport and communications infrastructure linking them with each other and with the outside world. For instance, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a far-reaching initiative that will act as a catalyst for the development of the entire region. Perhaps, the CPEC will enhance ECO-wide connectivity in terms of transport and transit; telecommunications; cyber; and all forms of energy; as well as people-to-people exchanges, including through regional tourism arrangements.
Besides attending and addressing the COM meeting, Bhutto-Zardari held various separate bilateral meetings with participating ministers of member states. Both him and Uzbekistan’s Acting Foreign Minister, Bakhtiyor Saidov, expressed satisfaction with the recent high engagements and agreed to advance transport and communication engagement by constructing Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan railway tracks. Admittedly, this project cannot be accomplished without the improvement of the political and security situation in Afghanistan.
Since its foundation, ECO members have been reiterating their commitment to improve development and promote trade and create investment opportunities among its members. Shared cultural and historic affinities could enable member states to use existing infrastructural and business links to further fortify their resolve to transfer their hopes and aspirations into a tangible reality. However, they have been unable to stimulate an impressive volume of trade between the Central Asian Republics and Pakistan due to protracted warfare in Afghanistan and sanctions against Iran.
Besides, the members failed to adopt a progressive removal of trade barriers and promotion of bilateral and intra-regional trade. Without settling these issues, the member states cannot transform the ECO into a vibrant regional economic bloc. Hence, members need to obliterate these obstacles to enhance intra-regional trade.
In summary, West Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia are primed for a network of rail and road linkages besides sea routes and energy pipelines, and trade connectivity. In this context, the Gwadar port holds enormous promise for ECO members by providing Turkiye, Iran, and Pakistan access to the Central Asian States and Afghanistan. Hence, Pakistan ought to engage the ECO members further to gain results from the recent communiqué, if enhanced regional cooperation and collaboration between the member states is truly to become reality.
– Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @zafar_jaspal
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