That Islamabad spearheaded the 13th ECO Summit on 1st of March, 2017 is a welcoming multilateral diplomatic milestone bolstering Pakistan`s foreign policy sway. Pakistan has historically and politically always kept one foot in South Asia and another in Central Asia, to cautiously cement the latter bears witness to the cultural proximity Pakistan enjoys with an increasingly influential, if somewhat unstable, Central Asian Region.
Countering India’s hegemony via the ECO is paramount as India unduly leverages its clout, pushing its own agenda and negatively influences Kabul. Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance have always toed Delhi`s line. How India sabotaged the SAARC summit which was due to be held in Islamabad in December 2016 is a glaring example of shameless hubris and obstructionism. Just as Delhi strategically pivots toward Washington and ASEAN for deeper integration, Pakistan too must replicate such efforts and go even further by strategically aligning itself with ECO nation-states.
The sad and sour reality remains that Kabul and their internally fractured National Unity government, by succumbing to Delhi`s script, by not sending any senior high-ranking government official to Islamabad`s ECO Summit, missed an historic opportunity at diplomatic dialogue and bridge-building, at turning the tide and underscoring Kabul`s desire to be a strategic gateway for the region. Afghanistan remains a strategic nerve-center connecting six of the ten ECO countries. Regional connectivity without Afghanistan is possible for Pakistan through Tajikistan; however this should always be a last resort rather than a first option. It is high time the ISI and the NDS, Islamabad and Kabul had an intensified diplomatic tete–a–tete.
Islamabad’s taking the ECO Summit lead cements ties with a Muslim-majority Islamic bloc as Muslims, the world over, are teetering on a razor`s edge of geo-political uncertainty. The ECO, has hitherto been a toothless paper tiger. Now, however, if given proper teeth, it can raise some crucial issues, from Kashmir to Palestine to the plight of the Rohingya.
Islamabad intuitively recognises that the political pendulum has swung, that the West, to a large extent, has hit economic saturation and stagnation, and that the real promise and potential for our 21st century lies in an economically resurgent Asia. As the EU fissures like never before, as Brexit could be a denouement leading to a wave of other countries defecting from Brussels, as Trump`s government seals its borders, rekindling such timely alliances is crucial in an increasingly uncertain isolationist world.
Islamabad by giving multi-lateral vigour to the ECO fortifies CPEC credibility, bolsters its influence in an ever-growing Central Asia, rekindles the strategic acquisition of crucial gas supplies and moderates an ECO region of 440 million citizens, yearning for connectivity, convergence and free trade.
Islamabad has shown the region and the world at large that it will neither be isolated nor contained. Attempts by Delhi to prove otherwise will fail. The ECO Vision 2025 and the Islamabad Declaration loftily speak of free trade areas, integrated sustainability, knowledge sharing and connectivity; though these are noteworthy aspirations they lack binding enforcement. Legal ratification instruments need to evolve for the Islamabad Declaration and ECO Vison 2025 to gain institutional traction. More intensified public private partnerships must be afoot. Following up is key, and will decide if the 13th ECO Summit was a mere talking shop or the first crucial step toward a credible geo-strategic institutional framework.
Multiple other challenges abound for the ECO. The ECO Summit takes place once every five years, annual meetings will be required for this emerging trading bloc to bear any significant influence. TAPI and the Pakistan Iran gas pipeline have not yet materialised despite countless pleas, pledges and meetings. In addition to multilateralism, bilateral diplomacy merits strengthening, especially between Islamabad, Kabul and Tehran, which have historically been fraught with an unhealthy mutual suspicion. The trust deficit between Islamabad, Kabul and a recently nuclear resurgent Tehran must be bridged.
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rightly observed that bureaucracies of all the ECO Summit states must be fully on board. Pakistan`s bureaucrats naturally work with the EU, but Islamabad`s Foreign Office`s DNA must now forge a new Eastward pivot and reset.
The ECO Declaration could have done much more to address the immediate cancer plaguing the region, namely the specter of multinational terrorism and collectively countering extremism in the 21st century. Security remains a most strategic topic. The ECO Summit could have focused more on skills transfer and digital footprint as a lot of the Central Asian Republics are lacking in this respect.
Post-summit if ECO Presidents and Prime Ministers do not give a sustained push, if they do not exert influence on the ECO Secretariat, the Islamabad Declaration will remain a mere paper tiger. If the ECO agenda is left to bureaucracies alone, where the urgent takes precedence over the important, civil servants by themselves will not fast-track the lofty ideals proclaimed in the 2025 Vision. It is essential that binding resolve with specific measurable timelines and benchmarks be adhered to. Lofty declarations must concretise. It is high-time to evolve the ECO from a ‘glorified talking shop’ to an ‘influential regional bloc’.
ECO’s vision looks fantastic on paper, but the time is ripe to turn paper declarations into living breathing socio-economic regional realities. This is an historic opportunity to move from words to actions, and from form to substance.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2017.
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