Islamabad is hosting the 13th summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) on “Connectivity for Regional Prosperity” among the 10 member states—Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—which account for 16 percent of the world’s population.
With seven foreign heads of state attending, the summit is undoubtedly a diplomatic coup for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, who is miffed with Pakistan, and Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is miffed with Pakistan and Afghanistan, are both sitting this one out.) The summit won’t yield anything real or quick, but it is an impressive show of regional solidarity with Pakistan, which has been shaken and bloodied by two recent weeks of nationwide terror attacks.
Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey established the ECO in 1985—from what was left of the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) (1964-1979)—to promote economic, technical, and cultural ties. In 1992, ECO membership was broadened to include the other seven states. “The organization faces daunting challenges,” says the ECO Secretariat on its website, “the region is lacking in appropriate infrastructure and institutions which the Organization is seeking to develop, on priority basis.” The ECO says it has embarked on several projects of multilateral cooperation, including in energy, trade, transportation, agriculture, and drug control.
It is a fact that the 32-year-old ECO has not really taken off. Many member states are internally troubled or simply dysfunctional. Turkmenistan is supposed to pipe its gas to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan, but knows that won’t happen. President Mirziyoyev hasn’t turned up because Afghanistan and Pakistan are seen as providing safe havens to its particularly savage terrorists. President Rouhani, insulted last year during a visit to Pakistan, attended as a great gesture of diplomacy, repeating his earlier tour de force in the West. The covert war between Afghanistan and Pakistan via border-crossing terrorists is on the upswing. And then there’s the problem of nonmember India, which sabotaged the SAARC summit last year.
The capital was in lockdown to ensure that the top-level summit went smoothly. It did. This summit, like all of them, had high purpose: nothing works better than trade to avoid war. But nothing destroys borders more effectively than free trade and the free movement of people, which is what connectivity means. This runs completely contrary to the insecure nationalism, rampant across many ECO states, that demands strong borders.
Regional connectivity appears most likely through China, a nonmember state officially made an observer at this summit and which is putting in billions in investments, including through the terror-threatened China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, because it has the economic might to impose some peace among squabbling regional players thanks to its trade connections with virtually all of them. The ECO will disappear post-summit from the public’s radar. But hosting the summit clearly signaled that Pakistan is not “isolated,” and involving China will ensure that the ECO becomes more than a photo op.