The 13th Summit of the ECO that took place in Islamabad recently portends immense economic possibilities for the region. Its basic theme of Connectivity for Regional Prosperity reflects the realisation amongst its peoples that their enormous potential for collective economic development lies largely untapped and thus unfulfilled.
The Islamabad Declaration and Vision 2025 are intended to just correct this very anomaly.
There were a few developments at the summit that will have a resounding impact on regional economies and politics. It was attended at the highest levels by Heads of State and Government and other senior levels, which much to India’s chagrin, wrought to naught its ferocious diplomatic offensive to somehow isolate Pakistan at the regional and extra regional levels. By getting Afghanistan to attend the summit at the ambassadorial level only served to isolate it itself, instead. President Ashraf Ghani could have attended the summit himself and engaged the Pakistanis at the decision making level to resolve current and address latent issues, an opportunity he surely missed!
However, the most important event of the summit, though quite under reported, was the meaningful presence of the Chinese Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. He was there on a special invitation from Pakistan’s Prime Minister. It was a deep strategic maneuver by the Sino-Pak combine that will have far reaching implications for the region and beyond. Getting China on to the ECO band wagon (or vice versa) is a master stroke that will lead to a win-win position for all ECO member states as well as China. Whereas China can now focus undivided attention on a readymade ten-state forum to pursue its One Road One Belt (OBOR) and CPEC initiatives more vigorously and effectively it also allows the ECO states to become more profitably engaged with the most emerging economic power house of the world.
The CPEC may well become the center of gravity around which the interconnectivity and the economic cooperation dynamics between the ECO states, China and the rest of the world can evolve and revolve. It could be the harbinger for a new economic bloc coming up under China’s tutelage. The CPEC is actually extremely well placed to acquire a position of centrality around which the ECO states could achieve their desired goals of regional interconnectivity and economic interdependence. A series of trade corridors reaching the North-South and East-West extremities of the region will create the necessary infrastructural network that will ensure interconnectivity and lead to smooth economic integration. This is actually under way at the moment. The economic interests of the ECO states converge with those of China and both will get naturally aligned and the former may get subsumed totally later on. Interconnectivity and enhanced economic cooperation within the ECO context is in complete harmony with the objectives of the OBOR and the CPEC and is thus bound to be pursued, relentlessly.
The emergence of an ECO-China partnership bodes well for Pakistan and the region. It is a strategic integration of economic interests of all parties and may cause convergence of other individual national interests as well. It places Pakistan at the center of an enormous economic bloc and consequent bonanza in the making. It will serve to further unify the region in more than one way and lead to expand and consolidate Chinese interests and influence in the region. Add to this Russia’s desire to link its Eurasian Economic Union to the CPEC and the emergence of an economic bloc assumes even wider and more potent meanings. This emergent economic bloc will sit on large fossil fuels reserves, will have enormous human and technological resources and will reflect immense potential for mutual economic enhancements. The Russians are likely to get engaged in a more meaningful, perceptible and mutually beneficial way as well.
The Chinese-Russian ingress in the APR might rile the US-India duo who may feel that their interests are somehow being threatened. Their reaction will define the course of events this region undergoes in the near future. The US has yet to define its policies towards the Af-Pak Region under the Trump Administration. It can either continue with the status quo in Afghanistan or decide to egress totally from the region or even go in for a further surge in troop levels to defeat the IS/Afghan Taliban/Al Qaeda threats and to counter the increasing Chinese- Russian ingress there. If the US egresses the region it will abandon critical space and influence to the Chinese and Russians which may be very difficult to retake in the future. That would also leave India quite high and dry! Each option that is available to the US has enormous implications for India, the region at large and the APR in particular. The region awaits the US policy with abated breath. Afghanistan may be the only destabilized part of the region that needs to be pacified and successfully integrated in the emerging economic initiative or else it will get bypassed. In the meantime, it will feel helpless and in the crossfire once again as another chapter in the great game centered on it threatens to blow up in a major way.
This then sets the stage for the US- India duo trying to balance off the evolving Chinese and Russian ingress in the region. Multi polarity and receding/increasing spheres of influence would be the logical outcomes of this fascinating interplay of national interests of major powers and their strategies to secure and further them. Regardless of the big power tussle in the region, the ECO states, Pakistan and China must continue to pursue the development of the OBOR/CPEC with vigour and determination. The ECO states and Pakistan must aim to synchronise and synergise efforts at interconnectivity and economic interdependence in coordination with China. Russia must also dovetail its Eurasian Economic Union with the CPEC to create a massive forum for extensive regional interconnectivity and economic interdependence and prosperity. This has the potential to develop into a major bloc with interests going beyond the economic alone and venturing into the diplomatic, political and even military realms at some later stage!