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Central Asia: Economist Says ASEAN Bloc A 'Good Model'

Central Asian nations and neighboring countries joined eight years ago in a regional cooperative the members call the ECO. A recent study says ECO might achieve more for its members if it takes another international group -- Asia's ASEAN -- as a model. RFE/RL London correspondent Ben Partridge reports.

London, 7 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An Australian economist says Central Asians seeking to increase regional cooperation should consider following the model of ASEAN -- the seven-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Iran, Pakistan and Turkey set up a regional forum called the Economic Cooperation Organization -- ECO for short -- in 1985. They widened it in 1992 to include seven new members: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. ECO's 10 member nations -- all the non-Arab Islamic countries of western and central Asia -- embrace a population of 325 million people.

With a permanent secretariat in Iran's capital, Tehran, ECO provides a forum to discuss regional issues. But its drive to promote practical cooperation has produced, in the words of the economist's study report, "more statements of intent than actual regional integration."

Richard Pomfret, professor of economics at Australia's Adelaide university, conducted the study. He entitled it "Central Asia Turns South." The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London recently published it.

The study says ECO should look to ASEAN -- comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei -- as a model for cooperative regional development.

It says ASEAN has had remarkable success in the past 30 years in contributing to regional growth and defusing potential conflicts. The region, with its Tiger economies, has shown resilience with the first signs of recovery from the financial collapse of the late 1990s.

The study says ECO's own achievements during the 1990s since its expansion have been modest by comparison, although it increased its capacity to act as a regional forum.

ECO members reached agreements in 1995 to set up four regional institutions: a trade and development bank, a reinsurance company, a shipping company and an airline. But, the study says, they have yet to implement them.

Economist Pomfret lists other hanging issues:

- Two member countries, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, have failed to sign transit agreements aimed at encouraging intraregional trade.

- ECO stands divided over policy toward Afghanistan. Some members support, others oppose the Islamic Taliban militia that now governs most of Afghanistan.

- ECO summits have been divisive. In 1996, delegates from Uzbekistan and Iran differed strongly. Officials left a day earlier than planned.

The study says ASEAN's success in bringing together seven diverse countries shows that regional cooperation and overcoming historical suspicions, while taking a long time, can yield big benefits.

A 1967 ASEAN treaty said the group would promote economic, social and cultural development of the region through cooperation. It said the organization would be a forum for resolving differences within the region. Pomfret's study says ASEAN has generally met those goals.

The study says there has been unprecedented regional growth in Southeast Asia in the past three decades. This region of 500 million people became one of the most dynamic in the world up to the Asian financial crash of the late 1990s.

Pomfret says pace-setters like Singapore and Malaysia emerged as Tiger economies, achieving record-breaking annual growth. The living standards of their citizens soared.

The study says that when ASEAN began, trade among member countries was insignificant. Intra-bloc trade has grown greatly in recent years and the study says ASEAN has contributed.

The economist says that ECO is unlikely to achieve such integration in the foreseeable future. The Central Asians and their neighbors seem unready to cooperate so effectively, and the region's economies are handicapped by problems. The study predicts that, for now, the southern neighbors will not become major trading partners of the Central Asian nations, and that the reverse is even more true.

But, the study concludes, ECO can best achieve what the author calls its "modest potential" by drawing inspiration from ASEAN.