The RECCA-VI Academic Forum, held on 13 October 2017 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, was opened by H.E. Vapa Hajyev, Deputy Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan, H.E. Adela Raz, Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Cooperation of Afghanistan, and Mrs. Natalya Drozd, Head of the OSCE Center in Ashgabat.
Deputy Minister Raz in her keynote speech spoke about the importance of regional economic cooperation and the emergence of various regional cooperation frameworks in the wider region. She in particular elaborated on the two prominent Afghanistan- focused regional cooperation frameworks namely the Regional Economic Cooperation
Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoAIP). She stated that RECCA is an effective regional cooperation framework, aimed at promoting cross-border economic cooperation, through prioritized economic and investment projects that are capable of contributing to growth, job creation, income generation, and confidence building, across the wider Central, South and Southwest Asia and beyond. Deputy Minister Raz reiterated that our vision under RECCA is to “help unlock the potential for regional and inter-regional
economic cooperation as well as continental trade by sharing the benefits of the centrality of Afghanistan as a land bridge between Central Asia, South Asia, China, Middle East and Europe”. She added that Afghanistan provides the shortest and most cost-effective routes for roads, railways, pipelines and transmission lines between South and Central Asia and that such connectivity is not only an important element of economic integration between these two regions but also a pre-condition for future sustainable growth and economic development. Deputy Minister Raz concluded her remarks by encouraging further economic research under RECCA and possible joint research activities between RECCA and other regional platforms including through establishing a research center under
RECCA. Four panel discussions were then held with scholars and technical experts from across Central, South, and Southwest Asia, as well as China and the United States, on “Enhancing Regional Cooperation in the Field of Energy”, “Assessment of Regional and Inter-Regional Connectivity”, “Prospective and Potential for Regional Trade & Transit Facilitation, B2B, P2P, Communications, and Labor Support”, “Exploring New Avenues for Economic Cooperation and Integration in the Region ACADEMIC FORUM with a Focus on the Role of Afghanistan.” The RECCA-VI Academic Forum was co-organized by the Center for Strategic Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, the Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, and the OSCE Center in Ashgabat. From varying regional perspectives from within Eurasia and beyond, the scholars
and technical experts underscored opportunities to enhance regional economic cooperation with Afghanistan.
They also identified major impediments to unlock the full potential for integrating the economies of Central, South, and Southwest Asia and build bridges between traders and business entrepreneurs across the region. The speakers also considered the role that regional countries and the existing regional platforms, giving special attention to the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, can play in further accelerating economic cooperation across the region. They further highlighted, among other issues, (i) the importance of addressing the investment
deficit for infrastructure development; (ii) the need to implement effectively decisions and commitments made during previous RECCA meetings, including transit trade agreements; and (iii) the importance of fostering greater synergies among various regional frameworks and transport corridors in the wider region, including the
SAARC, CAREC, ECO, and the Belt & Road Initiative.
Major Recommendations from the RECCA-VII Academic Forum
Session 1: Enhancing Regional Cooperation in the Field of Energy
- Miss. Zukhra Bektepova, Economic Officer, OSCE Vienna
- Mir Ahmad Javid Sadaat, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, Afghanistan
- Mr. Muhammetnur Halylow, Director of the Scientific-Research Institute of Natural Gas of the “Turkmengaz” State Concern
- Arshi Saleem Hashmi, Professor, National Defense University (NDU) Islamabad, Pakistan
- Building on the TAPI natural gas pipeline’s progress, including the recent completion of the third stage of the Galkynysh Gas Field and expected completion, in 2018, of the Turkmenistan section of the pipeline, efforts should be redoubled to complete major regional economic cooperation project in the coming few years, especially as it has the potential to serve as a “game change” for economic development and cooperation between the countries of Central and South Asia.
- Despite the global drop in the price of the sale of natural gas—due to the discovery of new gas deposits in the U.S. and elsewhere utilizing new technologies—natural gas exploitation has the potential to significantly reduce poverty and to benefit economically the countries of Central, South, and Southwest Asia, representing the beginning of a “New Energy Era”. Natural gas is also far cleaner than coal and oil production and use, thereby helping to reduce carbon emissions and the negative effects associated with dramatic climate change.
- Three important issues that must be addressed in connection with its participation in the TAPI project are: i) producer country pricing; ii) natural gas anchors in consumer countries; and iii) managing tight margins.
- For Afghanistan to fully develop its rich minerals sector, it will rely increasingly on a steady supply of reliable and relatively inexpensive sources of power.
- The CASA-1000 power transmission project is also demonstrating that high-levels of cooperation between the countries of Central and South Asia is possible, even on a geographically and technically complicated project.
- Together, TAPI, CASA-1000, and more recently TAP-500 can serve as the basis for a new, integrated regional energy market and electrical grid for the benefit of the countries of Central and South Asia.
Session 2: Assessment of Regional and Inter-Regional Connectivity
- James L. Creighton, Distinguished Fellow, East West Institute (EWI)
- Yama Shams, Chief Executive Director, Afghanistan Railways, Kabul
- Chen Xiaochen, Director of International Studies, Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China
- Mandana Tishehyar, Allameh Tabataba’i University (ATU), Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran
- One expert recommended that there be less of a focus among political leaders in the region on hard security issues and more on tangible forms of economic cooperation in the areas of, for example, transport, trade, and energy, where the countries of Central, South, and Southwest Asia stand to benefit through their close interactions.
- Six economic corridors are now being planned by China in connection with its massive Belt-and-Road Initiative, and it is important that Afghanistan and other countries in Central, South, and Southwest Asia position themselves to participate in and benefit from these expected areas of major economic dynamism and growth.
- The countries of the region are hopefully beginning to take notice of Afghanistan’s marked progress in building new roads, rail lines, and dry ports, which (along with better trade facilitation, customs, and border management policies) will allow it to become a regional trade and transit hub for the benefit of both Afghanistan and its neighbors. Afghanistan aspires to compliment, rather than overlap with, existing transport-related infrastructure investments in the region.
- One of the biggest challenges Afghanistan and its neighbors face is unemployment, and enhancing both regional connectivity and trade can contribute immensely to increasing new job opportunities in both urban and rural communities across the region.
- Participants acknowledged that national economic development and infrastructure projects stand to benefit immensely by being part of a larger regional project or network, in terms of attracting public and private capital and technical knowhow from countries and businesses both within and beyond the region.
- Another scholar stressed the importance of developing further the theoretical foundations of regional economic integration, so that theory can catch up with the practical strategies and progress associated with new initiatives, such as CAREC and the Belt-and-Road Initiative.
- The “empty train problem” for the new connection between Afghanistan and China merits high attention from political and business leaders, as this new example of Afghanistan participation in the Belt-and-Road Initiative has considerable potential in terms of generating economic benefits for the wider region.
Session 3: Prospective and Potential for Regional Trade & Transit Facilitation, B2B, P2P, Communications, and Labor Support
- Mr. Myrat Begliyev, Deputy Rector of the International University for the Humanities and Development
- Mohammad Najib Azizi, Chairman, Afghanistan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (ATRA), Kabul
- Jan-Peter Olters, Country Manager, World Bank Tajikistan
- Annie Cowan, Program Associate, East West Institute (EWI)
- Maximize potential of business to business opportunities by highlighting business road shows, reaching out to international Chambers of Commerce, and soliciting support from extensive Afghan Diaspora to find companies willing to partner with Afghanistan on specific bankable pilot programs that can help to prove Afghanistan is open for business while highlighting specific laws, rules and regulations that must be fixed.
- Improve Afghanistan’s brand by getting out the message that Afghanistan is open for business. Counter arguments regarding financial and physical security concerns.
- Structure regional agreements as cost sharing enterprises to reduce risk to individual signatories and entice international funding from World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and others. Use Public-Private Partnerships whenever possible.
- Continue to attack corruption vigorously to build the confidence of the people. Make sure that governments and businesses understand the efforts.
- Continue to reform the customs, visa and cross border procedures.
- Continue to eliminate obstacles to regional energy, trade, and rail agreements. Many have been signed but not executed.
- When talking about security to businesses, focus on security from a district and village level. It is unfortunate when an entire country is viewed as insecure when, in fact, many places are either perfectly secure today or at least secure enough to take a risk with possibility of higher economic reward.
- Streamline national drivers licensing laws so the all provinces respect drivers’ licenses from other provinces. This seemingly small step could dramatically improve the efficiency of transporting goods across Afghanistan.
Session 4: Exploring New Avenues for Economic Cooperation and integration in the region with a focus on the role of Afghanistan.
- Hasan Soroosh, Director General, Directorate General for Economic Cooperation, MoFA, Afghanistan
- Enayatullah Nabil, Senior Advisor to the Minister, Ministry of Finance, Afghanistan
- Meerim Aitkulova, Expert at the NISI KR
- Zukhra Bektepova, Economic Officer, OSCE Vienna
- Richard Ponzio, Director of the Just Security 2020 Program at the Stimson Center
- RECCA should continue contribute to five main economic cooperation clusters in Central, South, and Southwest Asia, namely: i) energy; ii) transport networks; iii) trade and transit facilitation; iv) communications; and v) B2B partnership and labor support, and it should focus on both the challenges and impediments to project implementation, as well as the prospects for cooperation and opportunities in each major economic sector.
- Participants in this concluding session also highlighted the strong correlation between infrastructure development, in areas such as transport, energy and Information and Communications Technologies, and the overall economic growth and development in the wider region.
- The expert panelists further recommended the need for more integrated efforts across the region to improve the level and pace of implementation for the commitments made (and overcoming associated bottlenecks) or the actions and activities recommended at the RECCA meetings.
- Investment deficit need to be overcome with respect to infrastructure development, and the development of investment criteria for “bankable” regional cooperation and investment projects under RECCA would be helpful in this regard.
- Diversification of fund mobilization was also emphasized, highlighting the importance of attracting capital and investment from diverse private sector and public sources including the Sovereign Wealth Funds, new regional funds and investment banks, as well as innovative financing modalities such as PPP and power purchase agreements.
- The need for model bankable projects for their replication across a number of key economic sectors was also stressed, including, for example, in the areas of power generation and multi-modal inland ports.
- Simplification of the procedures for grants and loans was also emphasized during the concluding session.
- A lack of coordination and synergy at different levels was also mentioned as a major challenge, including among major regional economic cooperation platforms, between transport and transit corridors, and between a growing number of robust economic corridors.
- Some speakers were of the view that, along with hard infrastructure and physical connectivity which have witnessed considerable progress over the past few years, there is the need for intensified efforts with respect to the soft infrastructure required for trade expansion and investment promotion in our region. Customs harmonization, policy coordination, improved investment environment, greater B2B partnership, air connectivity and visa facilitation were highlighted in this context. In addition, concerns were raised about trade and transit-related barriers, especially a worrying number of non-tariff barriers in the region.
- Finally, the scholars assembled in Ashgabat on 13 October 2017 for the RECCA Academic Forum recommended improving research capacity and convening more capacity building programs for the priority economic sectors identified through the Ministerial Meetings of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan.