Pakistan-India FMs ‘exchange greetings’ as SCO moot gets under way

By Staff Reporter | The News May 5, 2023

Handshake between Pakistan’s Foreign Ministers Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Thursday was a highlight of the latter’s dinner in the honour of delegates attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation conference in the coast city known for its tourist attraction.

S Jaishankar rose from his seat to shake hands with Bilawal who was the last to arrive at the dinner. The two leaders exchanged greetings. No separate meeting has taken place between the two leaders so far.

Bilawal turned up at the meeting late due to his meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov who reached the venue earlier.

In his meeting with Lavrov, Bilawal assured him of deepening cooperation between Pakistan and Russia in energy and other sectors.

Bilawal is in India to attend the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) summit at the invitation of India’s Minister for External Affairs — the current chair of the SCO.

The meeting between the Pakistani and Russian foreign ministers came on the sidelines of the SCO summit, where they discussed “bilateral, regional and international matters of mutual interest”, a statement from the Foreign Office said, reports Geo News.

Bilawal assured his Russian counterpart of “working closely for further deepening cooperation in food security, energy and people-to-people contacts”.

He said the SCO had opened new vistas of cooperation and coordination with Russia.

Speaking to the media after landing in India, Bilawal said: “I am happy that I have reached here in Goa to attend the SCO meeting. I hope that the SCO CFM will be a success.”

Bilawal is leading the country’s delegation at the SCO’s Council of Foreign Ministers meeting scheduled to be held from May 4-5 in Goa.

”Our participation in the meeting reflects Pakistan’s commitment to the SCO charter and processes and the importance that Pakistan accords to the region in its foreign policy priorities,” the FO spokesperson had said in a statement.

In addition to deliberating upon important regional and international issues and signing some of the institutional documents, the council will finalise the agenda and decisions to be adopted by the 17th SCO Council of Heads of State Meeting scheduled to take place in New Delhi on July 3-4, 2023.

The meeting will also witness the signing of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with five countries — Bahrain, Kuwait Maldives, Myanmar and UAE — to become Dialogue Partners of SCO.

Besides Pakistan, SCO member states include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and India.

SCO’s major objectives include promoting mutual confidence and good, neighbourly relations among member states, strengthening regional peace, security and stability, and creating a framework for effective cooperation in the fields of politics, trade and economy, culture, science and technology, education, energy, transportation, tourism, and environmental protection etc.

Since becoming a member in 2017, Pakistan has been actively and constructively contributing to all SCO activities to realise its multi-sectoral aims and objectives in a mutually beneficial manner.

Bilawal Bhutto was received at the airport by the Senior Joint Secretary of Indian External Affairs Ministry JP Singh who is heading the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desk in the ministry, besides having served as India’s deputy high commissioner.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for third time ever since assuming office.

Interestingly Bilawal is the youngest Foreign Minister of this time and Lavrov is among oldest of the current Foreign Ministers of the world capitals. He is the longest-serving Foreign Minister since 2004 after the fall of the Soviet Union.

They hugged each other and looked relaxed. The meeting was conspicuously significant in the wake of opening up of vistas of cooperation between Islamabad and Kremlin as Russia is starting supply of oil on cheaper tariff in a couple of weeks.

Bilawal had diplomatically discounted his Indian counterpart in the outset, when he was leaving for Goa Thursday morning. Before leaving Pakistan, the foreign minister posted a clip on his Twitter account, saying he looked forward to “engaging bilaterally” with his SCO counterparts. “During my visit, which is focused exclusively on the SCO, I look forward to constructive discussions with my counterparts from friendly countries,” he said.

Highly placed diplomatic sources told The News that Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang who arrived about the time when Bilawal reached, had meeting with his Indian counterpart. The first official visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Pakistan was announced by Beijing when his meeting with Jaishankar was underway and it turned up to be a surprise for Indian MEA. He is visiting Islamabad today (Friday) for important meetings including a trilateral with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The sources pointed out that SCO summit will be held in New Delhi in early-July. The Foreign Ministers will articulate agenda for the summit. The question being asked in India is shall Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will opt to attend it.

They are of the view that both the countries are in election mode and leadership of neither country could afford to make any move for the change in the ties due to political reasons.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the first Pakistani foreign minister to visit India since 2011. His deputy Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar visited Indian capital as full-fledge Foreign Minister and created her peculiar impact on Indian public opinion but circumstances were different then.

India and Pakistan were experiencing a limited thaw, and trying to boost trade. Pakistan’s relationship with the US was in a crisis. “The diplomatic moment back then was ripe for attempts at rapprochement. It’s a different story today,” an observer said.

In 2019, India launched failed air strikes in Pakistani territory following an attack on Indian troops in occupied Kashmir. After the attacks, the two countries had come “close” to a nuclear war, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in his recent memoir. But a new border truce concluded in 2021 has kept things under control.

When India accidentally fired a supersonic missile into Pakistan last year, Islamabad issued a statement condemning the launch, without escalating the incident into a serious crisis. “But this isn’t to say the relationship is in a safe place. It’s always on tenterhooks, even at the best of times,” says the observer. “Today, it would only take one trigger, one provocation, to take the two sides back up the escalatory ladder.” Not surprisingly, expectations from Bhutto Zardari’s visit to the popular beach destination of Goa are low. It underlines, “most of all that both India and Pakistan attach great significance to the interface with SCO,” says TCA Raghavan, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan.

The SCO, founded in 2001 to discuss security and economic matters in Central Asia, is led by China, a trusted friend of Pakistan and ally, and Russia, an important emerging friend of Pakistan. It also includes four members from Central Asia, a region that Islamabad hopes to engage more for trade, connectivity and energy. For Islamabad skipping the conference would raise the risk of Pakistan being isolated from an organisation that embraces its interests strongly. No bilateral meetings are expected to take place between Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar. Apart from the fact that a Pakistani foreign minister has not visited India in a long time, this visit is pretty much inconsequential in the larger bilateral context.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani who is now at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, echoes a similar sentiment: “The visit, per se, does not represent any thaw in the relationship.” It’s best to look at the Pakistani foreign minister’s visit through a “multilateral lens, not a bilateral one. He’s not going to pursue reconciliation with Delhi. He’s going to participate in a conference of regional organisation that holds considerable importance for Pakistan’s interests. That leaves the two rivals frozen in what has been described as “cold peace”. Neither side wants to rock the boat but has no appetite to make significant concessions to seek or begin a dialogue on the outstanding issues. Raghavan believes the “relationship has been stable for the past two years or so but at a low plateau”.

Hussain Haqqani likens the relationship to “being on a treadmill with periodic ups and downs”. The redeeming reality is that both countries have a strong interest in keeping tensions down.

“Pakistan is facing an internal mess and can’t afford a fresh crisis with India. And India is increasingly concerned about China, its biggest security challenge, and doesn’t want to have additional trouble on its western front from Pakistan. But if both sides have an interest in reducing tensions, why isn’t the summit in India an opportunity to pursue long-lasting reconciliation? Clearly, politics stands in the way. “There would be considerable public backlash in either country if efforts are made to pursue peace. This would be especially costly in Pakistan, where the government is already facing troubles, a commentator observed. At the end of the day, each country believes that its prime condition for formal dialogue hasn’t been met. Pakistan-India relations are even at the “best of times remain precarious,” says Hassan Abbas of the National Defense University in Washington DC.

Indian observers are of the view that in order to strengthen the SCO and give it the proverbial teeth, it is expected that some of the SCO foreign ministers in attendance, like that of China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will use their relationship with their Pakistani and Indian counterparts to support them to establish a basic level of communication so that these neighbors can have a functional relationship which provides the SCO the much needed impetus.

Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Thursday held bilateral talks with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister with the border row along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh believed to be in focus. The three-year border row in eastern Ladakh will be a focus area of the talks, people familiar with the matter said ahead of the meeting.

On the sidelines of the meeting, Jaishankar held talks with Qin during which he conveyed to his Chinese counterpart that the state of India-China relations is “abnormal” because of the lingering border row in eastern Ladakh. Significantly the Chinese foreign ministry while announcing the visit of Qin to Myanmar and India on May 2 did not include his visit to Islamabad. Instead, the ministry announced his visit to Pakistan separately on Thursday during which he is due to take part in China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign ministers’ meeting.

The trilateral is being held less than a month after the “Neighbouring Countries of Afghanistan Plus Afghanistan” foreign ministers meeting of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran in Samarkand, in which Qin presided.

Announcing Qin’s visit to Pakistan, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that this will be his first visit to Pakistan after taking charge and “an important part of the recent close and frequent interactions between the high levels of China and Pakistan”. The reference apparently was the just concluded maiden visit of Pakistan’s new Army Chief General Syed Asim Munir, in Beijing during which he held a series of meetings with top Chinese Generals and top diplomat Wang Yi who is the director of the office of the foreign affairs commission of the CPC central committee.

During General Asim Munir’s visit, China’s new Premier Li Qiang also held his first phone call with Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and promised continued financial help for Pakistan, which is facing a serious political and economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that Pakistan’s decision to attend the SCO meeting reflected the country’s commitment to the organisation’s charter and multilateralism. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also underlined that Bhutto Zardari’s trip was a demonstration of the importance given by Islamabad to the SCO grouping. “We are committed to playing our part to advance our shared values of peace & stability in the region. We are all for win-win understandings based on connectivity, trade and mutually advantageous cooperation,” he posted on Twitter.

APP adds: The members of the National Assembly on Thursday hailed Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto’s decision to participate in the SCO moot to present a vibrant and vociferous perspective of Pakistan on core regional and local issues, APP adds.

Talking to APP outside the Parliament House, PTI MNA Sardar Talib Hassan Nakai said the foreign minister’s participation was necessary to present the country’s opinion at the international level.

PMLN MNA Waheed Alam Khan said the foreign minister was participating in an international conference and not a bilateral event. He said the country could not afford to live in conflicts with its neighbouring countries.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Faisal Karim Kundi said the SCO forum was an international event and there was no bilateral meeting with India and neither the country had asked for any on the occasion.

PPP MNA Syed Ali Musa Gilani said the Kashmir issue would be raised at the SCO forum by the foreign minister, as it was an integral part of Pakistan.

PMLN MNA Nisar Ahmed Cheema said Kashmir was the core issue and peace would remain elusive if the Issue was not resolved.

“Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has bravely presented the Kashmir case at all international forums and exposed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the butcher of Gujrat,” he said.

Jamaat-e-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed was of the view the foreign minister should have protested India’s decision to hold G-20 Summit in Srinagar and instead should have sent sent the minister of state for foreign affairs and foreign secretary to attend the meeting.

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