FM Bilawal Bhutto reaches India to attend SCO ministers summit

F.P. Report

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari reached Indian city of Goa on Thursday to attend the SCO Foreign Ministers’ Summit.

The Pakistani foreign minister was welcomed by the Indian officials in Goa.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang also landed at the venue.

Earlier, Bilawal Bhutto departed from Karachi to attend Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)’s Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting which is being held Indian city of Goa from today.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said their 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.

In a post uploaded on twitter before his departure, Bilawal Bhutto said he will lead Pakistan’s delegation at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization CFM meeting. “My decision to attend this meeting illustrates Pakistan’s strong commitment to the charter of SCO. During my visit, which is focused exclusively on the SCO, I look forward to constructive discussions with my counterparts from friendly countries,” he added.

According to official sources, India has allowed the Bilawal’s plane to use its airspace up to Goa.

Before his visit, Bilawal telephoned leaders of the coalition government including Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) convener Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) leader Khalid Magsi.

He informed all of them about his visit to the Indian state of Goa and his participation in the meeting of the SCO CFM. He also took all of them into confidence.

Bilawal also telephoned Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Emir Sirajul Haq and informed him about the visit.

Bilawal is attending the meeting at the invitation of the current Chair of SCO CFM, Dr. S. Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs of the Republic of India, a Foreign Office statement said.

“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 Foreign Office spokesperson said.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had also attended the last meeting of the CFM held in July last year in Tashkent.

Bilawal Bhutto is the first foreign minister to visit India in 12 years. Hina Rabbani Khar made an official visit to India as foreign minister in 2011.

This is being considered a bold decision in the context of foreign policy by the government under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

The SCO is one of the largest organisations in the world. China, India, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are included in this organisation, while Afghanistan, Belarus, Russia, Iran and Mongolia have observer status, while six dialogue partners are also included and Iran is also a member of this organisation.

Will Bilawal’s rare visit thaw ties with India?

When Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrives in Goa on Thursday to participate in a conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a key regional summit – he will be the first Pakistani foreign minister to visit India since 2011.

Hina Rabbani Khar met her Indian counterpart SM Krishna in Delhi 12 years ago, 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,” Michael Kugelman of The Wilson Centre, an American think-tank, says.

In 2019, India launched strikes in Pakistani territory. 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 Mr Kugelman. “Today, it would only take one trigger, one provocation, to take the two sides back up the escalatory ladder.”

Not surprisingly, expectations from Bilawal’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 the Shanghai Cooperation Council (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 key Pakistani 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,” says Mr Kugelman.

No bilateral meetings are expected to take place between Mr Bilawal 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,” Happymon Jacob of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, says.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to America 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,” says Mr Kugelman. “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 Prof Jacob describes as “cold peace”. He says: “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.” Mr Raghavan believes the “relationship has been stable for the past two years or so but at a low plateau”. Mr 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,” says Mr Kugelman.

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 deeply unpopular and in over its head,” says Mr Kugelman.

There were protests against Mr Bilawal in India in 2022 over his allegedly derogatory remarks against PM Modi.

“At the end of the day, each country believes that its prime condition for formal dialogue hasn’t been met: India wants to do more about terrorism, and Pakistan wants India to change its Kashmir policy.”

India-Pakistan relations are even at the “best of times remain precarious,” says Hassan Abbas of the National Defence University in Washington DC. “Political polarisation, both in India and Pakistan, makes the situation even more vulnerable.”

Recent unconfirmed media reports of backchannel talks between the two countries don’t impress the pundits – such talks, says Prof Jacob, are more about “conflict management rather than conflict resolution.”

Mr Haqqani offers a scintilla of hope. Meetings such as the one in Goa often “pave the way for a resumption of dialogue”, he says. Others are not so hopeful. As Mr Abbas says: “Even in the best of times, Pakistan-India relations remain precarious. Under the circumstances, a ‘peaceful limbo’ is a good option. In the long run, anything short of a peace deal will be damaging.”