What did Pakistan’s foreign minister achieve at the SCO summit in India?
Bilateral relations between Pakistan and India are stagnant, but this was not the purpose of Bhutto Zardari’s visit.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari left for India on May 4 and 5 to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting, which is the first visit by a Pakistani foreign minister to India in 12 years. While no significant bilateral progress has been reported so far, the visit assumed significance as it highlighted Pakistan’s commitment to regionalism. In view of the deteriorating political and economic situation of the country, Bhutto Zardari’s presence was of special importance to Pakistan. Since joining the SCO in 2017, Pakistan recognizes the important role of regionalism in security, stability and economic development. Therefore, it was necessary for Pakistan to participate in the SCO meeting because it has a major share in the goals, objectives and activities of the organization.
During the visit, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari held sideline meetings with the foreign ministers of Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. However, there was no specific discussion with his Indian counterpart. Before leaving for Goa, where the SCO meeting was held, the Pakistani foreign minister made it clear that the visit would focus only on the SCO and would not involve any bilateral talks with India.
Before leaving India, Bhutto Zardari had stressed that it was the responsibility of India to create a conducive environment for dialogue. In an interview to an Indian journalist, he reiterated Pakistan’s position that meaningful talks with New Delhi cannot take place unless India reconsiders its august 2019 move to revoke the autonomy of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.
Therefore, this visit cannot be seen from a bilateral point of view and can only be seen in a multilateral perspective. Any progress on bilateral issues will require a conducive environment, which is currently missing.
Pakistan and India have been embroiled in a long-standing rivalry since the partition of India in 1947. Despite numerous attempts to establish peace, non-state actors continue to undermine such efforts. After the Balakot incident in February 2019, the already strained relations between the two countries worsened. In August 370, when India unilaterally abrogated Articles 35 and 2019A, the situation became more tense, leading to resentment between the two countries. There has been a “cold peace” between India and Pakistan since then, with neither side ready to initiate talks. Pakistan believes that India should reconsider its move on Kashmir as a first step towards creating a conducive environment for bilateral talks, while India has not shown any interest in talks with Pakistan in the current situation.
During the SCO meeting, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar made an undiplomatic statement, calling Bhutto Zardari a “promoter, fairman and spokesperson of the terror industry”. In response, Bhutto Zardari criticised terrorism as a weapon for diplomatic gains. These acrimonies between the foreign ministers reflect the current tension and coldness in the relationship.
However, public pressure from local audiences also plays an important role in hindering progress towards peace between the two countries. With elections due in Pakistan this year and India next year, no government is willing to take the first step toward reconciliation as they may face backlash from their respective local audiences. Anti-India and anti-Pakistan narratives are sold in Pakistan and India respectively to appease voters before elections.
However, despite the current impasse, it is in the best interests of both countries to work for peace. Better relations and mutual trust are the core goals of the SCO and cannot be achieved without progress between India and Pakistan. The two countries need to address each other’s concerns regarding terrorism and the status of Kashmir respectively.
The region can prosper only and regionalism can prevail if India and Pakistan collectively resolve mutual issues such as terrorism, extremism, climate change, Kashmir and water issues. It is important for the two countries to go a step further, create a conducive environment and work to integrate the region and cooperate with each other. Steps should be taken to promote peace, trust and cooperation between the two countries. The SCO provides an excellent platform for such linkages and in the future both countries should seize this opportunity to pave the way for lasting peace and stability in the region without resorting to unproductive rhetoric.