Bilawal’s visit to India for SCO meeting
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto is preparing for a visit to India to attend the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting in the resort town of Goa on 4-5 May 2023. This will be the first visit by a Foreign Minister or a senior political leader from Pakistan to India since 2016.The last visit by former Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz to India was to attend the Heart of Asia meeting on Afghanistan in Amritsar in December 2016. However, deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi governments apparently collaborated in their efforts to criticize Pakistan and create embarrassment for its participation in the event. Since then India-Pakistan relations have continued to deteriorate further marked by some major developments.
On 5 August 2019, when India’s BJP government unilaterally ended the special status of India Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJ&K) under Article 370 remaining in vogue for close to 70 years, diplomatic relations have remained downgraded without the presence of full-fledged Ambassadors in the respective capitals. In this situation, a visit by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister to India, albeit for the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) forum, has led to speculations of underlying activities for a possible rapprochement. Though Pakistan, in the past few years, has avoided even multilateral events being hosted by India such as the meetings of National Security Advisors (NSAs) of regional countries held in New Delhi, according to the official Pakistan statement attending SCO meeting at Foreign Minister’s level is reiteration of Pakistan’s commitment to the principles of the Organization.
With China and Russia being the two main pivots in the SCO, Pakistan felt that skipping this meeting may be exploited by India to tarnish its (Pakistan) vital space with these powers. In addition, Pakistan as rotating chair of the forum in 2027 hosting important political and sectoral meetings and India remaining absent would tend to lessen significance of Pakistan’s chairmanship of the Organization. Given the current domestic trends in both countries and their bilateral relations, the chances of any major breakthrough remain really slim. In Pakistan, main opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)’s Chairman Imran Khan has criticized Bilawal Bhutto’s forthcoming visit to India as damaging Pakistan’s stance on Jammu and Kashmir.
The Party’s Vice Chair and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quraishi while responding to a question during a press conference urged Bilawal to meet Kashmiri Hurriyet leadership during his visit, knowing that this would not be allowed by the Indian side. Pakistan’s Establishment is also wary of India’s manoeuvres in a bid to further consolidate Modi’s firmly-held stance that IIOJ&K is part of India and no multilateral or bilateral interaction is required to further settle this matter. The relevant quarters in Pakistan are really perturbed over Indian plans to host some meetings of the G-20 in IOK as India is currently the chair of this forum. The hardcore politics between the arch rivals has also tinged cricketing enthusiasm of over a billion fans living in the two countries as India has refused to participate in the Asia Cup in Pakistan while Pakistan has also conditioned playing the T-20 World Cup in India later this year upon Indian participation in the competition in Pakistan. No easy resolution of the matter is in sight.
In such a highly polarized environment, any initiatives for thawing of relations has its own political risks. The recent reports in the social media that former Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the former Director General ISI General Faiz Hameed were engaged in back channel contacts with the senior figures in Indian intelligence for possible rapprochement has invoked public reaction. In view of the intricate dynamics of the bilateral relations, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in his forthcoming visit to India is likely to tread in a cautious and calculated manner avoiding ownership of any major moves for restoration and normalization of bilateral engagement. Therefore, Pakistan’s official position may revolve around the multilateral nature of this visit particularly as a manifestation of Pakistan’s abiding commitment and solidarity with the SCO.
Although so far there is no word from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but as part of diplomatic norms Bilawal Bhutto may possibly have to undergo a bilateral meeting with his Indian counterpart Dr S Jaishankar. There will also be an opportunity for his bilateral meetings with the counterparts from key SCO countries, especially Russia and China (during the recent meeting of Foreign Ministers of neighbouring countries of Afghanistan in Samarkand absence of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister was conspicuously felt). Despite all these odds for melting of ice on bilateral front, the visit is likely to create a positive impression for Pakistan in terms of a signal that despite its serious concerns with India on approach towards disputed Jammu and Kashmir, security issues and increasing hatred propelled by the ruling BJP towards Muslims in India, Pakistan would be ready to engage for dissipating regional tension. Optimism of regional economic interaction particularly in the wake of developments on Saudi-Iran détente can surely have a positive impact particularly at a time a global and regional rebalancing underway.
It appears that China’s role would have a significant impact on the outcome of the Conference itself and surrounding bilateral discourse. Following a hibernation or low key profile for the last three years after COVID-19 outbreak, China has launched some major regional initiatives in terms of relations with the Arab world, Iran, Russia and Asian and European countries. A renewed Chinese push in the coming years is also expected on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. It has also been pragmatic in maintaining relations with India despite having border disputes and distrust of India’s role in anti-Chinese US manoeuvres such as the QUAD. It would be important for Pakistan to closely coordinate with China during this SCO moot and its follow up on regional dynamics.
A lot will, however, depend on India whether it responds positively to Pakistan’s courageous move despite the current difficult domestic environment or whether it continues to exploit Pakistan’s challenges for narrow and short term gains. The answer to this question will only come after the event. In January, India had invited Pakistan’s Foreign Minister to the SCO meeting. Pakistan announced on April 20 that Bilawal Bhutto will travel to India. Pakistan’s former ambassador, Asif Khan Durrani, who has also served in India, says that Pakistan took the decision after detailed consultations by all stakeholders.
—The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist. He covers foreign affairs with special focus on Afghanistan.