SCO conference in India: Should Bilawal Goa?

SCO conference in India: Should Bilawal Goa?

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The debate in Pakistan was raging even before Pakistan’s Foreign Office confirmed that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will himself lead the delegation to the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (CFM-SCO) scheduled for May 4 and 5 at Goa, India. This is a perennial debate given the state of relations between the two countries and the Indian government also faces the same dilemma whenever the decision about the visit of even a junior government official to Pakistan has to be made. What to talk of officials, even the cricket team of India has been barred by the Indian government from touring Pakistan to play the Asia Cup in the latter half of 2023. 

Visiting each other’s countries was not easy even earlier, but after the Indian government’s decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir – the territory disputed between Pakistan and India - of its special status in August 2019, bilateral relations have been at an all-time low. 

Bilawal’s trip to India will be the first minister-level visit of any Pakistani official since after the ominous developments of 2019. The last bi-lateral talks between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries were held in 2011 when Hina Rabbani Khar, then Foreign Minister of Pakistan, had visited India in July of that year to hold talks with her Indian counterpart, S. M. Krishna. It was during that trip that Hina Khar’s stylish turnout, especially her collection of expensive bags, caught the attention of the Indian media and her pleasant but intellectually robust persona generated a lot of good-will between the two countries. 

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had faced immense criticism by his political rivals as well as covert resistance by the country’s powerful military, when he decided to personally attend the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his invitation in 2014. 

These were the only two bilateral engagements of that time, but two other multi-lateral engagements around the Annual Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan provided a useful opportunity to hold one-on-one meetings between the top diplomats of Pakistan and India to diffuse tensions, which continued since the Kargil war of 1999. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a rare trip to Islamabad in December 2015 and Pakistani Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs reciprocated by travelling to Amritsar in Indian Punjab the next year.

One should not expect any overt bilateral engagement on the sidelines of the conference. However, even informal chit-chats during social events could provide a badly needed thaw.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

Although there had been no formal contacts at the senior level between the two countries ever since, there were some back-channel contacts mainly prompted by the Pakistani Army top brass which resulted in agreements in 2018 and 2021 for the enforcement of a cease-fire along the Line of Control (the defacto border) in Jammu and Kashmir. 

The upcoming SCO Conference of Foreign Ministers provides an almost ideal opportunity to the current civilian government in Pakistan to unblock the long-clogged lines of communication without appearing over-eager to do so. Since SCO-CFM is a multilateral forum, Pakistan will be just one of the eight countries to be represented at the moot. Bilawal Bhutto rightly noted that Pakistan can’t afford to be isolated from high-level interactions like SCO-CFM by abstaining. 

Usually, such conferences generate huge pressure both on Pakistani and Indian delegates to air their bilateral grievances which spoil the working atmosphere of the event but luckily SCO has a clear policy of not allowing bilateral disputes to be raised at such gatherings, which will free both sides of the compulsion to enact the unpleasant ritual. Goa, unlike Delhi, will also allow the Pakistani Foreign Minister to steer clear of customary meetings with separatist Kashmiri Hurriat delegation, which certainly would have been objected to by the Indian Government.  

Since both Pakistan and India are scheduled to go for national elections within a year from now, one should not expect any overt bilateral engagement on the sidelines of the conference. However, even informal chit-chats during social events could provide a badly needed thaw which the two countries may build on after the elections.                                   

– The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat 

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