Pakistan’s diplomacy in India was cool, calm and categorical
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari should have every reason to feel satisfied with his visit to Goa, India, for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Ministers meeting. This was his first real test in diplomacy, which he passed with distinction.
His decision to visit Goa in person for the conference, despite suggestions to participate virtually, was the correct choice. The SCO is an important forum and Pakistan’s absence would not have been desirable, especially as the SCO summit is due in New Delhi in July.
The foreign minister made it clear that he was proceeding only for the Conference and no formal bilateral meeting with the hosts was intended. It was hoped by some that the visit could be a precursor to a gradual re-engagement process. At least, some informal conversations with the Indians could be held on the sidelines. In the Pakistan-India scenario multilateral events have previously served to reignite stalled processes.
It was in post-conference media interactions that Bilawal was able to restate clearly, Pakistan’s position relating to Kashmir and on countering terrorism. He said that without India taking steps to restore the pre-August 2019 status quo in Indian-administered Kashmir, it was not possible to have any official engagement. Pakistan’s position ‘was unchanged.’
On countering terrorism, he called for working jointly with India and strongly objected to the use of the hostile, accusatory narrative by the Indian government for electoral purposes or for seeking geopolitical ends. Bhutto called against ‘weaponizing of terrorism for diplomatic point scoring’. He called for strengthening SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) to effectively address the growing threats to peace and security in the SCO space.
The differences between Pakistan and India are too stark and defy a mitigating stance. Yet there is a growing realization at least in Pakistan, that one cannot escape the facts of geography.
On the other hand, Indian minister for external affairs (EAM) Jaishankar called Bilawal a ‘spokesperson for terror industry,’ which exposed a shocking lack of diplomatic finesse.
In his statement to the SCO Conference, the foreign minister stated that the SCO was established to ensure security across Eurasia and that it stood for strict observance of UN principles. In an oblique reference to Kashmir, Bilawal said: “Unilateral and illegal measures by States in violation of international law and Security Council resolutions run counter to the SCO objectives.”
Without naming the BJP, he said, “We must also resist the temptation to stoke prejudice and discrimination to revive our identity. It is imperative that wilful provocations and incitement to hate, especially on religious grounds, are roundly condemned”.
On connectivity and the building of efficient transport corridors, the Minister underscored the importance of CPEC as a force multiplier towards full regional economic integration. Climate change and poverty alleviation figured prominently. On both these issues, Pakistan has proposed the establishment of Special Working Groups.
On his return to Pakistan, the foreign minister said that the two countries could not be held hostage to history. “In our heart of hearts, most Pakistanis and most Indians want us to live in peace and peace is our destiny.”
India faces China in the north and global power dynamics are presently in its favor. Pakistan is at its weakest moment. The visit of the foreign minister of China to Islamabad on 5-6 May and Qin Gang’s affirmation of strong support for Pakistan is therefore timely.
The differences between Pakistan and India are too stark and defy a mitigating stance. For some 75 years, both have used everything in their respective arsenals to throw at each other. Yet there is a growing realization at least in Pakistan, that one cannot escape the facts of geography. The present BJP government in New Delhi faces elections in 2024. Pakistan is a convenient bogey to win votes. Moreover, this is an election year in Pakistan, where India does not figure as an electoral issue. Surely a way needs to be found to manage India. That remains a challenge for Pakistan’s foreign policy.
- Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.