No melting of the ice
Any expectation that Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s visit to India to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would help melt the ice in Islamabad’s frosty relations with Delhi proved to be unrealistic. In fact, the trip – the first by a Pakistani foreign minister in 12 years – went according to the script. There were a few surprises if any, especially as no bilateral meeting with the Indian side was sought by Pakistan. Or for that matter by India. Dialogue between the two neighbors has remained suspended for several years now. Relations sunk to a new low in August 2019 when India illegally annexed and bifurcated the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. In response, Pakistan downgraded diplomatic relations with India and barred trade.
As chair of the eight-member SCO this year and host of the May 5 meeting in Goa, Delhi was obliged to invite Pakistan’s foreign minister. Islamabad accepted the invitation as it made little sense not to attend a multilateral conference. Pakistan’s decision was also an indication of the importance it accords to the organization and its efforts for regional economic cooperation and connectivity.
The SCO does not allow bilateral disputes to be discussed. But in his speech at Goa, Bilawal Bhutto took an indirect swipe at India by drawing attention to the fact that “unilateral and illegal measures by states in violation of international law and Security Council resolutions run counter to the SCO objectives” – a reference to Delhi’s actions in Kashmir. Another allusion to India was the assertion in his speech that terrorism shouldn’t be weaponized for diplomatic point scoring. India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jayshankar, in his opening address to the meeting, also made an indirect reference to Pakistan when he said: “There can be no justification for terrorism and it must be stopped in all forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism” – the characteristic way in which Indian officials accuse Pakistan.
The diplomatic deadlock is likely to persist with only working level engagement expected at the High Commission level on limited, practical issues.
- Maleeha Lodhi
But it was remarks both foreign ministers made in separate post-meeting press conferences that raised the temperature even more and led to a bitter exchange. Bilawal Bhutto reiterated Pakistan’s well-known position that talks with India could only take place if Delhi rescinded its August 2019 action in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. In an interview with the Hindu, he also said, “The onus is on India to create a conducive environment for talks.” For his part, Jayshankar described Kashmir’s special status as “history” and accused Pakistan of backing terrorists in Kashmir. He went even further and claimed that the Pakistani foreign minister as an SCO member was treated accordingly but as “spokesperson of a terrorism industry which is the mainstay of Pakistan, his positions were called out.” Coming from the host and senior minister of the Indian government, this unseemly statement was in bad taste and roundly condemned in Pakistan.
All this has left the atmosphere of Pakistan-India relations much worse than it was before the SCO meeting. Relations themselves have been steadily deteriorating since August 2019. Even before the SCO meeting, Pakistan had strongly objected to India, host of this year’s G20 summit, holding a G20 tourism working group meeting in Srinagar and scheduling two other meetings of a consultative youth affairs forum (Y20) in Leh and Srinagar. A foreign ministry statement denounced these moves, calling them “irresponsible” and describing them as designed “to perpetuate its illegal occupation of Jammu and Kashmir in disregard of UN Security Council resolutions.” Pakistan’s response was predictable in view of India’s aim to use these meetings to secure legitimacy for its actions by conveying a sense of normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir. These protests however have not stopped Delhi from pressing ahead with its plans.
The prospect then for any improvement in relations between the two neighbors is bleak with no inclination by either side to revive the long-suspended dialogue. The positions of both countries are so far apart about the terms of engagement that resumption of talks is ruled out in the near term. Moreover, elections are due in both countries – in Pakistan this fall and in India next year. India doesn’t ever figure in Pakistan’s electoral politics. But in India the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has long used Pakistan-bashing as a way to garner votes; and this doesn’t look like its changing.
The diplomatic deadlock is likely to persist with only working level engagement expected at the High Commission level on limited, practical issues. The fraught and volatile state of Pakistan-India relations makes the outlook uncertain with the path to any normalization strewn with formidable challenges.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha