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Published on: Feb. 14, 2023, 3:57 p.m.
Pakistan overture
  • Bhutto Zardari: will he attend SCO?

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Will the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) emerge as a platform where the estranged neighbours, India and Pakistan, can attempt a fresh beginning? New Delhi’s invite to Islamabad to join Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Council of Foreign Ministers (SOC-CFM) meeting in Goa on 4 May has set off some feverish speculation on this count. Though the invitation has not been extended in a bilateral context, the meeting of multilateral bloc does present an opportunity for both sides to engage on the sidelines. 

The SOC-CFM will be followed by the heads of government summit in June. An invitation for the SCO summit will also go out shortly to Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif from India, which is the current chair of the eight-nation SCO. The SCO also includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

India took over the chairmanship of the nine-member grouping last September and will host the key ministerial meeting and the summit in Goa. Invites have also been sent to the foreign ministers of China and Russia, along with the other Central Asian countries.

On the face of it, Pakistan is unlikely to play spoilsport, as the SCO is the brainchild of Russia and China who set it up as a countervailing force to the groupings dominated by the west. Islamabad’s current foreign policy is central to better relations with both Moscow and Beijing. The SCO is a regional organisation focussing primarily on Central Asia and its neighbourhood.

An avowed purpose of the SCO is the strengthening of peace, security and stability. The SCO pledges adherence to the goals and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

If Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s foreign minister, attends the meeting in person, then it will be the first such visit from Islamabad to India since 2011. The visit of Hina Rabbani Khar that year was the last time a Pakistan foreign minister came to India. Of course, Nawaz Sharif attended the inaugural function of the BJP government, as did other leaders of SAARC countries. Modi subsequently dropped by at Lahore to attend a family function of the Sharifs also.

However, things haven’t been cordial subsequently. Bhutto Zardari and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had engaged themselves in a war of words on the issues of terrorism and Kashmir on the margins of UN meetings in New York last December.

The ties between India and Pakistan came under severe strain after India’s warplanes pounded a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot in February 2019, in response to the Pulwama terror attack. The relations further deteriorated after India announced the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s special powers and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state into Union territories in August 2019.

But the last few weeks have witnessed some positive developments. Recently, during an interview with the Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV, Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif called for comprehensive dialogues with India, to resolve all outstanding issues including Kashmir. India responded to Pakistan’s conditional offer of talks by saying an atmosphere free from terror and violence is a prerequisite for normal neighbourly ties. There have been reports that the UAE, which has made significant investments in India of late, has been nudging Islamabad to rework its equation with India. 

  • Pakistan is yet to respond to the invite sent to Bhutto Zardari. Its decision to attend the SCO summit in India or not will, therefore, send signals to internal and external audiences on multiple levels

India is emphasising on the three ‘pillars of co-operation’ – start-ups & innovation, science & technology and traditional medicine as the overriding theme at the SCO. The engagements and the frequency of meetings underline the seriousness with which India has taken up the mantle of its leadership. Pakistani officials have participated in SCO meetings hosted by India – such as a gathering of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) and auditors’ meet. Even the Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Atta Bandial is expected to attend a meeting.

However, diplomatic observers point out that Pakistan is yet to respond to the invite sent to Bhutto Zardari. Its decision to attend the SCO summit in India or not will, therefore, send signals to internal and external audiences on multiple levels.

Whether or not Pakistan accepts this invitation will offer some indication as to the direction chosen by the new establishment. The country is run by a coalition government, which speaks with different voices on multiple subjects. Perhaps in this case, Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz may want to take a backseat, while the Pakistan People’s Party – led by Bhutto Zardari – would want to take the lead on bold diplomatic gestures and possibly grab the attention of the establishment.

However, the military establishment may not necessarily be appreciative of this endeavour as the new chief of army staff, General Syed Asim Munir, like his predecessor, has shown no will to put the Kashmir dispute on the back burner. As such, all the talk of rapprochement may end up as a false signal.

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