FM to attend Istanbul Process meeting in Dushanbe

Published March 23, 2021
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will travel to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to participate in the upcoming meeting of the Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process. — DawnNewsTV
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will travel to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to participate in the upcoming meeting of the Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process. — DawnNewsTV

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will travel to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to participate in the upcoming meeting of the Heart of Asia — Istanbul Process, a meeting that among others would be attended by Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

The Heart of Asia process provides a platform for regional cooperation with Afghanistan at its centre and with the recognition by the participants that a secure and stable Afghanistan is vital to the prosperity of the region. The process involves 15 participating countries, 17 supporting countries and 12 regional and international organisations.

The participation of the two foreign ministers in the same multilateral event in the backdrop of the recent developments in the frayed relations between the two countries has led to speculations that they could meet — which if it happens would be the first meeting between the FMs from the rival neighbouring countries since the informal interaction between Mr Qureshi and then Indian EAM Sushma Swaraj in May 2019 in Bishkek on the sidelines of an SCO meeting.

The last formal meeting between the two countries, however, took place in March 2016 in Pokhara, the Nepalese resort city some 200km west from Kathmandu.

Talks with Indian counterpart possible

Officials in Islamabad were tight-lipped about the possibility of the meeting taking place. However, they weren’t either ruling out such a thing happening. One of them said “in view of the events taking place around us, we cannot say it’s impossible”.

Those who follow developments in the region believe that if a meeting happens in Dushanbe, it would be exclusively focused on the next steps in the rapprochement, which many think is being driven by a back-channel.

The recently concluded Pakistan- India understanding on resumption of ceasefire at the end of February and peace gestures by Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa at last week’s security conference in Islamabad is the source of optimism about forward movement in ties.

Gen Bajwa had at the conference said: “It is time to bury the past and move forward.”

However, Pakistan’s public position on any engagement with India remains that New Delhi would have to “create conducive environment”. This aspect was emphasised by both PM Khan and Gen Bajwa.

Observers, however, believe that this publicly stated position isn’t likely to be a major impediment in the way of foreign ministers meeting. They argue that despite this position, taken by Islamabad after the August 2019 annexation of Occupied Kashmir, Islamabad engaged with Delhi to conclude the ‘ceasefire plus agreement’.

In the meantime, Pakistan and India have also resumed the meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) after nearly three years. The two-day meeting of PIC is beginning in New Delhi on Tuesday. Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters Syed Muhammad Meher Ali Shah will lead the delegation.

Pakistan would, moreover, be hosting the SCO joint anti-terrorism exercise this year in Pabbi. India is part of SCO and if things progress smoothly, it would provide a rare occasion when Indian troops would visit Pakistan for a counter-terrorism exercise. The two countries, it needs to be recalled, had together participated in the last edition of the drills held in Russia just weeks after the annexation of Occupied Kashmir, which had otherwise led to a complete breakdown of ties.

While there has been a lot happening in the bilateral ties, people have been trying to figure out as to what is propelling the developments forward. There is a general consensus that a back-channel is making things move, but at the same time people are curious if a third party is facilitating the process.

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir had in an interview with a Saudi publication said that Riyadh had been trying to lower tensions between India and Pakistan. A report published in an Indian publication has, meanwhile, credited the United Arab Emirates for the progress. There has, however, been no official word from either of the capitals on these claims.

A senior security official had at a background briefing for Islamabad-based foreign journalists last week said there is no ‘grand plan’ behind the developments. He instead described the decision on ceasefire resumption as a ‘tactical’ one based on the situation on LoC.

In his view progress on the India-Pakistan front had more to do with a shift in Islamabad’s policy, which now aims at unlocking the country’s geo-economic potential.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2021

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