In first contact, Blinken invites Bilawal to US

Published May 7, 2022
BILAWAL Bhutto-Zardari and Antony Blinken
BILAWAL Bhutto-Zardari and Antony Blinken

WASHINGTON / ISLAMABAD: Top-level contacts between Pakistan and the US recommenced on Friday as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and invited him to a food security meeting at the UN headquarters in New York on May 18.

The two-day ministerial conference will focus on the threat to global food security, triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and will be chaired by Mr Blinken himself.

Such encouraging statements were rare during the PTI regime and the phone call to Mr Bhutto-Zardari was the first contact between the foreign ministers of the two countries in quite a while. On Sept 24, 2021, then-FM Shah Mehmood Qureshi met Secretary Blinken on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.

Pakistan is also exploring the possibility of bringing Mr Bhutto-Zardari to Washington for a separate meeting with Secretary Blinken. “Why wait? Why not try to arrange a meeting now?” said a diplomatic source when asked if Pakistan was seeking a Bilawal-Blinken meeting later this month.

FM says ‘engagement with mutual respect is the way forward between the US and Pakistan’

“Received a call from Secretary Blinken. Grateful for warm felicitations on my assumption of office,” Mr Bhutto-Zardari said in a tweet he posted after the call.

“Exchanged views on: “Strengthening mutually beneficial, broad-based relationship, promotion of peace, development & security and agreed engagement with mutual respect is the way forward between the US and Pakistan,” he wrote.

The two-day ministerial meeting that Pakistan’s young foreign minister has been invited to precedes a UN Security Council debate on ‘Conflict and Food Security’.

The US says that since the Feb 24 invasion, Russia has blocked Ukraine’s ports, causing the suspension of food supplies to the Middle East and Africa.

Pakistan’s participation in a UN meeting that highlights the problems caused by the Russian invasion would be a major departure from the policies of the previous PTI government.

Former prime minister Imran Khan clearly annoyed the US and other Western powers by visiting Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Later, he claimed that the US “conspired” with Pakistani opposition parties to oust him and displays a diplomatic cable to support his claim.

Washington has rejected his claim, saying that although it backs the democratic process in Pakistan, it does not support any party or individual. Such terse exchanges between Islamabad and Washington further strained an already tense relationship.

But since Mr Khan’s departure, the Biden administration has issued almost a dozen statements underlining its desire to re-engaging with Pakistan.

Read: US greets PM, stresses importance of partnership with Pakistan

The ministerial conference in New York would be Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s first participation in a multilateral meeting since becoming foreign minister late last month.

A source, privy to the conversation, while confirming the invitation, hoped that it works out. Secretary Blinken had called to greet the new foreign minister, but the conversation continued for nearly fifty minutes, in which both sides discussed various aspects of the bilateral cooperation and expressed keen interest in re-engaging.

“The conversation went very well,” the source maintained.

The source also said that neither side spoke about the former PTI government’s allegation that the US conspired to topple it.

A US State Department readout of Friday’s call highlighted several key points of the conversation that focused on strengthening the bilateral relationship and working together to stabilize Afghanistan.

Spokesperson Ned Price said that Secretary Blinken “reiterated the desire to strengthen our broad-based bilateral relationship.”The secretary, he said, underscored “the resolute US-Pakistan commitment” to Afghan stability and combatting terrorism. The secretary and foreign minister also highlighted ongoing engagement on trade and investment, climate, energy, health, and education, Mr. Price added.

He noted that this year marks the 75th anniversary of US-Pakistani relations and “we look forward to strengthening our cooperation.”

In Islamabad, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement, saying that in the phone call, Secretary Blinken expressed the desire to continue strengthening mutually beneficial Pakistan-U.S. bilateral relationship.

Exchanging views on various aspects of Pakistan-US relations, the foreign minister underscored that Pakistan and the United States had a longstanding broad-based relationship, the statement added.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari said that a “constructive and sustained engagement between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interest was vital to promote peace, development and security in the region and beyond.”

The foreign minister emphasised that Pakistan’s vision was focused on human development, regional connectivity, and a peaceful neighborhood.

Secretary Blinken also invited Pakistan to the Second Global Covid Summit, which is to be held virtually later this month.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2022

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