Bilawal leaves an impression after maiden visit to America

Published May 21, 2022
NEW YORK: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari greets UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid.—Twitter / BBhuttoZardari
NEW YORK: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari greets UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid.—Twitter / BBhuttoZardari

UNITED NATIONS: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has returned home after a three-day visit to New York to explain Pakistan’s position on issues like the Ukraine war, the conflict in Afghanistan and India’s increasingly aggressive posture in held Kashmir.

But as it happens during such visits, his decision to defend former prime minister Imran Khan’s Feb 24 visit to Moscow stood out as the most appreciated point of the three-day trip. Media outlets prominently displayed his remarks, noting that by defending Mr Khan, the young foreign minister had displayed “a much-needed maturity” that could help reduce the political heat gripping Pakistan in this unusually hot summer.

US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu — known across Pakistan as the official who made the remarks that Mr Khan interprets as a conspiracy to unseat him — also attended one of the key meetings, the face-to-face between Mr Bhutto-Zardari and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Since then, both US and Pakistani officials have rejected Mr Khan’s claim as false, but it has now become the rallying cry at PTI public meetings and is likely to influence Pakistani voters as well, whenever the elections are held.

Foreign minister tells UN Security Council Afghan war, other conflicts pushing Asian nations towards poverty

Apparently because of the controversies revolving around this issue, both Pakistani and US sides did not highlight Mr Lu’s participation. When asked for comments, diplomatic sources in Washington said since Mr Lu heads the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department, “he attends all key meetings” between US and South Asian officials.

As Mr Lu’s presence was not highlighted, the media, and think-tanks experts, focused on the foreign minister’s positive comments on Mr Khan’s Moscow visit.

“Brilliant. Pakistan well-represented,” said a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Jalil Abbas Jilani, while commenting on the news conference where Mr Bhutto-Zardari defended Mr Khan’s visit to Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

“Even Imran Khan’s spokesperson couldn’t defend his Russia trip as effectively as Bilawal has done,” said another commentator while referring to the foreign minister’s comment that Mr Khan’s visit was an “innocent action” as he could not have known Russia would invade Ukraine the day he would land in Moscow.

The foreign minister’s comment on Mr Khan’s visit also overshadowed the main purpose of his own trip: to participate in a US-initiated debate on the impact of the Ukraine war on global food security.

During the debate, Mr Bhutto-Zardari told the UN Security Council that the Afghan war and other conflicts were pushing Pakistan and other countries in the region towards acute poverty and hunger.

A UN report mentioned during Thursday’s debate pointed out that last year, most of the 140 million people suffering acute hunger around the world lived in just 10 countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. All of these countries were facing armed conflicts, directly or indirectly.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari went through a tightly-laid schedule on his first major foray in international diplomacy after assuming the post of the foreign minister in the new coalition cabinet. During his stay, he held talks with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Secretary Blinken, the President of UN General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, and a number of foreign ministers, including those of Italy and Turkey.

He also made an extra effort to reach out to senior US officials and lawmakers, including chairpersons of key congressional committees to stress the importance of staying engaged with Pakistan.

The most important meeting of this series was with Secretary Blinken, which continued for almost an hour. The fact that both sides came with half a dozen senior officials shows that it was not just another formal meeting that leaders often have on the sidelines of a UN event in New York.

“Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and I reaffirmed our shared desire for a strong and prosperous US-Pakistani bilateral relationship,” Secretary Blinken said in a tweet he released after his May 18 meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister.

“I look forward to expanding our cooperation on climate, trade and investment, and regional peace and security issues,” he added.

On the day the foreign minister met Secretary Blinken, the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) also released pictures of Ambassador Donald A. Blome taking oath as the new US envoy to Pakistan. Amb. Blome has a long career as an American diplomat and previously served as US ambassador to Tunisia.

“Amb. Blome looks forward to strengthening broad cooperation with Pakistan. Both countries seek strong partnerships particularly on health, clean energy, trade and investment, with commitment to promoting transparent, high-quality investments funded via sustainable financing,” the bureau said in a statement.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2022

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