Disengagement from India not in our interest: Bilawal

Published June 17, 2022
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. — DawnNewsTV
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. — DawnNewsTV

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Thursday advocated the case for trade and engagement with other countries, especially India and the United States, and noted that Pakistan was isolated on the world stage due to past policies.

In his first major foreign policy speech since taking office at the end of April, he touched upon the country’s major relationships and questioned the conduct of foreign policy in the past.

Speaking at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, a government-funded think tank, the minister said the coalition government had inherited an “internationally isolated and internationally disengaged” country.

He identified India and the United States as countries with which Pakistan’s relations were problematic.

The already strained ties between Islamabad and Washington hit rock bottom earlier this year when the now-ousted Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government (PTI) accused the United States of collaborating with the opposition parties to remove it from office.

PTI chief and former prime minister Imran Khan ran an aggressive campaign after being deposed by a no-confidence vote in parliament, calling for freedom from the “slaves of foreign powers”. This heightened anti-Americanism in the country.

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reached out to Mr Bhutto-Zardari soon after he took the foreign minister’s office and invited him to a food security conference. The two also met in New York on the sidelines of the forum.

The “regime change” allegations, however, continue to cast long shadows on the bilateral relationship.

The PTI government also lowered diplomatic ties with New Delhi after the BJP government revoked the autonomous status of occupied Kashmir in 2019.

Subsequent events in Kashmir and Hindu supremacists’ actions against Muslims in India prevented re-engagement. Islamabad’s position has been that it wants normalisation, but it is for India to provide a conducive environment for that to happen.

In his speech on Thursday, the foreign minister put greater emphasis on engaging India, saying it was time for pivoting to economic diplomacy and focusing on engagement.

His argument was that despite a “long history of war and conflict” and the Indian government’s actions in occupied Kashmir and its anti-Muslim agenda, it was not in Pakistan’s interest to remain disengaged.

Referring to the Kashmir dispute and the marginalisation of Muslims in India, he said these issues remained the “cornerstone” of Pakistan’s narrative and the government was taking them up “in the most serious and most aggressive manner”.

At the same time, he questioned if disengagement with India served the country’s interests. “Do we achieve our objectives, whatever they may be; be it Kashmir, be it the rising Islamophobia, be it the Hindutva sort of supremacist nature of the government in India. Does it serve our objective?”

“We have practically cut off all engagement” with India, he said.

The foreign minister contended that if Pakistan had achieved economic engagement with India in the past, it would have been in a better position to influence Delhi’s policy and prevented both countries from taking extreme positions.

As for China, the foreign minister said the government was committed to economic engagement. However, he cautioned against falling victim to a great power contest, apparently referring to the US-China competition.

Published in Dawn,June 17th, 2022

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