NEW DELHI: As the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) chair, India has invited Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial to attend the foreign ministers’ and chief justices’ meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Goa in May.

Reports say Pakistan is yet to respond to the invite sent by India through its High Commission in Islamabad. Given the involvement of China in steering the SCO, Pakistan’s decision would likely be in consultation with Beijing.

India took over the rotating presidency of the eight-member grouping in September last year, and has sent formal invitations to all the SCO-member countries, including Pakistan and China.

Pakistan had earlier decided not to participate in the SCO Film Festival, which will be held in Mumbai from January 27 to 30. The third such film festival, hosted by the group, has received submissions from all nations with the exception of Pakistan.

If Pakistan accepts the invite, FM’s visit in May will be the first in over a decade

However, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recently said Pakistan-India talks were the only way forward. In an interview with Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV, he said Pakistan wants peace with its neighbour. “We have had three wars with India, and they have only brought more misery, poverty, and unemployment to the people. We have learned our lesson, and we want to live in peace with India, provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems,” Mr Sharif was quoted as saying in the interview.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari last month made strong remarks about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling him the ‘Butcher of Gujarat’. He also accused India of carrying out terror attacks in Pakistan, while responding to remarks of Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar at the UNSC that Osama Bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan.

There has been a drought of bilateral visits, and Hina Rabbani Khar was the last Pakistani foreign minister to visit India in 2011.

After the Modi government abrogated Article 370 in India-held Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, the already strained Indo-Pak bilateral ties have been adversely affected.

The SCO currently has eight member countries (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), four observer states interested in acceding to full membership (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia), and six “Dialogue Partners” (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkiye).

The Shanghai Five, which was formed in 1996, became the SCO in 2001 with the addition of Uzbekistan. The SCO expanded to become one of the largest multilateral organisations in the world, representing more than 30 per cent of the world’s GDP and 40 per cent of the world’s population, with the addition of India and Pakistan in 2017.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2023

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