SCO meet-up

Published May 3, 2023

FOREIGN Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s scheduled trip to India to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Foreign Ministers’ conclave, which begins tomorrow, throws up an opportunity to at least symbolically restart the dialogue process with New Delhi.

However, there should be no great expectations as the SCO is not a forum for the resolution of bilateral disputes — although were the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers to exchange diplomatic pleasantries, it might help change the bitter tone of the relationship.

The latter turned particularly sour in the aftermath of the events of 2019, principally the Pulwama/Balakot affair, and when ties were downgraded following India’s annulment of held Kashmir’s limited autonomy. The fact that Mr Bhutto-Zardari will be the first Pakistani foreign minister to head to India in over a decade is itself significant.

The obstacles standing in the way of improved bilateral relations are considerable, and the fact that both states came close to war in 2019 after India’s Balakot misadventure says a lot about the volatile nature of peace in the subcontinent. However, a neighbourly exchange between the top diplomats of both states in Goa can pave the way for talks, perhaps under the Track II formula.

Currently, a cold peace reigns in the region, but as the events of 2019 illustrated, this uneasy calm can be shattered very quickly. Trade, diplomatic and cultural relations are practically frozen, which has widened the gulf between Pakistan and India.

And while hawks in New Delhi may argue that India does not need Pakistan’s friendship, more level-headed Indians acknowledge the reality that a state of perpetual conflict in the subcontinent is not sustainable.

Both sides must work to restore full diplomatic relations, by posting high commissioners in the respective capitals. Moreover, steps need to be taken to re-establish trade ties as well as sporting and cultural exchanges.

The convoluted visa regime should be relaxed to allow people-to-people visits, particularly to facilitate members of divided families, while sports teams, especially in cricket, should be playing matches in each other’s cities, instead of searching for ‘neutral’ venues.

The peace process can realistically begin only after a new government takes power in Islamabad, and Indian elections are held next year, but small confidence-building measures can be implemented soon. No breakthroughs are expected in Goa, but a pleasant change in direction, and a more nuanced narrative are very much possible if both states want that.

The SCO has great potential to bring geopolitical rivals together for the common good. For example, India applied to join the bloc led by China despite having a fractious border dispute with the latter.

The promise of Eurasian economic and security integration is apparently a strong pull factor. Let us hope the SCO succeeds where Saarc has miserably failed.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2023

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