Historic visit steals spotlight from SCO moot

Published May 5, 2023
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in India’s Goa on Thursday. — Photo courtesy FO Twitter
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in India’s Goa on Thursday. — Photo courtesy FO Twitter

• Bilawal meets Russian counterpart, underscores commitment to multi-nation forum
• Jaishankar hosts dinner for visiting dignitaries, no one-on-one meeting with Pakistan FM on the cards
• Analysts see FM’s Goa sojourn as ‘multilateral, not bilateral’ visit

NEW DELHI: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari arrived in Goa on Thursday, and the Indian press could help not but notice it — almost to the exclusion of other foreign ministers attending the two-day meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Orga­ni­sation’s (SCO) Cou­ncil of Foreign Ministers.

Reports noted his “Salaam, from Goa” message, a former Portuguese enclave, now a BJP-ruled state, and were nearly unanimous in saying that no meeting between him and his Indian counterpart was on the cards.

The foreign ministers and their delegations are staying at the Taj Exotica in Benaulim, which is also where the SCO meetings are going to be held.

On Thursday night, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar hosted a dinner for the visiting dignitaries. The official engagements begin on Friday with the arrival of foreign ministers and heads of delegations at the meeting venue, followed by a group photo.

The meeting of the Council of Foreign Minis­ters will begin in the morning and by noon, the ‘decision document’ will be signed, which will be followed by a working lunch.

The event will conclude with the signing of a memorandum with New Dialogue Partners. The leaders will then hold various bilateral meetings with their respective counterparts from other nations.

Meeting with Russian FM

After landing in India, Mr Bhutto-Zardari met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday night. According to the Foreign Office in Islamabad, the two discussed bilateral, regional and international matters of mutual interest.

  Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov ahead of the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa.— Online
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov ahead of the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting in Goa.— Online

Mr Lavrov was assured that Pakistan would continue to work closely with Moscow to further deepen cooperation in the realms of food security, energy and people-to-people contacts, adding that the SCO had opened “new vistas of cooperation and coordination with Russia”.

Earlier, in a video shared on Twitter, Mr Bhutto-Zardari said he would hold meetings with his counterparts from Russia and Uzbekistan. But would there be a chance encounter with his Indian counterpart, or a courteous handshake, perhaps? No news on that front.

The first Pakistani foreign minister to visit India in almost 12 years, Mr Bhutto-Zardari said he looks forward to constructive discussions with his counterparts from friendly countries.

“I am very happy that today I have arrived here leading the delegation of Pakistan,” he told reporters, adding that he hoped the SCO meeting would be “very successful”.

Indian diplomat JP Singh, joint secretary of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk, received Mr Bhutto-Zardari at the airport.

Important alliance

The Pakistani FM said his decision to attend the meeting underlines Pakis­tan’s strong commitment to the SCO charter.

“During my visit, which is focused exclusively on the SCO, I look forward to constructive discussions with my counterparts from friendly countries,” he said.

Analysts such as Michael Kugelman of The Wilson Centre says this visit must be viewed through a “multilateral lens, not a bilateral one”.

Speaking to BBC News, the scholar of South Asian affairs said: “[Mr Bhutto-Zardari] is not going to pursue reconciliation with Delhi. He’s going to participate in a conference of reg­i­onal organisation that holds considerable importance for Pakistan’s interests.”

In his view, skipping the conference would raise the risk of Pakistan being isolated from an organisation that embraces its interests strongly.

This view was lent credence when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif — currently in London for the coronation of King Charles III — tweeted his support of Mr Bhutto-Zardari.

Pakistan was committed to playing its part to advance the shared values of peace and stability in the region, he said, adding: “We are all for win-win understandings based on connectivity, trade and mutually advantageous cooperation”.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2023

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