Bilawal, Jaishankar’s exchange termed ‘normal’ for current state of relationship

Published May 7, 2023
Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar pose for a photograph during the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Goa, India on May 5, 2023. — Reuters/File
Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar pose for a photograph during the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Goa, India on May 5, 2023. — Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: While India and Pakistan did not hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation foreign ministers’ meeting, their sparring at a multilateral stage has underlined the need for South Asia’s two nuclear powers to stay engaged with each other.

Pakistan did not request, nor did India offer, bilateral talks in Goa, though observers noted these multilateral talks “could lay the groundwork for future interactions between the archrivals,” as a report in the German media outlet DW pointed out.

India strictly maintained a safe distance from the Pakistani delegation, with Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar reminding Pakistan not to assume that “we are on the same boat”. But his comments on Pakistan’s alleged involvement in a recent attack in the occupied Jammu and Kashmir and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) showed India still have issues to discuss with Islamabad.

The Pakistani foreign minister responded to India’s claim by urging New Delhi to undo the merger and resolve the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions. Mr Bhutto-Zardari later also spoke about CPEC at a joint presser with his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Islamabad, saying that the project had accelerated socio-economic development.

In an earlier briefing in Goa, Mr Bhutto-Zardari reminded his Indian counterpart that the issue of terrorism should not be raised for “diplomatic point-scoring”.

These back-and-forth comments on Kashmir, terrorism and CPEC did exactly what India wanted to avoid: raising its problems with Pakistan at a multilateral meeting.

Apparently, that’s why a US scholar of South Asian affairs, Michael Kugelman of Wilson Center, Washington, noted in a tweet that while there was much criticism of the Pakistan FM’s visit to India for SCO, “he appears to have accomplished what Islamabad sought.”

He defined Pakistan’s goals as “participation in the SCO deliberations, and separate sideline meetings with all SCO members except India. Multilateral engagement w-bilats on the side.”

In another tweet on Saturday, Mr Kugelman explained why he believed the Pakistan FM accomplished his goal in Goa. “It’s an accomplishment when expectations are as modest as they were. Doubtful he went seeking/expecting a meeting w/Jaishankar.”

He described comments by the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers as “pedestrian stuff”, normal for (such relationships and mostly targeting domestic audiences). Such comments, he wrote, “will have little impact on India-Pak ties.”

Mr Kugelman’s comments, however, irked India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

“How is participation and having bilateral meetings with SCO members an accomplishment?” he tweeted. “This is normal in such meetings. Real issue was a possible meeting with the Indian FM which didn’t happen,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2023

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