Missed opportunity?

Despite India’s reluctance to engage, Islamabad has recently taken initiatives for better bilateral relations.

There was anticipation when Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari decided to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers Meeting in Goa, India. It was the first visit by a Pakistani foreign minister in 12 years. The main reason for the prevailing deadlock has been the BJP government’s illegal and unilateral acts in Indian-occupied Kashmir on August 5, 2019 violating the UNSC resolutions, the 4th Geneva Commission, and the Shimla Accord. This act by India now is the main reason for the new low level of relationship between Pakistan and India.

As crucial strategic partners within the SCO, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari played a constructive role, prioritising positive engagement over political posturing. The visit aimed to strengthen Pakistan’s multilateral relations with regional countries within the SCO. No formal bilateral engagement between Pakistan and India was anticipated during the visit but there was widespread optimism among the policy circles that this meeting could serve as an icebreaker. It was hoped that the summit would provide an opportunity for a limited dialogue and potentially pave the way for a future official meeting between both countries, signalling a step towards concrete progress.

Unfortunately, the response from Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar during the summit was disappointing and not in line with the conduct expected of a senior diplomat. Instead of focusing on regional cooperation and the shared goal of countering terrorism, Jaishankar resorted to blaming Pakistan and labelling Mr Bilawal Bhutto as the “FM of terrorists”. In contrast, Bilawal Bhutto eloquently presented Pakistan’s perspective by refraining from engaging in accusatory rhetoric or political posturing for personal gain, demonstrating a commitment to positive engagement in the summit. More importantly, Bilawal Bhutto emphasised the need for transnational regional efforts and the exchange of experiences to combat terrorism effectively.

It is important to note that the SCO summit is a platform for multilateral engagements, not for settling bilateral disputes. Thus, Jaishankar missed the opportunity to utilise the venue in line with the objectives and mandates of the SCO. This was a real missed opportunity for India to contribute towards peace and prosperity in the region.

India should really take this opportunity to address the regional issues and how they can be tackled regionally in the framework of SCO:

CLIMATE CHANGE: The non-traditional threats posed by climate change to India and Pakistan are projected to be far greater than traditional threats in the coming years. India is currently ranked as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, while Pakistan is ranked as the seventh most vulnerable. The severe consequences of climate change will have long-lasting effects not only on India and Pakistan but also on the entire South Asian region and the wider world (several recent examples can be given to back this). Climate diplomacy can be an opportunity for both nations to abandon their traditional hostility and initiate a new era of cooperation to address the impending threats of climate change. Terrorism is a major issue in the region and Pakistan has been the most affected country by far which can be confirmed by using any statistics.

REGIONAL CONNECTIVITY: Bi/Multi-lateral cooperation in the subcontinent by the major players is an important aspect of economic and social development.

Economic development: Access to quality services can have a significant impact on economic and social development, particularly in countries with high poverty rates. Pakistan and India can start to work on initiatives by investing in infrastructure development for the purpose of improving connectivity and access to essential cross-border commodities and services. Additionally, leveraging technology can also help bridge the gap by providing digital services and tools that can be accessed remotely.

POVERTY ALLEVIATION: The potential of servicing both markets is immense leading to a direct impact on any poverty index. Whilst both countries have vast numbers of people living below the poverty line, India’s share is far larger hence this can help alleviate this aspect to large extent. According to experts, this is an election year in India and the ‘Pakistan factor’ in domestic political landscape of India plays a critical role, if not a deciding one. So no CBM was expected from the BJP government during this visit due to its far-right vote base, but Pakistan achieved what it had set out to accomplish.

DESIRED OUTCOMES: This was seen as a positive development as Mr Bilawal Bhutto took a bold decision to attend SCO summit in India. Despite India’s reluctance to engage with Pakistan, Islamabad has recently taken initiatives for better bilateral relations such as releasing fishermen after Bilawal Bhutto’s visit to India. We hope to see India reciprocate which will definitely result in not only improving bilateral relations but also bring peace and prosperity to the region and beyond. The people of both countries have suffered a lot and handicapped their potential due to these devastating, lingering conflicts.

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