Syed Ata Hasnain | Strategic stock-taking will mark SCO FMs' Goa meet

The visit of Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is being treated with a hot and cold attitude by the Indian media

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is an inter-governmental organisation established in 2001. Its members include China and Russia, India and Pakistan, and the four Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The moving force behind the multilateral group is China, which aims to keep a tight control over its areas of interest in the regional, and now increasingly in a wider international context. This year India is the SCO’s chair; by virtue of that a series of meetings under various domains have been organised, the last being the defence ministers’ meeting in New Delhi on April 27-28. That was a relevant one for India in the context of the LAC standoff between India and China, which has been at a high pitch since April 2020. It gave India a chance to project its position strongly in a 45-minute bilateral meeting of the two defence ministers. There were no handshakes, but a “namaste” conveyed India’s stance while the Chinese minister appeared nonchalant and wanted India to improve relations, detaching these from the LAC standoff. All eyes are now on Goa, where the foreign ministers will meet on May 4-5 to set the agenda for the summit in July 2023, for which both the Russian and Chinese Presidents are expected. In today’s context the presence of both at such a multilateral forum is almost a compulsion. Both India and China have professed neutrality, but China has bilaterally gone to a fair extent to establish its support for Russia without going completely overboard. The Indian stance has been more muted and neutral, catering to its own interests both for now and the future. In the last SCO summit in Tashkent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mature advice to President Vladimir Putin resonated with the rest of the world and placed India in a position to play a more proactive role in ending the Ukraine war. That initiative was later seen to have been seized by China with its outreach to Russia through the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow. The perception perhaps does not hold water now as China is seen as too deeply meshed with Russia and its insipid efforts at resolution were spurned right at the outset by Nato and the Western powers. India’s stance still holds good as the advice by the Prime Minister was more on the lines of neutrality and for betterment of the world order in a post-pandemic world. Will India’s astute external affairs minister work through the Goa conference to set up something for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seize as an initiative in the July 2023 summit? The SCO is one platform through which initiatives on Ukraine will remain plausible.

Besides Ukraine, Sino-Indian bilateral aspects will be under focus at this meeting, but some of that sheen may already have been taken by the two defence ministers’ New Delhi encounter, where the LAC standoff drew greater attention. Also, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s bilateral meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will be keenly watched. The last time Mr Lavrov was in New Delhi he addressed the Raisina Dialogue, and spoke out very strongly. He may be softer this time if an agenda aiming for peace in Ukraine is on the cards at all.

The visit of Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is being treated with a hot and cold attitude by the Indian media. By virtue of the clear Indian stand that talks and terror won’t go together, no one expects a bilateral meeting, especially after the recent Poonch terror attack that was sponsored by Pakistan’s Deep State. Bilawal has not really endeared himself to the Indian establishment or Indian media due to his recent uncalled-for personal remarks on India’s Prime Minister, which smacked of immaturity and a lack of professionalism. Not much importance is being attached to his presence primarily as he is considered a lightweight in the Shehbaz Sharif government in Pakistan and virtually an intern foreign minister who has to be guided by Hina Rabbani Khar, a former foreign minister who is now nominally his deputy. One wonders why he is coming for the meeting at all, when Pakistan’s defence minister joined the defence ministers’ meeting virtually? In reality, the Goa meeting is the flagship meet just below the summit level. It is here that the agenda for the July summit will be chalked out and grounds prepared for any major initiatives. Pakistan is out of mainstream international politics for some time now because of its political and economic instability, which demand attention of its political leadership towards internal affairs. Besides that, Pakistan is known to be kowtowing to the United States for support with the IMF to get the next loan tranche, on which it is hugely dependent for a partial bailout of its economic morass. That may be acceptable, but its gesture of sending containers of missiles and artillery ammunition to Ukraine at the behest of Nato has not been taken very kindly by China and Russia. The absence of Pakistan’s foreign minister would thus be taken very negatively, even though the state of India-Pakistan relations is well known to both. The invitation to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was technically not sent by India but by the SCO secretariat.

Should we expect any surprises in Goa? One is reminded of the Ufa SCO summit where the last India-Pakistan peace initiative was triggered in a bilateral meeting. Terror attacks were prevalent even then, and the adage “talks and terror” expounded by India was also applicable then. This time, the two sides are perilously close to elections in both nations. Such big decisions may therefore be postponed for the time being. The PDM government in Pakistan perceives vulnerability from Imran Khan’s very virulent anti-India stance, and may not wish to be seen as going soft. It has no plan to seek assistance from India to bail it out of the economic hole it finds itself in; political ego is far too big for that. The two things that hold any hope for the future of India-Pakistan ties are the ongoing ceasefire at the Line of Control (since 25 February 2021) and the broad stance of former Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had espoused the understanding that Pakistan should live in peace with India. One only hopes that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is mature enough to handle the challenging SCO agenda in Goa and doesn’t get led away to score brownie points for politics back home by upsetting his hosts with anti-India statements to counter Imran Khan.

Next Story