Before their discussion sessions on Friday, the foreign ministers of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) gathered for a pleasant dinner on the evening of April 4, 2023, at a beautiful beach resort in Goa. This idyllic location became the backdrop for a noteworthy encounter, as the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers exchanged pleasantries with a respectful handshake.
The arrival of Pakistan’s foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, in Goa marked a significant milestone as it was the first high-level visit from Pakistan to India since 2011. Bhutto Zardari’s purpose in India was also to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting.
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This visit takes place amidst strained relations between India and Pakistan on various issues. However, sources familiar with the conclave preparations have stated that there is currently no plan for a bilateral meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Bhutto Zardari, as no such request has been made by the Pakistani side.
Indian hosts imposed media ban on the dinner programme
During the dinner, the Indian hosts implemented a media ban, prohibiting the release of any photos or information about the event. However, it is known that cultural performances took place against the beautiful backdrop of the Arabian Sea.
As the host, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar naturally engaged in pleasantries with all the attending foreign ministers. There was speculation about whether the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers would engage in small talk at the dinner, given that a separate bilateral meeting was not anticipated.
Given the significance of this visit, being the first by a Pakistani foreign minister to India since 2011, it is understandable that the spotlight was on the event. This visit occurs amidst on-going tensions between the two countries, with diplomatic relations still not having reached the level seen prior to 2019.
Following the revelation by the visiting Pakistani media contingent that Jaishankar shook hands with Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Indian side neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
During the dinner event, which was organised by Jaishankar, the distinguished guests included the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, along with the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Regrettably, the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan were unable to attend as they arrived in Goa after the conclusion of the dinner.
First visit in over a decade for a Pakistani Foreign Minister in India
In his statement to reporters, Bhutto Zardari expressed his joy upon reaching Goa as the leader of the Pakistani delegation for the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting. He expressed his optimism for a successful SCO CFM meeting and looked forward to the discussions and outcomes of the event.
Prior to his departure for Goa, the Pakistani foreign minister expressed, “My decision to attend this meeting demonstrates Pakistan’s unwavering commitment to the charter of the SCO.” He further added, “During my visit, which solely focuses on the SCO, I anticipate engaging in constructive discussions with my counterparts from friendly nations.”
This visit by the Pakistani foreign minister marks the first trip from Islamabad to India since 2011 when former Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar visited the country. Khar presently holds the position of Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
In May 2014, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited India to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Similarly, in December 2015, former Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Pakistan, followed by a brief visit by Prime Minister Modi.
The invitation for the Pakistani foreign minister to attend the SCO meeting was extended in January, shortly after Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif offered to hold bilateral talks between India and Pakistan. In an interview with the UAE-based Al Arabiya news channel, Sharif stated that Pakistan has learned from the consequences of three wars with India and expressed a desire to live in peace with India by resolving genuine issues.
However, Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s Office later clarified that negotiations would not be possible unless India revokes its 2019 actions on Kashmir.
Shared values of peace and stability promoted at SCO meeting
India has consistently expressed its desire for normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan, while emphasising that Islamabad bears the responsibility of creating an environment devoid of terrorism and hostility for such engagement.
In the meantime, Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif stated that his country’s decision to participate in the SCO foreign ministers meeting in India signifies its commitment to the SCO Charter and multilateralism. He affirmed Pakistan’s dedication to contributing towards advancing shared values of peace and stability in the region.
He added, “Our commitment lies in actively contributing to the promotion of peace and stability in the region, while fostering win-win relationships built on the pillars of connectivity, trade, and mutually advantageous cooperation.”
According to a Pakistani official, Bhutto Zardari arrived at the dinner venue as the last foreign minister due to being engaged in a bilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Reception of Zardari was pleasant
Upon Bhutto Zardari’s arrival, Jaishankar, as the host, stood up, shook his hand, and engaged in casual conversation. Notably, there were no cameras present in the room, capturing the moment. It had been quite some time since they last exchanged views, with their previous interactions consisting of verbal disputes at the United Nations and on social media.
Indian officials had acknowledged before the summit that it would be customary for Jaishankar to exchange pleasantries with the Pakistani minister, but they downplayed its significance. Similarly, Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch confirmed the encounter while dismissing its importance.
“This is a normal courtesy. It is a host welcoming a guest. There is no new development in it. They encountered each other, and Jaishankar extended a welcome to Bhutto Zardari, just like he did with other foreign ministers,” Baloch stated in an interview with Geo News.
Prior to the trip, Pakistan had already framed it as an exclusively SCO event, emphasizing that it should not be viewed in a bilateral context. Jaishankar had also stated last month that engaging with Pakistan was “very difficult” due to its support for cross-border terrorism.
Given the entrenched positions of both governments, a formal bilateral meeting at the last minute appeared highly unlikely, especially considering that both countries were approaching elections within the year.
There was an expectation of a more public encounter when Jaishankar personally welcomed his SCO counterparts outside the venue before the start of the meeting on Friday.
However, when Jaishankar stood outside the meeting room to individually greet each foreign minister as they arrived, there were no handshakes exchanged. Instead, just like with the other ministers, Jaishankar greeted Bilawal with a namaste gesture.
Subsequently, he extended an invitation to the Pakistani foreign minister, who was attired in a shalwar suit, to join him for a photo opportunity. The captured photographs did not reveal any prominent wide smiles. After the flashes stopped, Bilawal seemed to express gratitude by placing his hand on his heart before walking away towards the door.
As the purpose of the meeting is to finalise the outcomes for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders’ summit scheduled for July, no joint statement will be released at the conclusion of the foreign ministers’ meeting on Friday.