The recently concluded SCO foreign ministers meet was overshadowed by exchanges which took place between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan during the summit as also subsequent press conferences. There was no handshake and no bilateral between them, which was anyway expected. Since the SCO charter does not permit raising bilateral issues, both highlighted their concerns without taking names, but clearly hinting at each other.
Major disagreements between the nations were raised in press conferences and media interactions. The event was held in the backdrop of the terrorist encounter in Rajouri in which five Indian soldiers lost their lives.
Bilawal Bhutto’s final press conference in Goa was barred to Indian journalists, while both Indian and Pakistani media attended Jaishankar’s meet. Bhutto held his press interaction prior to Jaishankar’s, enabling the latter to respond.
Addressing the media on his return to Karachi, Bhutto announced his visit a success. While India continued to call out Pakistan for its support to terrorism, Pakistan attempted to project itself also as a victim of terrorism and insisted that India must create conditions for talks by reversing the abrogation of article 370, which Jaishankar rejected.
Bilawal was the first Pakistani foreign minister to visit India since Hina Rabbani Khar, the current deputy foreign minister, visited New Delhi for talks in 2011.
Pakistan projected Bilawal’s visit as a display of its commitment to the SCO charter, aware that there would be no bilateral and that relations would be frosty. Bilawal had stated, “My decision to attend this meeting illustrates Pakistan’s strong commitment to the charter of the SCO.” Pakistan attended the meet not due to its commitment to the SCO charter but on the insistence of Beijing, which has sought to project the SCO as a counter to Western-led groupings such as G7 and G20. Further, the Bilawal-Jaishankar clash would offset negative discussions between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers.
For Pakistan, Bhutto interacting with his counterparts was termed as a measure of success. In his multiple media interactions including an interview with a leading daily and TV discussion, Bilawal chastised India for continuously raising the bogey of terrorism.
Simultaneously, he reiterated Kashmir was the focal point of the dispute. Jaishankar was compelled to counter by claiming that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor violates Indian territory and that the only discussion on Kashmir would be ‘when does Pakistan vacate its illegal occupation of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.’
There were reports that Bilawal agreed to his media interaction and TV interview on condition that they were broadcast post his departure from Goa. With India no longer present in Afghanistan and the world being aware that the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) is backed by the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan cannot accuse India of directly fomenting terrorism on its soil.
Its recent emergence from the FATF Grey List only adds credence to this fact. Thus, Bilawal harped on Kulbhushan Jadhav as an example of Indian involvement. India, on the other hand, has direct evidence of the involvement of Pakistan on terrorism. India stuck with its rhetoric of talks and terrorism while Pakistan refused to budge from its stand that unless India reverses its decision on abrogation of article 370 and adheres to UNSC resolutions there can be no dialogue.
However, neither side has even sought dialogue. An internal angle was also at play during the summit in both countries. Had Jaishankar shaken hands, the opposition would have had a field day and with the Karnataka elections around the corner, the BJP could not take chances.
Political instability in Pakistan ensured that Bhutto played to his domestic gallery, especially as he mentioned his political party, PPP and himself, rather than the coalition, PDM, in his media comments. Harshly worded media interactions by both foreign ministers, countering comments of the other, displayed that the two nations look at the other through blinkers and in the present environment, raproachment is distant.
The summit, overshadowed by comments from Bilawal and Jaishankar, relegated most other issues, including discussions between the foreign ministers of India and China to the sidelines, unlike the defence ministers’ meet, where it dominated headlines. It also pushed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s London visit, to attend the coronation and meet his party head, Nawaz Sharif, to the background.
Well before the summit, differences between both nations were evident as neither had suggested a bilateral, apprehending a refusal by the other. The language used by both foreign ministers was harsh and unexpected. The battle centred largely around terrorism and Kashmir. India insisting that terrorism must be eradicated with Pakistan claimed ‘terrorism continues to threaten global security.’
Bhutto added, ‘Let’s not get caught up in weaponizing terrorism for diplomatic point-scoring.’ At the end of the day, there was no mention of a joint statement at the conclusion of the meet. Both foreign ministers in their press interactions defended their stands and accused the other of being responsible of deteriorating relations.
Bhutto claimed India was insecure due to its ‘false narrative, propaganda and blatant lies.’ Jaishankar claimed, ‘He came as a member of a SCO country, and (we) don’t see it more than that.’ Bhutto speaking to the media on multiple occasions shifted focus of a multilateral summit into a bilateral one. It was Bhutto’s multiple press interactions which resulted in Jaishankar dedicating his final interaction to counter him.
The summit generated discussions in media and political circles in both countries, with Bilawal coming in for criticism from Imran Khan’s party members, less SM Qureshi, his predecessor, who supported his attendance at the SCO.
For some in Pakistan, Bhutto was insulted and ignored in India, while for others he conveyed Pakistan’s message in a firm and resolute manner. Jaishankar, as expected, was praised by Indian media for his approach and strong words against Pakistan.
The summit occurring at the time of increased terrorist activities in J and K as also the forthcoming G20 Tourism meet in Srinagar added flavour to the debate. Whether the summit would pave the way for the visit of Shehbaz Sharif for the leaders’ conclave in early July remains to be seen.
What is certain is that there will be little change in relations between the two countries. Differences currently appear irrevocable. (The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army