The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting held on 4-5 May 2023 in Goa witnessed palpable disdain between Pakistan and the host, India. The leadership from the neighbouring states made indirect remarks about each other regarding Kashmir and mounting terrorism, respectively, and made veiled attacks regarding their reservations about the other. Besides, for on-camera optics, the Indian Foreign Minister chose to keep his body language rather restrained with respect to his Pakistani counterpart. For Pakistan, the motive behind the visit was clear from the beginning, which was to showcase the country’s commitment to regionalism and not miss out on the opportunity to discuss global issues and matters of interest with the members of the organisation. Nonetheless, the equation between Islamabad and the meeting’s host remained the centre of attention for much of the visit.
The CFM meeting in Goa garnered much interest from across the board, given the participation of Pakistan. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan to visit India in more than a decade. The last such level visit from Pakistan to India was in 2011. However, the expectations from the visit in the context of the Indo-Pakistan dynamic were not very high. Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was committed to keeping the meeting “focused exclusively on the SCO”. Though the bilateral ties are nowhere near cordial, Pakistan’s absence from the meeting could marginalise Pakistan from the Central Asian region. Nevertheless, other than the fact that a Pakistani Foreign Minister had not visited India for so long, the visit was expected to be rather insignificant from the specific India-Pakistan perspective.
A general initial observation was made regarding S. Jaishanker, the Indian Foreign Minister, avoiding a handshake to greet the visiting foreign dignitaries, including the Pakistani representation. Later reports claimed that the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan “shook hands and exchanged pleasantries” off-camera during a related dinner. A Pakistani official present at the event reported that Mr Bhutto-Zardari was welcomed with a handshake. However, the official attributed the gesture as a regular courtesy.
Other than the fact that a Pakistani Foreign Minister had not visited India for so long, the visit was expected to be rather insignificant from the specific India-Pakistan perspective.
During the CFM meeting, the two sides resorted to making indirect remarks at each other. India underscored that nothing can justify terrorism, and all its kinds, including cross-border terrorism, ought to be halted. The Indian External Minister called upon the regional representatives to eliminate non-state actors, thereby ensuring nobody would “hide behind non-state actors.” In response, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, cautioned the member countries of the SCO against “weaponising terrorism for diplomatic point scoring”; without specifically mentioning India.
Although the charter of SCO does not allow for raising matters of bilateral nature at the platform, the officials from both sides made underhanded remarks. While on the one hand, Mr Jaishankar spoke of terrorism with indirect reference to Pakistan, on the other hand, Mr Bhutto-Zardari held up the matter of Kashmir as he underlined how the one-sided and “illegal measures by states in violation of international law and Security Council resolutions run counter to the SCO objectives”. He rejected “incitement to hate, especially on religious grounds” and condemned “historical revisionism” that leads to “violent ultranationalism”.
The bilateral confrontation could be felt during the formal press interviews as well. Neither of the sides seemed to be looking to enhance their bilateral diplomacy. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister iterated that Pakistan would not make any bilateral overtures to India until the latter reviews its August 5, 2019 actions. Mr Bhutto Zardari made it clear that the stalled peace process was due to the Indian presence in Kashmir. Likewise, External Minister Jaishankar made a stern attack by calling Bilawal Bhutto Zardari a “justifier and spokesperson” of the terrorism industry.
Neither any bilateral meeting with India was on Pakistan’s agenda, nor did India display any interest in such a meeting considering the relations between the two states have remained far from amiable for the last seven years and are at an all-time low. However, Pakistan did get to put across its commitment to regionalism by participating in the meeting despite the strained relations with the host country. Besides, the SCO CFM meeting was beneficial for Pakistan’s wider foreign policy goals. In other regional forums, which include both Pakistan and India, such as SAARC, India usually enjoys greater strategic influence compared to Pakistan. However, SCO provides a promising avenue to Pakistan, given India’s animosity with the leading member state China. While the leading states of the organisation, China and Russia, are clearly vital to Pakistan, many of the members of SCO are Central Asian countries which hold significance for Pakistan given the latter’s plan to increase economic ties and connectivity with the regional countries. Therefore, during the course of the visit, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister held bilateral meets with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Despite the inadvertent international attention on the bilateral aspect of Pakistan’s visit to India, Islamabad’s presence at the meeting was a regional overture. By participating in the SCO CFM meeting in spite of the not-so-cordial ties with the hosting state, Pakistan made sure to foster deeper relations with the rest of the member states while attempting to limit the Indian clout in the organisation.