Will Pakistan foreign minister’s rare India visit ease tensions?

The South Asian rivals have always had a difficult relationship, but it is now at rock bottom. Still, the visit is the first in 12 years.

Police provide security outside the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Goa on May 4, 2023 [Punit Paranjpe/AFP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s top diplomat has embarked on the first visit to India by the country’s foreign minister in 12 years.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrived in the city of Goa on Thursday to attend the two-day Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting for foreign ministers.

It was the first time a Pakistani foreign minister has set foot in India since 2011. Hina Rabbani Khar, currently Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, was the last to visit Pakistan’s eastern neighbour.

The SCO is a political and security bloc in Asia whose members are Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The foreign ministers meeting on Thursday and Friday will be followed by the main Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in July, in which leaders of the SCO nations are expected to arrive in India.

Observers said the Pakistani foreign minister’s visit to India should be seen through the prism of the multilateral SCO meeting instead of any bilateral implications being taken over his trip.

Mosharraf Zaidi from the Islamabad-based policy think tank Tabadlab, said Bhutto Zardari being in India is just “an attendance of the SCO meeting”.

“It is neither meant to be a bilateral moment nor likely to generate more than aesthetics as far as interventions between Pakistani officials and Indians,” Zaidi told Al Jazeera.

A difficult relationship

Bhutto Zardari’s visit to India comes at a time when the relationship between the two neighbours is as close to rock bottom as it has been in years.

In December, Bhutto Zardari traded barbs with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in New York City at the United Nations.

The Indian foreign minister called Pakistan the “epicentre of terrorism”, which Bhutto Zardari countered by calling Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the “butcher of Gujarat”, referring to his time as chief minister of that state when religious riots in 2002 killed nearly 2,000 people – most of them Muslims.

The two South Asian rivals historically have had a difficult relationship, especially over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which was split between the two in 1947 after the end of British rule.

Pakistan has vigorously protested Modi’s Hindu nationalist government’s unilateral decision in August 2019 to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir partial autonomy.

In February that year, the two nuclear-armed nations came on the brink of war when an attack in Indian-administered Kashmir killed more than 40 paramilitary soldiers.

State of ‘deep-freeze’

After Bhutto Zardari’s decision to attend the SCO meeting was announced last month, Jaishankar indicated no bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart was likely in Goa.

“Where this particular meeting is concerned, we are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, so we typically attend its meetings. We are the chair this year, so the meeting is taking place in India this year,” Jaishankar told reporters during a visit to the Central American nation of Panama.

Nonetheless, Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University in the United States, said Bhutto Zardari’s visit still holds significance.

“The visit signals the stakes Pakistan attaches to not just multilateralism but also the SCO as a key geopolitical arrangement in Asia,” he told Al Jazeera.

Humayun added the state of “deep-freeze” between the two neighbours is likely to remain unchanged because of the situation on the ground in the aftermath of the Indian decision on Article 370.

“India’s rhetoric against Pakistan at international fora continues to remain incendiary,” Humayun said. “To that end, the foreign minister’s visit … says more about the stock Pakistan is putting into the SCO than in India-Pakistan relations.”

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said it is “highly unlikely” for any meaningful conversation to take place between the two foreign ministers.

“The visit is meaningful in the sense that it is, in fact, happening at all. The fact that a Pakistani foreign minister will arrive on Indian soil, that is significant in itself,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Limited coercive capability’

Founded in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation does not include any country from the Western world. It is also unique because it tries to balance relationships between countries that otherwise do not see eye to eye, such as India and China or India and Pakistan.

Singh said for India merely holding the meeting on its soil will be seen as a success.

“India will not want to spoil SCO in anyway or let it be a failure,” he said. “We will see simple, anodyne statements coming out of it. The endeavour is to show that India is a global power and can hold such meets, which itself is an end goal.”

Zaidi said he sees the SCO as a “useful forum” for resolving regional issues but added the tendency in New Delhi is to insist on purely bilateral mechanisms when it comes to its relationship with Pakistan.

“As the economic gap between Pakistan and India grows ever larger, the incentives for India to negotiate with Pakistan shrink ever more,” Zaidi said. “SCO has very limited coercive capability, and China is unlikely to want to push India on any front other than pre-existing Sino-India issues.”

In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine and the evolving calculus in global politics that it has provoked, new alliances have emerged. The United States is increasingly courting India as a counterweight to China at a time when India and China are sniping over border territories, whereas Islamabad remains one of the staunchest allies of Beijing.

For Kamran Bokhari, a senior director at New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, handling their relationships with China is going to be the biggest task for both India and Pakistan.

“The common denominator in terms of the challenges for the two South Asian rivals is the intensifying US-China strategic competition, though in very different ways,” he told Al Jazeera.

“For Pakistan, the challenge is how not to be strategically sandwiched between Washington and Beijing,” he said. “The Indians, however, have a need to align with the Americans to counter the Chinese.”

Source: Al Jazeera