Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s top diplomat has embarked on the country’s foreign minister’s first visit to India in 12 years.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari arrived in Goa city on Thursday to attend the two-day meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for foreign ministers.
It was the first time a Pakistani foreign minister had set foot in India since 2011. Hina Rabbani Khar, the current Pakistani foreign minister, 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 meeting of foreign ministers on Thursday and Friday will be followed by the main summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in July, where the leaders of India’s SCO countries are expected to arrive.
Observers said Pakistan’s foreign minister’s visit to India should be seen through the prism of the multilateral SCO meeting rather than having any bilateral implications taken up on his trip.
Mosharraf Zaidi of the Islamabad-based policy think tank Tabadlab said the fact that Bhutto-Zardari is in India is merely “a participation in the SCO meeting”.
“It is not intended to be a bilateral moment and is unlikely to yield more than aesthetics in terms of interventions between Pakistani officials and Indians,” Zaidi told Al Jazeera.
A difficult relationship
Bhutto-Zardari’s visit to India comes at a time when relations between the two neighbors are nearing their lowest point in years.
In December, Bhutto-Zardari traded barbs with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in New York City at the United Nations.
India’s foreign minister called Pakistan the “epicenter of terrorism”, to which Bhutto-Zardari responded by calling Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the “butcher of Gujarat”, referring to his time as chief minister of that state when religious riots claimed nearly 2,000 lives in 2002. people – most of them Muslims.
The two South Asian rivals have historically had a rocky relationship, especially over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which was split between the two in 1947 after the end of British rule.
Pakistan has strongly protested the unilateral decision of Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in August 2019 to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted partial autonomy to Indian-administered Kashmir.
In February of that year, the two nuclear-armed nations were on the brink of war when an attack in Indian-administered Kashmir killed more than 40 paramilitary soldiers.
State of ‘deep freezing’
After Bhutto-Zardari’s decision to attend the SCO meeting was announced last month, Jaishankar indicated that there was unlikely to be a bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart in Goa.
“As for this particular meeting, we are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so we usually attend the meetings. We are the chairman this year, so the meeting will take place in India this year,” Jaishankar told reporters while visiting the Central American country of Panama.
Nevertheless, Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University in the United States, said Bhutto-Zardari’s visit is still meaningful.
“The visit indicates Pakistan’s importance not only to multilateralism, but also to the SCO as an important geopolitical arrangement in Asia,” he told Al Jazeera.
Humayun added that the state of “deep freeze” between the two neighbors is likely to remain unchanged due to the situation on the ground in the wake of India’s Article 370 decision.
“India’s rhetoric against Pakistan in international forums remains incendiary,” Humayun said. “To that end, the Foreign Secretary’s visit … says more about the stockpile Pakistan is putting into the SCO than it does about India-Pakistan relations.”
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, said it was “highly unlikely” that a meaningful talk would take place between the two foreign ministers.
“The visit is meaningful in the sense that it happens at all. The fact that a Pakistani foreign minister arrives on Indian soil is significant in itself,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Limited coercive power’
Established in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization does not include any country in the Western world. It is also unique in that it seeks to balance relations between countries that otherwise disagree, such as India and China or India and Pakistan.
Singh said fwhether India alone holding the meeting on its territory will be considered a success.
“India will not want to spoil or fail SCO in any way,” he said. “We will see simple, anonymous statements coming out of it. The aim is to show that India is a world power and can hold such meetings, which is an end goal in itself.”
Zaidi said he sees the SCO as a “useful forum” for solving regional problems, but added that the tendency in New Delhi is to push for purely bilateral mechanisms when it comes to relations with Pakistan.
“As the economic gap between Pakistan and India widens, the incentives for India to negotiate with Pakistan are shrinking,” said Zaidi. “SCO has very limited coercive capacity and China is unlikely to want to push India on any front other than the pre-existing Sino-Indian issues.”
In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine and the evolving calculus in world politics it has provoked, new alliances have emerged. The United States is increasingly seeking to woo India as a counterweight to China at a time when India and China are stalking border areas, while Islamabad remains one of Beijing’s staunchest allies.
For Kamran Bokhari, a senior director of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C., handling their relations with China will be the biggest task for both India and Pakistan.
“The common denominator in terms of the challenges facing the two South Asian rivals is the increasing strategic competition between the US and China, albeit in very different ways,” he told Al Jazeera.
“For Pakistan, the challenge is not to get strategically wedged between Washington and Beijing,” he said. “However, the Indians must join the Americans in countering the Chinese.”