External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will come face to face with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto for the first time on July 28, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Ministerial meeting in Tashkent, where all eyes are on whether the two Ministers will hold a separate meeting, as well as a possible second meeting this month between Dr. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Dr. Jaishankar and Mr. Wang met on July 7 to discuss the two-year-old standoff at the Line of Actual Control and other issues between India and China, a meeting that was followed by the 16th round of Commander-level talks that had been held up for some months.
“[The SCO Ministers] will review ongoing cooperation in expansion of the SCO Organisation and exchange ideas on regional and global developments of common concern,” an MEA statement announcing Mr. Jaishankar’s visit to Uzbekistan said.
A statement by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr. Bhutto would “hold bilateral meetings with a number of his counterparts from SCO member states on the sidelines. SCO’s major objectives include promoting mutual confidence and good neighbourly relations among member states; strengthening regional peace, security and stability; and creating a framework for effective cooperation” in a number of spheres, the statement said, without identifying which of his counterparts Mr. Bhutto will meet.
The meeting in Tashkent on July 28-29, part of the SCO process which includes Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Central Asian countries is expected to set the agenda and finalise documents for the upcoming Heads of State Council meeting in Samarkand on September 15-16, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani PM Shehbaz Sharif, as well as leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran, whose membership to the SCO is under process, is also likely to be represented at both events. According to sources, President Xi has been invited, but that his attendance may be contingent on COVID regulations and the upcoming Chinese Party Congress preparations.
Officials would not confirm reports that Dr. Jaishankar and Mr. Bhutto could hold a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO Ministerial, but did not rule out the possibility. In the past week, the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministries have traded words over discussions between Beijing and Islamabad to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridors (CPEC) to third countries like Afghanistan.
The MEA had called the CPEC proposal “inherently illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable”, while the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had called India’s objections to it “an effort to politicise” the project.
In its statement about the SCO, the Pakistani MFA said that the grouping would provide a forum for trans-regional ties, which included “promoting Pakistan as a regional trade and transit corridor”, an idea India would take objection to if raised in the multilateral format.
Since being sworn in as Foreign Minister in April this year, Mr. Bhutto has made a case for the resumption of trade engagement with India, which had been cancelled after New Delhi’s decision to reorganise Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019. At a speech at a think tank in Islamabad in June, Mr. Bhutto had criticised the previous Imran Khan government for Pakistan’s “internationally isolated and internationally disengaged” position.
“Do we achieve our objectives, whatever they may be; be it Kashmir, be it the rising Islamophobia, be it the Hindutva sort of supremacist nature of the Government in India. Does it serve our objective?” he was quoted as saying at the speech to the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. If Dr. Jaishankar and Mr. Bhutto do hold talks, it would be the first such bilateral conversation since 2016, when the process ran aground after a terror attack in Uri. As Foreign Secretary in 2015, Dr. Jaishankar had also visited Islamabad for talks.