Confirmed! No India-Pak bilateral talks during Bilawal’s India tour

Documents accessed by The New Indian reveal no meeting between Dr Jaishankar and Bhutto

| Updated: 28 April, 2023 12:29 pm IST

New Delhi: External affairs minister (EAM) Dr S Jaishankar will not hold any bilateral talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, during the latter’s visit to India for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting next week.

According to documents accessed by The New Indian, Bhutto is scheduled to arrive in Goa at 4 pm on May 4 and leave soon after signing the declaration/joint statement, which is scheduled to take place at 12 noon the next day.

The tentative meeting schedule and Bhutto’s travel plan indicate that the Pakistani foreign minister will not even participate in all engagements of the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting, thereby ruling out the possibility of a one-to-one meeting between him and Dr Jaishankar on the sidelines.

The documents reveal that Bhutto will depart Goa at 2 pm on May 5 for Rawalpindi, skipping the working launch of the foreign ministers of SCO member states and a slot fixed for “signing of memorandum with dialogue partners.”

Events of SCO foreign ministers’ meeting will start at 9:45 am on May 5, as per the tentative meeting schedule.

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Experts view the two-hour window between the signing of the decision of the meeting and Bhutto’s departure from Goa as a considerably short time for any bilateral engagement.

Both India and Pakistan have already played down the significance of Bhutto’s visit, insisting that it should be viewed under the purview of the SCO meeting.

Although a bilateral meeting between Dr Jaishankar and Bhutto has not been officially ruled out by the Indian government, the government did not seem optimistic that the visit would lead to significant engagement between the two countries.

The government attempted to downplay Bhutto’s visit, stating that it would not be appropriate to focus on the participation of one country alone in a multilateral event.

Participation in the Eurasian group is an essential foreign policy objective for Pakistan, largely due to its ties with China and recent gestures of goodwill towards Russia. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are both expected to attend the meeting in Goa.

The last ministerial visit by either side was in 2015 when then-EAM Sushma Swaraj went to Islamabad for the multilateral conference Heart of Asia. Pakistan’s foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz also visited India in 2016 for the same conference held in Amritsar.

During Swaraj’s visit, both sides attempted to resume the dialogue process under the new name of comprehensive bilateral dialogue. However, the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase a few weeks later ended that initiative.

Although Bilawal’s visit is significant, it does not inspire much hope for a thaw in ties because bilateral ties remain downgraded without high commissioners, and both missions are operating with only half of the sanctioned number of officials.

Pakistan recalled its high commissioner in 2019 after India revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. The following year, India asked Islamabad to reduce its mission strength by half, stating that Pakistani officials were facilitating their country’s policy of cross-border terrorism against India.

Islamabad has been inconsistent in its position on resuming normal ties with India, while officially maintaining that talks can only take place after India reverses its August 2019 decision on J&K.

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