The 2023 SCO Foreign Ministers Council is the second most important meeting in SCO calendar, following the Heads of State Council. Presided by India and conducted in the attractive Indian beach town of Goa, the meeting was an event to hash out details for the upcoming Heads of State meeting and a crucial opportunity to stand in further cooperation in the new organization. The meeting was attended by the Foreign Ministers of all SCO permanent members, including some from the organization’s observer partners including Mongolia and Afghanistan, and dialogue partner states such as Maldives, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, where they discussed the deepening of economic and security cooperation in the region.
On May 4, 2023, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, traveled to Goa to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which marked Pakistan’s initial top-level delegation to India since 2011. As predicted, the visit has caused significant discussion in both nations. Although the two nations have a history of conflict, their relationship has worsened since 2019 due to events such as India’s revocation of Articles 370 and 35A and the modification of Kashmir’s constitutional status and Land-Lease reforms in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Expected by many to be a turning point in Pakistan-India relations, the following is a breakdown of public-facing engagements of Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers.
Modi used his presidency of the SCO and G20 to project a positive image of stability and development in IOJK, potentially countering criticism and international concerns about the state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP, the ruling political party in India, has a history of employing international events for electoral gains, suggesting that they have used these occasions to strengthen their political standing and rally support from their domestic voter base. By leveraging international platforms and showcasing normalcy in IOJK, they could potentially bolster their image as effective leaders and defenders of national interests, which could have electoral ramifications.
The SCO Summit has always been highly anticipated, drawing attention nationally and globally. Pakistan, once considered a key player in the Eurasian region, expressed strong support for ideas like the “Pan Eurasian Zipper” and the final stage of Eurasian alignment. This collaboration between Pakistan, China, and Russia emerged during the leadership of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Despite changes in domestic politics, Pakistan continues to strive for a position in Eurasia, aiming for regional integration and emphasizing geoeconomics. However, internal political and economic challenges are currently posing obstacles to Pakistan’s diplomatic endeavors. Consequently, Pakistan faces difficulties as it pins its hopes on the SCO, a significant regional organization.
China, represented as the “Dragonbear,” has remained cautious of the potential deadlock caused by India and Pakistan. Given the current global uncertainty, nations cannot afford to be entangled in the complexities of Indo-Pak conflicts. Speculation arose regarding Pakistan’s involvement in the summit, whether through physical presence, virtual engagement, or boycotting the event. In its weekly brief to the public, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan stated that “Our participation in the meeting reflects Pakistan’s commitment to the SCO Charter and processes and the importance that Pakistan accords to the region in its foreign policy priorities.”
It may seem impossible, but it is imperative for Pakistan to differentiate its Kashmir and India policies as separate categories to make the most of its diplomatic efforts. This is not to suggest that India’s atrocities in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) should be ignored, but rather a call to break through new avenues for diplomacy and activism. India’s External Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, continues to smear Pakistan as a country that exports terror without acknowledging that India is currently experiencing a surge in violent extremism against minorities, particularly Muslims in India. Human rights abuses in IIOJK are an everyday occurrence, with reports of sexual abuse of women and girls, widespread killings, and torture, by reputable organizations like Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, among others.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also stated to India Today that Pakistan is willing to peacefully engage with India. On the contrary, the Indian Foreign Minister simply targeted Pakistan by claiming, “Victims of terrorism do not sit together with perpetrators of terrorism to discuss terrorism,”. Another school of thought can claim that India was the host nation, hence, foreign ministers of other states should have been treated with respect. J. Shankar is an intellectually responsible and professional diplomat but hitting below the belt during the SCO meeting leads him to the loss of diplomatic ground and told the international community the phoniness of Modi and BJP. Henceforth it can be stated that the SCO meeting was not utilized to its potential for bilateral cooperation and the rift between India and Pakistan continues.
Rather than resorting to name-calling, Dr. Jaishankar should take a hard look at the Hindutva Project that is brewing within India and extending its reach globally to persecute Muslims worldwide. India could begin by explaining what its naval commander, Kulbhushan Jhadav, was doing in Pakistan since India is so vocal on the subject of terrorism. India has often used the letter “t” to demean Pakistan at international forums, but it has missed the chance to demonstrate itself as a dependable and ascendant hegemon of South Asia.
India’s presidency of the G20 has sparked controversy as several countries, including China, Turkey, Egypt, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, boycotted a tourism working group held in Kashmir. While the Indian government and media hailed the G20 event as historic and celebrated the region’s culture, opposition politicians, activists, and locals accused successive Indian governments of human rights abuses and curbing freedoms. Schools along the G20 routes were closed, and military bunkers were concealed with G20 banners. India’s National Security Guard assisted in ensuring the security of the venues. Critics, such as Mehbooba Mufti and UN special rapporteur Fernand de Varennes, claimed that India was masking human rights violations and political persecution by hosting the G20 in the region. In 2019, India divided Jammu and Kashmir into two federally administered territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Now the questions that arose are: If India perceives this as a state of normalcy, then why are vast numbers of armed forces stationed in the enchanting valleys of IOJK?
Why is the esteemed local leadership of the courageous Kashmiri people, including the revered Yaseen Malik, unjustly confined in prisons while the voices of Kashmir remain neglected and unheard amidst this momentous occasion?
Why, in recent times, has India regrettably denied entry to distinguished personalities such as the UN Human Rights Commissioner, esteemed international journalists, reputable organizations like Genocide Watch, and the esteemed Amnesty International? Such exclusions raise concerns about transparency and accountability.
The G20 presidency of India stirred controversy due to its significant trade ties with the majestic nation of Russia, coupled with the honorable desire of the Modi administration to shield Russia from any criticism pertaining to the situation in Ukraine. Heightened security measures have been diligently implemented to safeguard the sanctity of the proceedings. India and Pakistan, two neighboring nations adorned with the might of nuclear capabilities, have engaged in two full-fledged wars and a confined conflict, all centered around the captivating land of Kashmir.
This year’s summit serves as a miniature version of the intense geopolitical and geoeconomic rivalry in progress. The Ukrainian conflict is undermining Russia’s position as a security guarantor in Central Asia, while China’s influence in the region persists. It remains unclear whether the forum can provide any relief to the Central Asian nations, which grapple with challenges such as water and food security, economic and political issues, and cross-border security and counter-terrorism.
The SCO is attracting attention for several reasons, including the recent inclusion of Iran and the potential membership of Saudi Arabia, which is happening in the context of Chinese efforts to improve relations between the two regional powers. In addition, the ongoing border clashes between India and China in the Himalayas add to the regional insecurity. India is hoping to position itself as a third pole by expanding its influence both to the West and East and advocating for a multipolar world order.
Pakistan will need to take difficult measures without anticipating significant outcomes, despite the mounting pressures. Furthermore, it is crucial for Pakistan to meticulously examine the cooperation possibilities and establish connections with the Central Asian nations, rather than just concentrating on bilateral ties with India. Emphasizing India’s extremist policies and conduct against Muslims in India and Kashmir remains vitally important.
The deficiency in Pakistani diplomacy may not be the only reason for its challenges, as the current global order is undergoing a significant transformation, which prevents any single state from assuming complete control. The meeting was significant, as it marked the first visit of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister to India in 12 years, despite the ongoing tensions between the two countries. However, the meeting was marred by the contentious statements given by India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar. The incident highlights the challenges that continue to exist in the relationship between India and Pakistan and the need for constructive engagement and dialogue to resolve their contentious issues. The SCO meeting highlighted the continued resentment between the neighboring states, and an opportunity for cooperation was effectively let down. Peace between India and Pakistan can bring about economic prosperity in the region via trade, as well as, reduce cross-border terrorism and violence on both ends. The fact of the matter is that both states have developed great concerns against each other in terms of national security. The concerns needed to be conveyed, however, they should have been followed by bilateral meetings for cooperation. Instead, both foreign ministers simply targeted the opposing states, and no path toward a resolution was undertaken.
In conclusion, the SCO-CFM meeting held in Goa, India was an important platform for the foreign ministers of the member states to discuss various issues pertaining to economic and security cooperation in the region. The SCO Foreign Ministers Council and the visit of the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Minister to it cannot be said to be rather fruitful if seen in terms of Pakistan-India relations. While the Pakistani minister was hounded with questions about his country’s supposed support of terrorism in India, which quickly turned into a game of who did it first, his Indian counterpart proved to be the one beating the drum the loudest. India’s callous attitude to peace and stability in the region and its refusal to engage with Pakistan shows significant hostility and viciousness towards it. However, this attitude is not carried on with nations that India cannot afford to ignore such as China. Where even after brutal border clashes and significant Chinese incursions into Indian territory, it still seeks peaceful relations with it. India in its hate and contempt towards Pakistan, which spurs from its right-wing government, fixates obsessively on terrorism, painting Pakistan and Indian relations in singular light and radicalizing and antagonizing populations on both sides of the border. As such, a breakthrough in Pakistan and India relations seems unlikely if not impossible.