The foreign ministers’ meeting comes ahead of the SCO leaders’ summit scheduled for July in New Delhi. India’s government hosted the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the coastal city of Goa for two days on the 4th and 5th of May. India currently chairs the eight-member group, which was established in 2001 and seeks to foster collaboration on security and development in Asia. The SCO is a political and security bloc in Asia whose members are Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The meeting provided a platform for Pakistan to build on existing bilateral relationships with other SCO members and to establish new ones. In addition, the meeting also served as a means to express solidarity and cooperation amongst the SCO members.
One major milestone of the conference was the attendance of Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, which marked the first visit to India by a Pakistani foreign minister since 2011. The SCO Foreign Minister meeting in Goa 2023 provided Pakistan with an opportunity to strengthen its ties with the SCO members and to promote a policy of constructive dialogue and engagement among all the SCO members. Pakistan also gained the opportunity to present its point of view and to share its perspectives on international issues and regional security challenges.
Founded in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization 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. Many observers regarded this as one of the most difficult visits to Pakistan since the relationship between the two neighbors is as close to rock bottom as it has been in years. It was anticipated that the visit can be only regarded as attendance of the conference rather than attaching high hopes of some ice breakage between the two rivals. However, the visit signals the stakes Pakistan attaches to not just multilateralism but also the SCO as a key geopolitical arrangement in Asia.
The two South Asian rivals historically have had a difficult relationship, especially over Kashmir along with LOC violations and Indus Water Treaty issues. Pakistan has vigorously protested the Modi government’s unilateral decision in August 2019 to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir partial autonomy. The current visit also had the baggage of last December’s heated cross-arguments between Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in New York City at the United Nations. The Indian foreign minister called Pakistan the “epicenter 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 in which most of them were Muslims.
The SCO has emerged as a platform for promoting mutual understanding, security, and development through constructive and mutually beneficial cooperation.
The Foreign Minister of Pakistan asserted that Pakistan strongly believes in and fully adheres to the principles of mutual trust, equality, respect for cultural diversity, and the pursuit of shared development enshrined in the original “Shanghai Spirit.”
He further added that since terrorism continues to threaten global security let’s not get caught up in weaponizing terrorism for diplomatic point scoring. He especially commended the role of China in bridging differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries that are also associated with the SCO. And emphasized that it’s only when great powers play the role of peacemaker, we can unlock the potential of peace while paving the way for greater cooperation, regional integration, and economic opportunities for our peoples. While commenting on the security threats emanating from Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, Zardari said the situation has added “new complications” to global security and called on the international community to “meaningfully engage with the Afghan interim government”. “A united international community can compel the authorities to demonstrate their will and help build their counter-terrorism capacity for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world at large,” he added.
The Pakistan foreign minister, adding that the menace of terrorism requires a collective approach by all SCO member states remarked that “Terrorist groups within Pakistan are cooperating among themselves more than we are as the international community,” Zardari’s comments come a week after Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar during a press briefing in Panama said that it is “very difficult” for India to engage with a neighbor that practices cross-border terrorism. Though the rigidity from the Indian side leaves less space for a possibility of dialogue over pending issues neither it brought any change in the status of diplomatic relations between the two, yet SCO summit in India provided a platform for Pakistan to assure it not only its members to but to the international community as a whole that Pakistan is committed to multilateralism and continues to play a leading role at all international forums, including the United Nations, for forging friendly relations among nations and supporting the peaceful settlement of longstanding international disputes. “There couldn’t be a more powerful indication of the importance that Pakistan attaches to the SCO than my presence here in Goa,” the Pakistani foreign minister added.
Author is a Phd Scholar and visiting faculty at Quaid-i-Azam University. She can be reached on twitter @Nousheen_Ashraf
Indeed the visit itself is a strategic success, it shows that we take forums like SCO seriously, perhaps in the next few years, Pakistan and India will find a way to overcome their differences and build on their commonalities.