TASHKENT: Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (fourth from right) poses alongside his counterparts from Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member states at a meeting on Friday.—AFP

Pakistani and Ind­ian foreign ministers on Friday toge­ther attended the Shanghai Coopera­tion Org­anisation’s (SCO) Council of For­eign Ministers’ meeting and events on its margins, but avoided handshakes.

The SCO meeting was the first multilateral event where Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and S. Jaishankar came together since the former became the foreign minister after the change of government in Pakistan in April.

Even in informal settings, for instance when the foreign ministers of SCO member countries waited for a joint call on Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the two foreign ministers sat away from each other.

Relations between the two neighbouring nuclear-armed rivals have been bitter for long. Islamabad had lowered diplomatic ties with New Delhi after the BJP government revoked the autonomous status of Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.

Subsequent events in Kashmir and Hindu supremacists’ actions against Muslims in India have so far prevented re-engagement. Islamabad’s position has been that it wants normalisation, but it is for India to provide a conducive environment for that to happen.

Foreign Minister Bilawal, while speaking at a government-run think tank in Islamabad last month, emphasised the need to engage India. He had argued at the time that despite a “long history of war and conflict” and Indian government’s actions in Occupied Kashmir and its anti-Muslim agenda, it was not in Pakistan’s interest to remain disengaged.

But soon afterwards, the Foreign Office clarified that there was no change in Pakistan’s policy on India, on which there is national consensus.

However, Mr Bhutto-Zardari and Mr Jaishankar, in line with SCO rules and charter, neither mentioned bilateral disputes, nor accused each other.

There is a clause in SCO charter barring member states from bringing their bilateral acrimony to the organisation’s meetings.

The Pakistani FM, in his speech at the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting, highlighted Pakistan’s perspective on important regional and international issues of concern to SCO member states. He emphasised that “shared prosperity” was essential for peace, stability and development in the SCO region and globally.

The foreign minister also shared Pakistan’s vision for the future direction and growth of SCO which could be achieved through joint efforts to enhance greater connectivity; road/rail links within the SCO region; building network of businessmen and entrepreneurs of SCO; harnessing the potential of technology and digitalisation; and removing barriers to intra-SCO trade.

About strengthening connectivity in the SCO region, Mr Bhutto-Zardari proposed the construction of railways and roads, and the opening of trade routes. He said Pakistan backs the proposed “strategy for the development of interconnectedness and the creation of efficient transport corridors.”

Pakistan is working with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan on a planned railway project. This project, if it is realised, could provide an important access for Central Asian countries to the seaports of Pakistan, and will become an important component of the transport system of the SCO region.

The foreign minister also spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and reminded the member states about their responsibility to help the war ravaged country.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar, meanwhile, touched upon the challenges facing the region and expansion of the organization.

According to the FO, the SCO Foreign Ministers deliberated upon important topical issues facing the organization after 20 years of its establishment, including expansion in its membership; improvement in the mechanisms of the SCO Secretariat; and SCO’s stance on global economic and political developments and the challenges for SCO countries.

The foreign ministers signed sixteen decisions endorsing proposals on diverse areas of socio-economic cooperation and adopted a Joint Statement on Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.

FM Bhutto-Zardari, on the sidelines of the conferences, also met with his counterparts from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

“In these bilateral meetings, the Foreign Minister exchanged views on issues of common interest as well as matters relating to bilateral cooperation and further strengthening of political, economic and trade relations with these countries,” the FO said.

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