Pakistan’s Foreign Minister will travel to India next month, the most senior-level visit in seven years in what is an opportunity for two nuclear-armed neighbors with a long history of fractious relations to break the ice.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) foreign ministers meeting on May 4-5 in the western Indian coastal state of Goa, Pakistan’s foreign ministry confirmed Thursday.
“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,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said it had extended invitations to all the member states of the SCO and “we look forward to a successful meeting. It would not be really appropriate to focus on participation by any one particular country.”
This is the first time that the most senior Pakistani foreign office representative has visited India since 2016.
Diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan have been beset by decades of distrust and occasional bouts of open conflict.
But they have been especially contentious since 2016 when militants attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir. India blamed the attack on Pakistan, which Islamabad denied.
In February 2019, tensions between the two countries had escalated after Pakistan claimed to have shot down two Indian fighter jets a day after India said it launched airstrikes in Pakistani territory in the first such incursion by Indian air force planes since the India-Pakistan war of 1971.
The immediate trigger for the 2019 confrontation was a suicide car bomb attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers. India blames the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) for the attack, the deadliest on security forces since the beginning of the insurgency in the late 1980s.
In August 2019, Pakistan announced it would downgrade diplomatic relations and suspend bilateral trade with India after New Delhi stripped the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.
The SCO and China’s growing hand in diplomacy
The SCO is an eight-member regional security and economic grouping led by China, and its members include India, Pakistan and Russia.
China has close economic, diplomatic and military ties with Pakistan, making it one of the nation’s most important allies in the region.
The latest breakthrough came after China brokered a deal between two other longstanding foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia, last month.
Saudi Arabia and Iran announced on March 10 that they had agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties after seven years of hostility, in a deal that could have wide-ranging implications for the Middle East and was seen as a major soft power win for Beijing.
Riyadh and Tehran plan to reopen their embassies within two months and reimplement a security pact first signed 22 years ago, in the agreement mediated by China.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Saudi Arabia moved closer to joining the SCO bloc, having been granted the status of a dialogue partner as it expands its global outreach. The kingdom could eventually be granted full membership.