Why Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Is Visiting India
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is in Goa to meet regional counterparts—not to patch up bilateral ties.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India hosts a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation foreign ministers’ meeting, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina passes through Washington but not the White House, and a Chinese state company announces fresh investment in Sri Lanka.
SCO Foreign Ministers Gather in Goa
India’s government hosts the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the coastal city of Goa on Thursday and Friday. India currently chairs the eight-member group, which was established in 2001 and seeks to foster collaboration on security and development in Asia. The foreign ministers’ meeting comes ahead of the SCO leaders’ summit scheduled for July in New Delhi.
One major storyline ahead of the summit is the attendance of Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, which will mark the first visit to India by a Pakistani foreign minister since 2011. Some observers have wondered if a reconciliation effort is in the works. But for Islamabad, Bhutto Zardari’s visit is less an attempt to patch up ties with New Delhi than an opportunity to strengthen engagement with the SCO and advance its foreign-policy interests.
Consider the SCO’s advantages for Pakistan. Historically, China and Russia have led the group—Islamabad’s closest ally and an important new friend, respectively. Half of the SCO membership is based in Central Asia, where Pakistan hopes to deepen engagement to expand trade and connectivity—and it is already succeeding: In 2021, Uzbekistan inked a deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan to develop a transnational rail system.
In some multilateral organizations that include both India and Pakistan, Islamabad is at a disadvantage because New Delhi is the most powerful member. (Take, for example, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.) But India’s clout in the SCO is constrained by the presence of its strategic rival China. The war in Ukraine has also driven Moscow closer to Beijing—which may mean waning Russian influence within the SCO and even more power for China.
Like Pakistan, India hopes to scale up its ties with resource-rich Central Asian states. The region has quietly become a battleground for competition between the two countries. India lacks direct land access to Afghanistan, a key gateway to Central Asia, but it has compensated by establishing new mechanisms for regular meetings with governments in the region. Pakistan’s attendance at the Goa summit may aim to signal that it does not intend to cede any more ground to India when it comes to Central Asia.
None of this is to say that Pakistan isn’t also approaching Bhutto Zardari’s trip through a bilateral lens. Given the political and economic turmoil back home, Islamabad is keen to keep tensions with New Delhi low. The visit will build on more than two years of relatively stable relations. It can be a confidence-building measure, especially after Pakistan’s defense minister opted to attend a meeting with his SCO counterparts last month virtually instead of in person.
Indian media report that Pakistan requested a meeting between Bhutto Zardari and his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar. Pakistani officials denied this, albeit anonymously. Either way, it would be misguided to see the Pakistani foreign minister’s visit as an attempt to kick-start a reconciliation process. Just last month, Indian officials blamed Pakistan-based terrorists for an assault in India-administered Kashmir.
New Delhi won’t be inclined to expend political capital on forging dialogue with a weak and unpopular administration in Islamabad, especially with Indian elections just a year away. (Pakistan’s own elections are currently scheduled for October.) And Pakistan’s government would risk serious political damage by extending a hand to an Indian administration resented in Pakistan because of its Kashmir policies and treatment of Indian Muslims.
The Bhutto Zardari visit is a regional imperative for Pakistan, not a bilateral one. By skipping the SCO summit, Islamabad would risk losing clout within the organization—which is dominated by an ally, includes members it is keen to cultivate deeper ties with, and ultimately limits the influence of New Delhi.
What We’re Following
Bangladesh’s PM visits Washington. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will leave Washington on Thursday after a nearly weeklong visit. Her engagements mainly focused on economic issues, including meetings with the directors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the U.S.-Bangladesh Business Council, and members of the Bangladeshi diaspora. Hasina’s public comments touched on economic growth, but she also made pitches for economic assistance.
Although Bangladesh’s economy is one of South Asia’s top economic success stories, it has also experienced rising inflation and debt in recent months. Dhaka inked a new accord with the IMF in January.
What stands out about Hasina’s visit is that it featured no known meetings with the Biden administration, which has sought to scale up cooperation with Bangladesh. The United States recently began describing its ties with Bangladesh as a strategic partnership. To be sure, Hasina didn’t come to Washington at the invitation of the White House, but her visit does come amid tensions over U.S. criticism of Dhaka’s record on democracy.
Just last month, Hasina spoke before Parliament and indirectly accused the Biden administration of trying to stage regime change in Bangladesh.
New Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. This week, the state-run China Merchants Group announced that it will invest nearly $400 million to construct a logistics complex in Sri Lanka’s port of Colombo. The project, which the company described as the biggest logistics hub in South Asia, is expected to be completed by 2025. The development is one of the first major foreign investments in Sri Lanka since it defaulted on its debt last year. China Merchants Group will have a 70 percent stake in the project.
This suggests that China thinks Sri Lanka’s economy has stabilized enough to be able to take on a large new project. Furthermore, the investment signals that Colombo has not been deterred from Chinese infrastructure investment even after controversy. In 2017, China received a 99-year lease to develop and manage Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, an arrangement that hasn’t sat well with many Sri Lankans.
China Merchants Group also manages the Hambantota port; it said this week that its total investments in Sri Lanka will now approach $2 billion.
Record permits for Mount Everest. This climbing season, Nepal’s tourism department has issued a record-high number of permits to Mount Everest climbers—more than 460, as of last week. Officials haven’t explained the surge in permits, but the climbing industry brings in high revenues for Nepal. With the country experiencing serious economic stress, especially high inflation, the resulting income will benefit Kathmandu.
But with economic benefits come potential safety risks. Volatile weather conditions leave limited windows for climbing, fueling concerns about overcrowding as climbers, guides, and other support staff begin their ascents. Four people have already died during the 2023 climbing season, although the causes were illness and accidents. Still, long lines on mountain trails have sparked safety concerns in the past, including in 2019, when nine people died during the climbing season.
Under the Radar
A speech by a top U.N. official about Afghanistan last month generated a storm of controversy ahead of a high-level U.N.-sponsored conference in Qatar this week. Speaking at Princeton University on April 17, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed suggested that the upcoming conference with special envoys from around the world would focus on possible steps for recognition of the Taliban regime. No country has recognized the regime, and the Taliban do not occupy Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations.
Taliban critics lambasted Mohammed and the U.N. for even entertaining the idea of recognition. As the conference convened on Monday, protesters gathered around the world to demand that the U.N. not consider recognition, including women in Kabul. U.N. spokespeople, however, have suggested that Mohammed’s comments were misinterpreted, saying that recognition was not on the conference agenda.
The conference—which did not invite Taliban representatives, sparking condemnations from the group—simply intended to bring together Afghanistan-focused senior diplomats to find common ground on how to engage with the Taliban regime about key challenges. But the outside concerns about its objectives overshadowed the event, highlighting the sensitivity of the issue.
Although many activists and diplomats agree that the Taliban don’t deserve recognition, the group is less isolated today than when it last held power in the late 1990s. Its leaders meet frequently with diplomats outside Afghanistan, and some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have kept their embassies open in Kabul.
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In Al Jazeera, Mohammad Hanif, a doctor in Pakistan’s Sindh province, writes that people are still suffering nearly a year after catastrophic floods in the country. “It’s been seven months and the water level is still so high that people can’t return to their homes. … I have been able to return to my home but that’s not the case for many people who are still living in tents,” he writes.
A Kathmandu Post editorial warns that political instability is worsening Nepal’s economic stress. “Those charged with steadying the economy are fighting among themselves rather than working together to pull the country out of the current mess,” it argues. “There is no political consensus on how to reinvigorate the moribund economy.”
Analyst Huma Yusuf argues in Dawn that China’s mediation of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be replicated with India and Pakistan. “China has limited potential to serve as a mediator in South Asia,” she writes. “China is a more direct participant in our region’s conflict dynamics.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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