Ahead of OBOR, SCO summits, Pakistan and India try backchannel diplomacy

Irshad Salim — Indian steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal’s hour-long meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month, was part of backchannel diplomacy between Islamabad and New Delhi, BBC Urdu reported.

An Indian delegation led by Jindal – a close friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – met PM Sharif at his private residence in Murree Hill resort station on April 29, sans protocols and away from media glare.

Although the government and ruling party initially kept mum about the meeting, Pakistan’s private news media broke the story with unusual exuberance, prompting the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, to confirm the development on her social media Twitter account. “Mr Jindal is an old friend of the prime minister. Nothing ‘secret’ about the meeting and [it] should not be blown out of proportion,” she tweeted.

Speaking to BBC Urdu, important government officials said PM Sharif during a recent meeting with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa took him into confidence regarding the backchannel diplomacy which Jindal is said to have been coordinating — and ahead of OBOR world summit in China this week as well as a summit next month of a regional security organization led by China and Russia.

Although nothing has officially been shared about the context of this meeting, it is believed it was part of an effort to arrange a meeting between the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit to be held in June in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Pakistan and India are set to become full members of the SCO in the upcoming conference. The SCO is presently made up of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Established in 2003, the organization aims to promote cooperation between members and maintain regional stability, good neighborliness.

According to reports, the Indian delegation led by Jindal also delivered some message from Modi to Nawaz who’s attending the OBOR summit.

With the CPEC being the flagship of the One Road, One Belt (OBOR) project, Sharif will be treated as a prominent participant at the summit. Apart from 29 heads of state and government, representatives of 61 international organizations and delegates from 110 countries, the secretary-general of the UN, the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF will also be at the summit.

While Modi will not be at the conference, China’s offer recently made ahead of the summit, to include India in OBOR’s southern corridor called CPEC — if Pakistan agrees, will be a hot subject during global leaders’ lunch and dinner discussions.

With Modi opting out, Delhi is sending a delegation. According to reports, the CPEC offer on the table is subject to the warring neighbors burying their hatchets — shift away from rhetoric and towards the language of opportunity.

PM Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs Mr. Sartaj Aziz told reporters on Wednesday that if India shows interest, Pakistan will look into the possibility of a meeting between Mr Sharif and Mr. Modi on the sidelines of the SCO summit next month.

The Nation quoted unnamed senior Pakistani Foreign Office officials as saying that diplomatic efforts had been launched to defuse tensions along the borders with its immediate neighbors.

“There have been overt and covert talks with all the countries (Iran, Afghanistan and India),” an official was quoted as saying.

“Nobody can afford confrontation, so we are trying to resolve the misunderstandings through talks,” the official said.

He said that while there had been open talks with Iran and Afghanistan, “back-channels were being used in India’s case”.

The unnamed official added that if Modi and Sharif do meet on the sidelines of the SCO Summit, “it will be positive to concentrate on the talks process”. That would include Kashmir dispute and CPEC-generated regional opportunities — a view observers say could cut the Gordian knot.

A common friend of Nawaz and Modi, Jindal is thought to be an interlocutor or, at times, a facilitator in some meetings between the two heads of government during the past three years. One such meeting was on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Nepal which both sides did not officially confirm. Jindal is also said to be the man behind Modi’s surprise private visit to Lahore two years ago during which he attended the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter.

A close aide of PM Nawaz, while speaking to BBC Urdu said, the premier did not share details of the meeting with his officials, instead only told them that Jindal was in Pakistan to help reduce tensions, adding that Kulbushan Jadhav’s case was not and could not be discussed during backchannel talks.

Aziz said Islamabad was reviewing the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in the case filed by Delhi on Jadhav’s death sentence by the Pakistan military court on charges of espionage and facilitating terrorism inside the country.

India-Pakistan ties are strained over uptick in protests in Indian-held Kashmir, cross-border firings at the Line of Control, and over the death sentence to Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav handed out by Pakistan’s military court.

However, between headlines and secrecy, Pakistani and Indian leadership continue to seek futuristics of the essence, form and substance of good neighborliness courtesy stakeholders in SCO, OBOR including Turkey and Iran — both having offered to mediate the Kashmir issue.

Tanks can no longer do their thinking. Indian, Pakistani — even Chinese, Think Tanks are realizing, if recent trend of articles and reports are considered.

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