Days after India-Pakistan tensions spilled over into a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi are expected to meet via a video conference at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting on September 24.
“All member countries have confirmed participation in the meeting, to be chaired by Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nepal. The respective Foreign Ministers will take part,” sources familiar with preparations for the meeting told The Hindu, referring to the eight members of SAARC, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
A senior Indian official also confirmed that Mr. Jaishankar will attend despite the incident at the SCO virtual meeting of National Security Advisors on Tuesday. During that meeting, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval stormed out after he saw that the Pakistan Special Advisor on National Security Moeed Yusuf had used a map of Pakistan that claimed Indian territory.
“This was in blatant disregard to the advisory by the host [Russia] against it and in violation of the norms of the meeting. After consultation with the host, the Indian side left the meeting in protest at that juncture,” the MEA had said about the incident.
When asked, the sources said that no specific guidelines on background or maps have been issued by the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu that is also the Chair of the SAARC at present, but they hope it would go “smoothly”. A meeting of SAARC Finance Ministers, where an Additional Secretary represented India instead of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and Pakistan was represented by its Special Advisor on Finance, took place on Wednesday without incident.
An official also pointed to the revival of SAARC cooperation due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, including the creation of an India-led SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund, and exchanges between regional health professionals this year. Speaking at the SAARC Finance Ministers’ meet on Wednesday, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Gyawali said that the COVID-19 crisis has meant the region will experience a contraction of at least 2.7% this year, and will “experience the worst economic performance in the last 40 years”, which adds to the need for SAARC cooperation.
The SAARC Foreign Ministers meeting scheduled for next Thursday is part of an old practice of holding an informal lunch meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Last year, both Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Qureshi attended the meeting, but skipped each other’s speeches. Mr. Jaishankar left early, while Mr. Qureshi entered only after he left.
The meeting’s agenda includes opening remarks by Mr. Gyawali followed by a brief overview by the current SAARC Secretary General, Sri Lankan diplomat Esala R. Weerakoon. Following that, country statements will be made by participating Foreign Ministers, in alphabetical order.
In normal practice, the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meeting also prepares for the SAARC leaders’ summit that last took place in 2014. Since then, India has refused to participate in the summit as it is due to be hosted in Pakistan. Sources said there was no clarity yet on whether there would be any move to host the summit virtually. At a special SAARC summit on COVID-19 hosted virtually by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 15, Pakistan PM Imran Khan had sent his Special Advisor on Health instead.
Sources said that while India had not agreed to attending a summit hosted in Pakistan, it remains an important promoter of the SAARC process, and continues to provide about 30% of the $3 million operational costs of the SAARC Secretariat.