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Has FM Bilawal Broken the Ice in Pakistan-US Relations?

Not much came out of the meeting, not even a formal joint statement. The biggest takeaways were the resumption of FM-level engagement, the optics, and the two sides' "shared desire for a strong and prosperous bilateral relationship".

By A Correspondent
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Secretary of State Antony Blinkenn meeting Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in New York on May 18.  (Photo courtesy of Secretary Antony Blinken’s Twitter account).

Some ice has finally broken between the United States and its estranged ally Pakistan following the much-awaited meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the newly installed Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
The meeting, which lasted 45 minutes, was held in New York on Wednesday, May 18. Bhutto, 33, is on a maiden visit to the US as foreign minister since taking charge of his portfolio in the PML(N)-lead Shahbaz Sharif government.

Bilawal had arrived in the US on Tuesday, May 17, to attend the two-day ministerial conference on the threat to global food security, triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on the invitation of Blinken.
Not much came out of the meeting, not even a formal joint statement. The biggest takeaway was the two sides’ “shared desire for a strong and prosperous bilateral relationship”, a diplomatic jargon that usually means little meaningful progress was made on a host of points of divergence between the two countries. Conversely, the US and Turkey issued a joint statement after Blinken held a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu the same day (May 18) on the sidelines of the UN moot.

The meeting came at a time when Pakistan-US relations, which largely remained frosty during the government of former prime minister Imran Khan, have been tense since Khan accused Washington of being behind a “conspiracy” to bring his government down through a no-confidence motion. The US has repeatedly rejected the charge and has denied any role in the no-confidence motion against Khan.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Blinken was warm and welcoming. On his part, FM Bilawal, who has no foreign policy experience, was making visible efforts to walk through diplomatic protocols and pleasantries. Much of Blinken’s remarks were about global food security and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacted the global food supply chain. “It’s been exacerbated dramatically by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, adding another 40 million people to those who are food insecure.”

He thanked the Pakistani foreign minister for attending the meeting. According to the transcripts of the public comments by the two leaders, of the 263 words that Secretary Blinken delivered in Bilawal’s presence, only 48 addressed the US relations with Pakistan. “This is an important opportunity for us to talk about the many issues where we’re working together.  We want to focus on the work we’re doing to strengthen our economic and commercial ties between the United States and Pakistan; of course, focus on regional security.”

Bilawal Bhutto reciprocated: “I also look forward to the opportunity to increase engagement between Pakistan and the United States, working with yourself and your administration to improve trade relations between Pakistan and the United States and create opportunities for American investors, and Pakistani investors, and Pakistani businessmen, and American entrepreneurs to work together.  And I really look forward to working with you on both these issues.”

A short statement issued by the State Department spokesperson Ned Price later also did not offer any outcomes, other than pointing at the topics that came up for discussion.

“Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met today with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in New York City to affirm the shared desire for a strong and prosperous bilateral relationship. The Secretary and the Foreign Minister discussed expanding partnership in climate, investment, trade, and health as well as people-to-people ties. They underscored the importance of U.S.-Pakistan cooperation on regional peace, counterterrorism, Afghan stability, support for Ukraine, and democratic principles. The Secretary welcomed Pakistan’s Chairmanship of the G77 and committed to advancing climate action and global food security.”

Pakistan assumed the chairmanship of G77 in January this year. The G77, which got its name from 77 founding members, is a group of 134 developing countries and China at the United Nations. China aligns itself with the group, whose aim is to promote the collective economic interests of the members and to try to have a bigger say in the world organization.

FM Bilawal Bhutto meeting his Turkish counterpart in New York City on May 18. (Photo courtesy Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Twitteer account)

The United States chaired the special UN Security Council meeting on growing food insecurity around the world, which has been exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

FM Bilawal Bhutto meeting UN Secretary-General Antonion Guterres in New York on May 18. (Photo courtesy Permanent Mission of Pakistan to UN)

It is Bilawal’s first appearance on the international stage in his new capacity. Besides Blinken, he also met the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, and Italian FM Luigi Di Maio.

Bilawal Bhutto meetig his Italian counnterpart Luigi Di Maio inn New York on May 18. (Photo courtesy Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Twitter account)

Blinken-Bilawal meeting coincided with Pakistan-IMF talks resuming in Qatar on May 18 over the release of crucial funds, a process slowed by concerns about the pace of economic reforms amid domestic political pressure on the new government. Pakistan’s economy has been hit by crippling national debt, galloping inflation, and a plummeting rupee, which crossed 205 to a dollar on May 18, the highest in history. The government of Prime Minister Shabaz sharif is lobbying the Biden administration for help, especially through the IMF-infused cash and support. But The US side did not have much assurance, at least publicly during May 18 high-level contact between the two countries.

Bilawal’s meeting with Blkinken came days after the Pakistani intelligence chief concluded bilateral security talks with American security brass in Washington DC. The ISI Director General Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum met senior US security officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William J Burns during his three-day US visit.

While neither side disclosed the talks, they are believed to have been focused on bilateral security concerns and the situation in Afghanistan, as the US believes that Pakistan can help stabilize the neighboring war-torn country.

 

 

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