In what is being read as the first signal from Islamabad after ties with New Delhi hit rock bottom, the Pakistan government has decided to send Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs advisor to its Prime Minister, for the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar on December 3-4.
This will be the first ministerial-level visit — Aziz is the de facto Minister for Foreign Affairs — from Pakistan after the Pathankot attack in January derailed the proposed bilateral dialogue process between the two countries. Relations plummeted sharply in the wake of the Uri attack, India’s surgical strikes on terror launch pads along the Line of Control and the daily exchange of fire by troops on either side.
Although Pakistan had confirmed earlier that it would attend the Amritsar conference, the decision to send Aziz is considered significant.
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The conference on Afghanistan’s future will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.
Pakistan public broadcaster PTV quoted Aziz saying, “Unlike India, that had sabotaged the SAARC summit in Pakistan by pulling out, Pakistan will respond by participating in the Heart of Asia being held in India. It’s a good opportunity to defuse tension.”
Aziz said he himself will participate in the conference and will not repeat India’s “blunder” of boycotting the SAARC summit which was to be held in Islamabad this month.
Officials in Islamabad see this as an opportunity to try and “normalise” relations. “We are constructive about the relationship… would like to see some progress… but is New Delhi ready?” a Pakistani official told The Indian Express.
While there was no official word from New Delhi on Pakistan’s decision to send Aziz, Indian officials said he was welcome to attend the Heart of Asia conference. “It is a multilateral event… and every participant’s presence will be treated as such. No bilateral importance should be attached to it,” South Block sources said.
Pakistan, sources said, cannot afford to stay away from a conference where the future of Afghanistan is being discussed. “It is important for them to stay in the room,” sources said.
Last December, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad for the last Heart of Asia ministerial meeting, she held a bilateral meeting with Aziz. She also met Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members.
The meetings led to the resumption of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue process, but that stalled after the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry had visited New Delhi in April for a meeting of the Heart of Asia officials.