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Step at a time for Indo-Pak ties

Ramananda Sengupta in New Delhi | June 22, 2004 13:16 IST

"The real significance of this meeting is that after the political transition in India, after the change of government, this is the first meeting between the two foreign ministers. So it's also a kind of 'get to know' meeting. They probably know each other already. But in this changed setting, they met for the first time. And that's why this is a significant meeting."

Pakistan foreign office spokesman Masood Khan, commenting on the two hour lunch meeting between External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri on June 21 in the east Chinese port city of Qingdao, on the sidelines of the 22-member Asian Cooperation Dialogue.

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The meeting came a day after talks between the two nations on nuclear confidence building measures, which set the ground for the 'composite dialogue' process in Delhi from next week.

"The rounds of talks we had [on 19-20 June] were productive. And now, of course, the challenge for both Pakistan and India is to implement these measures faithfully," said Masood Khan.

"We are moving ahead step by step. Whatever we agree to do, we must implement. That is the spirit," he said. 

"Each side reaffirmed its unilateral moratorium on conducting further nuclear test explosions unless, in exercise of national sovereignty, it decides that extraordinary events have jeopardized its supreme interests," said the joint statement issued after the nuclear talks.

"The existing hotline between the directors general of military operations would be upgraded, dedicated, and secured. A dedicated and secure hotline would be established between the two foreign secretaries through the respective foreign offices to prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks relevant to nuclear issues," it added.

Teams from both sides discussed the narcotics problem plaguing the two nations earlier in the week, and will discuss Pakistan's position on India's decision to build dams on the Jhelum River, which feeds into Pakistan, on Tuesday. 

This will be followed by a meeting of the foreign secretaries June 27-28.

After his meeting with Singh in China, Kasuri said it was now essential for the leaders of the two nations to meet and arrive at a solution to the Kashmir issue acceptable to India, Pakistan and Kashmiris.

"He [Singh] told me that Mrs [Congress president Sonia] Gandhi has accepted President [Pervez] Musharraf's invitation to visit Pakistan," he told Pakistan Television. 

India, however, is yet to respond to a Pakistani proposal that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Musharraf meet on sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September.

"We need to set the groundwork for any such summit," said a government official. "Let us first see how the 'composite dialogue' evolves."

The two foreign ministers are likely to meet again at the sidelines of the ASEAN regional forum in Indonesia on July 1-2 and then again at the SAARC ministerial summit in Islamabad two weeks later.

"According to the calendar of activities finalized by the foreign secretaries in relation to the composite dialogue process, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India are scheduled to meet [again] in August. So they will have more opportunities to meet each other," said Masood Khan.

"There has been progress. There has been a thaw. There has been an understanding and movement towards dialogue and confidence building and constructive and consistent engagement," he said.

Exchanging warm hugs for the media in China before and after their hour-long lunch -- hosted by Natwar Singh, who personally chose the elaborate Chinese menu -- followed by a 25-minute one-one meeting, Kasuri said, "We discussed all the issues that are necessary for us to discuss. We had a very positive frame of mind towards all issues."

"We have to be actors now too," he joked as photographers requested them to hug each other. 

"The chemistry was pretty good," agreed Singh.

China, which has offered to play a "constructive role" in easing tensions if requested by both India and Pakistan, expressed optimism over the meeting.

"We are very happy to host their first meeting. We hope it will further improve relations between India and Pakistan," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.

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