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How Pakistan turned ‘handshake’ with Trump into ‘informal meeting’

Talking with Pakistan Television, foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he requested US president Donald Trump to rebuild the cordial relations that the two countries “have enjoyed in the past”.

world Updated: Sep 27, 2018 20:55 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Pakistan,US,Shah Mehmood Qureshi
US President Donald Trump leaves after a press conference on September 26, 2018, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump only shook hands with Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during a luncheon in New York on Tuesday, the Trump administration said, but Qureshi described it as an “informal meeting” where they agreed to “re-build” damaged bilateral ties.

“It was a handshake at a luncheon with other world leaders,” a US national security council spokesperson said in response to a question about the reported meeting and the conversation that Qureshi said took place with the American president. The official did not comment on the details reported by the minister.

But “there was no meeting”, a US source averred.

That was not how foreign minister Qureshi described his interaction with the president. “I met with President Trump at the reception where I had the opportunity to discuss Pak-US relations with him. I requested him to rebuild the cordial relations that we have enjoyed in the past,” the foreign minister told Pakistan Television.

Qureshi was referring to a luncheon hosted by the UN secretary general.

“President Trump agrees with the view and says that the United States intends to re-build the relations,” Qureshi said, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan.

The so-called interaction, which was described as an “informal meeting” was reported widely in Pakistani media.

“This was a mischaracterization of a handshake as a meeting, even if it was called an informal meeting,” said a former Washington-based diplomat who spoke on background to explain nuances of meetings and interactions between officials to two different countries. “It’s against diplomatic norms to do this.”

Qureshi’s interaction was similar perhaps to the quick exchange of words and greetings that Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had with President Trump at the conclusion of a UN conference on the world’s drug problems on Monday.

After being introduced to the President, Swaraj passed on greetings to him from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to which the Trump replied, “I love India; give my regards to my friend PM Modi.”

“Indians did not describe the exchange as a meeting or an informal meeting,” another diplomat said, to contrast the two situations.

Pakistani media also reported Qureshi as saying that he met with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo at the same luncheon. The two are scheduled to meet formally in Washington DC early October.

Pakistan has approached the Trump administration with a curious mix of trepidation and bluster. They got off to an awkward start when the then Nawaz Sharif government released a transcript of a call placed by the prime minister to President-elect Trump to congratulate him on his election. Trump had been generically effusive in his praise of the prime minister — “great guy”. The Trump transition team countered that with a more routine readout, starkly bereft of all colour.

The Imran Khan government got on to a somewhat similar start, when it disputed a readout released by the US state department of a congratulatory call from Secretary Pompeo to Prime Minister Khan. Islamabad contended terrorism did not come up in the call and demanded a clarification, which the US rejected.

“There is a sense of desperation in Pakistan about ties with the Trump administration,” said the former diplomat. Understandable perhaps given the tough posture adopted by President Trump including the suspension of $2 billion in security-related aid to Pakistan.

First Published: Sep 27, 2018 08:55 IST