Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter.
I am Michael Kugelman, Assistant Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. I have replaced Ravi Agrawal, now editor-in-chief of FP, as the author of this newsletter. I look forward to sharing news and analysis from a region with a quarter of the world’s population – and an endless supply of fascinating stories.
This week’s highlights: What’s next after the Armistice between India and Pakistan, Chinese malware is revealed in the Indian electricity infrastructure, and why Kabuls Water crisis is getting worse.
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After the India-Pakistan ceasefire along the line of control assessed this week by both Sushant Singh and Foreign Policy columnist Sumit Ganguly, a key question is what will come next. Can observers be optimistic? Will the ceasefire result in additional steps to strengthen bilateral ties, or will it be a wet squib that doesn’t improve the strained relationship?
On one level, skepticism is appropriate. While the joint declaration accompanying the ceasefire promises to address “core issues”, neither side is likely to address the other side’s core issue to their satisfaction anytime soon.
India’s main concern is Pakistan-based terrorism. Islamabad has recently taken encouraging steps, including sentencing the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, Hafiz Saeed, to prison for terrorist financing. But India will not be satisfied until Pakistan dismantles terrorist networks on its soil. Given Islamabad’s longstanding use of India-focused militants to compensate for New Delhi’s superior conventional military might, this is a major challenge.
Pakistan’s core issue is cashmere. A day after the ceasefire was announced, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that if India is to move forward, it must take steps to give Kashmiris the right to self-determination. This is a non-runner for New Delhi: the 2019 decision to revoke the autonomy of India-administered Kashmir effectively precluded the possibility of a review of the region’s status in his view.
The ceasefire will not be a precursor to peace, but it does create opportunities for confidence-building measures in other areas. Working together to fight the coronavirus offers the most immediate opportunity. The momentum was building before the armistice. On February 18, at a regional health workshop, the Pakistani representative approved a plan proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to simplify visa requirements for medical staff to facilitate regional travel.
The ceasefire also creates potential for greater engagement between India and Pakistan on common goals in multilateral frameworks, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which promotes cooperation in South-Central Asia, to the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, which focuses on the Concentrated stabilization of Afghanistan. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which depends on unanimous decisions, has long been paralyzed by the rivalry between India and Pakistan.
After all, India and Pakistan have never normalized trade relations, but trade relations have thrived even in tense times before. In 1965, a year when India and Pakistan were at war, six Indian banks were operating in Pakistan. Months after another conflict in 1972, both sides signed a treaty that resumed limited trade. In recent years, however, the volume of trade has been around $ 2 billion – far less than the nearly $ 40 billion that World Bank projects could achieve with more trade facilitation.
The benefits of more trade could range from macro-economic stimulus to relief for local communities. According to field research by researcher Nikita Singla, 75,000 Indians living on the border in Punjab state and Indian-administered Kashmir suffered financially after border trade ceased in 2019. “We have to look at trading from a livelihood perspective,” Singla told me this week.
New Delhi and Islamabad may choose not to take advantage of these opportunities. In the midst of the persistently high tensions, they might come to the conclusion that there is no point in taking confidence-building measures if no one is willing to move on to the core issues. But they have the option of riding the arms of the truce and pursuing broader collaboration – as long as the volatility of the relationship doesn’t cause that window to be slammed.
March 5th: Tune in for FP Subscriber call in South Asiawith insights from Michael Kugelman, Editor-in-Chief Ravi Agrawal, and Executive Editor Amelia Lester.
March 8: The Stimson Center hosts a webinar on attitudes and threat perceptions of the Indian and Pakistani armies.
Chinese malware in the Indian power grid. Analysis by Recorded Future, a US company that studies how countries use the Internet, found that Chinese malware was stuck in “nearly a dozen critical nodes” of India’s power infrastructure after the deadly border conflict between Indian and Chinese troops last June was injected. The New York Times raises the possibility that a power outage in Mumbai last October was linked to the intrusion.
Unfortunately for India, the discovery could be the tip of the Chinese malware iceberg. A day after the Times report, Reuters announced that Chinese hackers had targeted the IT systems of two Indian COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers. These revelations could heighten tensions between India and China at a sensitive moment, just days after Chinese and Indian troops parted from parts of their controversial border and the countries’ foreign ministers held a 75-minute phone call.
Pakistan’s Senate elections. In Pakistan Senate polls on Wednesday, Pakistan’s ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most seats but suffered a blow from the defeat of incumbent Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh to former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and now a leader in the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party. In addition, it is not expected that the PTI will receive the desired majority in the Senate.
Deposing the Sheikh was a key objective of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance established last year. While Khan is likely to win a vote of confidence in Parliament, Sheikh’s defeat will fuel the PDM, which – as I wrote for foreign policy in October – has lost momentum in recent months due to internal disputes.
Postal problems in Nepal. This month it has been a year since a post office left Nepal. Between March and September 2020, pandemic disruptions in international air traffic resulted in Nepal being unable to send or receive international mail. While incoming mail was resumed in September, outgoing mail remains suspended as Thai Airways – with which Nepal has currently signed a contract – has filed for bankruptcy and can no longer offer the service.
According to the Kathmandu Post, the Nepalese government has not found a replacement carrier. Predictably, private courier companies have now committed murder while the government has lost revenue. However, the postal problems are not just a story about the impact of the pandemic on the Nepalese economy. They also reflect South Asia’s transportation and connectivity restrictions: the region is said to be the least integrated in the world.
India leads the way in COVID-19 vaccinations, but it will take many millions more to reach its population. Bangladesh is the only other country in the region that has distributed more than 1 million shots, and its population is far smaller.
The above data also captures the wide variation between countries: Bhutan has only recorded one coronavirus death while the Maldives has the smallest population in the region but the highest rate of cases and deaths per million people.
Kabul is experiencing a severe water crisis. In some areas, the water table drops more than two meters per year. According to water expert Mohsin Amin, only 30 percent of the Afghan capital’s residents have access to a tap water supply, and only 10 percent now have access to drinking water.
Population growth, high demand and unregulated groundwater drilling are driving the crisis, which is being exacerbated by climate change. This has serious repercussions – not only on the economy and public health, but also on the structural foundations of Kabul. Najib Fahim Agha, a former Afghan civil protection minister, told the Telegraph last month that falling water levels could make the soil more fragile and could even cause buildings to overturn.
Other South Asian cities are facing water crises, but Kabuls is being exacerbated by an endless war that is pushing the water crisis into the background – although President Ashraf Ghani made a speech a few weeks ago recognizing the severity of the problem. In Afghanistan, water stress – and other non-security crises such as child malnutrition – deserve more attention than they receive.
“Every day I hear from a different friend, journalist, academic, women’s rights activist or entrepreneur who is leaving the country. Their departures lead to an absence that will take another generation to fill them. “
– Shaharzad Akbar, director of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan, writes in the Washington Post about Afghans fleeing increasing violence
It’s not often that a four-second video goes viral. But that’s exactly what happened to a seemingly mundane clip of a young Pakistani woman, Dananeer Mobeen. She points to a car and speaks in Urdu. “This is our car, this is us, and this is our party.” Mobeen uses the English word “party” but pronounces it incorrectly, presumably as a joke about Pakistani people trying to put English accents. The video has inspired copycat videos in both Pakistan and India.
The English language can be an important issue in the subcontinent, where debates rage about its place in schools and whether it is a status symbol of the elite. It’s nice to see it shown in a carefree moment when Indians and Pakistanis can laugh together. Celebrate on.
That’s it for this week.
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