Like among humans, difficult times are often reminiscent of the true character of relations between states. The Covid-19 has presented multiple challenges before states and have changed their approach towards other states and the world. In a volatile neighbourhood like South Asia, India’s state-level relations with Nepal and Bangladesh have undergone numerous twists and turns in the past one year.
Bhutan continues to be the one of the two countries in India’s neighbourhood that exhibits robust relations with New Delhi, the other being Maldives. The pandemic visitation and China’s new territorial claims in eastern areas have not affected this bonhomie with India. The wisdom of the monarchs of Bhutan, India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and a win-win partnership, particularly in hydropower, have led to the sustenance of the ‘special ties’ they share.
A policy focussed on cooperation, based on the needs and requirements of neighbouring countries, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has lent vitality to the India-Bhutan relations. New Delhi has been sensitive to Thimphu’s distress owing to the pandemic and has been responsive in helping its friendly neighbour.
India repeatedly showed concern for the requests from the friendly neighbour. It ensured the flow of essential goods across the border that was most crucial for every Bhutanese, since Thimphu decided to seal their international borders in March to prevent the proliferation of the virus. India is also collaborating with Bhutan in developing Covid-19 vaccine and has gifted testing-kits and medicines. To ensure trade and connectivity with Bhutan, India opened a new route through Ahlay.
New Delhi adheres to non-reciprocity principle, an important feature of the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Recently, India made an exception bringing in an urgent notification allowing imports of potatoes and other agricultural products from Bhutan. This was after the Bhutanese peasants faced uncertainty over the sale of their produce, following Indian border security personnel turned back Bhutanese potatoes from entering India, citing procedural issues.
The decisiveness and speed at which the establishment in New Delhi, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi caters to its neighbourhood friends, including Bhutan, is a marked change from the previous regimes in New Delhi. An instance of the previous regime in New Delhi’s decision of suspending LPG subsidy given to Bhutan, days before the election day in 2013, was held by the Bhutanese as India’s interference in elections in the Himalayan state.
Departing from this low-point in India-Bhutan relations that drew a flak from observers, Narendra Modi has ably followed up on his state visits to Bhutan in 2014 and 2019, by continuing through regular telephonic conversations with Bhutanese leadership and assuring Bhutan that India is by its side in dealing with the pandemic. India on the request of the Bhutanese Prime Minister is also considering reprioritising the allocation of INR 4500 crore towards Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan owing to the pandemic.
In order to forge a win-win partnership, no sector holds more potential for this partnership than hydropower. Amidst the Covid pandemic, the two nations signed an agreement on the construction of the first-ever joint venture project -- the 600-MW Kholongchhu hydropower project. The project would be an addition to Bhutan’s electricity export to India and will generate employment for its people as well as meet India’s demands for electricity at affordable rates.
The Himalayan nation this year recorded the highest 2,400 MW due to good monsoon, exceeding the capacity of 2,336 MW that was after the commissioning of the 720 MW Mangdechhu hydropower project last year. Also, the Mangdechhu project, jointly inaugurated by the prime ministers of the two countries in August last year, was awarded the Brunel Medal for excellence in civil engineering by the UK-based Institute of Civil Engineers.
Earlier this year, Bhutan’s Power System Master Plan 2040 estimated the country’s hydropower potential and availability at 37,000 MW from 155 identified sites, including the existing power plants. This is a marked increase from the earlier power potential and availability estimate of 30,000 MW. The increased availability holds potential for the two countries to jointly tap hydropower beyond the 10,000 MW agreed through an inter-governmental agreement in 2009.
While promising to be a bedrock of continuation of strong relations between the two countries, cooperation in hydropower is also fraught with challenges. Since the pandemic descended upon the two countries in March, the ongoing constructions of joint hydropower projects taken by the two countries like Punatsangchhu-I and II projects have been disrupted due to shortage of machinery and construction materials. The two projects have already overshot their scheduled completion owing to geological challenges.
Bhutan and India, however, are hopeful of turning the tide of the pandemic and recuperating from its disastrous effects through the virtue of staying together and helping each other. Reinvigorated by PM Modi’s ‘Bharat to Bhutan’ vision, wherein India and Bhutan are always on each other’s side, a relationship that has endured since 1949 when the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was signed laying the foundation of close political, cultural and economic ties between the two countries.
US Deputy Secretary of State Stephan Biegun, during his visit to Bangladesh in October this year, observed that his country is looking towards Bangladesh as a key partner in its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). During his visit, Biegun met top Bangladeshi leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Abdul Momen and officials.
During the visit, the two countries discussed issues including long term economic and development partnership, cooperation on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, Rohingya refugee crisis. However, Beigun’s primary emphasis in all the forums was on the IPS, indicating the US’s desire for Bangladesh to support the IPS.
Bangladesh, a member of China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI), however, has been cautious in its response since it fears any hasty reaction might be detrimental to the country’s interest. Dhaka’s apprehension arises from the popular perception of the IPS being a counter to the Chinese BRI.
Bangladesh is reluctant in joining an international initiative that has security and strategic ramifications. The country is apprehensive that joining the Indo-pacific initiative might drag it into a conflict. Despite this scepticism, the US’s focus on Bangladesh opens a realm of opportunity for the country. Bangladesh needs to introspect how the US attention could be utilised to its s best interest.
The IPS span over the regions of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is US’s major initiative in Asia. Under the IPS, the US propagate the vision of free, open, inclusive, peaceful and secure Indo-Pacific region, with shared prosperity for all. To attain this goal, US wants to expand economic ties with the countries in the region by involving greater private sector participation. Enhancing security cooperation is also an important aspect of the IPS.
Bangladesh’s geographical location has been a key reason for the US’s interest in the country. The county is a littoral of the Bay of Bengal, the region integral to the Indian Ocean and a major maritime trading route. Further, Bangladesh’s impressive economic and social development added to the US interest.
The country once referred to as a ‘basket case’ is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. In 2020, Bangladesh’s per capita income has surpassed India, it's neighbour and regional power. The country is a global leader in readymade garment export. It has a strength of human capital due to the presence of a large young population with an impressive human developmental record.
Bangladesh is now considered to be a country of potential. Since the IPS focus on strengthening the business relationship with countries of the region, Bangladesh’s credentials help to make the IPS lucrative for the businesses to participate in. Bangladesh could be an ideal destination for the businesses to invest in that could bring significant dividends to the businesses.
The two basic objectives of Bangladesh’s foreign policy have been enhancing economic development and trade. Given these objectives, Bangladesh could significantly gain from the IPS. In this regard, infrastructure is an area where Bangladesh could gain substantially from the IPS. Notably, the development of the infrastructure has been one the focal area of the IPS.
Interestingly, Bangladesh is emphasising on developing its infrastructure also. The country is seeking financial assistance from various international agencies to support various infrastructure developmental activities. One of the primary reasons for Bangladesh to join the BRI was the financing of its infrastructure project. China has promised to provide $24 billion for the development of infrastructure in the country. IPS could help Bangladesh to secure funding for various developmental work.
Despite the IPS’ thrust on development, it is perceived more as security alliance and has been a cause for Bangladesh’s reticence. The popular opinion in the country has been that the IPS is contradictory to the country’s foreign policy principle -- ‘friendship to all and malice to none’. Bangladesh fears joining the IPS might upset its relationship with China, its strategic ally.
Similarly, the country cannot overlook its relationship with the US. The US has been a major development partner. Besides, it has close economic and security relations. The US is the single largest export destination of Bangladesh RGM, country’s biggest export product. Besides, the US is the second biggest investor in Bangladesh.
The IPS has put Bangladesh in a critical situation. The challenge before the country is how to balance its relationship with China and the US without upsetting its interest. Until date, the country has fared well in maintaining a good relationship with all the great global powers. It will be worthy to watch Bangladesh’s future moves in tackling the strategic challenges that might arise as the global powers increasingly become assertive in explicating their influence in the region.
As per the quarterly report of the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), submitted to the US Congress, enemy attacks on Afghan forces and civilians alike, were up by 50 per cent in the third quarter of 2020. Further stating that the increase in violence was “above seasonal norms”, the report shared that anti-government forces accounted for 83 percent of the civilian casualties, out of which the Taliban was responsible for 38 percent.
The government has submitted the draft budget for the next fiscal year to the National Assembly, a day after the cabinet approved the budget plan of US$ 5.8 billion. The acting Minister of Finance Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal shared that 73% of the ordinary budget and 10% of the development budget had been sourced from national revenues.
In a bid to provide Covid-19 vaccine for all, the government signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU) with India’s Serum Institute and Bangladesh's Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd to procure 30 million doses of vaccines. The Serum Institute of Indi has an agreement with AstraZeneca to manufacture the vaccine, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, developed by the Oxford University. The vaccine has been named Covishield in India. Beximco Pharma is a distributor of Serum Institute in Bangladesh. The government, however, has set a condition that the final purchase will purchase the vaccine only after it is approved by the World Health Organisation.
Attempting to strengthen maritime security cooperation between Bangladesh and the United States, a joint the naval exercise started during week. The exercise has been titled ‘Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Bangladesh-2020’. In the CARAT 2020 navies of the two countries will have interactions in the virtual medium and the sea. The sea phase of the exercise will be in the Bay of Bengal where ships from both the navies will participate.
Exports of agricultural goods after witnessing a drop in the second week of October have picked up again as a result of India adding five agricultural commodities to its’ import list from Bhutan. India in an urgent notification on 16 October listed potato, areca nuts, orange, apples and ginger, giving huge relief to farmers and potato traders in Bhutan and India. Earlier, owing the exports had witnessed a 50 percent drop due to issues related to Plant Quarantine certification issued by India. Trade statistics indicated that, 90 per cent of the agricultural produce is exported to India while 10 per cent is exported to Bangladesh.
The Ministry of Health received 417 RT-PCR test kits and 417 RNA extraction kits from the Government of India on 2 November in Thimphu. This is the eighth medical consignment received from India. Other consignments received from India since March included paracetamol, cetrizine, hydroxychloroquine, PPE kits, N95 masks, and an x-ray machine. According to the Indian Embassy in Thimphu, India’s gesture to continue delivery of essential medical supplies is a reflection of the special bonds of trust and understanding between India and Bhutan that have existed over decades.
COVID-19 pandemic has led to the proliferation of various online systems for complimenting the e-governance initiatives in the country as per Information and Communications Minister, Karma Donnen Wangdi who mentioned this in his address to a virtual meeting of the International Telecommunication Union. Systems that have immensely helped the country in tackling the pandemic include, the Druk Trace app, Check-post management system, quarantine management and security system, and health facility system, among others according to the minister further adding that the government has prioritised Information and Communications Technology (ICT) development, with the vision: “An ICT-Enabled, Knowledge Society, as a foundation for Gross National Happiness.”
The Assembly elections in the state of Bihar ended last week with the completion of third phase of voting on 7 November. In all, 78 constituencies went for polls in the last phase after completion of first and second phase of polls in 71 and 94 constituencies respectively. The results of the elections are to be declared on 10 November. The term of the 243-member Bihar Legislative Assembly comes to an end on 29 November. The Bihar poll is the first state elections in India amidst the pandemic.
Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha was appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) of India last week. President Ram Nath Kovind has administered the oath of office to Sinha as the Chief Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission. The selection for the post was done by a three-member committee comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Home Minister Amit Shah. The panel also selected Uday Mahurkar and Saroj Punhani as the Information Commissioners.
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla arrived in Male on a three-day visit, when he will sign multiple agreements, the Indian High Commission has said. The agreements include a $ 100-million grant to partially finance the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP) as well as two Memoranda of Agreement to execute high-impact community development projects (HICDPs) in the country. During the first high-level visit by India during the Covid-hit year, Secretary Shringla will meet President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed and several cabinet ministers during the trip and also participate in a couple of events involving India-funded projects.
Member-States at the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for Maldives, commended the nation on its progress in enhancing governance and the legislative framework, in addition to judicial reforms and the protection of vulnerable groups. The UPR study group for the purpose had made a total of 259 recommendations, mainly covering the areas of governance, ratifying international human rights instruments, further urging the government to continue its efforts in the area of gender equality, child protection, combatting human trafficking and addressing climate change. "Maldives will consult relevant stake-holders, and account for the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives, legislation in force and tenets of Islam, in considering our position on the recommendations,” the AG’s office said, and noted how the current review cycle was "uniquely significant" as the country’s delegation included several Cabinet ministers, a unique first, even as they participated through the virtual mode.
Relations between the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government and the military continued to sour over the election on 6 November, with the military warning of the possible impeachment of President U Win Myint if he fails to uphold his constitutional responsibilities. Earlier, the military criticized the Union Election Commission (UEC), for what it said were missteps in its preparation for the election, which will be held on 8 November. The Myanmar President’s Office reacted by saying the military’s comments on the election were inciting instability and causing public concern, while violating the law and the 2008 Constitution. It also said the UEC was an independent body and there is no law that dictates the body has to answer to the government.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on 5 November discussed ways to enhance cooperation on investment, border trade, migrant worker issues and the fight against COVID-19. In their telephone conversation, the Myanmar and Thai leaders agreed to boost economic collaboration, particularly in terms of trade and investment, once the COVID-19 situation improves. the two leaders also agreed to open “a consular office in the province” with many migrant workers. Thailand is the main destination for Myanmar’s migrant workers, with over 1.15-million registered in the country as of August 2019, according to Thailand’s Department of Employment.
Internal rift within the Nepal Communist Party has been surfacing for a long time now, primarily based on the spat between Prime Minister K. P Oli and party’s Executive Chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal. According to sources, only a ‘formal announcement’ of the split is now due as both the leaders have decided to walk separate ways. The party Secretariat or the Standing Committee have to be in action to ensure this split and has not yet been decided upon. However, in this crisis situation owing to the pandemic, how favorable this division would be for the development and sustenance of the country is a question that only time can answer.
The country has been reeling under tremendous economic pressure due to the COVID-19 situation. The trade deficit has come down to 15.13 percent in the first quarter of the current fiscal year 2020-21. The total deficit fell by Rs. 46.56 billion. One of the primary reasons has been the lack of foreign direct investment and the presence of foreign currency in the country through migrant laborers. The total foreign trade volume has also decreased by 10.71 per cent. This might affect the country’ s recently acquired middle income status.
In the aftermath of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has initiated a special dialogue with the ruling SLPP, for taking bilateral relations to a higher level and to implement the telephonic consensus between Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Xi Jinping and at the recent high-level visit of a team from Beijing under a veteran, Yang Jiechi. During his visit, Pompeo asked the Rajapaksa government to end its close relationship with China and also to make “difficult but necessary choices” to secure its economic independence instead of choosing opaque practices.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that he did not ‘duck’ meeting US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, explaining, “We felt that it was sufficient for the President and the Foreign Relations Minister to meet with Pompeo. There was no need for the Prime Minister also to meet him.” PM Rajapaksa said that “some people are trying to make an issue out of this. I was not scheduled to meet him in any case as Pompeo called on the President and the Foreign Relations Minister, which was quite adequate”.
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Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey
Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale
India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee
Nepal: Sohini Nayak
Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani
Coordinator: Mihir Bhonsale
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