Media crackdowns threaten the autonomy of Pakistan media

A pattern of insidious crackdowns on social media over the past few years have materialized into palpable fear, particularly for journalists and activists, who are speaking out against the suppressive Pakistan authority, and calling into question the strength of democratic values in Pakistan. Pakistan’s growing desire to demonstrate themselves as a strong global power and conceal human rights violations have directly challenged the extent to which the right to  freedom of expression is valued today.

A concentrated series of incidents occurred in the months leading up to the July 2018 Parliamentary elections, executed as a ‘campaign’ to combat criticism from the media by limiting the autonomy of cable channels, broadcasting companies and various streams of social media. A note from Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) advised the media not to “air derogatory and malicious content” against the judiciary and the army. Escalated pressure from government has pushed printing press companies to only publish certain newspapers, and for cable operators to only broadcast certain channels that are favorable to Pakistan’s government. The newspapers and channels that were isolated out suffered financial constraints, resulting in drastic downsizing or completely shutting down. Media outlets that are financially able to continue are often blocked in particular regions if they report on content deemed too critical of the government. Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest English newspaper, is just one example, who was accused of ethical violations during their reporting and its publication was later blocked in major areas of Southern Pakistan. 

Individuals are confronted as well; many journalists have been fired for publicly questioning the veracity of the election and criticizing the unfair imprisonment of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, including prime time news hosts Talat Hussain, Murtaza Solangi, Matiullah Jan and Nusrat Javed. There have been additional reports of journalists being threatened or abducted. A well-known human rights journalist, Taha Siddiqui, was able to escape an abduction attempt by eight armed men in Islamabad on his way to the airport in 2018. The unidentifiable men beat and threatened to shoot Siddiqui. He escaped by jumping out into oncoming traffic and rushed into a taxi. Siddiqui was a correspondent for France24 news television channel and was known for being a critic of Pakistan’s military-led government. After the abduction, Siddiqui fled to France with his family.

Additionally, three activists in 2017 were reportedly abducted for three weeks and interrogated for their criticisms of Pakistan’s military. Although the abductors refuse to reveal themselves, officials of the Pakistan government publicly condone any negative opinions that may damage Pakistan’s image. The former Minister of Information, Fawad Chaudhry, reaffirmed Pakistan’s interests to build stronger relations with social media giants for regulation purposes at the ‘National Security, Nation Building and Mass Media’ conference in 2018. The former Minister of State for Interior, Shehryar Khan Afridi, also spoke at the conference and urged the media to play a larger role in protecting national security, thereby reporting less on ‘negative’ news. Any social media activity deemed an ‘anti-state’ activity would be monitored closely by the army’s spy agency, said General Asif Ghafoor in June 2018.

Pakistan authority’s deny any interference or targeting of individuals and media groups leading up to the election. After Imran Khan was elected in 2018, #SelectedPM began to trend on Twitter, suggesting Prime Minister Khan was undemocratically elected. In response, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Qasim Khan Suri, declared the phrase “selected prime minister” completely prohibited and unable to be discussed in reference to the election. An academic and participant in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) movement by the name of Ammar Ali Jan’ posted a tweet that reflects the level of political manipulation and repression existing in Pakistan:

“The term #SelectedPM touches the repressed truths of our history. They include electoral engineering, manipulation of information, use of violence against opponents and extension of pardon to turncoats. It’s not the government, but the entire infrastructure of power that feels exposed.”

The assaults on civil society’s freedom of expression display the backsliding of democratic values occurring in Pakistan along with an increase in autocratic political control. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch can attest to the increase of violent intimidation, censorship and political manipulation. Attacks on journalists are not a new narrative for Pakistan: at least 61 journalists have been killed in connection with their work in Pakistan since 2010; it is simply the role of technology and social media that has transformed the arena in which these conflicts occur. 

The growing constraints on freedom of expression are imposing fear amongst civilians as well as the media. Leading up to the election of 2018, human rights defenders, protestors and activists were faced with arrests, disappearances, and accusations of treason. There is an enigmatic, yet influential, push from the military to suppress dissent among citizens and inflict an inaccurate narrative of the socioeconomic and political security of Pakistan. The Pakistan government has been known to file complaints directly to social media companies to combat its own critics, and there have been reports of Twitter accounts suddenly being suspended for comments deemed unacceptable by the government. 

Particular minority groups such as the Pashtuns are subjected to much of the suppression. The Pakistan authorities blocked the website of Voice of America’s Pashto Language radio service in 2018. In addition, a PTM rally resulted in dozens of cases being filed against the participants. A human rights defender by the name of Hayat Preghal, was faced with charges of “anti-state” online expression in support of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Preghal was a pharmacist in the United Arab Emirates and was in Pakistan on leave. While there, he was put on a no-fly list and lost his job. Preghal is just one of the many activists falling victim to the political pressures and restrictions growing more tangible across Pakistan. 

Freedom House released a report on June 5 of this year entitled “The Media 2019”, which discusses the various tools fragile democracies are using to silence independent journalists and maintain control. The summary report states that “while Pakistan’s elections were more competitive, influence over the courts and the media was widely thought to have tilted the context of Imran Khan.”

Pakistan authorities choose to disregard Article 19 of their Constitutional commitment to maintain the right to freedom of expression and speech, and fundamental rights expected to be upheld by their government. The Pakistan Military is proactively seeking out political dissidents using intimidation tactics in an effort to maintain control domestically and portray a strong international image. The rise in censorship impacts all sectors of civil society. While a facade of democracy remains, media bodies and activists continue to speak out and raise concerns publicly until they regain the strength of a democracy. 

Photo Credit: KM Chaudary/AP

India Fights to Retain Position as Second Fastest Growing Economy

 

Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced the Modi administration’s new budget which aims to grow India to a $5 trillion economy by 2024. The plan focuses on increasing investments by lowering corporate tax rates and easing regulations on foreign businesses. Some other key features include lowered interest rates on affordable housing loans and pension benefits for small retailers and local businesses, as well as development in the rural and agricultural sectors.  

In the 2018-2019 financial year, India faced its lowest growth rate in the past five years, losing its status as fastest growing economy to China. Domestic consumption, private investment, and new investment proposals fell to a significant low while overall exports also saw a decline.

As a method of encouraging foreign investment, single-brand retail companies will no longer have to source 30% of their materials in India, in addition to having lowered corporate tax rates. An additional feature to encourage business growth is establishing a TV channel for startup advertising in order to promote startups.

The areas which constitute the largest portion of the budget for the upcoming year are the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare; Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Food and Public Distribution; Ministry of Defense; Ministry of Finance; and Rural Development. Efforts to boost the agricultural industry include establishing new clusters with a focus on the bamboo, honey, and khadi industries and advancing rural communities through electrification and increased housing construction.

The government plans to invest $11.6 billion into the construction of new roads in rural areas and improving railway infrastructure. The budget also seeks to promote a shift to electric automobiles by decreasing interest on loans for electric vehicle purchases.

Critics such as Congress leader and former Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram have calculated the overall revenue estimate to be far lower, describing the budget’s projections as “unrealistic” and lacking clear structure. Features of the budget that have drawn criticism are the public shareholding reforms as well as defense spending. Some experts are concerned that raising the minimum public shareholding could potentially push come companies to delist. Others feel that defense spending has taken a backseat despite the current security risks that India faces.

FM Sitharaman argues that by implementing the over sixteen various reforms, the projected improvements are in fact achievable, and she contests the recalculations by critics. Overall, she emphasizes the importance of private sector development and infrastructure improvements and is optimistic that improvements in the aforementioned areas will manifest in overall economic growth.

 

 

 

 

Peace In Afghanistan: Fact or Facade?

US representatives along with delegates from China, Russia, and Pakistan resumed talks in Beijing on July 11 and 12 to discuss the peace process in Afghanistan. This comes on the heels of the first ever intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which took place on July 8 and 9 in Doha. Although these back-to-back talks mark a historic moment in the United States’ 18 year long engagement in Afghanistan and may possibly signify a de-escalation of the war, the unrelenting violence in Afghanistan among other things continues to shroud the future of the country in uncertainty. 

The intra-Afghan talks reflect a stark change in the political atmosphere of Afghanistan. The talks mark the first time that the Taliban has ever met with the western recognized government, and although the meeting was only in a “personal capacity,” the very fact that it took place speaks to the weariness of fighters on both sides. Abdul Matin Bek, a member of the Afghan cabinent, has experienced firsthand the cost of war with the death of his father in a 2011 suicide bombing. Acknowledging that “It is not easy for me to sit across from people who have killed my father,” he heaving emphasized that “we have to end this.” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban delegation, expressed similar sentiments stating that “the pain from all sides, whether it is the night raids or the bombings, that is why we are here.”

At the conclusion of the talks, members of the Afghan government and Taliban delegations issued a joint “roadmap to peace.” Although still unclear, this so-called “roadmap” likely involves the withdrawal of a majority of US troops on the condition that the Taliban surrenders, acknowledges the legitimacy of the Afghan government, and commits to never using Afghanistan to provide safety for international terror groups, specifically al-Qaida. 

The week before the talks, the US and the Taliban met separately to discuss a ceasefire. During this meeting, hailed as “the most productive session” to date by US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the Taliban agreed to uphold women’s rights “within the Islamic framework” and make steps towards ending the war. Mr. Khalilzad hopes to have a draft peace agreement ready by September 1 before the upcoming Afghani elections. He has hinted that said agreement would address issues ranging everything from “constitutional revisions, the fate of militias, and a cease-fire” to whether “the country should be named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Despite the apparent progress being made towards achieving peace, the future of Afghanistan still remains unclear. Upon the conclusion of the intra-Afghan talks, leaders on both sides promised to "minimise civilian casualties to zero" and "ensure the security of public institutions such as schools, religious centres, mosques and hospitals.” Yet, just a day earlier, 18 people were killed in a car bombing orchestrated by the Taliban. This has sparked worry that the Taliban will not honor their end of the deal and use a complete US withdrawal to reclaim the country. According to Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the fact that the US has already “put total withdrawal on the table and proceeded to the talks without the Afghan government” legitimizes the Taliban’s strength. She, like many others, is worried that without a considerable US presence in Afghanistan, the country will be overrun. This worry is not unwarranted considering the fact that last year, Afghan forces in Farah and Ghazni were overrun by Taliban troops until the US bailed them out. Similarly, Laila Hadari, a prominent Afghani women’s rights activist, poses the question: “Right now we can do business, we can get an education, have financial freedom… I run a business and a charity. According to the ‘Islamic framework,’ would I be able to do what I’m doing?”

Rather than remaining cautious and building strategic alliances to help monitor the Taliban after they inevitably withdraw from Afghanistan, the US is ostracizing its single most critical ally in the region, India. India, as the world’s largest democracy, has a personal stake in maintaining a free and democractic Afghanistan. Furthermore, by providing more foreign aid to the region than any other country in the world, a prosperous Afghanistan is in its best interests. On top of this, India is the most liked country in Afghanistan making the Afghani people more likely to be receptive to a strong Indian presence in the region. Yet, despite seeming to be a natural ally of the US, India was left out of recent talks in Beijing to discuss the peace process.

 It is overly optimistic to assume that the Taliban will live up to all of their promises, and without another strong presence in the region to take the US’s place, it is very likely that the Taliban will take advantage of the power vacuum created by the premature withdrawal of US troops to reclaim the country. With the stability of South Asia and the Middle East at stake, not to mention the thousands of lives hanging in the balance, the US must be wary of a hasty, premature withdrawal from the region and must prioritize finding an ally to maintain and ensure the peace it is trying to achieve. 

Photo Credit: The New York Times

A New Day for U.S.-Pakistan Relations?

The United States and Pakistan have had a fraught relationship since the partition of India in 1947. While the relationship had a very promising start, with both nations fighting against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Islamabad’s decision to develop a nuclear weapon in the 1990s served to plunge the U.S.-Pakistan relationship down the drain, as Washington cut off military and economic aid it had previously provided for numerous years. After more than a decade under board as result of U.S. sanctions for its nuclear proliferation activities, and later for a military coup, the 9/11 terrorist attacks transformed the relationship overnight and Pakistan became a key ally in the U.S. led efforts to combat Islamist militancy and extremism throughout the world. 

For the years that followed the September 11th attacks, Pakistan was one of the leading recipients of U.S. assistance. Since 2002, Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S. assistance, including more than $14 billion in CSF (Coalition Support Funds) - a DOD program aimed at reimbursing allies that have incurred costs in supporting counter-insurgency operations. While, Islamabad and Washington appeared to be finally cooperating and working towards a mutual objective, the May 2011 revelation that Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden had enjoyed years-long and relatively comfortable refuge inside Pakistan led to intensive U.S. government scrutiny of the bilateral relationship. The discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts served to create more distrust between both countries, yet the U.S. continued to provide considerable aid (an average of $1.1 billion from 2011 to 2016) to Pakistan throughout the remainder of President Obama’s second term in office. 

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States in 2016 served to shift American interests at home and abroad. While campaigning for the highest office in the land, Donald Trump constantly scrutinized international organizations and said he would reconsider the amount of foreign aid the U.S. handed out. Such statements raised several eyebrows in Islamabad, and in his first tweet of 2018, President Trump lashed out against Pakistan writing that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years.” He went on to accuse Pakistan of “deception, lies and of providing safe haven to terrorists.” Just a few days after President Trump’s tweet, the U.S. government declared that it would break off all aid to Pakistan, including military assistance until the Pakistani military decides to take action against the ‘militant’ Haqqani network and the Taliban. Later that year, Washington forwarded a motion to place Pakistan on a global terrorism financing watch-list. President Trump words and the actions that followed such statements served to thrust relations between the U.S. and Pakistan to an all-time low. 

As one can understand by closely reading the opening paragraphs of this piece, these American threats are nothing new, and as John Sipher wrote in an article for “Just Security”, “The Trump Administration’s efforts to change Pakistan’s behavior are likely to fail.” Nevertheless, the recent disagreements between both nations represent a deeper rift - a divide that has been present since the early days of Pakistan as a nation state, but that has only widened under the Trump administration. Throughout history, repeated American threats have pushed Pakistan to look to China and Iran for assistance. 

While the U.S. and Pakistan have had a historically complicated relationship, the national security interests of both nations have usually converged. However, changing geopolitical scenarios have caused such mutual interests to devolve. Throughout the last few years, the U.S. has forged closer ties with India, while continuously criticizing Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. Islamabad views a stronger relationship between Washington and New Delhi with considerable distrust as Pakistani officials believe India’s national security interests stand at stark opposition to their own. 

Moreover, China’s evolving relationship with Pakistan has served to further weaken the ties between Washington and Islamabad. In the form of foreign direct investment (FDI) through President Xi’s audacious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese government and companies have poured significant amounts of capital into Pakistan. Through the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China has invested over $60 billion in the development of Pakistan’s infrastructure. This initiative - which seeks to link China’s western and less-developed Xinjiang region with Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. - will lead to unprecedented levels of commercialization within Pakistan, and has served to strengthen the ties between both countries. According to reports released by Pakistan’s state bank, almost 60% of the FDI flows into the country come from China, and many experts believe the number will continue to grow in the coming years. As Harrison Akins, a researcher at the Howard Baker Center who focuses on Pakistan and China, told Newsweek, “Chinese investment in Pakistan is expected to reach over $46 billion by 2030 with the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” 

Beijing’s economic, military, and diplomatic support served as an invaluable alternative to American aid, and has helped to create a renewed sense of security within Pakistan even as the U.S. has grown closer to India. From extensive capital flows to diplomatic support in various issues, China is Pakistan’s to-go country. However, a partnership with Beijing has numerous underlying costs that could prove to be  disastrous to the Pakistani economy and society in the long term. President Xi’s notorious “debt-trap diplomacy” will make Islamabad increasingly dependent on Beijing’s financial contributions and deepen the gap with Washington.

President Trump has repeatedly conveyed that he will do anything to circumvent Chinese global ambitions and prevent their dystopian world order to replace the current rules-based international status quo. Washington understands India’s importance in any security mechanism designed to contain Beijing, thus the notion of having a Chinese satellite state in India’s border would certainly undermine the efforts to prevent the “Middle Kingdom” from expanding their sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region.  Also, the Trump administration appears to have recognized that U.S.-Pakistan ties are needed to promote peace in Afghanistan. President Trump ran for office on an “America First” platform that criticized U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, and promised to get the U.S. out of all “stupid wars.” In order to achieve a lasting peace with the Taliban and end the war in Afghanistan, Washington must have a working military and diplomatic relationship with Islamabad. As a result, President Trump has started to show signs of a possible re-approximation with Pakistan. In February, the U.S. President said he had developed a “much better” relationship with Pakistan, and earlier this month PM Imran Khan accepted President Trump’s invitation to visit Washington in the end of July with the objective of  “refreshing the bilateral relationship.” 

After decades of estrangement coupled with a few instances of engagement, U.S.-Pakistan relations might be finally on the verge of a new day. While many analysts are not expecting anything monumental to emerge from the first Trump-Khan meeting, it could certainly go a long way in laying the groundwork for improved bilateral relations. Washington is in a very complicated place, as further criticism towards Pakistan is unlikely to work and would drive Islamabad closer to Iran and China. The road to improved relations will be long, and requires careful diplomacy and investment in Pakistan to offset China’s economic and military ever-growing influence. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Mark Ralston

Fool’s gold – Pakistan could have made big money from gold mines, now it’s paying penalties

At a time when Pakistan’s debt-ridden economy cannot afford further bleeding, a World Bank arbitration court has ordered Imran Khan’s government to pay $5.8 billion in damages to a multinational mining giant, which discovered gold and copper deposits in Balochistan only to have its mining lease arbitrarily cancelled.

Pakistan also lost another arbitration case against the asset recovery firm Broadsheet LLC, and has been ordered to pay $33 million in damages and costs. The company had been hired by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to search for the hidden assets of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family. Broadsheet LLC’s contract was also terminated without regard to international contract law.

Both cases demonstrate how Pakistan’s economy suffers when the hyper-nationalist sentiment of an intrusive and politicised military interferes with economic decision-making. Within Pakistan, the military establishment manages to get its capricious decisions endorsed by a subservient judiciary. But Pakistan has faced a long streak of negative judgments in international arbitration tribunals and courts because of overly simplistic choices made by its generals.

Without the military’s interference, the large gold and copper deposits found at Reko Diq, Balochistan, would have brought in revenues for Pakistan instead of a $5.8 billion penalty. The deposits would have been exploited by Tethyan Copper, a joint venture between Chile’s Antofagasta and Canada’s Barrick Gold, and Pakistan would have shared the profits with the multinational corporation with mining experience.

With the military’s backing, nuclear scientist Samar Mubarakmand demanded ejection of foreign companies from Reko Diq in 2011, and subsequently started mining and smelting operations with his own team.

The Supreme Court, then headed by activist Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, ordered the cancellation of the Tethyan Copper contract in 2013.

In January 2015, the Pakistan military’s magazine Hilal published an article by Samar Mubarakmand, described as ‘an eminent scientist who led the team of scientists and engineers to conduct Pakistan’s Nuclear Tests at Chagai in May 1998’. The article titled ‘Destined Towards a Rich Pakistan: Reko Diq Mineral Resources’ suggested that Pakistan did not need to pay a foreign company to extract its minerals. It claimed that scientists who succeeded in making nuclear weapons for Pakistan could also make it rich by developing its natural resources.

Mubarakmand’s pitch was received well by the military as well as xenophobic civilians. Balochistan has long been a troubled province and, in the official Pakistani view, easy prey to the usual foreign suspects.

The hyper-nationalists thought the judgment of the country’s highest court was enough to turn a multinational company away without sufficient compensation. Some of the Reko Diq mines were turned over to the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC). The Chinese are, in Pakistani folklore, more mindful of Pakistan’s interests and security needs than Westerners and can be trusted to never have any truck with the Indians who allegedly encourage Baloch separatism.

But the Chinese could not extract even an ounce of Reko Diq’s copper or gold, nor could Mubarakmand’s team of patriotic scientists. Although the Chinese are still said to be involved in the mining project as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

More recently, the Pakistan army’s Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) – a road and buildings constructor – has been involved in the Reko Diq project, even though it has no experience whatsoever of complex copper mining.

The World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)’s award in favour of Tethyan Copper should serve as a reminder that military officers and nuclear scientists with a greater claim to patriotism are not the best persons to make decisions about commercial mining or understanding the inviolability of international contracts. But it is unlikely that the lesson will be learnt any time soon.

Pakistan’s generals and officers of the ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continue to believe that they are better positioned to define and defend Pakistan’s national interest. This belief persists in the area of economic decision-making even though economics and contract law are not taught at Pakistan Military Academy or the Army Staff College.

Corruption charges against civilian politicians have been used to wriggle out of international contracts. During the late 1990s, contracts of several Independent Power Producers (IPPs) funded by the World Bank were terminated. In 2011, several Rental Power Projects (RPPs) were cancelled amidst allegations that the civilian officials at the time received kickbacks from companies from the United States, Turkey and UAE.

The militarised anti-corruption drive is costing Pakistan more than the recoveries in unlawful assets of corrupt politicians or officials. The Broadsheet case, for example, shows how the generals hired an international firm to help them find hidden overseas assets but then lost the opportunity of recovering these assets by cancelling the asset recovery firm’s contract.

Now, not only won’t Pakistan fail to recover the assets identified by Broadsheet, it would have to pay the firm compensation for its work. Huge arbitration awards are hurting Pakistan’s already thin pocketbook. In 2017, Turkish company Karkey Karadeniz Elektrik Uretim AS won a $780 million award from ICSID over the unlawful termination of its rental power project.

There are other examples of militarised decision-making affecting Pakistan’s economy. Privatisation of large loss-making state enterprises, such as Pakistan Steel, and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), has often been contemplated but shelved due to ‘national security concerns’. Xenophobic nationalism interferes with travel facilities for foreign businessmen and corporate executives as well as with large investment projects like the Reko Diq copper and gold mines.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have often looked upon managing the economy as integral to their remit of ensuring Pakistan’s security. One of the arguments for each of Pakistan’s four direct military coups d’état and for other military interventions in politics was the need to maintain equilibrium in the government’s finances.

The military has often spearheaded anti-corruption drives, although evidence suggests that public sector corruption in Pakistan has increased, not diminished, over the years, including during military regimes. It is not unusual for Pakistan’s national security apparatus to intervene directly or behind-the-scenes for the purpose of denying a local business or foreign investor their legitimate dues from the federal or provincial governments.

The permanent state apparatus wants to be able to sidestep constitutional and legal restrictions, including the opportunity to get out of inconvenient contractual obligations, by any means necessary. But that is not how the real world works. Cancelling contracts and juggling aid packages are not a substitute for land reform and sustained modernisation of agriculture, training of a skilled workforce, and nurturing of innovation or entrepreneurship.

The $5.8 billion penalty in the Reko Diq case should make Pakistanis reconsider the military’s overwhelming presence in their lives. Pakistan’s recurrent economic crises are partly the product of general disdain towards pursuit of economic activity in a culture that extols the virtues of the warrior more than that of the trader.

Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His books include ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military,’ ‘India v Pakistan: Why Can’t we be Friends’ and ‘Reimagining Pakistan.’ Views are personal.

This article was originally posted by The Print . It was posted here with the author's permission. 

Photo Credit: Irfan Ahson

Dhaka courts Chinese investment in Bangladeshi infrastructure

Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, visited China from July 1 to July 5 in a bid to further bolster relations between the two countries. At first glance, the trip was a stunning success, with PM Hasina signing “two deals to provide loans to the Bangladeshi power sector worth $1.7 billion.” China also pledged to provide 2,500 tons of rice for displaced Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Yet, despite the improvement of relations between the two countries and the provision of energy financing, Bangladesh should tread carefully in aligning itself economically and diplomatically with China.

With the rollout of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Dhaka has seen a substantial increase in bilateral development funding. Having “turned their relationship into a strategic partnership in 2016,” China and Bangladesh have signed power and infrastructure deals worth $21.5 billion, with BRI pledged investments totaling around $38 billion. Additionally, Bangladesh has seen “record inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2018,” at around $3.6 billion. Despite Dhaka’s goal to produce 24,000 MW of power by 2022, it should be wary of taking on significant Chinese debt, which may grant Beijing economic clout over Bangladesh. 

Known as “debt diplomacy,” China has recently been heavily extending loans to developing countries, with Djibouti’s public debt equaling “roughly 80% of the country’s GPD (and China owns the lion’s share).” Djibouti now hosts China’s only overseas military base, and in other cases of debt-distressed investments, such as in Sri Lanka, China has been able to acquire infrastructure and ports outright (such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port that China financed). 

 The nine instruments PM Hasina signed include a pledge that Bangladesh “firmly supports the one-China policy” and that “the country is willing to actively take part” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is seen as a means to extend China’s sphere of influence. China is already heavily integrated with Bangladesh’s economy, with imports from China representing 34% of Bangladesh’s total in 2015, overcoming India as the country’s top trading partner. With Bangladesh facing continual energy crises, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) and infrastructure financing is welcomed as a means of achieving their energy needs quickly. So far, China seems to be the winner in the global competition to develop Bangladesh’s energy infrastructure, with Beijing now beating India as “Bangladesh’s largest partner in energy development in 2015.” These trends have continued to the present, with Indian investments totaling around $65 million in the first half of FY 2019, just 10% of the $600 million in Chinese investments made during the same time period.

As China wins big in Bangladesh’s development market, Dhaka risks alienating India, one of Bangladesh’s closest neighbors with friendly relations. India’s rivalry with China means that it will perceive the increased Chinese investment in Bangladesh as not only impeding on its economic interests, but also creating a threat to its national security. With Bangladesh sharing a 4096-km land border, New Delhi is likely to feel encroached upon as Bangladesh increases both its economic and its military relations with China. “China is now Bangladesh’s top source for arms imports,” with Dhaka representing 20% of all Chinese arms sales. As of 2017, the Bangladesh Navy purchased two Chinese submarines, causing New Delhi to extend an offer of submarine training to Bangladesh to counter Chinese influence. Similarly, in response to China’s extension of loans to Bangladesh, India provided $5 billion in loans to Bangladesh in 2017.

This competition for regional dominance provides both an opportunity and a risk to Dhaka. Maintaining a good relationship with India, Bangladesh’s closest neighbor, remains crucial, and according to Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, Chinese investments may “cause some troubles for Dhaka’s important relationship with new Delhi.” As China and India compete for dominance in the Bay of Bengal, they may extend further economic benefits to Bangladesh, in the form of sorely needed foreign direct investment. On the other hand, the risk of debt-trap diplomacy also applies to Indian investments, with both sides acting self-serving in their investments.” Avoiding this trap will require Dhaka to strategically balance development investments from both countries, “without showing a preference between” either one.

Thus far, it seems Bangladesh has done just that, with PM Hasina expressing “disinterest bordering on indifference toward the ‘great game’ in the Indian Ocean.” For instance, in 2016, Dhaka quietly scrapped a port project that China proposed to build in Sonadia, after New Delhi voiced concerns about proximity of Chinese presence to the Andaman and Nicobar islands under the proposed project. By striking this delicate balance, Hasina has positioned herself as being both “‘pro-India,’” yet “out of the Indian orbit and receptive to forging close ties with China.” 

Bangladesh should be excited at the prospect of developing its infrastructure and increasing its power generation capabilities. However, if it wants to avoid the pitfalls of debt diplomacy, it should aim to draw on foreign direct investment as opposed to debt financing. Furthermore, Dhaka should be wary of aligning itself too closely with China so as not to upset India. If it can walk the fine line between these two powers, it has the potential to continue courting significant FDI and maintain its rapid development.

In Defense of Defense

Nearly two weeks ago, India unveiled the Union Budget for 2019-2020 – the nation’s first tangible insight into the priorities of the government it resoundingly reelected. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman delivered the opening vindication of the budget at its introductory press conference. She touted India’s continued devotion to primary budgetary demands, such as rural development, education, and agriculture, but glossed over nearly all mention of India’s defense sector. But to FM Sitharaman’s credit, the latest budgetary proposal offers little defense-related substance worthy of mention. In composition, size, and ambition, India’s budget insufficiently positions its defense sector against contemporary threats and emergent challenges confronting India’s strategic objectives. 

Underlying the composition of defense funding are dangerous, worrisome trends. First, the broad majority of the defense outlays, nearly 60 percent, assign funding to be spent on salaries, benefits, and pensions for India’s five million uniformed, civilian, and retired personnel. This figure has risen from 45 percent of military spending to its present value in just four years. Future estimates project these outlays, driven primarily by defense pensioners, will swell in size, endangering the viability of future defense budgets.  

Furthermore, the slice of the defense pie apportioned to capital procurement is perceptibly down, shrinking from 21 to 18 percent over the last four years. On the surface, this figure appears to represent the moderate success of Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” campaign away from foreign-based procurement, but truthfully, this relative decline cannot be attributed to burgeoning domestic industry. PM Modi’s vision, while bold and savvy, has been significantly underfunded in preceding budgets, effectively kneecapping its capacity for takeoff. Instead, the sheer weight of India’s pension burden is the chief cause for the derailment of sustained investment in accruing military hardware and technology.

Ultimately, the defense budget’s configuration is hardly reassuring to a military charged with being the nation’s premier fighting force. In modern war fighting, threats evolve swiftly and decisively. Idle budgets, specifically those which ignore self-destructive trends, are detrimental to national security interests. Within the defense budget, preference should be given to reforming the pension system, restructuring forces to moderate manpower expenses, and facilitating outlays to R&D and capital procurement. Prolonging the current state of affairs is strategically inept for a nation whose priorities could not be more patently obvious. 

Juxtaposed alongside previous budgetary allotments, this year’s proposal is noticeably smaller. The 2014-2015 defense budget comprised 17 percent of government expenditure; this figure has slipped to 15.5 percent in the current fiscal year. Traditionally, defense spending has been subordinated to domestic concerns in India. Immediately following a general election, wherein which appeals to voters via domestic policy were a predominating force, it’s ostensibly rational for this trend to endure. 

The illogicality of a reduced budget, however, surfaces from the necessity for wholescale military modernization. Across the board, the Indian Army, Navy, and Air Force operate on the bare essentials for deterrence and offensive capabilities. Consider the Air Force, for instance: scores of Soviet-era aircraft – helicopters, combat planes, reconnaissance aircraft, and more – are aging swiftly, many operating beyond their decommissioning dates, while nothing permanent has been assigned to take their place. 

Similarly, the Navy is increasingly constrained by inadequate outlays against China’s mounting presence in the Indian Ocean. Projects devoted to bolstering India’s submarine and aircraft carrier fleets have stalled as funding earmarked for renovation has stagnated.

The Army, no less, has sought basic provisions to reinforce the confidence of its mission. Stationed along the Pakistani border, the Indian Army has the high obligation of securing a tenuous peace between two nations seemingly in perpetual confrontation. While the Army has requested improved tools for surveillance, armor, and offense, it is doubtful they will receive these enhancements.

India’s immediate geopolitical environment is not conducive to the lethargic continuation of the status quo. Threats accumulate multi-dimensionally, with adversaries impinging upon India’s spheres of historical dominance in South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere. Equipping the relevant forces with cutting-edge technology, full financial support, and the impetus to uphold India’s national interests is a requisite for any national budget. Any shortcoming to this end potentially compromises mission readiness, and ultimately, military success. Regrettably, this budget endangers just that.

Lastly, the Union Budget’s prescribed allocation to the defense sector is not representative of the nation’s distinctive image of itself. Historically, India has been the mainstay presence in South Asia and a foundational pillar for economic integration between continents, cultures, and people. A resurgent China, which has extended its geopolitical reach into Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, East Africa, and most notably, Pakistan, threatens to subdue the scope of India’s influence. China’s all-weather with Pakistan, broadened by the Belt and Road Initiative, signals the grandiosity and permanence of Chinese influence frustrating India’s long-held sway in South Asia. 

For India to effectively counter this and other currents undermining its regional sway, all levers of national power must be utilized and harmonized toward the common end of asserting influence. Invariably, military power will factor into this large, geostrategic enigma enveloping continental Asia. India’s preparedness, and even willingness, to contest the struggle for regional primacy – its regional primacy – is rightfully questionable. The Union Budget’s uninspiring contribution to defense is unnerving to regional partners who look to New Delhi for leadership, stability, and deterrence. Moreover, this budget falls woefully short in reaffirming India’s historic authority, which has forever been the cornerstone of Indian exceptionalism. 

Perhaps now, it seems, India may not want a preeminent role for itself. Its defense budget is overtly diffident and modern vision for itself is yet unclear. But the day will dawn when India recognizes that by wholly embracing its national power, it better shapes the dynamism of South Asia ever favorably toward its geostrategic aims.

A Railway to Nowhere? Will the Proposed Nepal-China Railway Succeed?

The “Great Game” of South Asia—and wider Asia—between India and China serves as the locus of great power competition between the two Asian giants.  Both countries, seeking to cast off their former colonial status and assert themselves on the global stage, have been working on enhancing and consolidating their influence in their respective “near-abroads” and beyond.  A significant source of ongoing tensions and rivalries comes from New Delhi’s and Beijing’s power plays in Himalayan countries, i.e. Bhutan and Nepal. Both Bhutan and Nepal have faced the critical and difficult decision in aligning their countries with either India or China.  While Bhutan has leaned closer towards India, Nepal has been seeking greater ties with China.

Chinese-Nepalese ties, which were officially established in 1955 with the Sino-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, have recently been on the uptick.  In the fiscal year of 2015-2016, China was the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), investing 57.47 million dollars.  For the first half of fiscal year 2017-2018, China invested 76.39 million dollars.  It is estimated that China provides up to two-thirds of Nepal’s foreign direct investment.  

In addition, although India is Nepal’s largest trading partner—with China being a far second—such developments as India’s devaluation of its currency, the rupee, in 2018 caused great alarm for Nepal.  With an estimated 1-2 million Nepali migrant workers in India, the value of the rupee is vital for the remittances they send back home. Thus, in order to diversify its economic ties, Nepal has been seeking other trading and investment partners, particularly China.  In 2017, Nepal officially signed onto China’s signature infrastructure and investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Despite Indian pressure to stay out of the project, for Nepal the BRI represents an opportunity to further open up its markets to the rest of the world, reduce its reliance on Indian ports for access to maritime trade routes, and provide much-needed modernization of its telecommunications and transport networks.  

Beyond economic ties, Nepal has been seeking stronger relations in the military domain with China.  In June, Nepal’s Army chief General Purna Chandra Thapa traveled to Beijing to meet China’s Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe for a week-long official tour of the country.  General Wei appreciated Nepal’s commitment to uphold the “One-China” policy, particularly with respect to Tibet and Taiwan.  Meanwhile, General Thapa expressed appreciation for China’s assistance and affirmed Kathmandu’s commitment to greater cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces.  

Returning back to economic ties, the most visible manifestation of such ties is the planned construction of railway lines.  As early as 2006-2007 talks were in the works about a possible railway line linking Tibet to Nepal. However, momentum for carrying out the plan was frustrated due to complications and differing opinions between Beijing and Kathmandu.  In 2008, it was announced that the Qinghai-Tibet railway line would be extended to Keyrung, along the border with Nepal.  The Nepalese government wondered why the line would not be extended all the way to the Nepalese capital. China responded by saying that the project could work, with a feasibility study costing 35 billion Nepali rupees ($314 million).  China wanted Nepal to foot the bill, while Nepal wanted China to do it for free.  

In general, while Nepal seeks to finance railway construction through Chinese grants, Beijing has been more reticent and is only open to providing loans.  Beijing would prefer to place greater financial responsibility on the host country. This aspect of the BRI is comparable to what international observers call a “debt trap.”  It has been widely reported that the financial costs of infrastructure projects on BRI countries, particularly those in South Asia, have caused massive debt to China. This has been most visible in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.  

In any case, both India and China have been eyeing infrastructure projects, such as railway lines, as critical means to extend their influence in such countries as Nepal.  India wants to promote its “broad gauge” railway system, while China has been seeking to promote its “standard gauge.” While Nepal seeks to leverage its power by employing both systems, it has expressed its preference for standard gauge due to its relative cost efficiency and (by virtue of its name) its nearly universal use by the rest of the world.  

Ultimately, however, such projects remain on the drawing board.  Although government officials and Nepali citizens have expressed enthusiasm for railway lines, with their vast economic potential, such dreams and aspirations are unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon.  Despite expectations of a more activist foreign policy under the recently-reelected Prime Minister Modi, Biswas Baral, writing for The Diplomat, believes that India’s inability to complete infrastructure projects on time will stifle India’s railway line initiatives.  At the same time, China doesn’t appear to be in much of a rush to build railway lines in Nepal.  Already facing international criticism for its projects elsewhere and managing both slower growth rates and an ongoing trade war with the United States, China would likely place its financial resources elsewhere, to meet more immediate needs.  

How the “Great Game” in Nepal will play out only time can tell.  With both India and China focused on issues, both domestic and international, the main driver of future infrastructure development in Nepal will be Nepal itself.  Recognizing both its needs and national interests, Kathmandu is likely to use its strategic location and economic potential as key assets in its dealings with its larger and more powerful neighbors.  If Nepal can successfully navigate through its complex web of interactions with India and China and secure strategic gains vis-à-vis these two countries, the Himalayan country could transform its diplomatic and economic standing.  Furthermore, due to historical ties, Kathmandu can operate as an anchor of cooperation between India and China.  

How China’s “Debt-Trap Diplomacy” crumbled the Maldivian economy:

Since Xi Jinping became China’s “Paramount Leader” in 2013, Beijing has pursued ways to minimize its strategic vulnerabilities by diversifying its trade and energy routes. President Xi’s signature pet-project, the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), has been at the forefront of China’s attempts to enhance its sphere of influence through expanded trade and infrastructure investments. Such project is considered by many one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived, and serves to further convey the unsettling nature of China’s new world order. 

As Beijing pushes ahead with its audacious global trade and Investment plan, the Maldives has grown significantly in strategic importance. Spread over nearly 1,200 islands spanning more than 90,000 sq km, the long popular tourist destination is now considered crucial for China’s global ambitions and India’s plans to counter such ambitions. For many years, the Maldives has been considered a part of New Delhi’s sphere of influence. However, in recent years, Beijing has drastically increased its engagement in the country. 

Beijing’s growing presence in the Maldives has fueled the suspicion that the nation is a part of China’s “string of pearls” strategy aimed at developing a network of economic and military ties to encircle and contain India. Such fears proved to be true as former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen used massive amounts of Chinese capital to develop infrastructure projects in the archipelago. In mid-2018, President Yameen hailed the opening of the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” as “the gateway into tomorrow and the opportunities beyond.” 

Many have criticized Chinese investments related to the BRI as being a part of President Xi’s “debt-trap diplomacy” in which Beijing seeks to render countries economically and ultimately strategically dependent on it by extending to them massive development loans they are unable to repay. In the latest Maldivian election, President Yameen was voted out of office as a majority of the country’s electorate was extremely dissatisfied with the growing Chinese presence in the archipelago. The new government spearheaded by former opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is in the process of uncovering the mountain of debt with which President Yameen saddled the country. As a result of such monuments amounts of debt, around $3 billion according to some estimates, the new government has expressed significant interest in pulling out of their free trade agreement (FTA) with China, which according to Mohamed Nasheed, the Chief of the Maldivian Democratic Party, “is a one-way treaty.” 

During President Yameen’s term in office, the drastic increase in China’s presence could be felt not only in surging trade and foreign direct investment, but also in the number of Chinese tourists that visited the archipelago. According to some estimates, around 60,000 Chinese tourists visited the Maldives in 2009. After Yameen’s election in 2013, such numbers skyrocketed and about 360,000 Chinese tourists arrived in the archipelago in 2015 - an astounding 500% increase in six years. 

President Yameen borrowed heavily from Beijing to build a new runway for the main airport, housing developments and a hospital, as well as the 2.1km-long “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.” Members of the new administration have voiced their dissatisfaction with the scale of debt to China - equivalent to almost 20 per cent of GDP - and the inexplicable preference given to Chinese investment under the BRI. According to Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer, “most of these projects are at inflated prices, and so we are looking at them.” Minister Ameer went on to point out that one of these inflated projects was a hospital in Malé awarded to China for a whooping $140 million, far more than a rival offer of $54 million. 

Unfortunately, the Maldives is not the only Asian nation to fall prey to President Xi’s ambitious infrastructure project. From Sri Lanka to Pakistan, simmering voter dissatisfaction over deals perceived was unfair are forcing governments to adopt a far more cautious approach to Beijing’s global ambitions. The 99-year lease of the Hambantota port Sri Lanka awarded to China serves as just another example of China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” aiding President Xi’s desire to challenge the International system’s status quo. 

However, concerns over Chinese debt as part of the BRI are not only prevailing in Asia. The election of Jair Bolsonaro, who ran on an anti-China platform, in Brazil illustrates just how seriously actors throughout the international system are taking the “China challenge.” Such concerns comes from the perceptions that, apart from aiding in unsustainable levels of debt, China’s loans and investments serve Beijing’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). 

The infrastructure projects financed as a part of the BRI in the Maldives has crippled the archipelago’s economy to a large extent and the debt incurred as a result of such investments will continue to diminish the ability of the Maldivian government to provide to the more than 400,000 citizens. While the U.S. and India have continuously voiced their concerns over the BRI, more must be done to counter Chinese growing sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific. The Asian continent clearly needs more infrastructure, and if no nation steps up and provides viable loan terms, Beijing is likely to remain the first port of call.   

India must change its risk-averse stand on Afghanistan, given new Russia-Pak-China bonhomie

Islamabad’s – read Rawalpindi’s – sole focus for decades has been the installation of a pro-Pakistan and anti-Indian government in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s repeated attempts to force a unilateral solution to the Afghan problem, while undermining and manipulating the interests of other regional players, continue to complicate the search for regional peace and stability.

Although India’s soft power diplomacy has vastly benefited the war-ravaged Afghanistan, other diplomatic aspects should not be ignored as over-reliance on the developmental approach can limit our other options in the long run.

An astute combination of several diplomatic options is therefore required to safeguard India’s interest in Afghanistan in this dicey scenario.

India needs to step up its diplomatic engagement with elements within Afghanistan that have been and continue to be victimised by Islamabad. In coordination with Washington and Kabul, it is now time for New Delhi to open renewed lines of communication with those in Afghanistan who seek to assert their country’s sovereignty vis-à-vis Pakistan. India would also do well to pivot towards providing support to marginalised minorities in the Afghan state that have often viewed Pakistan’s involvement with suspicion. The reasons are simple.

Why Pakistan wants to be onboard

Pakistan’s periodic offers of assistance for a peace settlement in Afghanistan have been less about ‘peace’ and more about ‘keeping India out’. With Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, desperately seeking a face-saving peace settlement, instead of encouraging talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan is once again trying to leverage its location.

Pakistan recently grabbed the opportunity to host a conference of leading Afghan political personalities,most of whom oppose President Ashraf Ghani. Prominent among those who attended the conference in June was the head of the Afghan High Peace Council, Mohammad Karim Khalili, the leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami, Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, and the Hezb-e-Wahdat leader Mohammad Mohaqiq. Representatives of Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and presidential candidate Haneef Atmar were also present.

Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who addressed the inaugural session of the conference, said that “the vicious circle of mistrust, often fed into by our common enemies, has affected our relationship. The blame-game has not helped either of us. It is indispensable to move away from this negative paradigm. It is incumbent upon the leadership of the two countries to take practical steps to build mutual trust and confidence”. If, as some analysts argue, Pakistan convinces the Afghan Taliban to agree to negotiate with the Ghani regime, it would go a long way in improving Pakistan’s fractured ties with Afghanistan and may also bring its strained ties with the US on track.

However, what incentive does the Pakistani establishment have to push the Afghan Taliban to negotiate with the government? Pakistan’s only allies or proxies – the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network – cannot win elections inside Afghanistan. The only way they can come to power is if they are installed through outside assistance. What Pakistan’s security establishment hopes is that the Americans and others will be persuaded to help this happen and till that time, Pakistan will pretend to help but will remain the spoiler.

Balancing US & Taliban

Over the decades Pakistan’s officials have oscillated between arguing that they have no control over the Afghan Taliban to claiming their historical leverage has declined. However, as long as the Afghan Taliban leaders have safe havens inside Pakistani territory, Rawalpindi will continue to retain sufficient leverage.
Having concluded that due to domestic political considerations, America lacks a political will to sustain its involvement in the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security establishment has hedged its bets by supporting the US war effort in Afghanistan, but also ensured that the Taliban leadership survives to negotiate the political settlement when the conflict ends.

Having consistently argued that the Taliban’s rehabilitation in Afghan governing structures is the only way to end the war in Afghanistan, Islamabad brokered the first direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in July 2015, but the process got derailed after the death of Mullah Omar, accentuating schisms within the Taliban. Sartaj Aziz, then de-facto foreign minister of Pakistan, publicly voiced his unhappiness, arguing that the leak of the news of Omar’s death “not only scuttled the Afghan peace process, it also let to the splintering of the Taliban”.

The chances of resuming the peace process were further shattered after Mullah Mansoor, Omar’s successor— described by the Pentagon as “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban”—was killed in a US drone strike. This left Pakistan enraged once again as Islamabad had invested heavily in helping Mansoor secure the leadership of the Taliban after Omar.

Several attempts to revive the stalled peace process have been made since then, with little success. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan frequently claims credit for his country to have arranged talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban.

Rise and rise of Afghan Taliban

The Afghan Taliban also have little incentive to stop fighting as they believe they are winning against the Afghan government forces supported by the US military. The Taliban have opened new battlefronts in recent months across the country as Afghan security forces have suffered heavy casualties and desertions. On the eve of the latest round of peace negotiations in Qatar, the Taliban claimed responsibility of killing dozens of government forces and civilians in attacks across Afghanistan.

There appears to be a semi-regional consensus on the future of Afghanistan as Pakistan, China and Russia are on the same page. There is growing recognition of the Afghan Taliban as the most important component of the peace process and the potential it has in fighting the Islamic State to bring stability to Afghanistan.

While China and Pakistan have been playing an instrumental role in the peace process for a while through several initiatives, Russia has also begun to get actively involved.

India must change stance

Where does India stand? From Delhi’s vantage point, the biggest blunder of the US war in Afghanistan has been its failure to address the insurgent sanctuaries – the lifeline of the Taliban – in Pakistan. With Washington now seeking to once again leave Afghanistan, India needs to be alert about its options, the best of which is to remain close to and support the legitimate Afghan regime.

Today there is little that binds India with Russia vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In the changing geopolitics of South and Central Asia, Russia has been increasingly coordinating its actions with China and Pakistan on how the Afghan issue should be addressed. It needs to be pointed out that when Moscow had hosted the first meeting on Afghan conflict in December 2016, it was only Russia, China and Pakistan who got to attend it.

After pushback from Afghanistan and India, it was decided that the invitation would be extended to theAfghan government, New Delhi and a few Central Asian countries in subsequent conferences hosted by Russia.

In November 2018, India sent two of its former diplomats in “non-official” capacity to a conference in Moscow, which was also attended by a Taliban delegation.

At the latest talks on Afghan peace held in Moscow in May, the Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, met many opposition Afghan politicians. The Russian involvement suits Islamabad as the Taliban’s consistent refusal to deal directly with the Ghani regime has made Moscow and Beijing advance Pakistan’s agenda.

The growing Russia-Pakistan-China bonhomie on Afghanistan is being watched closely by New Delhi. India has maintained a policy of not engaging with the Taliban and pressing for an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace initiative. However, New Delhi’s risk-averse, low-profile, developmental approach to conflict resolution in Afghanistan may need some adjustment and coordination with both Kabul and DC.

Aparna Pande is a Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington-DC based Hudson Institute. Vinay Kaura is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice. Views are personal

This article was originally posted by The Print . It was posted here with the author's permission. 

Photo Credit: Shahbaz Khan | PTI

Growth, Promise, and Peril: E-Commerce in India

As India surges to global prominence in ensuing decades, its citizens will transcend low-income status to become securely positioned within mankind’s emergent middle class. India’s awakening will conjure tectonic shifts in global supply chains, production, metadata, commerce, demand, and beyond. Its vast population and newfound wealth will be a crown jewel market, enticing international businesses to consolidate operations in the South Asian giant. Already, we’ve witnessed Microsoft, Google, and Coca-Cola commit to long-term, strategic investments in India to augment their bottom lines. 

Evolving alongside India’s journey to affluence is the tenor in which business is conducted. Online retailing and e-commerce have been disrupting traditional modes of business for years now, but in future decades, their relevance promises to thoroughly transform the character of commerce. Investing in cloud-based services, data storage, and other technological capabilities are sage financial decisions which reflect the underlying trends reshaping our reality.

Merging these parallel developments together brings us to a matter of consequential import: India’s e-commerce and data localization policies. India is at the precipice of an e-commerce renaissance as current forecasts envisage an $84 billion market by 2021 – a 3.5 fold increase from 2017. But within the past year, Prime Minister Modi has implemented a variety of e-commerce regulations targeted at multinational corporations functioning in India. These new rules, anti-competitive in nature, have forced companies to withdraw products from the market, reconfigure data storage infrastructure, and relinquish vital momentum steering their business in India. Companies looking to capitalize on India’s emerging markets have become marginalized, yet, they remain committed to its untapped potential. Amid sinking growth rates, India must soften its regulatory posture to stimulate heightened growth, particularly from foreign investment, to realize its ambitious goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy within five years. 

In late 2018, PM Modi’s government reacted swiftly to domestic concerns from small and medium-sized businesses concerned about shrinking market share. With an election immediately around the corner, the Prime Minister acquiesced to their demands by imposing sizeable hurdles on foreign multinational companies. The policy, “effectively banned Amazon and its local competitor, Flipkart, from selling products of companies in which they have an equity stake” while entirely disbanding with economic agreements made between e-commerce companies and wholesale providers. These contracts, written between private actors, enabled e-commerce ventures to sell products competitively because they opted to purchase in bulk quantities from wholesalers. In doing so, e-commerce companies uncovered an economic holy grail: reducing per-unit input cost slashes the final price. 

Ultimately, this nuanced technique aided the plight of foreign firms navigating the intricacies of the Indian economy by boosting their respective market shares. While domestic producers perceived this to be an unjust incursion on their business, truthfully, the practice was an economic boon for India. The purchasing power of everyday consumers was strengthened because healthy competition facilitated lower prices, elevating the standard of living for rural and urban families alike. 

India’s pursuit for restrictive e-commerce policy was borne from the standpoint that its economic sovereignty was being impeded. To counterbalance perceived encroachments, PM Modi’s government weakened the standing of foreign companies, disregarding the enhanced efficiency they brought to bear. In lieu of reactionary policy, PM Modi’s 2.0 government could chart a reformed and visionary policy response. 

India undoubtedly benefits from lower domestic prices wrought by industrial innovation. Rather than sidelining a proven model, the government could embolden domestic industry by pioneering wholesaler-to-business relationships that expedite product delivery, reduce overhead, and minimize costs. En masse, small businesses could procure inputs at costs resembling those of multinational competitors and generate output at substantially lower per-unit prices. This would require many small businesses amalgamated together to create a wholesale demand similar to a multinational company for economies of scale to be achieved by the many and small. 

Delivering these inputs to the various buyers can be improved with corresponding investments in transportation infrastructure. Policy implementation at this scale could require years until completion. Nevertheless, employing this strategic framework is proof that bold, groundbreaking alternatives to inappropriate and self-harming regulation exist. 

Against the backdrop of e-commerce regulations taking full force, India unveiled fresh parameters on data usage. Data localization, the act of retaining digitized information within one’s own country, is a common practice across the globe. Russia and China have unambiguously strong data localization ordinances, and EU nations likewise impose significant barriers to data transfers across countries. India, following in the same spirit, aims to solidify data localization domestically. 

A primary reason for pursuing this policy objective was succinctly articulated by Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India: “India’s data must be controlled and owned by Indian people and not by corporates, especially global corporations.” The same strand of strategic autonomy pulsating through much of India’s foreign policy since independence permeates within domestic policy debates even today.

Giving further impetus for data localization is India’s desire to replicate the Chinese model of cultivating domestic industry, so India too may be a commanding force geopolitically. Beyond Reliance Industries, India has a feeble footing in the international political economy scene. 

The government’s directive allotted three years to foreign companies for developing the data storage capacity within India to conform to the regulation’s stipulations. However, American companies protested vehemently to the regulatory parameters because most have little existing data infrastructure in India. Compliance would require heavy sacrifices in otherwise needless groundwork, storage, and preparation. Further, the data’s confinement to India alone disconnects the continuum by which companies gather and analyze company-wide statistics. Foreign companies will have to sustain a larger presence in the host nation to extract India-specific data, a task which further complicates overhead costs. Companies outside of India, companies may be repelled from pledging foreign direct investment and seeking commercial expansion because the promise is not worth the burden.

India’s new data localization policy thwarts billions of dollars flowing into its economy. A more sensible approach calls for overhauling these constrictive rules on foreign companies. If this proves politically unfeasible, the government should extend deadlines for compliance and allot partial reimbursement to affected companies, as a gesture of goodwill. Foreign investors are understandably apprehensive about committing to India. With reasonable government support, PM Modi’s government can assuage investing anxieties and, at the very least, salvage a portion of foregone investment by cajoling investors to choose India. 

In the final analysis, e-commerce will predominate the economies of tomorrow. In order to capitalize on the industry’s robust growth projections, India should liberalize its e-commerce sector and empower domestic business to reach peak competitiveness. Embracing this future, not shirking from it, will cement India as a leading global power.

The Widening Schism between the Tiger and the Markhor

Although intended to be a symbol of newfound peace, construction on the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor, which connects the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India and the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan is deteriorating into a source of conflict between Pakistan and India. India has proposed talks to be held between July 11 and July 14 talks to mull over the finer points of the Corridor. 

The Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib is said to be the site where the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev, died, making it a sacred location within the Sikh community. In February of 1999, the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor was proposed by former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as part of his peace initiative with Pakistan. In 2000, Pakistan attempted to meet India halfway by allowing Indian Sikhs to visit the shrine without a passport or a visa and commencing construction on a bridge connecting the Indian border and the shrine. Although mutual efforts towards the construction of the corridor stalled for the next decade, in the midst of heightened tensions over Kashmir, Punjabi minister Navjot Sidhu reported in August, 2018 that Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had committed the Pakistani government to opening the Kartarpur corridor in time for Guru Nanak's 550th birth anniversary, which will take place in November of this year. Last year, on November 26 and November 28 respectively, Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu laid the foundation stone of the Indian side of the corridor, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone of Pakistani side of the corridor. 

However, since these showings of good faith, progress on the Corridor has been slow-moving and riddled with controversy and disagreement. There are several technical aspects of the Corridor that have become sources of conflict. President of the Delhi Gurdwara Management Committee, Sardar Manjinder Singh Sirsa, has written a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan asking for the Pakistani government to allow at least 5,000 visitors daily; however, sources say that the Pakistani government remains adamant on maintaining a daily cap of 700 visitors. Furthermore, Pakistan has yet to respond to Mr. Sirsa’s request to permit the entry of 10,000 visitors on special religious days and has refused to grant access to groups of fewer than 15 members, travelers who made the trip by foot, or Indian foreign citizens. The Pakistan government has also expressed serious reservations and anger over the fact that out of the 5 kilometer total length of the Kartarpur Corridor, 4.5 kilometers fall on the Pakistani side. In response to Pakistani outrage over the supposed uneven distribution of work, Supreme Akali Dal (SAD) Minister Sukhbir Badal accused Pakistan of creating difficulties and problems for the project stating that "Pakistan is claiming much work, but the reality is that it is constructing a mere causeway.” 

In addition to these sources of disagreement, the brutal February Pulwama attack, which resulted in the death of 40 Indian Central Reserve Policeman, has escalated tensions to new heights. The nature of the bombing itself, specifically its connections to the Pakistani government-funded seperatist movement Jaish-e-Mohammed based out of Kashmir, has sparked serious concerns within the Indian government over Pakistan’s decision to appoint a leading Khalistani separatist, Gopal Singh Chawla, to the Pakistani committee residing over the Kartarpur project. The Indian government has publicly expressed fears about the use of the Corridor by the Khalistan movement to penetrate India.

Despite rising tensions between India and Pakistan surrounding the future of the Corridor, many remain hopeful about its timely completion, the positive effects it will have on local communities, and the outcomes of the upcoming July negotiations. In the wake of the Pulwama attacks Minister Sidhu asked “Why should a corridor of peace be overshadowed by an act of miscreants?” Dera Baba Nanak municipal committee president Perneet Singh took this one step further, openly acknowledging that “this project can bring peace to the region.” 

However, many top officials and analysts remain adamant that it “would be wrong” to suggest that negotiations over the Corridor will be “the next step was a peace process.” Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, emphasized this point, stating that the upcoming negotiations do not necessarily mean that "bilateral dialogue will start… the moment Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, bilateral dialogue can start."

Although in no way the beginning of renewed bilateral discussions between India and Pakistan, a mutual consensus during the upcoming negotiations could bring the two countries one step closer to fixing the widening schism between them and would serve as a symbol of hope for the possibility of peace in the future. 



The Spread of Encephalitis reveals India’s Crumbling Health sector

Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), also known as brain fever, or ‘Chamki Bukhar’ locally, is a life-threatening outbreak taking the lives of hundreds of young Indian children among the poorest regions of India. The illness attacks the central nervous system, and has killed more than 150 children this year in the Muzaffarpur district in the state of Bihar, which has become the epicentre of the crisis. With a population of almost 5 million people, Muzaffarpur has been home to 602 of the 719 AES cases reported this year alone. The rise in deaths of this particular region has revealed flaws about Bihar’s crumbling health sector, and raised concerns among citizens on the lack of attention and funding for fundamental health infrastructure across India.

Hospitals in low-income regions such as Bihar are not able to manage the influx of patients that require emergency assistance. The poorly equipped hospitals are suffering from a shortage of doctors and nurses, and lacking accessibility to necessary medicines. Doctors from all over India have flocked to Muzaffarpur to assist one of the largest public hospitals in Bihar, Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital. The hospital has been forced to dispatch sick patients to accommodate for the surge in AES patients, and was forced to transform a ward meant for prisoners into a pediatric intensive care unit (ICU) center to make additional space. In the same hospital, there were reports of multiple children being kept in the same bed. As one of the poorest Indian states, Bihar accounts for 1,396 of the 6,000 deaths that have occurred between 2008 and 2014. 

AES predominantly occurs in rural and suburban settings with seasonal outbreaks, particularly during heatwaves. Areas that have poor hygiene, water scarcity and a prevalent rodent population are most susceptible to exposure. Once detected, it must be treated promptly, or it will become life-threatening. Encephalitis primarily occurs as a viral infection; early symptoms can be similar to that of the flu, including headache, fever, muscle or joint aches and pains and major fatigue. Symptoms later worsen into swelling of the brain, confusion, drowsiness and seizures. 

Children and the elderly are most vulnerable: it is reported that nearly half of all children in the region are malnourished or stunted. Malnutrition and dehydration are known to trigger low blood sugar and electrolyte imbalance, which worsens from the heatwave and humidity India is experiencing this summer. 

There is still uncertainty as to what is responsible for the outbreak, however, scientists report heat waves exacerbate AES’ prevalence. A medical journal, The Lancet, published a report in 2017 suggesting that the exotic fruit, lychee, contains a toxic substance that may result in acute encephalitis syndrome when consumed. The report suggests citizens of the Bihar region, which is particularly abundant in lychee orchards, to avoid eating lychees to prevent contraction of the illness. 

In order to prevent further AES diagnoses, India launched an encephalitis immunization program in 2006, which joined the National Immunization Program in 2014 to expand protection. Nevertheless, outbreaks have persisted. India’s Federal Health and Family Welfare Minister, Harsh Vardan, stated that a 100-bed pediatric intensive care unit would be built in Muzaffarpur, but there has been no update on the timeframe of its construction. In 2017, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare along with five other government ministries, set out to implement a 660 million dollar comprehensive plan that would focus on the expansion of japanese encephalitis vaccinations, medical and social rehabilitation, improved nutrition and public health interventions. 

 The growing death toll is drawing anger amongst parents of the Bihar state and fear across India. As the situation worsens, citizens are demanding greater focus on public health. Local initiatives include implementing house-to-house outreach programs to preemptively test children for AES and treat the diagnosed swiftly to mitigate overcrowding hospitals. The fundamental levels of health infrastructure such as accessible, and properly equipped hospitals are missing; travels to the nearest hospital could take up to four hours, and often by that time children are in a life-threatening position and it is too late to help. Data made available by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare displayed that about 79.5% of the 1,719 villages do not have a public healthcare facility. 

The inability to supply primary health care displays the struggling health infrastructure within the rural areas of India. While the federal government spends less than 1% of annual GDP on health, the government health spending in Bihar is the lowest among Indian states. Greater investment in the public health sector is necessary to alleviate the current crisis and to prevent itself as a future threat to the developing region. 

While there is no conclusive evidence as to what is causing this outbreak, citizens of the area are strongly recommended to avoid lychee consumption and ensure an evening meal, however, malnutrition remains a major crisis that must be addressed by state and federal governments to mitigate the contraction of this life-threatening illness.

Photo Credit: Alasdair Pal, Reuters

Monsoons, Water, and Ag: India's Troubles at Home

Delayed monsoon rains are accentuating the dire water crisis facing India. The weather patterns, tardy an entire week, arrive as water shortages are engulfing the nation. Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, is subsisting by just a thread. With just one percent of last year’s water available at present, Chennai has endured tough water rationing amid daily scorching temperatures. Policy specialists have forewarned that Chennai, alongside nearly two dozen more Indian cities, could witness the complete degradation of groundwater resources by 2020

India’s farmers too are heavily afflicted by the monsoon’s late arrival. Growing seasons for vital crops could be slashed by weeks, and the overdue monsoon could restrict the amount of precipitation India receives, compelling farmers to plan alternative crops. Cyclone Vayu’s early-June presence in the Arabian Sea drained moisture and strength away from the incoming monsoon. Notwithstanding rainfall in surplus of current predictions, this year’s monsoon will be perceptibly weaker. Consequently, yields on mainstay crops, including rice, wheat, cotton, maize, and others may be severely depleted. Following last year’s lackluster monsoon, the prospect for high yields was already on tenuous footing.   

India’s reliance on a timely, plentiful monsoon is enormous. Nearly 70 percent of the nation’s yearly precipitation arrives from the four-month downpour, contributing mightily to the health of the agricultural sector and rural economies countrywide. Over half of India’s workforce is employed by agriculture, contributing nearly one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. Inevitably, India will grapple with more pronounced renditions of water scarcity and environmental volatility in ensuing decades. With the current situation morphing into a fully-fledged crisis, the Modi government must work steadfastly to address chronic water shortages, provide farmers relief, and hedge against considerably worse possibilities in the future. In doing so, the government should adopt a flexible and determined policy which leverages the economic, governmental, and diplomatic powers of the state in providing holistic approaches to the crises.

Resolving India’s water shortage is a mammoth task confronting the world’s second-most populous country. Groundwater mismanagement, intense water pollution, and failure to sensibly store and reuse water have impaired the livelihoods of untold millions. By neglecting the most essential source of sustenance, India is gambling with social upheaval. A multidimensional solution is necessary to reverse this disturbing trend. 

Currently, India only captures just 8 percent of its yearly rainfall, a rate significantly below the global average. Failure to retain rainfall deposits exhausts groundwater sources and prevents their vital recharging. Extreme urbanization throughout India has caused developers to construct new neighborhoods on existing wetlands and remove lakes, rivers, and streams. These ecological features are natural hubs for storing water and recharging local aquifers. With their widespread elimination, it’s evident why water levels across India have plummeted. Urbanization, a relatively new phenomenon on the timescale of India’s national development, has hardly completed its course. Until mid-century, India will be a predominantly rural nation, and across these decades it will observe immense in-flows of people into urban and suburban areas coming from the sprawling rural landscape. Accommodating the millions yet to arrive will necessitate greater land development, infrastructure improvement, and demand for water. Urban planners may be forced to supplant remaining natural habitation for neighborhood expansion, ultimately forgoing the natural methods of water conservation. Given the calamity at present, government at all levels, from local municipalities to the Lok Sabha, must reform the manner in which urbanization is strategized and implemented. Priority should be given to natural conservation, especially wherein water reservoirs are concerned. Jurisdictions should not seek to expand beyond available resources, nor should they subvert their natural endowments to acclimate to influxes. The obvious lesson for us today is the realization that contemporary policy is unsustainable. 

India must pursue innovative policy ideas to successfully navigate the water crisis. Developing a robust water capture system should be a top priority. India can look to Tamil Nadu, the first state to make rainwater harvesting mandatory. Buoyed by infrastructure growth and a strong public relations campaign emphasizing conservation and personal responsibility, the program has engineered great success in the state. Indeed, it has been branded as a model for others to follow.

Additionally, India must embolden the full power of its entrepreneurial spirit. Social and technological startups have sprung to the call to provide clean, accessible, and sustainable means of water procurement. These companies alert local residents about water scarcity in real-time, contribute to smart city planning, and purify contaminated water sources, among other matters. One such startup, named Khyeti, distributes modular greenhouses that need just 10 percent of water resources to grow up to seven times more food. For India to thrive and survive, the Modi government must heavily invest in Khyeti and others to advance their technological progress, national reach, and expansion to scale. 

Much like the water crisis, Indian agriculture is ailed by an assortment of afflictions. Weak linkages to consumers, inaccessibility to credit, and inadequate investment directed toward agriculture torment their plight. As mentioned earlier, farmers have struggled to sustain crops following consecutive substandard monsoons. Rural distress is the prevailing norm in India, and farmer suicide is not uncommon. While Indian farmers’ difficulties are many and varied, Prime Minister Modi’s government can achieve meaningful improvement for them by addressing these aforementioned items. 

From a fundamental standpoint, India’s produce market is broken. Farmers have little to no knowledge of the market to which they sell. Consumer demand is reduced to farmers’ heuristics, not by what demand truly entails. Their technological disconnect ensures a deep divide, which is consolidated by geographical distance from consumers, the likes of which farmers cannot bridge. Farmers are wholly reliant on traders to bring produce to market. And when their produce has been sold, it’s unlikely farmers will receive their due share from the transaction. The profit exchanges hands many times moving back to the farmer. Each middleman will take their own share, leaving the farmer poorer than the worth of his toil.

Moreover, the Indian farmer is eternally in debt. Every year farmers stake out loans to finance their yearly harvest because their earnings are simply too meager. Whenever a drought or flood results in crop destruction, farmers invariably fall into debt. This debt is accrued on a year-to-year basis, and it compounds on generationally as land ownership exchanges hands. Interest rates on loans to farmers can be astronomical and, irrespective of tampering by moneylenders, these alone could sink a farmer’s finances. Unfortunately, India’s farmers are easily exploitable and stifled. 

Meager agricultural investment rounds out the farmers’ troubles. Research and development in Indian agriculture sorely lacks relative to global standards. Business Today reported, “less than 1% of the Agricultural GDP in India is spent on research. This is abysmal considering this sector… provides livelihood to 60% of our population.” The sweeping technological amenities pioneered in the Green Revolution have not seeped into India. Beyond the advent of fertilizer, Indian agriculture is best characterized as archaic, labor-intensive, and non-mechanized. India’s farmers have not observed substantial increases in agricultural output for many lifetimes.

To alleviate these issues, India must fully embrace modernization of its agricultural sector. The national government must invest in communicative and mechanized technologies while incentivizing private investment to do likewise. Extending broadband internet access to rural localities can give, for the very first time, farmers direct connectivity to the market they serve. With the integrated technology, they can build the acumen to judge consumer demand, weather conditions, projected yield, optimal harvest time, and much more – straight from their fingertips. Establishing banking accounts via mobile devices ensures that farmers receive the whole sum from what they sell by automating transactions. Bringing mechanized agriculture into the mainstream will reduce the sector’s labor intensity and boost yield across the board. Time dedicated to both sowing and harvesting crops can be drastically lowered, giving farmers additional time to dedicate to productive use. Altogether, these policies would facilitate communication between both sides of the market and enhance farmers’ financial solvency. 

Further, India must stimulate private investment in agriculture and related sectors. While foreign investment is rather low because of notorious regulation, recent data indicate domestic investment has slumped sharply ahead of the unveiling of the Union Budget. To counteract these prevailing winds, PM Modi’s government must project a beacon of confidence on the economy. This can be done by sweeping away impediments to foreign and domestic investment and reinvigorating India’s commitment to infrastructure and agricultural projects. It is essential for agricultural research and development to take center stage in the new budget. PM Modi’s objective to double farmers’ income by 2022 is a bold measure that is sustained only by equally bold policy. R&d will deliver for India. Additionally, the Department of Farmers’ Welfare should conduct research studies into successful agricultural models elsewhere. Extracting best practices from high-caliber agricultural nations is an ingenious model to follow. By way of applying strategies learned, India can greatly strengthen the lives of its farmers. 

Lastly, PM Modi should strive to provide better institutional protections for Indian farmers. Because moneylenders can often be predatory, farmers need security from excessive interest rates, repressive debt, and destruction of crops. Built-in regulatory protections which codify safety preconditions for farmer loans can accomplish just that. Farmers should also have options to restructure debt, especially for those entrenched by generational liabilities. Too many individuals have resorted to ending their lives because of the unbearable hardship they endure. Supporting farmers in their vulnerability is the morally righteous and economically just policy.

In sum, India’s domestic woes related to monsoons, water, and agriculture are vast and numerous. No silver bullet can alleviate all burdens simultaneously, but comprehensive and enduring solutions are readily available. Political willpower will be the key determiner to achieve success, and Prime Minister Modi’s government is poised to deliver for all of India.

The Eagle & the Tiger: from Estrangement to Engagement

China’s ascent to “great power” status in less than three decades surprised many, and has served to make Western policymakers increasingly skeptical of any developments within the Asian continent. Thus, a lot of questions have been raised in recent years regarding India’s “great power” aspirations. India’s rich civilization and history together with an expanding middle class and a significant boost in defense and power projection capabilities have served as the primordial factors behind New Delhi’s claims to “great power” status. However, as Dr. Aparna Pande, Director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, laid out on her testimony before the House subcommittee on Asia the Pacific, “Indian leaders have always seen their country as one that will play a role on the global stage but primarily in Asia. The belief in India as an Asian leader and an example to Asia has been deeply ingrained in Indian thinking for centuries.” While India has been characterized as an “indispensable partner” of the United States, frictions have mounted between the Trump administration and Narendra Modi’s government over a wide range of issues, and some are now warning that the growing differences between Washington and New Delhi could undermine what had been a deepening strategic relationship.

Washington proved to learn from the mistakes made in the end of the past century that resulted in China’s rise, and was quick to recognize India’s increasingly central role and ability to influence world affairs. As a Congressional Service report on U.S.-India relations points out, “the U.S. Congress and two successive U.S. Administrations have acted both to broaden and deepen America’s engagement with New Delhi.” Such decision comes as U.S policymakers believe a stronger and more prosperous India is favorable for America’s objectives in the Asian continent and in the international system as a whole. Washington considers India a crucial component of its long-term security strategy for Asia, which involves increased defense co-operation between Australia, Japan, the US and India to circumvent growing Chinese influence in the region. Since 2005, when Washington and New Delhi launched a “strategic partnership” along with a framework for long-term defense cooperation, to engagement between both nations has considerably increased. The shift from the Cold War era estrangement to the engagement of the twenty-first century has resulted in a sharp rise in bilateral trade and investment - the US was India’s leading importer in 2018 with 16% of total Indian exports, and bilateral trade between both nations has more than doubled to $142 billion in 2018.

However, more engagement has served to bring about renewed areas of friction between both nations. From India’s deep-rooted protectionism and unpredictable regulatory policies to PM Modi’s desire to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Moscow, tensions between Washington and New Delhi have grown significantly over the past few months. The primary area of friction between both countries refers to the nature of India’s economy, which is slowly reforming, but continues to be a relatively closed one, with barriers to trade and investment deterring foreign business interests. Since the 2016 Presidential election, many pundits feared that India’s inherent protectionism would be scrutinized by President Trump, and as a result would deteriorate U.S.-Indian relations to levels that have not been seen since India’s first nuclear test in 1974. Such fears proved to be true as President Trump has consistently denounced India’s protectionist economic policies as the driving force behind the $24 billion trade deficit between both countries. In keeping with his campaign promise of re-negotiating all of the U.S.’s “terrible” trade deals and enacting only “free, fair, and reciprocal trade” agreements, President Trump rescinded preferential trade privileges through which $5.6 billion worth of Indian goods had duty-free access to the U.S. market. Which caused New Delhi to retaliate by imposing import tariffs on more than 25 American goods - primarily from the agriculture sector - with a total value of around $1.4 billion.

President Trump’s views on the recent trade disputes between both countries is perfectly exemplified in of  the President tweets, where he wrote that he looked forward to meeting PM Modi during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, to discuss India’s “high tariffs against the United States.” The President went on to state that New Delhi’s decision to enact new tariffs on a number of U.S. goods is “unacceptable” and that such “tariffs must be withdrawn.” Prior to both leaders meeting in Osaka, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited New Delhi in order to ease the recent hostility between both countries and lay the groundwork for fruitful talks during the G-20 summit. During his visit, Secretary Pompeo stated that while their partnership is “already beginning to reach new heights,” even “great friends are bound to have disagreements.” 

According to reports regarding President Trump’s encounter with PM Modi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, both leaders discussed “various aspects of mutual interest.” After the meeting the White House tweeted that “President @realDonaldTrump and Prime Minister @narendramodi of India shared ideas to reduce America’s trade deficit, enhance defense cooperation, and safeguard peace and stability throughout the Indian Ocean and Pacific region.” PM Modi followed the White House statement by tweeting that “the talks with @POTUS were wide ranging. We discussed ways to leverage the power of technology, improve defense and security ties as well as issues relating to trade. India stands committed to further deepen economic and cultural relations with USA.” It is difficult to predict what the future holds for the U.S.-India relationship, but by solely comparing President Trump’s tweet prior to the G-20 summit and the White House statement after the meeting, one could point out that the leaders’ one-on-one went a long way in cooling down the rising tensions between both nations.

According to Amy Kazmin, the Financial Time’s South Asia bureau chief, “as the two countries navigate these differences, their strategic partnership could well hang in the balance.” While it is fully understandable that President Trump must keep his campaign promises and strive for “free, fair, and reciprocal trade” agreements, it would not be a smart diplomatic move to create a rupture in Indian-American relations because of disagreements over trade and national deficits. At times where China’s economic and military might have sharply increased, the U.S. must tighten its relationship with the world’s second most populous nation as a way to counter the Chinese march. India is a vital player to any security mechanism designed to contain President Xi’s ambitions in Asia and in the world as a whole, and it would be a severe miscalculation by the Trump administration to alienate New Delhi from the fight against China’s dystopian world order.

Photo Credit: AP

A young muslim girl's death reignites growing religious divisions

On June 10, 2019, three Hindu men were sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young eight year old Muslim girl, Asifa Bano, reflecting the unceasing and devisive tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India. The rising accounts of sexual assault attacks on young women in recent years have led to a call for harsher punishment for the culprits. 

After the attack of young Asifa in 2018, the Lok Sabha implemented the Criminal Law Bill, which criminalizes the rape of girls below the age of twelve, with the death penalty as its maximum punishment. Reports show that incidents of rape are increasing, however, the exact number is unclear because many of them remain unreported. Even so, rates of official reporting have increased over the past five years, yet, conviction rates remain stagnant. With rape accounting for 12% of all crimes against women, a survey conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2018 found India to be the most dangerous country in the world for women. 

These religious strains came to the forefront when Asifa Bano, a member of the nomadic tribe, the Bakarwal, disappeared from her village in Kathua in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in January of 2018. The investigation revealed that she was taken to a remote Hindu temple where she was subjected to multiple accounts of gang-rape, forcely induced drug use and starved. Four days later, she was found in a nearby forest where she used to tend to her family’s horses. She was reportedly found to be strangled with her own scarf and hit in the head with a rock. 

The man responsible for orchestrating the attack was identified as Sanji Ram, a 61 year-old retired government revenue officer and custodian at the temple where the attacks occurred. Ram’s extreme nationalist beliefs drove him to execute this plan in an effort to drive the Muslim, nomadic tribe away from a plot of land that has been largely disputed over with the Hindu majority community in Kathua. Mr. Ram recruited a son, a nephew and a few other local village men to kidnap the young girl. Three additional men, also police personnel, were found guilty of destroying evidence to the crime.

Although the conviction is deemed as progress for the protection of women’s rights in India’s legal system, Asifa’s family members believe they have not received “complete justice.” Asifa’s father, Muhammad Akhtar, expressed his expectation of capital punishment for the felons who executed the systematic attack. Muslim protestors agreed and voiced these complaints as they took to the streets and awaited the trial’s decision.

The story sparked anger amongst Hindu nationalists as counter protestors rallied behind the supposed falsely convicted men. A group of Hindu women threatened to light themselves on fire if the trial continued. A mob of hindu lawyers even physically blocked police officers from entering the courthouse to file charges against the men.  Many Hindus believe the eight men convicted were framed and the event was a conspiracy theory contrived to demoralize the Hindus. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stance on the controversial trial was questioned when members of the party attempted to move the case from the state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation, in an effort to receive greater leniency throughout the trial. In addition, multiple BJP officials led counterprotests proclaiming the Hindu mens’ innocence. They were then immediately asked to resign from their position. Prime Minister Modi was criticized for not publicly denouncing the incident quickly enough. Modi responded to this accusation that he was trying to “pacify the people”

Asifa Bano’s death is seen to be part of a daunting pattern of violent attacks against Muslims, particularly Muslim women. Only a few days before Asifa’s death was another young girl similarly killed in Uttar Pradesh where her body was found in a sewer in Madhavpuram of Meerut. While the Criminal Bill of 2018 was a breakthrough development towards the greater protection of women, this conflict continues to persist as Hindu protestors take to the streets to proclaim the innocence of Asifa’s attackers, some of who were police officers responsible for enforcing, rather than dismissing, this critical piece of legislation. 

Photo Credit: Jaipal Singh/EPA

Tides post- Terror: Toward Stability following the Easter Sunday Attack

“Men march from West to East killing their fellow creatures..” 

Leo Tolstoy 
War and Peace

Life is nasty, brutish and short. The horror of the Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka will prove Thomas Hobbes was correct. The child that lost her parents or the parent that lost their child unaware why this disgraceful act of brutality came to their lives. Few days ago during his visit to Berlin an expert who has studied ISIS rightly said to me, “your country was staged”. It was not an ISIS directed attack but an influenced attack. If it was staged, who was behind in staging this terror? Willingly or unwillingly, you would have to draw on geopolitics to answer the underlying question. 

Western Hemisphere is ours 

Four days before the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka, John Bolton, the National Security Advisor a living example of liberal hegemony, ardent supporter of regime change according to many western scholars, says “Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,…the twilight of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere….We will need your help in the days ahead. We must all reject the forces of communism and socialism in this hemisphere—and in this country”. He re-affirmed  that the western hemisphere belongs to United States. An evil troika is in the making in the backdrop of US geography, according to Bolton. This, he describes , is Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. It seems,  Fukuyama got it wrong in his 1992 “The End of History and the Last Man”. Over a visit to Sri Lanka a few months ago, Samantha Powers referred to Fukuyama’s work as a book  about the global triumph of liberalism ‘that there is a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies…in the direction of liberal democracy.’ 

Where Bolton and Powers got it wrong was that they believed in a single theory of Fukuyama. He  explains in his book there will be ‘no struggle or conflict over ‘large’ issues consequently no need for generals or statesmen; what remains is economic activity’ for the US. John Muller, Stanley Hoffman and Friedman all followed this “Golden Straitjacket” that suppressed the geopolitical theories of great power politics, pushing forward a liberal order, reinforcing the sense of optimism about democracy and human rights was the belief the economic globalization was opening the door to a new era of peace and prosperity, followed by Clinton,Bush,Obama and Trump. Steven Walt explains although subsequent US administrations in post cold war differ in their diplomatic styles and policies, “liberal hegemony remained the default strategy...all of them assumed US leadership was essential to global progress and each administration sought to use American power to spread democracy expand US influence and security commitment and reinforce a rules based liberal world order” . Efforts to bring these values in the Middle East military expeditions proved the theory itself doesn’t support the outcomes. 

It was Osama Bin Laden  in the 80s that kept the Soviets out of the Indian Ocean, by taking the side of the US defeating the Communist Soviet Union. If this did not take place Fukuyama would not have written his masterpiece. Looking at the US liberal hegemonic foreign policy adopted from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,  Soviet Russia was clearly the reason why many nations did not embrace liberal values which USA tried in its crusading expedition. When Russia fell, USA was the single power holding the balance of the global system. The holder of the balance threw its weight at the scale to promote liberal hegemony.. 

Unsinkable air craft carrier 

Taking the liberal hegemonic theory  to the  distant oceans in the Eastern Hemisphere,  the Indian Ocean a vital highway of the global energy market. There is only one unsinkable aircraft carrier that the US military own in the Indian Ocean, which is in Diego Garcia. The island was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Mascarenhas in 1512. It is located equidistant from all points of the Indian Ocean and also called the "Malta of the Indian Ocean”. This island blessing to move forward the US liberal hegemonic foreign policy. In Spanish Deo Gratias means ‘Thank [be] to God’, and this really applies geopolitically when looking out the missions carried out during the last few decades. From the  Iranian revolution, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Enduring FreedomOperation Iraqi Freedom and many more future military expeditions will be carried out from this forward flexible strategic hub, echoing the US foreign policy towards the entire Indian Ocean. In February 2019,  a ruling of the International Court of Justice was made to transfer the islands to Mauritius, a definite signal perhaps to explore for an alternative location in the Indian Ocean.

In the same manner discovered by the Portuguese seven years before was the Island Sri Lanka, siting less than 2000km away from Diego Garcia. The teardrop shaped island at the center of Indian Ocean Sea lines of Communications(SLOCs). During the Cold War, Sri Lanka took a nonaligned position in its foreign policy and today it’s a multi-aligned foreign policy finding is struggling to calibrate internally, and strike a the balance due to great power rivalries. Imagine a tight rope walker without the pole. The long pole which gave stability was taken away from Sri Lanka  by the great power rivalry and internal political disunity.. 

Small nations always owed their independence either to the balance of power or rejection of imperial aspirations. While US sees China as a National Security threat in its latest trade sanctions, Sri Lanka’s position in the global power balance between USA and a rising China is an important factor. Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka , Robert Blake highlights in his recent interview in Colombo, “First, my advice to America is that it should not ask the countries to choose between China and the U.S. They do not want to choose. They want to have good relations with the US, China, India and others.” This cannot be achieved with US liberal hegemonic aspirations in the Indian Ocean. Any foreign security agreement from global powers should be vetted from the Parliamentary body with inputs from National Security Researchers. Else, it may trigger serious national security implications in the future.

A process needs to be in place. Instead of  baseless allegations, careful observations and research inputs has to be fed in to the security establishment. The independence of Sri Lanka will be in jeopardy if the US or China takes a decisive turn in favor to pull Sri Lanka towards it’s respective  orbit. Sri Lanka in the past  has been pulled towards  China to gain a decisive and permanent advantage. The recalibration towards achieving a balance by Prime Minister Wickramasinghe was seen as a threat by China, as certain policies made the Island nation vulnerable for liberal hegemony to grow. It is essential to find the lost stabilizer to balance to reach the end on the tight rope.

The need of the hour to uplifting the National Morale 

National morale is the degree of determination with which a nation supports the foreign policies of its government in peace or war. According to Hans Morganthaue, it permeates all activities of a nation including its military establishment and diplomatic service. In 2015, the unitary government divided its portfolios leaving the President with national security and foreign in the other political party. After the 30/1 UNHRC resolution and subsequent actions there was a deep polarization between the two which triggered a national security threat perhaps unnoticed for some time but instability was felt by the entire nation time to time. Some days ago, after the Easter attack, the  President took a flight to China to meet President Xi while  his Foreign Minister took a flight to US to meet Mike Pompeo. Both left perhaps to bring in assistance from the two polarized camps. The US has explained in their National Security Strategy that their number one threat is China and Russia, and number two is ISIS. 

This deep polarization between the establishments breaks the morale of our nation. It threatens and limits  the nation’s power to carry out its agenda forward or stabilize  internal politics. In this vulnerable environment,  external threats will creep in to take advantage of the State actors working in silos within the establishment. 

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is Director General of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry, views expressed are authors own

Photo Credit: AFP


Sino-Indian Relations and the New World Order

China and India have been strategic rivals since the mid-twentieth century, as then Senator John F. Kennedy pointed out in the 1959 Conference on India and the United States, there is a “struggle between India and China for leadership of the East, for the respect of all Asia, for the opportunity to demonstrate whose way of life is the better.” At times where China’s economic and military might has grown significantly, such statement by late President Kennedy makes more sense than ever. 

In recent years, even as competition between the world’s most populous nations has greatly increased, China has become India’s largest trading partner and the Indian government appears to be more “supportive” of Chinese investment. However, similar to many other Asian nations, New Delhi faces the challenge of balancing its desire to expand economic ties with China with its constant fear about Beijing’s global ambitions, particularly along the disputed China-India border and in the Indian Ocean.

Sino-Indian competition is largely driven by their economic rise and both nations dependence on seaborne trade and imported energy, much of which comes from Middle Eastern nations and is transported through the Indian Ocean. The “Middle Kingdom’s” dependence on imported energy and seaborne trade has been dubbed the “Malacca dilemma” after the Strait of Malacca - the second-largest oil trade chokepoint in the world after the Strait of Hormuz - through which a large proportion of China’s trade and energy flows. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, President Xi’s audacious “Belt and Road” Initiative (BRI) can been viewed as an attempt by “China to minimize its strategic vulnerabilities by diversifying its trade and energy routes while also enhancing its political influence through expanded trade and infrastructure investments.”

Growing Chinese incursions in India's backyard as a part of the BRI has prompted a renewed wave of competition between both powers. Many policymakers believe that China is asserting itself to expand its influence and challenge the post-1945 rules based international world order, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing is using its geo-economic leverage, which has been largely accumulated through it growing trade and investment as a part of President Xi’s BRI, as its main tool to challenge the international system’s status quo. Beijing is now engaged with most if not all of India’s neighbors and as a result poses a serious threat to New Delhi’s role as South Asia’s “regional hegemon”. By implementing multiple infrastructure projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), and Djibouti, China has made its presence felt in South and Central Asia and in the Indian Ocean. Differently than its neighbors, India has continuously refused to endorse the BRI - the last time being when both nations met at last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. 

Growing ties between Pakistan and China have served to create a great deal of anxiety in India, as both nations have fought numerous wars and have a historically convoluted relationship dating back to 1947. Since becoming China’s “paramount leader”, President Xi has placed significant emphasis on nurturing a fruitful relationship with Pakistan as a way to expand China’s sphere of influence into South Asia. In 2013, China pledged $60 billion to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - a network of roads, pipelines, power plants, industrial parks, and a port along the Arabian sea. With the purpose of increasing regional connectivity and trade between both nations, the CPEC has raised numerous eyebrows in New Delhi, especially as Beijing has began building a military base for the Chinese Navy in Pakistan near the Gwadar port. Such installation in Pakistan will serve as China’s second foreign military base, with the first one being located in Djibouti - a small but tactically critical nation near the Horn of Africa. 

New Delhi and Beijing also have their own set of unresolved territorial disputes, which has served to prevent both nations from really being able to sustain a working relationship. The more than two months standoff between the Indian Armed Forces and the People's Liberation Army over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam near a tri-junction border area served to illustrate just how volatile the Sino-Indian relationship really is. While China and India share some unresolved border issues, Tibet continues to be the predominant factor that has prevented peace to prevail between both countries. Such issue has for years fueled territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds. As Brahma Chellaney, a Forbes magazine contributor, points out, “China itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with India by laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection.” Beijing has never managed to swallow India’s approach to the Tibet issue, particularly its accommodation of the Dalai Lama and the government-in-exile. Even as New Delhi has explicitly referred to Tibet as a part of China and has continuously stated that the Dalai Lama is forbidden of carrying out his political endeavors in India, Beijing continues to be suspicious of India’s Tibetan policy. PM Modi has been very cautious in dealing with the Tibet issue, yet President Xi believes his Indian counterpart should do more to recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. 

The Tibet issue and the Dalai Lama’s exile in India alludes the the underlying ideological element in the Sino-Indian rivalry. As Brahma Chellaney writes, “Chinese analysts have often contrasted the success of their development model with the slower growth produced by India’s “chaotic” democracy.” On one hand, India serves as the world’s largest democracy (with about 900 million eligible voters). While on the other, China’s authoritarian system has resulted in an unimaginable economic miracle, which has served to thrust the “Middle Kingdom” to superpower status. With such stark differences in their respective political systems comes a greater question of morality. As Indians brag about freedom of speech and other democratic qualities, the Chinese are quick to point out they in average live a more comfortable and noble life than the typical Indian. Such arguments illustrate the fact the conflict between China and India is not fueled merely by power, but also by rival ideological and even civilizational ties. At times where U.S.-China relations fill up the news’ headlines and Western pundits seemed more preoccupied with the idea of a Chinese “Thucydides trap”, the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship can easily be under-appreciated. However, as political and economic power continues to shift to Asia, it is the rivalry between China and India that may turn out to shape the 21st century world order. 

Photo Credit: AFP

Bangladesh: A Blueprint for South Asia

For a country that was once dubbed a “basket case” by Henry Kissinger following its independence, in the subsequent 48 years Bangladesh has had nothing short of an economic miracle. Once one of the poorest regions of Pakistan, Bangladesh is now qualified to graduate from the UN’s “Least Developed Countries” list and be reclassified as a “developing country.” 

Despite its humble origins as a young nation that faced mass starvation in 1974, Bangladesh now serves as a model for developing countries to follow if they hope to achieve strong economic growth and lift their population out of poverty. With a consistent average GDP growth rate of 6% in the first decade of the 21st century, Bangladesh has had sustained economic growth far exceeding most developing countries. Since 2006, Bangladesh’s annual GDP growth has exceeded Pakistan’s by about 2.5% per year, and combined with a low 1.1% yearly population growth (compared to Pakistan’s 2%), per capita income in Bangladesh is growing 3.3% faster than in Pakistan.

More notably, this growth has benefited even the poorest classes. According to the World Bank, from 2005 to 2010, average incomes from the poorest 40% of households had 0.5% faster growth than the rest of the country. In comparison, the poorest 40% of households in India fared worse than the national average in a similar time period. The result of this inclusive growth is an enormous decrease in the poverty rate, from over 40% living in extreme poverty in 1991 to less than 14% in 2017.

Much of this growth is attributable to the growth of Bangladesh’s agriculture industry. Following its independence, Bangladesh faced enormous poverty and food insecurity, suffering from one of the worst famines in recent history in 1974. In 1972, with a population of over 65 million people, Bangladesh only produced 9.8 million tons of food grain. As a result, achieving self-sufficient food production became a primary objective of agricultural policy. Today, with a population of over 160 million and substantially less cultivable land, food grain production has more than tripled. Recently, the government has introduced programs to mechanize irrigation and farming, diversify and disaster proof crops and emphasize sustainable farming methods. As a result of these kinds of investments, agricultural productivity has grown at a near unheard of rate of 2.7% per year since 1995.

Another unique component of Bangladesh’s economic transformation has been the empowerment of women. For the third consecutive year in a row, Bangladesh has been ranked first among South Asian nations for gender equality in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report. Out of the four gender equality subindexes WEF evaluates, Bangladesh is among several countries that tie for first in the categories of enrollment in primary and secondary education. This is indicative of Bangladesh’s heavy investment in education, with primary education being both compulsory and free, and girls receiving stipends and scholarships for school until 12th grade. As a result, the rate of female enrollment in secondary education now exceeds male enrollment, at 66.5% female to 56.8% male.

The Bangladeshi government has also had remarkable success in family planning, with its birth rate halving from a high of 6.3 children per women in the span of 33 years (1971-2004). This success has been achieved through a multipronged approach of door-door contraceptive delivery and education provided by married, educated village women. As a result, contraceptive use increased from 8% in 1975 to 61% in 2011.

In the area of human development, the presence of what has been dubbed a “parallel government” of “high performing NGOs” has played a significant role in reducing poverty, improving health, and providing education services.

Especially in rural areas, which have the highest density of impoverished women, Bangladeshi NGOs have pioneered a unique financial system of microcredit, which extends microloans to borrowers to start small businesses. For instance, Grameen Bank, the original microcredit bank, has provided over $8.4 billion, with $7.5 billion repaid and the remaining $0.9 billion mostly in recently disbursed loans. 98% of Grameen Bank’s 8 million borrowers are women. Providing microcredit has allowed poor rural women who were previously excluded from the financial system, and often the labor force, to obtain the startup capital necessary to access to an independent source of income separate from traditional wage-paying jobs. 

While wage-paying jobs were often less accessible to women, the rise of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry has enabled further female labor participation. As the second largest garment exporter in the world behind China, Bangladeshi garment manufacturers employ 4.5 million people, 80% of whom are women. 

The industry’s success is in part owed to South Korean garment manufacturers that built plants in Bangladesh in the 1970’s to get around US textile quotas. The Bangladeshi community eventually picked up manufacturing expertise and started its own companies. Additionally, the dominance of large manufacturers has allowed the industry to achieve economies of scale, in contrast to India, where small and medium sized companies dominate the market.

Finally, Bangladesh is experiencing a freelancing boom thanks to the rapid digitalization of urban areas. Combined with non-governmental programs to promote digital freelancing, according to the Oxford Internet Institute, Bangladesh is now the second-largest supplier of online labor, only behind India.

While Bangladesh continues to have meteoric economic growth, there are several potential impediments to its continued progress. Corruption, climate change, and religious fundamentalism are all threats that could derail its economic success. Climate change in particular poses a substantial threat to Bangladesh’s agricultural sector, and rural job diversification will be necessary to increase economic resiliency. The rise of religious fundamentalism has also empirically been correlated with economic downturn, through mechanisms like the suppression of female education and labor participation. Bangladesh is certainly not immune to this problem, with secular bloggers and intellectuals facing attacks from fundamentalists.

Nonetheless, the astounding success of Bangladesh’s economic transformation through investments in women’s empowerment, agricultural productivity, and new market creation should serve as a blueprint for other developing countries to follow if they aim to achieve similarly robust economic growth.

Photo Credit: Reuters


The Future of Sri Lankan Democracy

Members of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena’s fragile coalition, which played a crucial role in the outcome of the 2015 presidential election, have called for the current president to rethink his bid for reelection stating that “I now think your time has passed.” As his own party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), continues to repudiate him, President Sirisena’s hopes for reelection dwindle, opening up a path for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family to return to power. 

In 2015, Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), took advantage of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rapidly deteriorating reputation, a product of his increasingly authoritarian policies and the charges of Human Right’s violations against him, to convince Maithripala Sirisena, the secretary general of Mr. Rajapaksa’s own party, to defect. Together, they formed an unlikely coalition against the reelection of Mr. Rajapaksa. However, since their victory, the two have found little common ground in terms of how to run the country.

The tension within the government’s leadership culminated in last year’s constitutional crisis. Beginning with Sirisena’s party’s decision to leave the unity government, the crisis only escalated when Sirisena appointed Mr. Rajapaksa as the prime minister in late October, ousting Mr. Wickremesinghe. Sirisena quickly dissolved parliament, in which Mr. Wickremesinghe and the UNP held a majority, in order to prevent Parliament from declaring Mr. Rajapaksa’s appointment unconstitutional. Only upon the Supreme Court’s ruling that Mr. Sirisena did not possess the power to dissolve Parliament before the end of their term did Mr. Rajapaksa agree to step down and allow Mr. Wickremesinghe to be reinstated, ending this 2 month long crisis. 

The turmoil of 2018 and its adverse effects on Mr. Sirisena’s popularity was only amplified by this year’s Easter Sunday bombings, which resulted in the death of over 290 people and left countless others injured. Gamini Viyangoda, a well known civil activist, claims that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are to blame for the attack, suggesting that they failed to act on inadmissible evidence and multiple warnings. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith verified these rumours stating that warnings of a possible attack were issued as early as April 4 by Indian intelligence. These reports, including a 6:45 AM phone call the day of the attack, were continually ignored. Ranjith criticized the “serious lack of responsibility on the part of the government” and the “bickering going on between the sides.”

President Sirisena’s irresponsibility and childish deadlock with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP along with his failure to follow through and install Mr. Rajapaksa as Prime Minister upon the SLFP’s break from the unity government has politically isolated him. Namal Rajapaksa, son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa says, “With the current situation, the people have rejected the current leadership of the country,” alluding to the growing frustration and disillusionment with the current leadership among the voting population. 

With both the president and prime minister unlikely to garner enough support to win the presidency in this year’s election, the Rajapaksa family’s return to power seems inevitable. Due to the reinstallation of the two term limit on the presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa is automatically out of the running; however, his brother and former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, continues to harbor ambitions for the presidency and seems like the next logical choice. Despite his discordance with the minority parties who played a pivotal role within the coalition that elected Mr. Sirisena in 2015, he still stands a good chance of winning. His position as defense secretary in the final phases of the civil war between the ethnic majority Sinhalese and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) makes him a prime candidate to win over the growing number of ostracized Sinhalese voters.

With the political situation in Sri Lanka rapidly deteriorating, another Rajapaksa presidency is beginning to look increasingly likely, enshrouding the future of Sri Lankan democracy in uncertainty.

Photo Credit: The National