South Asia Roundup: August 17-21, 2021

Newspapers from around the region are hemorrhaging stories about the plight of Afghanistan. There are simply too many to give justice to all of them. Pakistan won and America lost. China and India won and lost, respectively, as well, but there are still risks and opportunities for each. Perhaps the most overwhelming sentiment is shock, both at the speed of the Taliban victory and at the uncertainty as to its implications for South Asia and the perceived struggle between the US and China.

In Pakistan, there generally seems to be a sense that the geopolitical chessboard has radically shifted in their favor. There is caution about the possibility of blowback in the form of fear of a resurgence in terror attacks within Pakistan, satisfaction at America’s comeuppance, pleasure at India’s misfortune, and fantasies that Pakistan will have the world by the throat–by turning Afghanistan into a corridor by which Pakistan can economically integrate Central Asian Republics (CARs) and by finally realizing the full potential of the port at Gwadar, both as a hub for CARs/Chinese maritime trade and as a military asset for China to project its power in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. More generally, there is some euphoria at the intuition that America is being displaced by China.

In India, there is some fear about a resurgence of Islamist violence and a rising China, but there are some small hopes that the Taliban will be at least as much of a problem for Pakistan and China as it will be for India. Some anticipate that Afghanistan will not be united long. Others think that the Taliban might not be eager to be dominated by Afghanistan and China and will be open to Indian overtures, that fears of some sort of Sino-Russo-Taliban-Pakistan alliance are overblown. Some think China and its Belt and Road Initiative could be sucked into the same morass that other superpowers have been. Some think China will bankroll the Taliban for mining rights.

In Nepal and Bangladesh, some have been said to celebrate what they see as a Taliban victory over American imperialism, while some fear that China and Pakistan have strengthened too much as a result. Some think that since Pakistan, China, and Russia are likely to recognize the Taliban regime, it is best to start engaging with the victors, as well. There are fears throughout South Asia of a rising tide of Islamist violence.

It should be noted that Afghan sources have stopped posting opinion pieces, although some are still publishing news stories.

In India, domestic news was on the backburner, but a handful of issues on the fault lines between the BJP and the opposition were kept simmering.

One poll showed that young, urban Indians were distrustful towards China and Pakistan, oblivious to the Non-Aligned Movement, and overwhelmingly positively disposed to the US.

One writer, a BJP cabinet minister, defended the government and attacked the opposition for their respective performances in the most recent Monsoon Session of the legislative body, praising the former for trying to include the opposition in consideration of legislation and accusing the latter of obstructing the government from conducting its business and then accusing it of steam-rolling them.

A few articles made reference to the rising trend of deadly political violence in North East India, with some blaming Modi and the BJP for reanimating old grievances with their increasingly successful Hindutva campaigns.

In Bangladesh, apart from worries about a resurgence in Islamist violence, there seems to be rising anxiety about the fate of the Rohingya. ASEAN looks powerless to dislodge the Myanmar junta, and there is thus little prospect of the refugees returning to their homes. Thus, the Bangladeshis feel themselves under greater Western pressure to take steps that might lead to de facto permanent resettlement in the southeast of their country, despite what many perceive as growing friction between the Rohingyas and local Bangladeshis.

In Nepal, PM Deuba, still only weeks into his latest stint as leader of the Nepalese government, is under some heat for passing a decree that lowers the threshold by which parties can formally splinter, thus allowing some of those who crossed party lines to install his government the ability to declare a new party, which they promptly did. Deuba and some members of the opposition, particularly Deuba’s predecessor, Oli, came under criticism for having switched positions on the question out of expediency.

Perhaps more seriously, Deuba is also perceived as ruling through decree, just as Oli did (in some ways echoing events in Malaysia), and avoiding dealing with real government business, such as appointing a foreign minister.

Some in India see a push on the part of Deuba to set up a task force to “look into the issue of Chinese incursions into Nepalese territory” in Humla as a shift from Oli’s pro-Beijing drift back towards greater neutrality. This might serve as a consolation prize in India for what is increasingly being perceived as a strategic defeat in the Himalayan border skirmishes with China, if Nepal can hold this course.

Some in the opposition have suggested Deuba raised the China-Nepal border issue to distract from trouble at the Nepal-Indian border, where a Nepalese man died, allegedly at the hands of an Indian border patrol.

Things aren’t looking so good in US-Nepal relations, either. As with the laws on party splits, Deuba and Oli have seemingly switched positions on the $500m on offer from Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), with Oli now against it and taunting Deuba to pass it. What might generally be seen as a relatively innocuous aid program is viewed by many in Nepal as an outright attack on Nepalese sovereignty connected to American plots against China.

Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, some expected the country to be protected from events in Afghanistan due to begrudging cooperation between the US and China to keep the Taliban and their ideological friends contained, but the risk to Sri Lanka depended in some degree on how much President Gotabaya Rajapaksa refrained from antagonizing Muslims.

This comes at the same time that a Catholic cardinal in the country is demanding that the Sri Lankan government stop dragging its feet on an investigation into the Easter bombings now over two years ago. One survivor accused the government of being behind the attack.

Bhutanese opinion pages generally focus on local or public service matters, for example farming, bad weather, traffic, and COVID. Almost no mention is made either of foreign relations or events or domestic politics. But, a piece in The Bhutanese, although not strictly speaking political, touched on a bit of controversy, complaining about the moralistic, unjust, and economically damaging restrictions on Bhutan’s “Drayangs”, something like karaoke bars or nightclubs.

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