South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Why India Is Joining Another Quad

A new economic forum among India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States is rooted in cooperation rather than competition with China.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in New Delhi on Feb. 11, 2016.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in New Delhi on Feb. 11, 2016. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Evictions in India’s Assam state target Muslims, violence against Hindus erupts in Bangladesh, and U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announces his resignation.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Evictions in India’s Assam state target Muslims, violence against Hindus erupts in Bangladesh, and U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announces his resignation.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


What’s Behind the ‘New Quad’?

India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States began a new quadrilateral economic forum this week focused on trade, climate change, energy, and maritime security—all issues emphasized by the more established Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

The two Quads are quite different in other ways. The so-called new Quad is not as focused on countering China’s rise as the original one, and because it lacks a strong, shared purpose, its future trajectory is more uncertain. But it could serve Indian foreign-policy goals: The arrangement enables New Delhi to expand its role on the world stage, to engage more deeply in the Middle East, and to strengthen cooperation with the United States.

The new Quad appears to stem from rapidly growing cooperation among its member countries. Last year, a normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE resulted in a flurry of new accords focused on investment, energy, and health care. Meanwhile, India has strengthened ties with Israel. In 2017, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the country—a significant step given New Delhi’s long association with the Palestinian cause. Finally, U.S.-India relations have continued to deepen.

India’s joining the new Quad first reflects a desire to play a greater role on the world stage and to respond to criticism from observers—including its own national security advisor—that it punches below its weight. The forum provides New Delhi with an opportunity to move closer to key partners without compromising its policy of strategic autonomy: As with the other Quad, this arrangement is a loose grouping, not an alliance.

New Delhi also sees the Middle East as strategically significant. It depends heavily on its energy imports, and nearly 9 million Indian workers live in the Persian Gulf. India has ramped up diplomacy with many regional players, including Saudi Arabia, but Israel and the UAE have long been key targets. A 2019 survey of Indian foreign-policy and security professionals found that the two countries were regarded as India’s two most important partners in the Middle East.

Israel and the UAE each boast advantages that can benefit India. Already a major arms supplier to India, Israel also has cutting-edge agricultural technologies that could help enhance water management. Meanwhile, the UAE can provide India with much-needed infrastructure financing. In 2015, the two countries announced a $75 billion infrastructure fund, but only $3 billion has been used so far. India can leverage the new Quad to make more progress operationalizing the fund—a goal the UAE says it supports.

Furthermore, the new Quad delivers a boost to New Delhi’s relations with Washington. It expands the geographic scope of the two countries’ cooperation beyond Asia, adding to their pool of multilateral partners. The new arrangement does not represent any type of competition to the original Quad: The two groups are distinct entities with different geographical remits, although their areas of cooperation may overlap.

Unlike the original Quad, the new economic forum is not fueled by a collective desire to counter China. In recent months, Israel and the UAE have strengthened their commercial cooperation with China, especially in the shipping sector. Instead, the country that comes closest to bringing the four new Quad members together is Iran—a bitter rival of Israel and the United States. But both the UAE and India are still keen to find ways to engage with the Iranians, despite territorial disputes and reduced energy ties.

That doesn’t mean China is a nonfactor in the arrangement. The United States likely sees the new Quad as an opportunity to convince Israel and the UAE to wean themselves off Chinese investment. That goal dovetails with India’s interests, as it would welcome a reduced Chinese footprint in a region where it’s keen to expand its presence.

The new Quad will occupy midlevel importance for Washington as it balances multilateral arrangements. Its lack of a unifying cause means it will likely struggle to achieve the success of the original Quad. But its members’ commitment to deep levels of cooperation should enable it to outlast the arrangement among Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and Uzbekistan launched just a month before the Taliban takeover.

The new Quad’s trajectory is uncertain, but it has considerable potential because of the warm relations among the parties. It will face two initial tests: sustainability and substance. Is the group prepared to hold regular, high-level meetings, as the original Quad does? And can the new Quad take steps—forming working groups, identifying negotiators—to produce new initiatives? If not, it risks becoming a flash in the pan.


The Week Ahead

Friday, Oct. 22: The Wilson Center hosts a virtual session on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with Asad Umar, Pakistan’s planning and development minister.

Saturday, Oct. 23: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Saudi Arabia.


What We’re Following

Evictions in Assam. The Indian state of Assam has become a flash point for communal tensions. Last week, police evicted Muslim families from their homes on government land, and a man died after being shot and beaten by police and a photographer retained by the force. The effort by the state government, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has displaced thousands of Muslim villagers in recent days.

The evictions follow another state government campaign targeting Muslims in Assam. In recent years, authorities have demanded that all residents provide documents proving their citizenship to compile a registry of citizens. People who can’t produce documents are excluded from the registry and at risk of being deported or detained. This policy disproportionately affects many Muslim migrants, many of whom lack such documents.

Meanwhile, a 2019 citizenship law provides fast-track citizenship for religious minorities who have fled to India from neighboring countries, but it excludes Muslims. All of this likely makes some of the families targeted in the recent eviction campaign especially vulnerable to detention or deportation.

Religious violence in Bangladesh. This week, Bangladesh suffered its worst communal violence in years. The clashes and protests, which began during the Hindu holy festival of Durga Puja, were triggered by images on social media that showed a copy of the Quran positioned at the foot of a statue in a Hindu temple in the city of Comilla. Mobs have attacked temples in several cities, and at least two people have been killed. Hindus make up around 10 percent of Bangladesh’s 165 million people.

In Dhaka, hundreds of people have protested against the violence, and the government has condemned the attacks and met with Hindu leaders. Authorities have already arrested hundreds of suspects, and precedent suggests they will crack down hard on the perpetrators. After the hard-line Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam staged violent protests during Modi’s visit to Dhaka this year, the government arrested the group’s top leaders.

It’s still unclear if a group is behind the current violence. Some observers blame Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist opposition party. But Dhaka often levels allegations of violence against the opposition to justify crackdowns on dissent.

Indian stocks at record highs. Indian stocks have closed at record-high prices in recent days, a trend also seen during several weeks in September. Experts attribute this performance to both international and domestic factors: perceptions that the U.S. Federal Reserve won’t raise interest rates, as well as reassurance that India is turning the corner on the coronavirus pandemic and surging confidence about economic recovery.

But even amid a sustained period of gains, Indian stocks remain prone to volatility. Prices did fall on Tuesday, largely due to the performance of metals after China’s announcement that it will lower global coal prices.

Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. special representative on Afghanistan reconciliation, arrives for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 18.

Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. special representative on Afghanistan reconciliation, arrives for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 18.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Zalmay Khalilzad resigns. The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, stepped down on Monday, months after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Khalilzad, an Afghan American and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was a controversial figure within the country. Former Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib once accused him of trying to delegitimize the Afghan government and of pursuing his own political ambitions in Afghanistan.

Commentators have criticized Khalilzad for the agreement he negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020, which excluded the Afghan government and called for the departure of all U.S. troops—without requiring much of the Taliban in return. The agreement will certainly define his legacy, but Khalilzad was dealt a bad hand, put in the difficult position of negotiating with the Taliban as they seized large amounts of territory and gained the upper hand.

In his resignation letter, Khalilzad said he “plan[s] to contribute to the discussion and debate” on recent developments in Afghanistan and what’s next. It sounds like a book is in the offing. He will be succeeded by his deputy, Thomas West.


Under the Radar

If you have $125,000 to spare, the Conrad Maldives luxury resort is offering a special Thanksgiving package to spend the holiday underwater. The resort is advertising the opportunity to spend five days in the world’s “first underwater villa,” a 6,000-square-foot structure that includes three bedrooms, a gym, an infinity pool, a relaxation deck, and a dining room, where a five-course Thanksgiving meal will be served.

But the vacation may be in poor taste. The Maldives is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. The World Bank predicts rising sea levels could cause the country to become completely submerged by 2100. In fact, the government famously held an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to bring attention to the threat.


Regional Voices

Journalist Ranga Jayasuriya blasts Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plan to introduce a new constitution and electoral system next year in the Daily Mirror. “The fixation to fiddle with the constitution amidst a raging economic crisis can only be explained in the egoistic fantasies that have already done so much damage to the country,” he argues.

In the Indian Express, lawyer Ramya Subramaniam laments the low representation of women in India’s legal profession. “Surveys have to be undertaken by the government across courts to understand and improve the representation of women across the bench,” she writes. “Elevating more women to the bench will definitely lead to more women in the bar.”

An Express Tribune editorial expresses concern about Pakistan’s recent decision to raise fuel prices. “No matter what the rationale is for increasing petrol, gas, and electricity prices, in response to their escalating price tag on the international level, the government has succumbed and has no plan to do some critical balancing to keep the lot of the common man afloat,” it says.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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