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.

Russia Still Looms Over U.S.-India Relationship

As New Delhi avoids condemning Moscow’s war, Washington has hardened its rhetoric.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh take part in a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington on April 11.
U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh take part in a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington on April 11.
U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh take part in a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington on April 11. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Russia continues to affect U.S.-India relations amid the conflict in Ukraine, Pakistan’s new prime minister takes office, and Sri Lanka defaults on its foreign debt.

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: Russia continues to affect U.S.-India relations amid the conflict in Ukraine, Pakistan’s new prime minister takes office, and Sri Lanka defaults on its foreign debt.

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


In U.S.-India Meetings, Russia Is the Elephant in the Room

India’s foreign and defense ministers met their U.S. counterparts in Washington on Monday in a 2+2 dialogue that followed a virtual meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These high-level engagements brought a boost to a bilateral relationship that has experienced some turbulence since the conflict in Ukraine began.

New Delhi hasn’t condemned the Russian invasion because of its long-standing partnership with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian arms. This factor remains a challenge for India’s relationship with the United States. Washington’s latest tactic appears to be to convince New Delhi that Moscow is no longer a reliable security partner.

The array of discussion on Monday captures the breadth of U.S.-India relations, attesting to a multifaceted relationship that can withstand its share of shocks. The Biden-Modi call focused on clean energy, technology, health and food security, military cooperation, and Indo-Pacific issues, along with Ukraine. According to U.S. readouts, the 2+2 covered traditional and nontraditional security issues, including a reference to finalizing some security collaborations. The United States aims to implement recent defense agreements with India to facilitate future cooperation.

Those participating in the 2+2 dialogue previously made clear that the conflict in Ukraine would figure prominently. However, official documents from the 2+2 dialogue said little about the crisis beyond pledging to consult on humanitarian assistance efforts and calling for a cessation of hostilities. It’s likely the two sides agreed to disagree on most aspects of the Russia issue, and the post-meeting messaging highlighted the few areas of convergence.

U.S. messaging on India’s position on the conflict has hardened in recent weeks, from grudging acceptance of India’s stance to calling on New Delhi to “evolve” its position and warning of possible consequences if it keeps trading with Moscow. The most recent signaling suggests India should rethink its longer-term security relations with Moscow: In New Delhi this month, top U.S. National Security Council official Daleep Singh said India can’t count on Russian support the next time China stages a provocation on India’s border.

It’s easy to follow this line of reasoning: India can’t bank on Russian support, especially because the Ukraine conflict has brought Moscow closer to Beijing, which it already depended on economically. India also can’t bank on a sanctioned Russia continuing to export arms to New Delhi. This week, political scientists Vasabjit Banerjee and Benjamin Tkach noted in War on the Rocks that Russia’s defense manufacturing sector has experienced financial problems ever since its invasion of Crimea in 2014.

But in reality, the U.S. argument is a tough sell. India has never expected Russia to condemn Chinese border provocations. Furthermore, Russia’s economy should support the continued production of arms if key markets, including Europe’s, keep importing Russian energy. India is too heavily reliant on Russian arms to go cold turkey—especially given long-standing capacity constraints within its own defense production sector.

India can also argue that it has reduced its share of Russian arms in recent years and that many of the supplies it continues to acquire strengthen its capacity to deter China. These are the reasons why the Biden administration will likely offer a sanctions waiver to India for its acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system last year.

Ultimately, it’s easier for the United States to wean India off Russian oil than Russian arms, given its limited dependence on the former. As Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in a press conference on Monday, “Probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon.”

The Biden administration has a better long-term bet: to scale up its already-rising arms exports to India, encourage France and Israel—two other key Indian arms suppliers—to do the same, and help India strengthen its indigenous production capacity.


What We’re Following

Pakistan’s new prime minister. Shehbaz Sharif took office as Pakistan’s prime minister on Monday, bringing a weekslong political crisis to an end. Last weekend, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government were ousted after he failed to survive a no-confidence vote. Khan previously blocked the vote, which he argued was part of a U.S. plot to oust him, but the Supreme Court ruled that it must take place.

Sharif, the brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is a very different leader than Khan. During his terms as chief minister of Punjab province, he earned praise as an understated but efficient manager who emphasized infrastructure development. He has also emphasized the importance of relations with the West, including the United States. However, Sharif does face corruption charges that he and his supporters say are politically motivated.

The new government’s honeymoon won’t last long. It inherits an economic crisis marked by some of Asia’s highest inflation rates and a rising terrorist threat from the Pakistani Taliban. It will also face relentless pressure from Khan, now back in the role of opposition leader. Last Sunday, thousands of people took to the streets in major cities on behalf of Khan—a reminder of the mass public support he continues to enjoy.

Pakistan’s highly charged political environment will grow even more polarized, with Khan likely to keep up the narrative that he was ousted via a U.S. conspiracy. The next elections are scheduled for 2023, but early polls can’t be ruled out.

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 13.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 13.

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 13.ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

Sri Lanka announces foreign debt default. Amid a mounting economic crisis, Sri Lanka announced this week that it will halt payments on its foreign debt, which currently exceeds $50 billion, for the first time in its history. The government has devalued the currency and raised interest rates to provide assurances to creditors, and it is negotiating a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.

Political pressure continues to mount on the beleaguered government in Colombo, which lost most of its cabinet after mass resignations last week. Those departures were intended to appease public anger, but nationwide protests continue. This week, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to meet with one protest group to discuss their demands, but the group insists that Rajapaksa—and all his family members in government, including Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—must resign.

Some experts argue Sri Lanka is experiencing an Arab Spring moment: The public is uniting in protest against economic mismanagement and authoritarian, nepotistic rule. But the president has given no indication he plans to step down.

Afghan protesters target Iran. Afghan protesters gathered outside the Iranian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, on Monday, reportedly pelting the facility with rocks and burning Iranian flags. Protesters also gathered outside the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. The demonstrations follow a disturbing video that surfaced on social media allegedly showing Afghan refugees being attacked by Iranian border guards and mobs.

The authenticity of the videos has not been verified, but Afghan refugees have long suffered discrimination and other mistreatment in neighboring Iran, which has hosted more Afghan refugees than any country other than Pakistan. The protests in Afghanistan prompted Tehran to summon Afghanistan’s chargé d’affaires in Iran and demand better security for Iranian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan.

But the Iranian government’s public messaging has been conciliatory: In an interview with the Afghan media outlet TOLOnews this week, the Iranian ambassador to Kabul said his embassy is cooperating with the Taliban administration. (The Taliban have offered no public comment.)


Quote of the Week

“Why is Khan not blaming the army for his ousting? Behind his petulant facade, there is a pragmatist at work. His party cadres are seething at the army for abandoning them, but Khan himself doesn’t want to burn the bridge that may one day bring him back to office.”

Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif on recently deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan


Under the Radar

With so much attention in Pakistan focused on the political crisis in recent days, a major counterterrorism development went largely unnoticed. Last Friday, a court sentenced Hafiz Saeed, the head of the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, to 31 years in prison on terrorism financing charges. Saeed has been imprisoned on similar charges since 2020, but the new sentence stands out: In the past, Saeed would periodically be arrested only to be quietly released soon after.

The new prison term will help Pakistan’s cause within the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global terrorist financing watchdog. Pakistan has been on an FATF watch list since 2018, and Islamabad fears it could scare off foreign investors. Many Pakistanis believe the FATF list is political, with the United States keeping Pakistan on the list as a form of leverage.

However, Pakistan remains on the list because it has failed to complete one remaining item on its FATF action plan, which relates to terrorist financing prosecutions and convictions of U.N.-designated terrorists like Saeed. Pakistan’s chances of coming off the list when the FATF next convenes later this year have now gone up.


Regional Voices

In Tribune India, author Natasha Badhwar reflects on India’s catastrophic COVID-19 surge after a year has passed. “There was barely any time to grieve. We had been stripped of rituals that console and enable us to support each other in crisis. It was nearly impossible to separate our rage from despair and our grief from dread for what we would be forced to endure next,” she writes.

A Daily Mirror editorial argues that Sri Lanka faces its “worst crisis since independence” and that the political opposition is not helping matters amid acute economic stress. “In an unfortunate turn of events the political opposition is still divided, and unable to give political leadership to protests on the streets,” it argues.

Attorney Rafia Zakaria writes for Dawn regarding what growing pressures on global financial institutions could mean for Pakistan. “International institutions facing requests from a number of countries, including war-torn Ukraine, famine-torn Egypt and strife-torn Sri Lanka, to name a few, will have to make difficult decisions,” she writes. “These decisions may shut out Pakistan.”

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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