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.

Can India Keep Balancing Russia and the West?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalations in Ukraine have compounded diplomatic challenges for New Delhi.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) leaders' summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16. ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Diplomatic challenges test India’s patience with Russia’s war in Ukraine, Washington hosts a senior Bangladeshi diplomat, and Nepal experiences an electricity surplus amid reduced purchases from India.

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: Diplomatic challenges test India’s patience with Russia’s war in Ukraine, Washington hosts a senior Bangladeshi diplomat, and Nepal experiences an electricity surplus amid reduced purchases from India.

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


India’s Balancing Act Gets Trickier

Russia’s escalation in Ukraine in recent days—carrying out missile strikes targeting civilian areas and reiterating nuclear threats—has compounded the challenge facing India since February: balancing its long-standing ties to Moscow with its deepening relations with the West. India’s latest signaling suggests that it remains committed to that balancing act, even as it has grown increasingly impatient with a conflict that undermines its interests.

Making matters worse, India now faces a separate diplomatic challenge that it could see as related to its refusal to take a stronger stand against Russia’s war in Ukraine. After meeting with her Pakistani counterpart in Berlin last Friday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on her government to help resolve the Kashmir dispute, adding that Germany supports the United Nations engagement on the issue.

The comments were highly unusual for a senior Western official: India rejects any outside involvement in Kashmir, and the international community tends to honor that position. Baerbock, who represents Germany’s center-left coalition, may have simply conveyed her government’s concerns about human rights conditions in Kashmir. But India could perceive the comments as part of a Western effort to push it to change its position on Russia’s war in Ukraine by putting pressure on a highly sensitive issue.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome made a three-day visit last week to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India claims as its territory. Blome’s trip, focused on business and educational cooperation with Pakistan, was likely intended to signal Washington’s desire to strengthen relations with Islamabad—not to put pressure on New Delhi. (As I explained in April, the United States has taken a long-term approach to persuading New Delhi that Russia is not a reliable security partner for the future.)

For India, the optics are suboptimal: two key Western partners pushing back against its position on Kashmir after months of frustration with New Delhi’s position on Moscow’s war. It’s also noteworthy that Pakistan, once neutral on the conflict, is now working with NATO countries to send ammunition supplies to Ukraine. But India, which upholds a policy of strategic autonomy, would never respond to pressure on the Kashmir issue; it doesn’t let other countries’ tactics drive its foreign-policy decisions, especially not one as significant as its relations with Russia.

Nonetheless, India’s recent messaging suggests it is increasingly unhappy with Russia’s war in Ukraine. While seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a conference last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a rare public and direct criticism of the conflict. A senior member of Modi’s party told FP this was his way of conveying to Putin that the time has come to end the war. After all, the conflict is detrimental to India’s interests with regard to its rival China: It has brought Moscow closer to Beijing and risks distracting Washington.

Growing pressure on India doesn’t mean it will completely turn on Russia. Soon after Modi’s comment, New Delhi abstained from a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s actions, and it did the same on another one this week. But its criticism is mounting, even if it’s subtle. This week, India did vote against Russia’s attempt to sabotage a U.N. resolution rejecting its illegal annexations in Ukraine. New Delhi’s rhetoric against Moscow’s moves has also become sharper and more frequent, as Indian scholar Happymon Jacob pointed out in Foreign Affairs.

India has shown it is willing to keep walking a tightrope between Russia and the West for now. But it’s clearly concerned that Putin’s war in Ukraine may be escalating to a dangerous new phase that will make the balancing act even more difficult.


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What We’re Following

Senior Bangladeshi official visits Washington. U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman hosted a meeting with Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs, last Friday. The visit was the latest in a series of high-level U.S.-Bangladesh engagements this year. These exchanges are in part symbolic: 2022 marks 50 years of formal U.S.-Bangladesh relations. But they are also strategic. The United States has sought to strengthen relations with South Asian countries like Bangladesh to push back against China’s influence.

Washington and Dhaka are also simply working to boost their bilateral relations, in particular their already-robust trade cooperation. They are also exploring options for deeper military cooperation, but human rights remain a tension point for an otherwise healthy relationship: Last year, Washington slapped sanctions on one of Bangladesh’s top security agencies for abuses. The issue was on the agenda during Alam’s meeting with Sherman.

Finally, the United States and its allies also want to push Bangladesh to take a stronger position against Russia’s war in Ukraine. But this is a hard sell: Like many governments in the region, Dhaka has sought to stay neutral—though it did vote in favor of a U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion this week after previously abstaining.

Pakistan sees terrorism uptick. On Monday, a gunman attacked a school van in Mingora, Pakistan, killing the driver and injuring a student. The tragedy fell nearly a decade to the day that activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants in the same area. Monday’s attack came amid a broader resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan led by the TTP—a group separate from but ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban.

The TTP, which is based in Afghanistan, has increased its attacks in Pakistan in recent months while the Afghan Taliban regime has refused to expel the group from the country. The regime did facilitate talks between Islamabad and the TTP, but those talks failed. Already encumbered by an economic crisis, flooding, and spats with the political opposition, the Pakistani government has offered no new counterterrorism strategy.

However, large protests broke out this week in Swat, Pakistan, 80 miles outside of Islamabad, to rail against the resurgence in terrorist attacks. Swat is particularly symbolic: Yousafzai was shot there, and it was overrun and briefly taken over by the TTP in 2009. Protesters seek to galvanize Pakistan’s leadership to focus more attention on the renewed threat.

Top Kashmiri politician dies in Indian custody. A senior politician from Indian-administered Kashmir, Altaf Ahmad Shah, died of cancer on Tuesday. He was detained in a high-security prison in New Delhi but was recently shifted to a state medical facility. With his health deteriorating, his family had asked the government to grant him bail or access to better medical care—but to no avail. Shah, who was jailed in 2017 on money laundering charges, virulently opposed India’s rule over Kashmir and favored a merger with Pakistan.

Shah is the fourth Kashmiri separatist in three years to die in Indian custody. His death provides further ammunition to critics of India’s policies in Kashmir, where officials have cracked down hard against politicians, leaders, and journalists—especially since India revoked the region’s special autonomous status in August 2019. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has publicly mourned Shah’s death, whereas India has remained silent.


Under the Radar

The Kathmandu Post reported this week that Nepal is suffering from a problem that many of its neighbors would be happy to have: an electricity surplus. Thanks to falling demand and lower-than-expected Indian purchases of power from Nepal, the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) estimated 800 megawatts of surplus power, or spillage, last weekend. All the extra electricity has resulted in the loss of $1.5 billion in potential earnings in a week.

The good news is that spillage rates have decreased in recent days, with factories and other businesses ramping up consumption after pausing operations for a religious holiday this month.

But getting India to resume electricity purchases has proved challenging. India balked at several deals with Nepal because Chinese contractors were involved in production. Kathmandu has since offered New Delhi electricity without Chinese involvement, proposals that are currently under review. India-Nepal electricity cooperation has been a rare success for regional integration in recent years, but geopolitics has a way of raining on the parade.



Regional Voices

Daily Mirror columnist Ranga Jayasuriya argues that Sri Lanka should avoid “self-degradation” policies, including a new proposal to voluntarily downgrade the country from a middle-income to lower-income nation to qualify for more international concessionary financing. “Sri Lanka is a low-growth captive market because it has refused to reform,” he writes.

In South Asian Voices, analyst Usama Nizamani writes that “becoming a hub of technology-based cooperation” for both U.S. and Chinese companies can help Pakistan avoid great-power competition. But he argues that uncertain government policy, global economic outlook, and a “reluctance to unroll a sustainable economic roadmap” complicate this goal.

Writing in Dawn, psychiatrist Asma Humayun calls for placing a greater priority on mental health care to help Pakistan’s flood victims. According to initial research, 55 of the 80 districts “most affected by the calamity … do not have a single psychiatrist,” Humayun writes.

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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