Modi Visits Papua New Guinea as Biden Skips
Amid a flurry of diplomacy, the trip gave India a chance to advance key foreign-policy goals.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Papua New Guinea for a summit with Pacific Island nations, resignations mount within former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, and the Taliban appoint a new prime minister.
Modi Makes a Play in the Pacific
It’s been a busy period for India on the world stage. Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Japan for the annual G-7 summit and a meeting of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad). This week, Modi visited Australia, one of India’s closest partners and a Quad member. India also hosted a G-20 summit on tourism in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Amid all this diplomacy, one event received less attention: Modi’s trip to Papua New Guinea this week, the first time an Indian prime minister had visited the country. There, Modi cohosted a summit with Pacific Island nations. U.S. President Joe Biden was scheduled to be in Papua New Guinea at the same time but canceled due to the ongoing domestic budget crisis and sent U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his place.
From New Delhi’s perspective, Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea made good sense. Strengthening relations with the country can help advance three key Indian foreign-policy goals: acting as a bridge to the global south, countering China in the Indo-Pacific region, and showcasing its rising global clout by expanding its footprint beyond its backyard.
Since its days as a founding leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, India has positioned itself as a champion of developing-world causes. More recently, its growing economic and military power has enabled it to deepen ties with developed states. It aims to straddle both worlds, using its influence to address global challenges that disproportionately affect the global south, from climate change to debt. India’s G-20 presidency this year gives it a powerful platform to do so.
Likewise, Modi’s visit to Port Moresby offered useful opportunities. He engaged with leaders from Papua New Guinea and 13 other Pacific Island nations, each acutely vulnerable to climate change and could benefit from Indian investments in clean energy. (Leaders from Australia and New Zealand also attended.) Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape endorsed India’s influence: On Monday, he described Modi as the leader of the global south and called on him to fight for the causes of Papua New Guinea and other island states.
Modi’s outreach in Papua New Guinea also gives India another chance to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing is deepening economic influence in Pacific Island states through its Belt and Road Initiative, and in 2022 it inked a security partnership with the Solomon Islands. These are troubling developments for India and other members of the Quad, given the proximity of these activities to Australia.
Although India doesn’t seek to give the impression that it’s competing with the United States, closer Indian engagement with Papua New Guinea can offer a complement to Washington’s deepening security collaborations with Port Moresby, which include a security pact concluded this week with Blinken in town. Some Papua New Guineans fear the deal will increase the country’s dependence on the United States—at the cost of some development assistance it receives from China.
Modi’s visit to Port Moresby also telegraphs India’s desire to extend its influence beyond its own neighborhood—and further into the Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific region. It has already grown its footprint in Southeast Asia through activities with the Quad and in the Middle East through its minilateral arrangement with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. In the case of Papua New Guinea, it can pitch its prowess as a bilateral donor and net goods provider.
The Pacific Island states aren’t becoming a core focus of India’s strategic orientation, especially given New Delhi’s heightened concerns about the challenge from Beijing on its northern border. But Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea dovetails nicely with India’s broader foreign-policy goals; it deserves to be seen as more than a footnote to a busy week of high-level diplomacy.
What We’re Following
Resignations mount in Khan’s party. In recent days, more than two dozen leaders of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party—led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan—have resigned. The biggest news came on Tuesday, when Shireen Mazari, a former human rights minister in Khan’s government and one of the party’s most senior figures, said she was quitting not just the party, but also retiring from politics. Another top leader, Fawad Chaudhry, resigned on Wednesday.
It’s clear the resignations are taking place under pressure. Mazari, who is in poor health, has been in and out of jail in recent days. She and other PTI leaders have been held on charges related to their alleged role in violent protests following Khan’s brief arrest on May 9. PTI leaders insist the party wasn’t involved in the protests, which included attacks on a corps commander’s home in Lahore and on the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. The PTI has alleged that some violent protesters were Pakistani intelligence agents who were seeking to frame the opposition party.
Last week, the military announced it plans to use military courts to prosecute those charged in the May 9 violence. These developments, alongside the flurry of resignations of PTI leaders, suggest that Islamabad is intent on sidelining the opposition party—if not eliminating it. On Wednesday, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told reporters that the government was considering a complete ban on the party; such a move would likely face challenges in the courts.
Ultimately, PTI revolves around Khan, and if he were jailed again for an extended period, it could have a devastating impact on the party. The government’s plan may also be to ensure that other top leaders can’t step in to replace him.
The Taliban’s new prime minister. Last week, the Taliban confirmed the appointment of a new Afghan prime minister: Maulvi Abdul Kabir. Kabir replaces Mohammad Hasan Akhund, who had served in the role since September 2021, shortly after the group seized power in Kabul. Taliban officials said the move is temporary and that Akhund, who has been unwell, will return to the role once he is healthy again.
The decision is nonetheless striking, given that the Taliban’s high-level personnel have remained relatively unchanged since the group took power. This suggests Kabir’s appointment could be about more than holding down the fort until Akhund’s health improves. Kabir has long been a key Taliban figure, holding senior posts during the previous regime in the 1990s and serving in military commander roles. He was involved in the negotiations with the United States that resulted in the 2020 Doha agreement.
Most importantly, Kabir is believed to hold influence with the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who reportedly ordered his appointment. Given reports of a rift between the Taliban’s political leaders in Kabul and the ideological leadership in Kandahar, Akhundzada may have wanted to ensure that a close ally was managing affairs in Kabul.
Read more: Javid Ahmad and Douglas London argue in Foreign Policy that to achieve its objectives in the region, the United States should diplomatically recognize the Taliban government.
Notable absences in Kashmir. India hosted a G-20 meeting in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, this week. As this year’s G-20 president, New Delhi used the event to showcase tourism opportunities in India—as well as to project to the world that Kashmir has achieved stability after its special autonomous status was revoked in 2019. Despite the attempt to convey a sense of normalcy, Kashmir remains restive, with a large security presence and relentless state crackdowns on dissent.
For its backers, the G-20 event was a resounding success, with 29 countries represented. But critics may point to three G-20 countries that sat the event out: China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. (Egypt was another no-show.) China disagrees with India on the issue of Kashmir and said it wouldn’t attend an event in disputed territory. The absence of Saudi Arabia and Egypt was more surprising, as the countries are two of India’s closest friends in the Middle East.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was Modi’s chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade this year, and relations between New Delhi and Riyadh have grown rapidly in recent years, in large part because of stepped-up energy cooperation.
Read more: In Foreign Policy, David Lepeska writes that the G-20 summit in Srinagar suggests that the government wants to turn the region into a tourist hotspot—perhaps at the expense of Kashmiris.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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- Russia Is Already Looking Beyond Ukraine by Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
- Why Netflix’s ‘Queen Cleopatra’ Has Egypt up in Arms by Sara Khorshid
Under the Radar
Bangladesh is struggling to pay for fuel imports due to a shortage of U.S. dollars, according to a Reuters investigation that reviewed recent correspondence between the state-owned Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation and the country’s power ministry. The Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, which controls fuel imports, owes more than $300 million amid an “alarming decrease in fuel reserves.”
An April letter indicated that top fuel suppliers, including Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian companies, were starting to reduce fuel shipments and threatening to suspend them altogether because they weren’t getting paid.
This is a worrisome development for Bangladesh, both for energy security and political stability. Last year, Dhaka ordered the closure of diesel-run power plants to bring down energy costs. The move led to serious power outages last fall—and it clearly didn’t solve the import payment crisis. (Bangladesh suffered further outages last month during a heat wave.)
Dhaka has trumpeted its economic success in recent years and highlighted a recent financing agreement with the International Monetary Fund as preventative. But if Bangladesh can’t pay for critical fuel imports, it suggests that its economic stress is more severe than the government has let on—creating a dilemma for the ruling Awami League party ahead of national elections next year.
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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