Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: The Ukraine crisis puts India in a diplomatic bind, Norway hosts a conference with Taliban officials, and South Asia fares poorly in new global corruption rankings.
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What the Ukraine Crisis Means for India
As most of the world watches for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, India has maintained a cautious silence. The crisis puts New Delhi in a difficult diplomatic position.
India doesn’t want to upset its long-standing relations with Russia by trying to rein it in, but an invasion of Ukraine would also spell disaster for its strategic interests. The crisis puts New Delhi under pressure from Washington to join the coalition of countries opposing Moscow’s military mobilization. The more things escalate, the more challenges India will face as it tries to balance relations with both countries.
India’s friendship with Russia harks back to the early years of the Cold War. Officials in New Delhi consider Moscow a time-tested and reliable partner. During India’s devastating COVID-19 surge last year, many Indian observers noted that it was Russia—not the United States—that immediately came to India’s aid. Tellingly, India was silent when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, and it abstained from a United Nations resolution upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
This time around, New Delhi will also be hard-pressed to push back against Moscow—and not just out of nostalgia. Russia is a top arms supplier to India, which risked U.S. sanctions by purchasing a Russian S-400 missile defense system that began arriving last month. To New Delhi, Moscow also makes a major contribution to a multipolar world order with power dispersed beyond Washington and Beijing. This, too, makes India more likely to stay quiet about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Like many countries, India won’t call out the excesses of other governments if doing so could damage its interests. Its reaction to last year’s coup in Myanmar was muted, seeking to avoid jeopardizing relations with a military regime that cooperates with India on border security and infrastructure projects. New Delhi recently introduced a new plan for engagement with the junta, which it doesn’t want getting any closer to Beijing.
Yet another Russian invasion of Ukraine would deliver major blows to Indian interests, as Tanvi Madan and Pranab Dhal Samanta have each argued in recent essays. The resulting Western sanctions would make Moscow more reliant on economic assistance from Beijing—ultimately undermining the multipolarity sought by New Delhi. Fresh sanctions would also present obstacles for India’s defense trade with Russia.
Furthermore, the crisis in Ukraine could distract the United States from its focus on countering Chinese power. Meanwhile, Beijing could capitalize by intensifying provocations in the South China Sea or even along the India-China border—outcomes that would deliver fresh blows to New Delhi’s interests. These possibilities highlight how the Russia factor could constrain U.S.-India relations.
The United States is aware of India’s concerns about impending military action. Since the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, both Moscow and New Delhi have each scaled up relations with the other’s rivals: Russia with Pakistan and China and India with the United States. The United States may see a strong statement of concern from India—as a close friend of Russia and a key non-NATO actor—as a powerful message.
Such a move could help India’s cause as it seeks a U.S. sanctions waiver for the S-400 purchase—matters that were likely discussed during a Jan. 20 call between Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Predictably, a U.S. readout said Russia was an agenda point, while India’s readout didn’t mention Russia.
A full-scale, extended war is the worst-case scenario for India: It would make its role as a silent bystander untenable. But even a more limited Russian military intervention would likely result in a sanctioned Moscow, a strengthened Beijing, and a distracted Washington—all costly for New Delhi’s interests. India could move the needle by urging Russia to use restraint, but it may deem even that modest move too risky.
Norway hosts the Taliban. This week, the Norwegian government hosted a high-level diplomatic conference outside Oslo with senior Taliban officials. The three-day event marked the new Afghan regime’s first official diplomatic engagement in a Western country. It brought together Taliban and Western officials (including senior U.S. diplomats), along with Afghan civil society activists—mainly from the diaspora.
The main message from Western officials to the Taliban was one they have repeated since the group seized power: Greater financial assistance can come only with improvements on human rights issues. The conference didn’t result in any agreement, but Norwegian officials emphasized that such exchanges—which do not reflect recognition of the Taliban regime—are essential to work through the obstacles to getting cash assistance to Afghanistan.
Several hundred Afghans gathered in Oslo to protest the conference, which took place amid reports that the Taliban have recently detained female activists. Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, tweeted that she pushed for the immediate release of activists while in Oslo.
Corruption worsens in South Asia. In Transparency International’s latest global corruption rankings, released this week, South Asia fares poorly. The index it uses reflects the perceptions of an international network of experts and business leaders about corruption in the public sector. Five South Asian countries are in the bottom half of the list: Sri Lanka (102), Nepal (117), Pakistan (140), Bangladesh (147), and Afghanistan (174).
According to Transparency International’s analysis, the countries with the worst corruption scores in the 2021 index tended to also experience significant democratic backsliding. But India, which has taken a major tumble in global democracy rankings, fared relatively well (85). Meanwhile, Pakistan dropped the furthest of any country in the region: 16 places from the 2020 rankings. This isn’t good news for Islamabad, where the ruling party identifies combating corruption as its top priority.
India marks Republic Day. On Wednesday, India observed Republic Day, which marks the formal adoption of the country’s constitution in 1950. Republic Day typically features large ceremonies and parades, but during the pandemic, New Delhi has limited attendance. Nonetheless, this year’s festivities included a range of patriotic events, such as military flyovers and homages to India’s fallen war heroes.
The government brought controversial attention to one of India’s heroes last Friday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that New Delhi would install a statue of independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose at the iconic India Gate war monument. Bose spent time in Nazi Germany during World War II. He then became a top resistance leader against British rule in India, often taking more confrontational positions than peers such as Mahatma Gandhi.
At a ceremony unveiling a temporary holographic statue of Bose, Modi said the leader’s contributions are often forgotten and that he wants to ensure his legacy is properly honored.
“[W]omen reportedly account for only 17 percent of judges overall and just under 4.4 percent in the high courts” in Pakistan.
—Statement from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan welcoming the appointment of Ayesha Malik, Pakistan’s first-ever female Supreme Court judge. She was sworn in on Monday.
Indian media report that a new cryptocurrency regulation bill is unlikely to be introduced in the Indian Parliament’s budget session, which begins Feb. 1. The bill was originally slotted for consideration last month. New Delhi says it needs more time to build a consensus on what a proper regulatory regime should look like. The delay isn’t a surprise: Indian policymaking circles have long seen cryptocurrency as a complicated issue.
India’s government has what can best be described as a hate-love relationship with cryptocurrency. Back in 2013, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued a warning that Indians shouldn’t use virtual currencies, citing legal and security risks. Critics also initially feared cryptocurrency could lead to an upsurge in black money. By 2017, the RBI declared that virtual currencies weren’t legal tender, but the Supreme Court removed these curbs in 2020.
Since then, New Delhi has shifted more toward exploring better regulation to protect cryptocurrency users. In November, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance, following consultations with cryptocurrency company executives, concluded that regulation is a better alternative to bans. But the RBI continues to favor an outright ban on cryptocurrency, warning of its macroeconomic risks.
Times of India diplomatic editor Indrani Bagchi assesses intensifying India-China competition in South Asia. “In the coming years, India will win some, lose some. The key is to stay in the game and use opportunities as they appear. Diplomacy and geopolitics in this region have never been more exciting,” she writes.
Researcher Rishi Gupta argues in South Asian Voices that Nepal’s new pro-India government, which took power last July, can help ease border tensions with India. But it won’t be easy: “[L]ooming political instability [in Nepal], especially internal feuds between the ruling alliance and corruption, make the prospects of an immediate resolution … unlikely,” he writes.
A Kuensel editorial warns that public debate in Bhutan over a recent case of foreign workers entering the country without COVID-19 tests overlooks a key storyline: Because of that incident, the virus is now surging in communities far from quarantine facilities, raising the risk of rapid spread “even with blackouts or lockdowns.”