MonitorsPublished on Dec 07, 2020
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII-49

Bangladesh: Chinese Defence Minister visit change raises eyebrows

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

The last-minute postponement of Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s visit to Bangladesh, after going to Nepal, in November, has raised curiosity about the state of the relations between the two countries. Since no specific reason has been cited, a host of speculations have surfaced, with no tangible conclusion.

One of the likely reasons for the visit postponement could be the state of Covid-19 pandemic in the country, with the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary also being infected with the virus. Another important reason thought to be behind the visit change is Bangladesh’s effort in balancing its relationship with China and India, the two Asian powers – with both, Bangladesh enjoys a warm and friendly relationship.

The reason behind such presumption is because the defence minister’s visit was scheduled at a time when the rivalry between China and India is at its peak, and the visit is largely viewed as China’s effort to gravitate India’s neighbours towards it. Amidst a plethora of assumptions, the trend showcases Bangladesh’s discreet assertion of its reluctance to be part of any axis, whether it is a competition between two Asian giants or global powers.

All-weather friends

China and Bangladesh are considered to be all-weather friends and cooperation in the areas of defence and economy are core to the bilateral relationship. Notably, China is the only country with which Bangladesh has a defence cooperation agreement. And China is the largest supplier of arms to the Bangladesh army.  The Bangladesh Navy purchased its first submarine from China.

China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. Additionally, it is a development partner and is investing heavily in various infrastructure projects. During Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s visit in 2016, Beijing promised to invest $24 billion in various infrastructure projects.

So, given the bonhomie between the two countries, the postponement of the visit came as a major surprise to all.

Bangladesh has been mindful of its interests and has unreservedly expressed its dissention to any proposal or activities that would disturb the country’s goal. The stalling of the Sonadia deep seaport project is an example. The Sonadia port project was proposed to be constructed with Chinese funding. However, the project was withheld because of the conditions laid down by China. Bangladesh felt the terms and conditions were not favourable to the nation’s interests.

Bangladesh, once considered a basket case, is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Soon, it will be a middle-income country and aspires to elevate itself into being a developed one by 2040. Thus, enhancing economic growth is necessary to attain this goal, and it is seeking the cooperation of all towards this end.

Silent on Galwan skirmish

Bangladesh feels the necessity of maintaining a peaceful and friendly relationship with all, that would help to catapult the country to the next level of prosperity.  In tune with this goal, the nation anchored its foreign policy on the principle of ‘friendship with all and malice towards none’. The country wants to avoid any situation that would disrupt its desired goal.

Dhaka’s reluctance to comment on the recent standoff between China and India at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh is reflective of this mindset.  The country feels it would benefit from maintaining good relationship with both China and India. Bangladesh has a strong economic relationship with India. New Delhi has promised to provide around $10 billion of economic assistance. Also, Indian companies are investing in Bangladesh. To date, Indian companies have invested around $3 billion, which is likely to grow in the future.

Again, Bangladesh’s hesitation to join the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) arises out of a similar consideration. The country perceives the IPS to be having a military component to it.  The country prefers to be away from any situation that might push it into into unnecessary contestation with any other power.

The recent trend adds a new dimension to the geo-politics in South Asia. Largely, the South Asian geo-politics used to be dominated by the run for supremacy between China and India, and the perspective of the other countries in the region had limited space.  Now, nations like Bangladesh seem to chart their pathways on the path where primacy is given to economics than strategic alliances.

However, as the global order tends to shift with the Covid-19 pandemic, where competition between great powers is likely to be harsher, it will be worthy to watch the reaction of the countries like Bangladesh. Will they be able to pursue their ingenuity or succumb to the great power game?

Afghanistan: Aid-cuts stare at poverty-alleviation

Ratnadeep Chakraborty

The 2020 Afghanistan Conference, a ministerial-level pledging event, took place in Geneva on 23-24 November, with the participation of 66 countries and 32 international organisations. The conference was co-hosted by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Government of Finland and the United Nations. The Afghan delegation was headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar.

Besides the global pandemic, the conference took place in the backdrop of the lingering uncertainty from the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban in Doha. The virtual nature of the conference along with the global economic crunch ended up affecting the aid-quantum from donor- countries by a significant margin. The format also reduced personal contact, and the advocacy opportunities for civil society organisations in the country.

Major takeaways

The outcome of the conference included pledges of financial support and the new aid architecture. The new aid architecture consists of two documents, namely, the Afghanistan Partnership Framework and the National Peace and Development Framework (which provides a wider perspective of development goals to be achieved).

The Afghanistan Partnership Framework is an agreement that outlines the conditions for providing the aid by keeping in consideration various guiding principles agreed upon in the conference. The principles are divided into three parts: peace-building, which talks about the political, social, and economic inclusion and the safety of women, youth and minorities.

The Communiqué also mentioned advocacy on human rights and migration issues. Besides, it pointed out how the international community, working with the Afghan government, needs to ‘stem irregular migration’ and help in ‘reintegration of returnees’. The document, however, fails to acknowledge the mistreatment of refugees, who are fleeing the war, in other countries. The Afghanistan government missed an opportunity to call for a more humane approach while dealing with the migration crisis in the conference.

The second principle mentioned state-building, which includes building effective, accountable and self-reliant institutions. The targets for 2021 as mentioned in the document include a ‘functioning anti-corruption commission with sufficient resources’ and ‘verifiable data on the number of corruption cases vs investigated cases. The delegation of the civil society also mentioned their concern that ‘the executive should respect the accountability and roles and responsibilities of the institutions enshrined in the Constitution’.

The third and final principle talkd about market-building, which aims at ‘reducing poverty through a vibrant private sector’. The general target is the reduction of the number of people below the poverty level and increasing the GDP per employed person.

Corruption, poverty and violence

Poverty remains one of the most difficult challenges for the Afghan government. Even before the pandemic, the poverty-level had increased from 34 percent in 2007 to 54.4 percent in 2017. The World Bank estimates that it may reach 72 percent, owing to the pandemic. The number of people who will need humanitarian aid during this time has also increased significantly.

Amidst the growing poverty level in the country, rampant corruption acted as a deterrent to foreign aid, which fell by a huge margin at this conference. The government had only met 27 out of the 63 deliverables and the sub-deliverables agreed upon in Brussels in 2017.

To fight graft, the Afghanistan government established an independent Anti-Corruption Commission in November, just before the conference, though it was long due. The commission members were sworn in just the day before the conference-opening. This move was met with a lot of criticism as most the participants believed that it was done in haste to please the donors.

In this context, a request for joint review was agreed upon. There will be two reviews. The first will be a senior official meeting in 2021 and the second will be a biennial ministerial meeting in 2022 to check the progress as Afghanistan nears the end of the transformational decade.

President Ashraf Ghani, while addressing the opening ceremony of the conference, spoke about the country’s fight against corruption and terrorism. He called for an immediate ceasefire and mentioned that their negations with the Taliban will remain firm.

The statement comes at a time when the civilian casualties have increased and violence has continued despite the peace talks. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance increased from 9.4 million in 2019 to 14 million in 2020. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire as the Afghan people have had it for too long and the Afghan women paid a huge price in the conflict. Almost 40% of the civilian casualties comprise women and children.

The Taliban was not invited to the conference as the peace talks didn’t yield results on the ground. According to Andreas von Brandt, the Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union, the Taliban lost out on a huge opportunity to present themselves to the world.

Imposed conditionality

The coronavirus pandemic had not only affected the Afghan economy but the economy of the donor-countries as well. The World Bank estimated that the Afghan economy will contract by fiver percent and it will take years for it to recover. Currently, Afghanistan’s annual public expenditure accounts to $  11 billion, of which only $ 2.5 billion is sourced from domestic revenues such as passport fees, road tolls, mobile charges and mining revenues. Despite the increase in domestic revenue over the years, the nation still heavily depends on international aid.

The international community has funnelled $ 72 billion between 2002 and 2018, making Afghanistan the leading receiver of foreign aid compared to many other developing countries. The international aid however had decreased over the years and in the Geneva conference, it was 20 percent less than the UNDP projection of the country’s need. The total foreign aid received in Geneva is $ 12-13 billion, which is  $ 2-3 billion less compared to the Brussels conference in 2016.

The US representative, David Hale, mentioned that Washington has assigned $ 600 million for civilian assistance in 2021. Out of that amount, only $ 300 million has been pledged while the remaining fund will be granted after carefully reviewing the progress in peace talks. There have been reports of fund-cuts even before the conference.

The US has taken a departure from the initial practice by not pledging the entire sum for four years. While the US is trying to follow an ‘out of Afghanistan’ policy with the fund-cuts and by removing troops from the ground, other countries participating in the conference also surprisingly moved away from a longer-term development pledge.

The UK, like the US, has decided to impose conditional funding and pledged $ 207 million, which is 8.3 percent less compared to the fund allocation in Brussels. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, in a statement, mentioned that funding beyond the period of 2021 will depend on the situation of the peace process, poverty reduction, rule of law, protecting the rights of women and minorities and democratic governance. Canada, which in 2016 pledged $ 116 million per year till 2021, reduced its funding to $ 202.5 million for the next three years.

Germany, Japan and the European Union, unlike the rest, have decided to continue with their earlier funding levels. The European Union pledged a total of $ 1.43 billion over the next four years with the strict condition of ‘Key elements for sustained international support to Peace and Development in Afghanistan’. Germany, with circumstantial conditions, and Japan pledged a sum of $ 520 million and $ 720, respectively. Northern European countries like Norway pledged a sum of $ 68.2 million for 2021.

Indian contribution

India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar announced  at the conference the Phase-IV of the High Impact Community Development in Afghanistan, which aims at more than 100 projects worth $ 80 million. India also agreed to construct the Shahtoot dam that will provide water to two million residents in Kabul.

The main reasons for the fund-cuts are the repeated violence on the ground, the increase in corruption and the development agendas not being met properly. The donor-countries as well failed to bring policies that will effectively administer the funds allocated and keep the corruption in check.

There need to be stricter sanctions imposed if the development agendas aren’t fulfilled. The attacks on civilians continued despite the Taliban being offered a seat at the negotiating table. There are very few provinces in Afghanistan where the civilians are safe. The Bamiyan province which is a famous tourist spot reported the first blast in 19 years.

The international community is tired of the bloodshed and there’s little progress made in Afghanistan over the last few decades. Development and peace can only prevail when there is a ceasefire on ground. and countries will only invest when they see an opportunity for growth.

Country Reports


Breakthrough in talks  

The Afghanistan government and the Taliban representatives reached a prefatory deal with a three-page agreement, codifying the rules and procedures for future negotiations. This is the first major breakthrough in 19 years of war and after months of talks in Doha. This agreement will allow the parties to negotiate on major issues like the ceasefire as violence escalates on the ground. A joint committee has been appointed to draft the agendas for discussions during the peace talks. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan is also travelling to Turkey and Qatar sensing this as an opportunity for reaching an agreement on a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire.

Car-bombing kills 30 soldiers

Around 30 Afghan security force personnel were killed and 24 injured in a car bombing in the central province of Ghazni. The local officials claimed that the blast was targeted towards the compound of the public protection force which is a wing of the Afghan security force. The casualties could increase given the intensity of the blast. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. A series of car bombings were seen over the last few months targeting government forces as the unprecedented negotiations with the Taliban continues in Doha, Qatar.


Rohingyas re-located

The relocation of the Rohingyas to Bhashan Char, an island around 37 km off the coast in the Bay of Bengal, started this week. In the first phase, nearly 600 families were taken from the refugee camps in Kutupalong, Taknaf and Ukhia from the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar was taken for resettlement. The Government plans to resettle one lakh Rohingya refugee in the island.

30-m doses free

The government has decided to provide 30 million COVID 19 vaccine to people for free. In this regard government has given the consent to procure the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID 19 vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII).


Phuentsholing at risk

Situated right at the India-Bhutan border, Phuentsholing has been witnessing an illegal influx of workers from across the border. The country has been worried about the transmission of COVID-19 to the communities through such infiltrations. As there is shortage of labor, such incidents are likely to repeat once again, thereby jeopardizing the health and security of both the nations. Even though the rules are relaxed now, the people entering have to go through COVID tests and 21 days of quarantine.

‘No’ to debt-deadlines

Finance Minister Namgay Tshering recently disclosed that the country had been given an option to defer the payment of its international loans from international agencies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund etc. Nonetheless, in order to save the country’s image, the government has decided not to seek any extension of deadline. The loans total 223 billion. Maximum loan is in the domain of hydropower.


Vaccine in a few weeks

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an all-party meeting last week in order to discuss the Covid-19 situation in the country. He assured that the experts are hopeful that the first dose of Covid-19 vaccine will be available in a few weeks. Modi also informed the webinar participants that his government is in talks with state governments regarding the pricing of the vaccine, and the issue of public health will be given highest priority in this regard.

BJP gains in Hyderabad polls

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the Centre, won 48 seats in the recently-concluded election of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GMC) in Telangana. Though the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS), the ruling party at the state, became the single largest party, by bagging 55 seats, the election is a major success for the BJP, as it improved its tally from four seats to 48. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won 44 seats while the Congress party could get only two seats.


Panel talks of ‘police mutiny’

In what is seen as an unprovoked initiative, Parliament’s Committee on National Security Services has cleared amendments to the Maldives Police Service Bill, classifying mutiny as a separate crime, whereby police officers could be charged separately for actions of mutiny amounting to a coup if the bill becomes law. The bill also gives a wide meaning to the definition of the crime of mutiny. Under the Criminal Procedure Code, mutiny is currently classified as a crime. The Committee amended the bill so that a separate chapter is included under crimes committed by the police, which also includes mutiny as a crime.  It may be recalled that then MDP President, Mohammed Nasheed, now Speaker, quit office, on  7 February 2012, after a section of police officers, in uniform, joined an Opposition protest demanding his resignation – and also locked down a few television stations. A day after quitting, Nasheed charged a coup bid by the armed forces, but a Commonwealth panel did not agree.


Reviving tourism sector

Since Covid-19, revenues generated from tourism sector including international airlines, domestic transportation, accommodation, food and beverage, local transportation, shopping, etc. has reduced drastically. In 2019, the revenue generated was $ 2.8 billion compared to $ 543 million in 2020. A recovery plan is currently set in motion to aid the industry under which various tourism businesses will be permitted to resume its functions with COVID 19 prevention measures.


No border row with China

Foreign Affairs Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali has clearly stated that there has been no border dispute with China, as had been speculated. He also mentioned the ‘fake news’ regarding Chinese encroachment. He also specified the positive relationship between the two countries and how the Chief District Officer (CDO) and his team have surveyed Humla district for verification of the allegation.

Talks cover border

Chinese State Counseller and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe recently visited the landlocked Himalayan neighbour on a ‘one-day working visit’. He called on President Bidya Devi Bhandari. Several aspects of the bilateral ties were discussed. One of the most vital issues discussed revolved around territorial sovereignty and non-encroachment across the border.


‘State terrorism’ flagged

India hosted the first Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting of the Heads of the Government after it joined the eight-member economic and security forum in 2017. Andleeb Abbas, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who represented the country on the virtual mode, raised the question of ‘state terrorism inflicted upon the people by foreign occupation’ of disputed territories -– without referring to India and the Kashmir issue. She also emphasised on regional cooperation and collaboration to deal with Covid-19 and also highlighted the SCO region as a pivotal link for connectivity for prosperous future of the region.

Indian charge denied

Pakistan has categorically rejected the comments of New Delhi on the current legal proceedings in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case as “incorrect and misleading assertions”.  Islamabad has initiated legal proceedings against Jadhav, and during which Attorney-General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Javed Khanhas cited the example of Muhammad Ismail, another Indian national under custody, the Foreign Office (FO) said. India’s External Ministry spokesperson had earlier said that "Pakistan is trying to link the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav with another prisoner's case".

Sri Lanka

Row over Tamil fete

Days after the police obstructed the Tamil minorities from celebrating the annual ‘Karthigai Deepam’ festival of lights, Tamil parliamentarians took up the issue in Parliament, blaming it on the Government’s inability to control Covide-19 pandemic and deflecting criticism, in different ways. They also pointed out how in banning the Karthigai Deepam festival, the police confused it with the preceding memorial for fallen victims in the last days of the ethnic war, which the LTTE used to observe as its ‘Heroes Day’ in its time.

Covid toll up, 137

With seven more Covid-19 related deaths, the pandemic toll across the island has gone up to 137, officials said. It said three males aged 91, 53, 66 and four females 56, 81, 84, 62 are among the victims. This is the second phase of the corona virus attack, after the Government successfully contained the first-phase spread by involving the armed forces in crowd and curfew discipline. It meant that the first phase, prior to the 5 August parliamentary polls, saw only three dead and 12 testing positive, the lowest in South Asia.



Opinion Pieces

Sahar Ghumkhor, “Australian war crimes and racist fantasies in Afghanistan”, Al Jazeera, 3 December 2020

Nasreen Hanifi, ”The war crimes report has reawakened old traumas for Afghan-Australians, The Guardian, 2 December 2020


Afghanistan Times, “Abdullah is under severe pressures, 2 December 2020

The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “Taliban Seek to Monopolize Power”, 1 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Mangal Kumar Chakma, “CHT Accord: How much of it has been really implemented?”, The Daily Star, 2 December 2020

Sumit Ganguly, “Bangladesh Is Everyone’s Economic Darling. It Might Not Last”, Foreign Policy, 28 November 2020

Sayangshi Modak, “The Farakka Fulcrum of Indo-Bangladesh Hydro-diplomacy”,, 30 November 2020



Kuensel, “Shangri-La sending an SOS,” 5 December 2020

Kuensel, “The vulnerability of expropriation of national natural resources for political promises,” 5 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Harish Damodaran, “Real power is with Centre, which holds the purse-strings in these fiscally-challenging times”, The Indian Express, 5 December 2020

Nusrat Jafri, “Liberty of inter-faith couples must be celebrated, not reviled”, The Indian Express, 2 December 2020

M Madhurima and Ram Ramaswamy, “Learning in the time of Covid”, The Telegraph, 1 December 2020

Suraj Gogoi, “False pledge: NRC in Assam”, The Telegraph, 30 November 2020


The Hindu,Trust deficit: On MSP and the need for a legal guarantee”, 5 December 2020, “The Rajinikanth factor in Tamil Nadu polls, 4 December 2020

The Hindu, “Castes count: On T.N. caste-wise survey”, 3 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Indian grants come in for attack from within Govt”,, 5 December 2020


Opinion Piece

Htet Naing Zaw, “Will the Position of State Counselor be Renewed by Myanmar’s New Government?”, The Irrawaddy, 3 December 2020


The Irrawaddy, “Japan’s Stepped-Up Negotiating Role a Welcome Development in Myanmar”, 3 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Anand Jha, “Why nations fail: Lessons for Nepal,” Republica, 4 December 2020

Madhukar Upadhya, “Financing sustainable development,” The Kathmandu Post, 3 December 2020

Bijendra Man Shakya, “Burdensome barriers to trade,” The Kathmandu Post, 1 December 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Show us the numbers,” 3 December 2020

The Himalayan Times, “Have a nice flight,” 1 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Noorani, “EU ban on PIA”, Dawn, 5 December 2020

Adeela Naureen, Umar Waqar, “Hindutva and liberal India, The Express Tribune, 4 December 2020

Durdana Najam, “Pak-US relations and the Afghan factor”, The Express Tribune,3 December 2020

Inam Ul Haque, “Joe Biden and the Afghan conundrum,The Express Tribune,3 December 2020

Zahid Hussain, “Dangerous stand-off, Dawn, 2 December 2020

Rafia Zakiria , “Desperate in Dubai”, Dawn, 2 December 2020

Sri Lanka

M S M Ayub, “Are we hiding our heads in sand?”, Daily Mirror Online, 5 December 2020

Lakshman Athukorala, “A suggestion for the New Constitution of Sri Lanka”, Daily Mirror Online, 5 December 2020

Neville Laduwahetty, “UNHRC Resolution 40/1 and International Law”, The Island, 2 December 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Restoring People’s Confidence”, Ceylon Today, 2 December 2020

Sanath Nanayakkare, “US$ 4 bn IMF programme viewed as crucial to improve Sri Lanka’s debt sustainability”, The Island, 1 December 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Need to keep fishing out of shared securitisation”,,  1 December 2020

Jehan Perera, “Political leadership is necessary to resolve protracted conflicts”, The Island, 1 December 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Waiting for the Edison moment”, Colombo Gazette, 1 December 2020


Afghanistan: Ratnadeep Chakraborty

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan & Nepal: Sohini Nayak

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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