MonitorsPublished on Feb 11, 2020
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII; 6

Afghanistan: Geopolitical motivations behind growing Chinese engagement

Shubhangi Pandey

With the US administration preparing to execute a significant troop reduction in Afghanistan, China is uneasily watching the developments unfold in its immediate neighbourhood. In recent years, China has been expanding its diplomatic and economic profile in Afghanistan, with its policy evolving from being premised on ‘calculated indifference’, to strategic engagement.

Although China’s actions may be predicated on domestic compulsions, Afghanistan could also benefit in the process, especially in relation to China’s transcontinental connectivity ventures. Other considerations like China's geographical proximity to the war-weary country, a track record of refraining from intervening in the domestic affairs of the Afghans, and distinct strategic leverage over Pakistan, could be used by Beijing to help Afghanistan break out of the longstanding security quagmire.

Security concerns

The first and perhaps the most compelling motivation for China in pursuing greater engagement with Afghanistan is its unease regarding the geographical proximity between Afghanistan, and its own Uighur Muslim-dominated Xinjiang Province. Afghanistan is home to the Taliban and a number of other transnational terrorist outfits, and the restive Xinjiang region is claimed by Chinese authorities to be the breeding ground for the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, plaguing their country.

Moreover, there exists the dangerous possibility of radical elements hailing from foreign lands, using Afghanistan as a launch pad to establish links with the already vulnerable Uighur-inhabited areas of China. There is also the fear that the ideological influence of pan-Islamic groups operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan could spill over into China, exacerbating separatism in Xinjiang.

Economic interests

Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of Central Asia and South Asia, and its geographically strategic location gives it a competitive advantage over others, in terms of being a regional hub for trade and transit. It has immense potential to link the markets of South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and China, and leverage its central position to drive development and economic growth at home.

Today, China is the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan, having acquired the US$4.4-billion extraction contract to develop the Mes Aynak copper field located in the province of Logar, winning the bid for oil exploration in the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan, and developing extensive railway infrastructure in the country. China has also established the Sino-Afghanistan Special Railway Transportation Project and the Five Nations Railway Project connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is also home to a vast natural resource repository, from rare earth elements to copper deposits, iron ore, gold, lithium and more. Afghanistan’s rich mineral resource base, if managed adeptly, has the potential to be a substitute for foreign aid, and reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on donor countries. On the other hand, if not managed properly, the same natural wealth and strategic location may push the country deeper into chaos, exacerbating corruption, fuelling insurgency by way of illegal mining, and delaying economic development.

Geopolitical ambitions

China has maintained that only limited security can be achieved in the absence of economic progress, and for the war-ravaged country to develop that economic robustness, a prerequisite is infrastructure to facilitate seamless trade and transit. With the Belt &Road Initiative, China aims to create a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, and effectively “break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity”, as pitched by President Xi.

Although initially, the BRI seemed to bypass Afghanistan, focusing more on traversing through Pakistan and Central Asia instead, the signing of the 2016 memorandum of understanding (MoU) between China and Afghanistan served as an expression of commitment to jointly promote cooperation under the BRI, and marked an important development in the eventual integration of Afghanistan in the transcontinental infrastructure, in line with Afghan expectations.

At the end of the day, peace must prevail for Afghanistan to be configured in the larger economic discourse in the region, and for China to be able to optimise its investment projects and further its strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

Bhutan: ‘High-value, low-volume tourism’

Mihir Bhonsale

The National Assembly of Bhutan has finalised a recommendation of the Environment and Climate Change Committee to charge Nu.1200 per person per night for regional tourists as Sustainable Development Fee (SDF). The recommendation was made as part of the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill of Bhutan, 2020 that was tabled in the parliament on 3 February.

The levying of the SDF on regional tourists particularly has implications for Indian tourists that account for two-thirds of the total number of tourists arrivals in Bhutan. Earlier, tourists except regional tourists were charged US$ 65 per night as the SDF. But, beginning July 2020, regional tourists will also be charged with the SDF.

By instituting a fee for regional tourists, Bhutan hopes to reduce the traffic of tourists to the Western Dzongkhas, particularly Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, the later have seen a high footfall of tourists. A total of 11 districts spread in Eastern and Central Bhutan, that receive few tourists, have been excluded from the SDF.

Concerns over volume over-crowding

Bhutan’s inbound tourism over the past decade, following the country’s transition to democracy, was of ‘high value, low impact’ tourism. The new policy is aimed at delivering high value to Western tourists, but low impact on the host’s (Bhutan’s) culture.

Following 2009, when the country witnessed a change from a monarchical system to a democracy, the tourism industry was to play an active part in Bhutan’s socio-economic development. The volume of tourists in the past decade increased from 23,480 tourist arrivals in 2009, to more than 200,000 tourists in 2016.

Considering Bhutan’s long relations with India, Bangladesh and Maldives, tourists from the region were encouraged to visit the nation. Following the  opening of its gates to tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives by 2012, the number of regional tourists went up considerably, constituting  more than half of the total number of tourists.

In 2018, Bhutan received a total of 274,097 visitors out of which 71,807 were international tourists while 202,290 were regional tourists. Of these, Indian tourists comprised 70 percent of the total tourists.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan  began mulling over the idea of SDF for regional tourists also in 2015. Stakeholders called for a state tourism policy and in 2017, official communiqués were issued.

Besides, the many-fold increase in regional tourists, the uneven geographical distribution of tourist footfalls was also a concern for the government. While the Western Dzongkhas were popular tourist destinations and saw overcrowding, the Eastern and Central parts of the country received only small numbers of tourists.

Implications of change

The announcement of the SDF for regional tourists accompanied the rephrasing of ‘high value, low impact tourism.’ With the change, Bhutan went back to the ‘high value, low volume’ tourism that was in place before 2009. Bhutan hopes to keep tourism well regulated till the change came into effect.

Since the finalisation of the SDF of Nu.1,200 on regional tourists, a moot point among many fellow Indians were whether the Indian government should impose a fee on Bhutanese visitors as the India-Bhutan relations must be reciprocal.

The Indian government, Bhutan’s largest development partner and with whom Bhutan has open borders, treaded cautiously on the imposition of the SDF on Indian tourists. India has taken Bhutan’s decision in good faith after the latter assured that Indian tourists will not be inconvenienced as a result of this change.

India-Bhutan bilateral relations are beyond reciprocity, India reasserted. Understandably, India’s position concurs with the understanding of Bhutan’s political sensitivity to impact on its environment and culture that the high volume of tourists pose a threat to.

Earlier, Bhutan had opted out of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement, showing concerns of environmental threats and loss of livelihood of its people. India and Bangladesh, who were the other members of the sub-regional grouping, had respected Bhutan’s decision to remain outside the grouping.

As the ‘high-value, low-volume’ tourism policy unfolds itself in the following months, Bhutan hopes to use all channels at its disposal to convince India, Bangladesh and Maldives that the decision is in the larger interests of sustainable tourism in the region.

Country Reports


Hanging in balance

Responding to nearly 20,000 complaints regarding election fraud, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IEC) has ordered a partial audit of almost 2,40,000 votes cast in the process, out of a total od 1.8 million. The decision to announce an audit of a decisive share of votes came in the face of the official IEC announcement in December 2019 that had declared the incumbent President Ghani as the winner based on preliminary results.

US yet to bring troops home

In the State of the Union address on 4 February 2020, President Trump reiterated his resolve to bring back US troops from Afghanistan. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated the same day that only “demonstrable evidence” of reduction in violence would facilitate a deal with the Taliban. The insurgent group responded by accusing the US administration of indulging in word play and no action, delaying negotiations on purpose.

American taken hostage

A 57-year old American citizen and former US Navy diver, Mark Frerichs, was taken hostage on 30 January 2020 in Khost province by militants. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, US Department of Defence officials suspect it is the work of militants affiliated with the Haqqani Network, a terrorist outfit that has been operating in the area since the 1970s, in close coordination with the Taliban.


Subsidy to help rice exports?

 Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzak informed that the government decided to give farmers a cash subsidy worth 15 percent of rice exports to compete with the rivals and protect farmers struggling with low prices. Bangladesh is the world's fourth-biggest rice producer and, produces around 35 million tonnes annually. The country is failing to compete in the world market due to cheaper prices offered by countries India and Thailand.

Border killings regrettable

 Commenting on the death of Bangladeshi people in the border with India, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen observed that it is shameful and puzzling. According to the Minister number of death in the border have increased in recent times. In spite of Indian government’s repeated promise of none will be killed in the border, such incidences continue to occur, the Minister added. The Minister made the comments during his a press conference ahead of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Italy on February 4-6. Death of Bangladeshi national in the border is a contentious issue between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is urging India to bring the number of deaths to zero.

AL wins mayoral polls

 The mayoral candidates of Awami League (AL) emerged victories in the election of Dhaka North and South City Corporations. The candidates won in the big margin against their rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Candidate. Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, Awami League mayor candidate for Dhaka South City Corporation secured 424,595 votes while its nearest l BNP candidate managed 236,512 votes. North City Corporation, AL mayor candidate Atiqul Islam got 447,211 votes and the BNP candidate TabithAwal of the BNP bagged 264,161 votes. Dhaka is the biggest city in Bangladesh the election of the city corporation has special significance in the politics of the country.


Embassy in Australia

Bhutan will soon have an embassy in Australia from July this year. Foreign Minister, Tandi Dorji said that the foreign ministry had been working on it since establishing the embassy was one of the top priorities of the government to commemorate the 40th birth anniversary of His Majesty. Although the project was not included in the current Plan, the government had repeatedly discussed in Lhengye Zhungtshog considering the need to provide services to an increasing number of people residing in Australia.

SDF fixed at Nu 1,200

Tourists from the region visiting Bhutan would have to pay Nu 1,200 per night per person as sustainable development fee (SDF) as per the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill of Bhutan 2020. Decided this on 4 December, following the recommendations of the environment and climate change committee in the National Assembly, a new proposal in the Bill was made. However, the Bill exempts regional tourists visiting 11 dzongkhags from paying the SDF. The Bill is expected to be implemented from July this year.

GST exemption sought

The Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) has forwarded a letter from the Association of Bhutanese Industries (ABI) listing out concerns on how the uniform 7 percent GST tax can impact local industries if measures are not taken. The letter says the ABI would like to submit its concerns and comments on the GST Bill for onward submission to oversight agencies in the Parliament. The letter starts by pointing out that in the 2019-20 budget Bhutan has a trade deficit of Nu 27.94 bn and on an average Bhutan has an annual trade deficit of Nu 22 bn for the last five years. It says export earnings by local industries and import substitution by local manufacturers must play a significant role in offsetting the negative trade balance with India.


Anti-CAA protests before SC

The Supreme Court decided to hear a plea to direct the Delhi Police to stop the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens and clear the “roadblock” till the Delhi elections are over on 10 February. A Bench led by Justice S.K. Kaul clarified that  the court would not allow the issue to be politicised and so would hear the plea only after the completion of the elections which is scheduled on 8 February. The petition filed by advocate Amit Sahni has sought directions to the police to take action to ensure smooth traffic movement on the Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh stretch, which has been closed for over a month due to the protests. Earlier, the Delhi High Court had asked the police to examine the issue while bearing in mind that law and order is to be maintained.


‘Positive signals’ from India

Minister of Defence Mariya Ahmed Didi undertook a six-day visit to India, where she met with counterpart Rajnath Singh and and discussed military relations between both countries and how it can be further strengthened.T hey also discussed the provision of emergency protective gear to the Maldives.  Minister Mariya also met with the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen Bipin Rawat during the visit.The minister expressed the Maldives' interest in obtaining a similar vessel to 'CGS Kaamiyaabu', a 28-metre vessel equipped with state-of-the-art technology, designed for coastal patrolling, surveillance, high-speed interception and search-and-rescue operations that was gifted by the India in December. According to the minister, she received a 'positive signal' from the Indian government regarding the request.

India evacuates students

In yet another instance of ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India helped evacuate seven Maldivian students from China’s Wuhan, which has been shutdown following an outbreak of coronoavirus epidemic. After medical examination, Indian authorities have declared that the seven students, and the 323 Indians evacuated together in the second batch, are free of virus-attack. Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi, meeting with Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh, thanked India for the assistance.


Trade with China slows

China is one of Myanmar’s largest trade partners, with goods flowing between both countries across land routes and by sea. The Chinese government’s restrictions on travel between provinces in the country that are part of efforts to curb the spread of the virus is causing severe problems at border trade areas. It is immensely distressing that the coronavirus outbreak in China has caused trade between Myanmar and its neighbor to slow to a trickle.

Internet shut down again

The Transport and Communications Ministry directed telecom companies to “temporarily” suspend internet services in five townships in Rakhine and Chin states again citing security concerns and public safety. The directive limits the blackout duration in the five townships to three months. The shutdown went into effect at 10 pm on 3 February. The townships – Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Myebon, and Chin’s Paletwa – were previously under an internet ban from June to August 2019. The five townships now join Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Minbya townships, which have been without internet service for over half a year.


Media restraints removed

The Media Council Bill has been stirring up controversy in the country for quite some time now, requiring the mandatory licensing examination {Section 5 (J) AND 15} for all new journalists. However, at the moment, the National Assembly or the Upper House of the Parliament has successfully removed this provision, thereby making the media much more flexible. This enforcement was mainly due to the pressure of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Now, democracy in Nepal would be able to flourish again in full swing through the independence of the media.

Arun 3 Project financially stable

The much awaited Arun 3 hydroelectric power project in Nepal has finally received ‘financial closure’ with a few important banks in Nepal, granting the project Rs. 101.43 billion. This money is in the form of structured debt that will help in its completion. 30 per cent of progress has already been made and after completion it will be one of the most important finance and energy generators of Nepal and a milestone in Nepalese development.


FATF fear

Despite positive vibes emanating from the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Joint Group of the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) meeting in Beijing just a fortnight ago, Pakistan seems to be struggling to save the country from imminent blacklisting. As the next FATF plenary is going to be held in Paris from 16-21 February, the National Executive Committee (NEC) presided over by advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to make stringent amendments to the dozens of laws. Pakistan Minister of Economic Affairs HammadAzhar, who also heads the National FATF Coordination Committee, was present at NEC meeting. The NEC decided that by June 2020, all the laws and legislations will be set in line with the standards of the FATF. The performance and compliance of Pakistan by June with the standards of FATF would be judged in the plenary session of the world body in October.  The FATF has kept has Pakistan under “grey list” and the country could be “blacklisted” if Islamabad does not comply with all conditions by effectively stopping funding of terror outfits.

Damage-control at Kuala Lumpur

Prime Minister Imran Khan kick-started his Malaysia visit expressing regret for being unable to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit hosted by Prime Minister of Malaysia last year. The summit was attended by 20 Muslim countries and was the brain child of Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey. Under the pressure from Saudi Aribia and the UAE – the two countries that dominate the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – Pakistan was forced to pull out of the Kuala Lumpur Summit. Imran promised to attend the next Summit as “it unites” the Muslim world rather than “divide”.

Imran and his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir agreed to take the strategic partnership to new levels by expanding economic, trade and investment ties in different fields. During the visit, Imran Khan also criticised OIC’s approach onthe Kashmir issue, especially after abrogation of Articled 370 last year.

Verdict reserved in Jammat case

Judge Arshad Bhutta of anti-terrorism court in Lahore has reserved verdict on Hafez Saeed who is being tried in more than 23 cases filed by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) against the Jammat-ud-Dawa and its leaders in different cities of Pakistan. The verdict will now be pronounced on 8 February. Hafiz Saeed, head of proscribed JuD, and three others, are facing terror financing charges like running militant charities and illegal fund raising. The pressure from FATF and implementation of UN sanctions against terror organisations has pressurised Pakistan to take criminal action against international terror outfits thriving in various parts of the country.

Sri Lanka

Fulfil Tamils’ expectations: Modi

In talks with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at New Delhi during his maiden overseas visit after assuming office in November, Indian counterpart Narendra Modi expressed hope that Colombo would address the expectations of the Sri Lankan Tamil community back home. "I am confident that Sri Lankan government will realize expectations of Tamil people for equality, justice, peace within united Sri Lanka …I am confident the government will work towards reconciliation," Modi said, as the two leaders addressed the media after wide-ranging talks.  Modi also mentioned anti-terror cooperation between the two countries, and added that "stability, security and prosperity in Sri Lanka is in India’s interest, but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean Region”. In his turn, Rajapaksa acknowledged anti-terror cooperation and also trade ties and India’s $ 400-m assistance packaged announced when President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited New Delhi late last year, after coming to power. He conspicuously avoided any mention of the ethnic issue.

Rights for all: President

Addressing the nation after unfurling the national flag and taking the ceremonial salute from the tri-Services, on the 72nd Independence Day on 4 February, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that all Sri Lankans’ rights would be protected and extremist or terrorist organisations would not be allowed to be active again. Reiterating his pre-poll campaign theme and also his post-election commitment, President Rajapaksa said that he would serve as the Head of State of all the people. As President, he represented the entire Sri Lankan community free of racial, religious, party or any other differences. .President Rajapaksa said that he was bound to implement the needs of the people of this country and that it is his responsibility and duty.



Opinion Pieces

Mohammad Zahir Akbari, “The Ups and Downs of Democracy in Afghanistan”,The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 6 February 2020

Catherine Putz, “Where Is the Afghan Peace Deal Now?”,The Diplomat, 5 February 2020


Afghanistan Times, “Where is ‘tremendous progress’?”, 5 February 2020

The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “The Economic Plight of Kabul Citizens”, 2 February 2020


Opinion Pieces

Syed Yusuf Saadat, “ Implementing SDG4: Ending Ignorance in Bangladesh”, The Daily Star, 3 February 2020

Saleemul Huq, “Capturing the demographic dividend while tackling climate change”, The Daily Star, 5 February 2020

C R Abrar, “Aftermath of ICJ Ruling: Redrawing Rohingya Strategy”, The Daily Star, 2 February 2020



Kuensel, “Managing Tourism”, 4 February 2020

Kuensel, “For a safer and enjoyable trip to Bhutan”, 6 February 2020


Opinion Pieces

Arun Maira, "Listening to the call of the informal", The Hindu, 7 February 2020

Mohan Kumaramangalam, "Complicating the tax regime further", The Hindu, 7 February 2020

Partha S Ghosh, "If there is a Nobel Prize for jokes, the citizenship law is India’s entry", The Indian Express, 7 February 2020

Khan khan Suan Hausing, "Failure to envision a power-sharing arrangement with non-Bodos makes BTR a weak ‘shared-rule’ model of autonomy", The Indian Express, 7 February 2020


The Hindu, "On the front foot: On RBI holding rates". 7 February 2020

The Hindu, " Purifying water: On draft notification on RO systems", 6 February 2020

The Hindu, "Need of the hour: On CAA protests", 5 February 2020


Opinion Pieces

Htet Naing Zaw, “Kachin Leaders Demand Charter Reform to Establish Peace”, The Irrawaddy, 7 February 2020

San Yamin Aung, “Two Possible ‘Keys’ to Unlocking Charter Reform in Myanmar”, The Irrawaddy, 5 February 2020


Opinion Pieces

Amish Raj Mulmi, “We need a long-term vision for tourism in Nepal”, The Kathmandu Post, 7 February 2020

Biraj Bahadur Bista, “Perils of communist state”, Republica, 4 February 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “The local units will decide which schools should get state grants, not the president”, 7 February 2020


Opinion Pieces

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “Colonialism lives”, Dawn 7 February 2020

Imran Jan, “Kashmir solidarity or feel good day?”, The Express Tribune, 5 February 2020

Talat Masood, “Can Imran Khan turn the country around?”, The Express Tribune, 5 February 2020


Dawn, “Muslimvoice”, 6 January 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

Rajan Philips, “The deep state of corruption and President’s options”, The Island, 9 February 2020

M S M Ayub: Parliamentary elections: A one-horse race?”, Daily Mirror Online, 7 February 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Working the India chemistry right”,, 5 February 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “A ‘piece of real estate’ – and for what?”, Ceylon Today, 4 February 2020

Jehan Perera, “Govt needs to rethink its stance on dealing with missing persons issue”, The Island, 4 February 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “After UNP, leadership convulsions in TNA?”, Colombo Gazette, 3 February 2020


Daily Mirror Online, “Harvesting the fruits of Independence”, 6 February 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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