MonitorsPublished on Jul 09, 2020
With the United States preparing for a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by mid–2021 mandated by the US–Taliban deal signed on 29 February 2020, Afghanistan will predictably witness a resurgence of increasingly visible manifestations of ‘great power’ rivalries.
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII; 27

Afghanistan: Perpetual playground for great-power contestation 

Shubhangi Pandey

On 26 June 2020, The New York Times published a report stating that a unit of the Russian military intelligence had been secretly offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US troops in Afghanistan. The NYT report cited three unnamed American officials that the US intelligence had intercepted financial data-flows from a bank account controlled by the Russian military spy unit to those linked to Taliban.

According to media reports, the data-intercepts are said to have corroborated what interrogations of captured Afghan militants by US troops in Afghanistan had also produced. While the White House, the Russian government, as well as the Taliban have denied the report, multiple international media platforms in addition to the NYT have published similar reports.

Even as one may question the veracity of the claims by US President Donald Trump that he was never briefed on reports about Russian bounties to Afghan militants against the US troops, the accusation on Russia of  arming belligerents in Afghanistan is not new. To that extent, the report also fuels fears about the Taliban not keeping up their end of the bargain, given that they could have very well been playing a double game by negotiating peace with the US while striking questionable deals with Russia.

Mutually exclusive

Major global powers like Russia and the US, despite having pledged their support, in principle, to an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process, and in that sense, although seem to be pursuing a common end goal or outcome, are assessed by many to be advancing their respective strategic objectives in Afghanistan, which are often mutually exclusive. Moreover, while Russia and the US have usually been at odds with each other vis-à-vis Afghanistan and followed starkly different policies of engagement, neither has been able to significantly contribute to peace and stability in the country.

Presently, even as the US is preparing to withdraw militarily, it is expected to continue to maintain considerable diplomatic presence and intelligence on the ground, and retain formal (G2G) and informal linkages cultivated over the last two decades. Russia on its part, having facilitated a number of multilateral diplomatic initiatives in 2018 and 2019, aimed at reconciliation in Afghanistan, often cites national and regional security concerns to justify active involvement in Afghan affairs.

However, the aspiration of exercising greater diplomatic and strategic influence, in a bid to fill the power vacuum that will emerge upon US departure, is arguably an integral objective or component of the Russian approach to Afghanistan – an approach possibly intended to help them rebrand their image as a benevolent great power as opposed to the US, which they see as a reckless, invasive force.

Conflicting perceptions

Having said that, one may also argue that reports of Russian efforts to incentivise American deaths in Afghanistan are not consistent with the general perception of Russian motivations vis-à-vis Afghanistan. After all, American withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially after failing to contain the conflict let alone resolve it, is surely a strategic gain for Russia. Contrarily, many former US commanders who have served in Afghanistan claim that Russian actions have more often than not been aimed at sabotaging or undermining the US-led effort in the country.

Time and again, the US has accused Russia of trying to destabilise the United States’ campaign against terror in Afghanistan, by providing material support to Taliban militants. Russia, on the other hand, has consistently maintained that its effort to cultivate ties with the Taliban is only to ensure the security of Russians living in Afghanistan, and to get the militant group to renounce armed conflict and partake in a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government.

Against this background, how the US and Russia seek to achieve their respective strategic objectives in the absence of American troops on the ground, and the alliances they forge in the process, would likely shape the way internal power dynamics evolve in Afghanistan, and effectively, shape the political future of the country. Given the longstanding rivalry between the US and Russia, it seems unlikely that they will agree upon a modus vivendi in Afghanistan, coalesce around a common security agenda, and work towards achieving greater stability in the country.

With the US preparing for a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021 as per the US–Taliban deal signed on 29 February 2020, Afghanistan will predictably witness a resurgence of increasingly visible manifestations of ‘great power’ rivalries.

Bangladesh: Zero-tariff imports, a diplomatic victory for China

Joyeeta Bhattacharya

Recently, China declared zero-duty for 97 percent of the Bangladeshi imports. The concession flowed from China’s duty-free, quota-free programme for the Least Developed Countries (LDC). This facility became operational from 1 July.

The Chinese move has been widely welcome in the country and is considered as a major diplomatic victory in the bilateral relations with China. Commentators and analysts have expressed optimism about the increase in the Bangladeshi exports to China and further deepening of the economic ties between the two countries, which is already going strong.

Since the Chinese decision coincided with the military standoff with India, it attracted wide international attention. The international community perceived the development to be a strategic move by China and termed it as an attempt to win Bangladesh, one of India’s close neighbours. However, amidst the hype surrounding the Chinese decision, an insight into the China- Bangladesh relationship makes one wonder if there is anything new to China’s declaration or it is just an extension of the existing privileges for all LCD countries, also to Bangladesh.

All-weather friend

The China-Bangladesh relationship started in 1975, shortly after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first President and leader of the freedom struggle. Then on, it has grown steadily over the last four decades.

Bangladesh considers China as an ‘all-weather friend’ and the two countries have formed a strategic partnership. Also, Bangladesh is a prominent partner of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia.

Arguably, the economic ties have been a key driver behind the flourishing of the bilateral relationship. China is the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh and is the foremost source of imports.  In 2019, the trade between the two countries was US$18 billion and the imports from China commanded the lion’s share.  The trade is heavily in favour of China.

Given the large disproportionality in trade, Bangladesh has been urging China to take measures to reduce the trade imbalance. In 2015, China granted duty-free access to 3,095 Bangladeshi products to its markets. The present declaration that granted 5,161 products is an addition to the prevailing facilities.  Bangladesh has also been enjoying preferential tariff facilities as a member of Asia Pacific Trade agreement, originally known as Bangkok agreement signed in 1975, which was rechristened in its present name in 2005.

China had instituted the duty-free quota privileges for the LDCs in 2010, and 24 countries were given this benefit initially.  In 2015, Bangladesh was partially given this facility. Sixty percent of its export products were allowed to enjoy the zero-duty tariff scheme.  Considering the deep bond between the two countries, such a privilege should have been given to Bangladesh much earlier. Often people were astonished at the hesitation of China, the world’s second-largest economy worth $14 trillion, to grant Bangladesh zero-duty benefits to all its products, a privilege granted by many countries much earlier.

The European Union (EU) was one of the first to provide duty-free access to Bangladeshi products under the Everything but Arms scheme in 1973. The facility significantly contributed to improving the country’s trade. The readymade garment (RMG) sector, primary an export-oriented industry, has been the principal beneficiary of this advantage.

The EU is the largest buyer of Bangladeshi RMG exports. Similarly, next-door neighbour India has also given the duty-free access to Bangladeshi products in 2011,  except for 25 narcotic substances.

Delayed posture

The Chinese move is considered largely a delayed posture and the apprehension is about the length of the period Bangladesh will be able to enjoy the privilege. Bangladesh is all set to become a middle-income country (MIC) by 2024, and it’s promotion to MIC  will curtail all the LDC privileges, including the duty-free facility. Hence, the Bangladeshi products are likely to enjoy duty-free advantage only for a short period.

Given the short window available to the country, there are doubt about the extent the privilege will contribute to narrowing the trade deficits. Experience suggests that enhancing exports cannot be achieved overnight and it requires time.

Recently, the Chinese envoy to Bangladesh indicated to Bangladeshi businesses to diversify their products and also enhance the quality to enjoy the benefit to its optimal. Analysts in Bangladesh feel that the trade gap with China will continue to grow. Dependence on China will also increase, primarily for the import of raw materials.

Free from comparison

It is uncanny to compare India and China.  Relationship between the two countries should be free of comparison with a third country. The government of Bangladesh has been candid about its preference for promoting peace and it has careful in nurturing a friendly relationship with all countries.

Nevertheless, the country gives special emphasis to its relationship with China and India and the government should be credited for maintaining a warm relationship with the two countries. Sharing of warmth with the two major Asian countries has given Bangladesh dividend in the form of generous development assistance from China and India. China has promised around US$ 30 billion worth of financial assistance to Bangladesh. India has provided developmental assistance of worth US$10 billion. Bangladesh is the largest recipient of India’s total of US$30 billion developmental assistance offered to countries globally.

Comparing one against other creates unnecessary confusion. Here media and civil society could take a leading role in formulating a nuanced analysis of the issues and contribute to creating a positive environment.  Also, prosperous nations have to shoulder responsibility, especially, in dealing with countries having asymmetries.

Country Reports


Covert Russian help to militants?

According to a report published by The New York Times, based on information shared by three unnamed US intelligence officials, a spy unit of Russian military intelligence had been offering bounties to Afghan militants to kill US troops in the country. The international media outlet further reported that evidence of financial transactions had been uncovered by security agencies in the US, between bank accounts linked to the Russian military intelligence and the Taliban.

‘Mistaken’ firing

With reference to the heavy civilian casualties that took place in the attack on a busy market in Helmand province on 29 June 2020, the findings of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) indicated mistaken firing of mortars by the Afghan military. The firing by the army is said to have been in response to firing from the Taliban side. While the Taliban and the military blamed each other for the incident, the government stated that there was no military activity in the area, which is controlled by the Taliban.


Over 32 killed in ferry capsize

Nearly 32 people died and several went missing after a ferry capsized in the Burigana river near the capital Dhaka. Estimated 50 passengers were on board in the fateful ferry at the time of the accident. The incident has raised a question about the safety of the river transport which has been a major mode of communication of the riverine country.

25 jute mills closed

The government announced the closure of 25 jute mills run by the state-owned Bangladesh Jute Mill Corporation since 1972.  The decision brought an end to one of the major state-run of an enterprise of the country. The government decided as the state-run will were ailing following lack of compatibility with the privately-run mills. Nearly 25000 employees were laid off under the golden handshake scheme.


China opens border dispute

China has objected to the grant for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in Eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district that borders India and China. At a virtual meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in the first week of June, Beijing objected to the grant for SWS. According to Strat News Global, the GEF Council gathered to decide on funding for various environmental projects across the world but was shocked by China’s objection and instantly rubbished it.

First JV signed

The government and the Kholongchhu Hydro Energy Limited (KHEL) signed the first joint venture (JV) hydropower project between Bhutan and India on 29 June, six years after the foundation stone was laid. The Trashiyangtse-based 600MW run-of-the-river project is expected to generate about 2,568.88 million units annually. The project is being financed through a debt-equity ratio of 70:30 with 50-50 equity holdings between the DGPC and the SJVNL.

New tourist entry-points 

The government will set up two integrated check post facilities in Gelephu and Samdrupjongkhar, the road entry points from Bhutan to India, for regional tourists. The announcement of setting up of check post facilities was identified in the government’s Economic Contingency Plan (ECP). Early, last year, the National Assembly endorsed a motion to allow entry and exit of regional tourists through the border towns of Samdrupjongkhar, Gelephu, Samtse, Nganglam and Panbang.


PM visits Ladakh

Prime Minister Narendra Narendra Modi undertook a surprise visit to Ladakh on 3 July to address the Indian troops at the border in the wake of the ongoing border standoff with China.  He praised the courage of the Indian soldiers and stated that the era of “expansionism” is over and the era of “development” has ushered in. He also pointed out that the expenditure of developing infrastructure along the border has been increased. Modi has also visited the soldiers at the Leh military hospital who were injured in the Galwan valley clash with the Chinese troops in June. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat and Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane also accompanied the PM during his trip.

Vaccine trial continues

The trial of the vaccine for Coronavirus is going on in full swing in the country. The vaccine candidate named Covaxine which is being tested by the Hyderabad based Bharat Biotech India Ltd (BBIL) is under trial. It is being hoped that some information regarding the safety and effectiveness of a potential vaccine might be out by 15 August, which marks India’s Independence Day.


Positives total 2435

The country’s Covid-19 positive case number has gone up by 25, comprising 19 locals, four Bangladeshis, one each from India and Nepal, taking the total to 2,435, with 2,030 recoveries and 10 deaths. As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, capital Male reported a high incidence of the pandemic in the early weeks, with 81 percent recoveries, however. The Finance Ministry has since said that the Government has thus far spent MVR 976 million on Covid19 response, with MVR 641 m going to the Disaster Trust Fund and MVR 148 m to the Health Ministry. Medical treatment accounted for MVR 466 million while acquiring necessary equipment cost MVR 180 million. The Government also utilised MVR 114 million for social protection efforts and MVR 4.2 million for repatriation efforts headed by the Foreign Ministry.

Elections on 8 November

The election commission has finally announced that the next general election will be held on 8 November. The poll will be held on the backdrop of the corona virus pandemic, which has postponed political campaigns and wrought havoc on election plans around the world. The Southeast Asian country appears to have largely escaped the outbreak, registering some 300 cases and six deaths so far though experts suspect the low number is partly due to limited testing.


People to be vigilant

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi recently held a meeting with officials, concerned over the tactless behaviour of the people in the face of Coronavirus pandemic. She specifically stated that she’s worried over people’s carelessness when some restrictions imposed during lockdown were eased since most Covid-19 laboratory confirmed cases were asymptomatic. Not giving the pandemic its due importance may lead to the resurgence of second wave of COVID-19 cases like some countries are experiencing at this moment.


All not well in NCP ‘haven’

An internal rift between the chairpersons of the Nepal Communist Party -- Prime Minister K. P Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal -- has been brewing for quite some time. There have been a host of counter allegations. Apparently, many party members are also in favour of Oli’s resignation. In light of these events, a three-hour meeting between the two leaders took place recently. In order to keep the party intact, the involvement of President Bidya Devi Bhandari was also noted. This might affect decision making in the long run.

Tourism sector hit

Heavy losses have been incurred in the aviation and tourism sectors of the country. A report produced by a special committee created by the government estimated around Rs. 34 billion as the tentative loss during lockdown. However, a Rs. 50 billion fund has been set up for the tourism industry along with small and medium scale enterprises. Extensions have also been given for tax payment.

Sri Lanka

No decision yet on ECT

The Government has not taken any decision on the trilateral agreement among India, Japan and the Sr Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), to develop Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told Tamil media editors in the country at a breakfast meeting. The predecessor Government had signed the pact in this regard in May 2019, only months before the presidential polls in November, with then President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe sparring over foreign partners participating in the ‘management of national assets’. Rajapaksa however does not seem to have addressed the question of 99-year Chinese lease and possession of Hambantota Port, after the predecessor converted his construction-cum-concession contract into a debt debt-equity swap-deal.

Signs American SOFA

The Rajaopaksa Government has signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US, after questioning the same when the previous Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had signed the same in 2017. Colombo first signed SOFA with the US at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, with then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa signing the same at the US Embassy in Colombo, at a short ceremony in the US Embassy in Colombo, early 2007, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was on an official visit to China.



Opinion Pieces

Michael Poznansky, “At the Heart of Trump’s Taliban Bounty Crisis Are Questions About the President’s Daily Brief”, The Washington Post, 2 July 2020

Sajjan M. Gohel and Allison Bailey, “This Time, Russia is in Afghanistan to Win”, Foreign Policy, 1 July 2020


Afghanistan Times, “Battling Virus”, 1 July 2020

Afghanistan Times, “Playing Both Sides”, 28 June 2020


Opinion Pieces

Ali Riaz, “As the Sino-Indian rivalry heats up, watch Bangladesh carefully”, Atlantic, 2 July 2020

Ajmal Sobhan and Quamrul Haider, “Fear of the unknown: Stories of Covid-19 in Bangladesh”, The Daily Star, 2 July 2020


Opinion Pieces

Thakur S Powdyel, “Our United Nations: 75 years on”, Kuensel, 27 June 2020


Kuensel, “Kholongcchu: A Great Achievement”, 3 July 2020


Opinion Pieces

G.N. Devy, “Silence is grey: Whither press freedom?”, The Telegraph, 3 July 2020

Sankarshan Thakur, “Pinch for punch: Banning Chinese apps”, The Telegraph, 2 July 2020

Alok Mishra, “Covid-19: How tech can ensure equity in education”, hindustantimes, 2 July 2020

Rajdeep Sardesai, “The return of Amit Shah to the national stage”, hindustantimes, 2 July 2020


The Indian Express, “Stand up, speak up”, 3 July 2020

The Hindu, “Lax on safety: On Neyveli and Visakhapatnam disasters”, 2 July 2020

The Hindu, “Promise and delivery: On India’s first COVID-19 vaccine”, 2 July 2020

The Indian Express, “The grain mountain”, 2 July 2020


Opinion Pieces

Stephen Paul Jost, “Everyone has a duty to help prevent dengue in Myanmar”, The Myanmar Times, 3 July 2020


Opinion Pieces

Sabitri Rai, “Locusts are threatening our livelihood. What's the preparation?” Republica, 3 July 2020

Bhairab Raj Kaini, “Agriculture post-COVID-19”, Republica, 2 July 2020

Aasna Sijapati, “The privilege of returning to Nepal”, The Kathmandu Post, 1 July 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “No snooping here”, 30 June 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

Amb Dr Sarala Fernando, “France and the Indo-Pacific”, The Island, 4 July 2020

Rajan Philips, “Division of labour at the top”, The Island, 4 July 2020

M S M Ayub, “Another election to repeat the same blunder”, Daily Mirror Online, 3 July 2020

Ameen Izzadeen, “Neutrality is not silence: Lanka must speak out for Palestine”, Daily Mirror Online, 3 July 2020

Ranga Jayasuriya, “UNP at the cross-roads and the coming wrecking of multi-party democracy”, Daily Mirror Online, 30 June 2020

Malinda Seneviratne, “The MCC Compact: US Embassy should stop being cagey”, Daily Mirror Online, 2 July 2020

Kelum Bandara, “MCC: A matter for new Parliament to decide”, Daily Mirror Online, 2 July 2020

Selynia Peiris, “Tribute to CBK on her 75th birthday”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 July 2020

Rohitha Bogallogama, ex-Foreign Minister, “Mahinda Rajapaksa: Power behind the people”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 July 2020

K K S Perera, “Mangala, Harin in sacrilege or speaking the truth?”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 July 2020

Jehan Perera, “The need for better representation in divided societies”, The Island, 30 June 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Accountability of the other kind”, Ceylon Today, 30 June 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “President’s powers and Parliament”, Colombo Gazette, 29 June 2020


Jamila Husain, “As of now, we are a safe nation: Lt-Gen Shavendra Silva”, Daily Mirror Online, 29 June 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

Coordinator: Sreeparna Banerjee

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.