- Apr 09 2018
Afghanistan: A competitive arena or a collaborative space?
Ravaged by war and conflict for several years, Afghanistan has attracted and witnessed more international involvement in its domestic affairs in comparison to most other countries in the world, especially in the post-Cold War era. Rich in mineral resources with a buoyant hydro-power capacity and the lucrative prospect of reconstruction in the post-war scenario have all made the country a much coveted area of influence for ambitious nations.
America has been involved in Afghanistan for many years now, in order to help the country as it fights its war against terror. Of late, China has started taking a discernible interest in the ongoing dynamics of Afghanistan. The dragon country seeks to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan and then stretching it into the West Asia and Central Asian countries as a part of its ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’ (OBOR). China is already considering a set of six projects that can be implemented by extending CPEC to Afghanistan.
OBOR, a jewel?
Essentially a development strategy and framework that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries primarily in Eurasia, OBOR comprises two components. The first is the land based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) and the other is the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR). Afghanistan, given its geographical position, is situated at the heart of OBOR, and given its natural wealth is an important part of the land based silk route.
Although aimed primarily at increasing export over the long-term, OBOR also comprises the plan for China investing in the 16 countries along the silk route. The investment is directed at the infrastructural development of the country’s logistics such as roads, railways, pipelines and ports. Through such developments, China hopes to establish Afghanistan as a regional hub of connectivity, a geo-economical place which will connect North and East Asia to South and West Asian nations.
Through the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan is expected to facilitate transportation of goods, movement of information and of energy. For war- riddled Afghanistan, this seems an opportunity to pull itself out of its political limbo, `properly utilise its abundant natural resources and seriously engage in developing the country to its full potential.
For OBOR to succeed, China requires a stable Afghanistan. The US desire the same for itself if only to secure its own long-term interests like China does. Both countries in the long-term also seeks to establish influence and condition Afghanistan’s economy in a way they find befitting. Therefore, though both the US and China share the common objective of stabilising the nation, their motive for desiring it is likely to result in competition over Afghanistan and its resources.
After a 16-year war in Afghanistan, the US, now under the Trump administration, has decided to continue pouring more troops into the country and beefing up the Afghan military capabilities even though its ultimate goal is to fully withdraw from the country. Though designed to attain security, this gesture in a way further aggravates the situation as the Taliban grows suspicious of US intentions.
Both the US and China agree on the perils of religious extremism in the context of stabilizing Afghanistan. While the US has announced its full support to the Afghan government to rid the country of insurgents, and prevent it from becoming a hot-bed of extremist organisations, China has also expressed its apprehensions about religious fundamentalism plaguing the country.
Especially since the ‘Uyghur experience’, China considers the ‘Three Evils’ of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism plaguing the Afghan society as a serious concern. However, what must be taken into account is that though China is apprehensive of the Taliban there is also a growing assumption about a probable relationship between the two. It must also be noted that China regards the group as political opposition, rather than a terrorist organisation.
In 2016, it was reported that a senior Taliban delegation secretly visited China to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Questions have been raised regarding the communication channel that China has left open with the Taliban despite elevating its relation with the Afghan government to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2012.
Given America’s absolute support to the Kabul government, it is a matter of consternation of how much support the Afghan government is likely to receive from China against the Taliban. This becomes especially pertinent as the long-term US military presence in Afghanistan is not conducive to China’s national security interests.
Given such circumstances, it is desirable that he US and China work together to fight against the ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan. Though rather ambitious, it would be ideal if the two could join hands and reinforce the existing Afghan forces with a contingent of combined forces.
However, there also exists another contrary possibility keeping the long-term Sino-US competition over Afghanistan in mind. Should the China and US choose to support opposing forces in Afghanistan, the scenario will only worsen. China’s stance regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan therefore needs to be made clear to the international community.
In the face of rising challenges it is necessary that Afghanistan is considered as a platform for collaboration rather than competition. The country provides a rare opportunity wherein the US and China can demonstrate cooperation towards achieving peace, when their mutual apprehensions is the cause of much deliberation around the world.
Afghanistan is the only country to have a rare trilateral cooperation mechanism with both USA and China. Under this, young Afghan diplomats have received training in both China and the US. The war-torn country looks to both major powers for supporting the government-led peace efforts.
The US-China cooperation in Afghanistan would help bring the war-ravaged country peace, stability along with economic prosperity. Hence it is necessary that China removes any iota of doubt which might encourage contemplation regarding its competition with the US in the long run over Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan is essential if the OBOR is to succeed.
(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata)
Bhutan: Dance of democracy, third time round
Last month saw an unprecedented move by Chinese President Xi Jinping extending his presidential tenure. But China’s southern neighbour, the land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is in complete contrast. Bhutan presents a unique case of democracy.
Bhutan prides in the ‘democratic constitutional monarchy’, a system of government that sets it apart from two large neighbours, China and India. It is a unique blend of the modern system of government with traditional values.
The present system of government has incrementally evolved from the beginning of the Wangchuck dynasty since 1907 till the 21st century when a democratic constitution was promulgated and subsequently general elections were held in 2008. Now the country has arrived at the threshold of the third parliamentary elections, beginning 20 April.
A blend of tradition and modernity epitomises Bhutan in the 21st century. A tiny Himalayan kingdom beckons change with the present times but does not compromise on age-old values. The case of universal suffrage in Bhutan is a reflection of this.
The National Assembly and National Council together form the bi-cameral parliament. Members to both the houses are elected for a period of five years through universal suffrage. The National Council (NC), or the Upper House of the parliament, has already completed its term and elections are due this April 20. The National Assembly elections will follow suit, probably in August this year.
The race for the 20 seats to the apolitical National Council has been bounded to 127 candidates. Unlike the National Assembly, candidates contesting elections for the Council do not represent political parties. Besides, an eligibility criterion is set for filing nominations.
Usually, they are eminent members having tons of experience in their chosen occupations. By keeping the NC as the house of review, apolitical, the country hopes to constrain divisive and partisan politics.
About 400,000 voters are likely to cast their votes in the elections. The Election Commission of Bhutan, which is tasked with the responsibility of holding free and fair polls, has made elaborate arrangements for adult suffrage.
This time around 80,000 voters are registered to cast their votes through postal ballots, allowing voters staying out of their districts or even outside the country to exercise their fundamental right.
The smooth conduct of local government elections in 2016 was an institutional benchmark for success compared to the delayed and staggered local government elections of 2011 that was ridden by problems in electoral rolls and low voter turnout.
A whopping 148 million ngultrum would be spent for the EC elections 2018 which include for the first time setting up of facilitation booths for postal voters and procurement of Electronic Voting Machines.
A decade into the self-charted path of democracy, the electorate, one-third of which are youth, has expectations galore from their leaders. As may be recalled, the results of the 2013 elections showed the incumbent members of parliament had been voted out of power by the discerning voting public.
This is a measure of the maturity of the voters and is likely to keep the elected candidates on their toes for matching up to the expectations of Bhutanese masses. The two parties the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the opposition Druk Pheusum Tshogpa (DPT) have each served one term in power in the 47-member National Assembly.
Besides, the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party led by Sonam Tobgay and Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) are the officially registered political parties, the latter DCT also has a woman as the party president.
Though, women comprise half the electorate the number of women elected to parliament so far is in single digits. The Council elections this time has only one woman candidate contesting. Thus the Council is likely to be an all-male institution.
Women and youth represent an important constituent of change in politics and society, and their empowerment is one of the yardsticks of a vibrant democracy. There is already a debate for reserving seats for women in all elective positions in the country. Neighbouring Nepal has already implemented reservation to women in parliament and has a woman, Bidhya Devi Bhandari serving her term as the President of Nepal.
Sceptics of Bhutan’s road to democracy argue the central role of the monarch in Bhutanese nation-state. In the constitution, the king is the upholder of ‘Chhoe-Sid’, or religious and political values of peace and prosperity. He is the guardian of the nation-state.
The monarch retains the moral right to reign through the separation of government (zhung) from state (gyalkam). The king has given up the role of zhung while retaining the authority of gyalkam. The fifth Druk Gyalpo positions himself at the helm of Tsa-Wa-Sum translated as nation, people and the king.
Bhutan’s form of government is different from the liberal democracy model conceptualized by the West. Together with Buddhism, the monarchy constrains the arbitrary use of governmental power and nurtures the associative bonds in Bhutanese society.
(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata)
Pakistan PM in Kabul
In response to the Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s invitation for face to face talks to jointly facilitate peace, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi recently arrived in Kabul. He interacted with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. In that regards the discussions reportedly focused on the cross-Durand Line rocket-attacks by Pakistan, the continued existence of Taliban there and the country’s apparent involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghan intelligence thwarted a deadly explosion plot in Lashkargah city, the provincial capital of the southern Helmand province. An motorcycle parked in the Money Exchangers Market packed with explosives was discovered soon before the militants could manage to use it to launch another attack on the city. Helmand is one of the most volatile provinces in South Afghanistan and is often the target of insurgent activities. However no insurgent group has yet claimed ownership of the motorcycle.
Chinese industrial zone
In a push to expand its links with South Asia and beyond, China is developing a 750-acre industrial park in Bangladesh. The park will be used by Chinese manufacturing firms, informed an official of Chinese mission in Dhaka. The park is a joint venture between State-run China Harbour Engineering Company and Bangladesh Special Economic Zone Authority (BSEZA) with 70-30 ratio. This is the first industrial park in Bangladesh dedicated to Chinese industries.
Spread true teachings: PM
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that Islam being a religion of peace should focus on spreading the real teaching of Islam in the country. Expressing her desire of Bangladesh to be built with a non-communal spirit, she opined that the people of all faiths would practise their own religious rituals properly. This is the principle of Islam, she said, while launching construction work on various Islamic institutions, including mosques, across the country, through video-conference from Dhaka.
Indian FS visit
Continuing with the tradition of high-level talks with Bhutan, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay K. Gokhale visited Bhutan on 1-2 April. He met King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and Foreign Secretary, Sonam Tshong. The two sides are said to have reviewed and updated on several areas of development cooperation, including hydro-power and trade and the golden jubilee celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relation between the two countries.
Nu 10-b in fiscal incentives
The fiscal incentives scheme of the government aimed at stimulating economic growth, generate employment and foster private sector development has cost the public exchequer Nu 10 billion between January 2008 and February 2018. Nearly half of the fiscal incentives have gone back to government companies or the government. The highest revenue forgone i.e. of Nu 5 billion was in the service sector.
EU funding up
The European Union (EU) has pledged financial assistance to the country beyond 2020. Director-General of the bilateral division Ambassador Kesang Wangdi signed the agreed minutes of the seventh biennial consultation with the European external action service’s deputy managing director for Asia and Pacific, Pala Pampaloni. The consultation was held in Brussels on November 23 last year. The EU commitment for the current cycle (2014-2020) has been revised to euro 45.5 million (M) and this represents an increase of 3.5-m euro from the original allocation.
Defence minister visits Russia
India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met her Russian counterpart, Gen Sergei Shoigu, in Moscow on 4 April. The Indian defence minister discussed wide range of defence issues between India and Russia, alongside attending the seventh Moscow conference on International security.
Modi hits back
Amid the protests by various SC/ST organisations across the country, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 4 April, hitting back at the opposition, claimed that no other government had honoured the Dalit icon, B.R. Ambedkar, like his government has. Though Modi refrained from mentioning the recent Dalit protests, he stated, “No Government has, perhaps, given respect to Babasaheb the way our Government has. Instead of dragging him into politics, we should all try to walk on the path he has shown us...”
RS records corrected
Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkiah Naidu has corrected the House records to state that a Bill to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, has not been passed by the Lok Sabha yet. Raising the issue through point of order, Trinamool Congress MP Sukhendu Shekhar Roy stated that Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman P J Kurien should recall his recent statement that the Bill he has allowed the minister to move has been passed by the Lok Sabha and transmitted to this House.
India ties strains further?
After referring to the ‘Kashmir issue’ when India reacted sharply to democracy situation in the country, Maldivian Government of President Abdulla Yameen has since declined an invitation to participate in the ‘International Defence Expo’ being inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi off Chennai. Simultaneously, Maldives has reportedly asked India to take back one of the two IAF helicopters donated to the country, seeking replacement with a Dornier sea surveillance aircraft. Meanwhile, US Defence Department, Pentagon, in a not-so-usual observation has commented on ‘China grabbing land in Maldives’, saying the US was keenly watching IOR developments in this context as it desired a rule-based navigation in the Indo-Pacific.
Win Myint, the House speaker, has been elected the new Myanmar President, the second head of state elected by the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government in its two-year time, following U Htin Kyaw’s sudden retirement from the post in the third week of March. Like the former president, the one-time lawyer is one of the State Counsellor’s allies. A hardcore NLD member since the formation of the party in 1988, the 67-year-old had three electoral victories on the party ticket.
Bangladesh will begin relocating around 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a desolate island off its southern coast in June despite warnings that the site is prone to violent weather. Shelters for around 50,000 refugees have been constructed at Bhashan Char, a silty strip of land that only emerged from the Bay of Bengal in 2006. The remaining shelters will be completed within two months, Bangladesh's disaster management secretary Shah Kamal told UN agencies during a briefing about the controversial plan in Dhaka.
China ties for review?
The three-day official visit of Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli to India has garnered a lot of attention. One of the primary reasons has been the Budi-Gandaki river dam project, which clearly demonstrates the growing closeness of Nepal and China and the high stakes of India, involved therein. In such a situation, many have apprehended the posture of PM Narendra Modi, which is likely to state India’s disinterest to buy energy from Nepal. As Nepal is gearing up to make its mark in the hydro-power sector with the help of the dragon state, a finer balance to reiterate its new found foreign policy of ‘neighbourhood first’ is required. However, three agreements with Nepal are still on the cards.
The damage borne by Nepal during the devastating earthquake of 2015 is still not in complete recovery. However, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRI) has been spending a handsome amount of around Rupees 101. 62 Billion for the development of the affected areas. Reconstruction of buildings, schools and also the monuments have been given priority, though the shortage of money for the victims is still prevalent.
Double-mind on China
In a last moment decision, the Pakistan government suspended signing of FTA-II agreement with China. The administration stated that the agreement will be signed only after complete review of the concession offers from the Chinese side. The Minister of State for Finance Rana Muhammad Afzal revealed that the FTA-II which was a mature agreement to be signed by both countries is being delayed due to serious concerns voiced by the business community from Faisalabad. Other government officials like the Chairman of National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance Qaiser Ahmed Sheikh charged the Commerce ministry for failing to take into confidence the stake-holders concerned. A joint meeting of National Assembly standing committees on finance and commerce will decide the final response to FTA-II
Ordinance on black money
The government has offered a three month window of opportunity to wealthy Pakistanis to whiten their non-declared national and foreign assets at nominal rates of 3-5 percent. Through this move the government intends to widen the current tax base of 1.3 million to 30 million. The scheme will be available to all Pakistanis except politically-exposed individuals and their dependents. However, this radical economic package lacks punitive measures for those who choose not to comply. According to independent analysts, the scheme has been announced to demonstrate Pakistan’s commitment to FATF directives regarding money laundering and funding of terrorist activities. The scheme will be implemented through presidential ordinance.
Trading charges with Kabul
New sparks of tension is flying between Islamabad and Kabul over Afghanistan’s charge of air space violation by Pakistani jets. The latest round of feud comes ahead of PM Shahid Khaqan Abbassi’s visit to Afghanistan to discuss peace resolution with Taliban militants. Replying, to the charges the Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr. Muhammad Abdul Faisal tweeted that the Pakistani security forces were carrying out counter-terrorism operations against militants enjoying safe havens in Afghanistan soil and that the details of the operations was shared with Kabul beforehand. He urged the Afghanistan government to refrain from blame game.
PM clears no-trust vote
In a none-too-unexpected development, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated a no-trust motion moved by the SLPP-JO identified with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the 225-member Parliament, by a respectable 46-vote margin. In all, 26 MPs abstained from voting, but as many as 24 of the absentees and 15 of the 76 that voted with the motion belonged to the Government partner SLFP, headed by President Maithiripala Sirisena, thus exposing the deep-divide in the ruling coalition. Ranil and his UNP could once again count on the Tamil-speaking minority MPs belonging to the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil ethnicities.
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Afghanistan: Sohini Bose
Bangladesh: Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale
India: Ketan Mehta
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee
Nepal: Sohini Nayak
Pakistan: Mayuri Banerjee