A neighbourhood in ferment

In 2018, South Asia witnessed several momentous changes. Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives and Pakistan saw governments being ousted and new leaders take charge. It was heartening that such change came through the ballot box. The ouster of Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, in particular, came as a pleasant surprise as Yameen used every trick in the book to manipulate the presidential elections in his favour. Maldivian voters proved the power of their vote when they elected opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Siloh as their new President. In Pakistan, Imran’s Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf swept to power, albeit with more than a little help from the generals. Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, was plunged in a constitutional crisis when President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although he enjoyed parliament’s support. The nation’s constitution ultimately prevailed with its Supreme Court ruling against Sirisena’s decisions. As for Afghanistan, 2018 proved bloodier than previous years, with the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan unleashing unprecedented violence. With the Taliban gaining control of more territory than at any time since the fall of their regime 17 years ago and with US President Donald Trump announcing a withdrawal of American troops in the coming months, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Afghanistan in the New Year.

India’s relations with its neighbours were a mixed bag. Ties with Pakistan continued to be deadlocked. Relations with China, which frayed during the military standoff at Doklam in 2017, limped back to normal in 2018 after the Indian and Chinese leaders met for an informal summit at Wuhan. While the border was calm, the spirit of Wuhan seemed ephemeral as China remained insensitive to India’s struggle with terrorism emanating from Pakistan. In 2018, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative hit speed-breakers in the Maldives, Myanmar and even Pakistan. Baluch nationalists expressed their anger against BRI’s implications for Baluchis by violently targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi. A debt-ridden Pakistan scaled back a few BRI projects while Maldives promised to review BRI contracts. However, China’s footprint in India’s neighbourhood continued to expand. Nepal’s Communist government wriggled out of India’s grip to embrace BRI enthusiastically while in Bhutan, a small but growing section is eyeing diplomatic and economic relations with China.

India scored an important victory in 2018 when it reached agreement with Russia for purchase of the S-400 Triumf air defence system. Not only will this beef up India’s defences against Pakistan and China, but the deal also sent out a message to the US that in matters involving its security, Delhi would not take orders from anyone. With general elections due in May, major new initiatives on the foreign policy front are, however, unlikely in the first half of 2019.

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A neighbourhood in ferment

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