Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


An unsavoury stew: South Asia in 2024

How the region may balance the interests of India and China

Update : 15 Jan 2024, 07:18 PM

South Asia hasn’t been this high-strung in years. From imploding countries and economies to fraught border relations, and the churlish conduct of foreign policy by social media to the conduct of democracy by diktat, this populous region continues to be its own worst enemy. The escalating war in West Asia and the continuing rumble between Russia and Ukraine have placed smaller South Asian countries on watch on account of squeezed raw material and fuel supplies and trimmed exports that contribute to the inflationary risk of rising prices and backsliding of livelihoods.

With nearly a third of the world’s extreme-poor residing in this region -- a number approaching a quarter-billion -- this is incendiary. Add to the mix a fracturing Afghanistan to its west and a fractured, free-falling Myanmar to its east, both awash in ethno-political bad blood, weapons and narcotics. Garnish with the India-China tussle for geopolitical and geo-economic zamindaris in the region, and we have an altogether unsavoury stew.

Even so, some developments will count for more than others, in terms of both domestic and cross-border fallout. Here’s the first part of a heads-up of the subcontinent’s drift for the first half of 2024:

Religion and risk

The outsized subject in this frame remains India. The triumphalist inauguration of the partly completed Ram temple in Ayodhya, planned for January 22, is designed as a vote-catcher for the Bharatiya Janata Party for general elections to India’s parliament over this April-May. The incumbent and transparently Hindu, ultra-nationalist BJP, which leads a coalition, is considered a shoo-in for a third consecutive term, but that party’s mantra of total politics eschews half measures to ensure electoral victory.

This temple to the mythology of Ram has remained for BJP a key result area since a near-militant upsurge from the late 1980s. That quickly led to the demolition of the Babri mosque complex in Ayodhya in 1992 -- a neighbourhood now given over to the Ram temple complex.

A third victory on the trot for the BJP and its Hindu ultra-nationalist cohort could trigger manifesto delivery -- quite like the dissolving of the special constitutional status for Jammu & Kashmir soon after elections in 2019. This time, one of the key aspects of victory is likely to be, besides tacit support to lumpen activity, the implementation of the riotously controversial National Register of Citizens. An attempt was made in 2019 in the BJP-laboratory state of Assam with its primary aim to out and deport illegals and the so-called IBI -- a pejorative term for “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant.” Assam even requested central government funds to build holding pens for such illegals.

It backfired spectacularly, with more Hindus and Indians in the net than not. But the rhetoric will resurface and be ramped up in Assam -- where the BJP chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, last year blamed food inflation on the “miya,” a term for Muslims -- and almost certainly in West Bengal, a key BJP electoral target and, like hair-trigger Assam, a neighbour to Bangladesh.

The danger is that, besides priming the religious cannons in India, such activity inevitably primes religious cannons across the border, including in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Pakistan. All it takes is one incident for cross-border chaos to unfold. The subcontinent has seen it several times since 1992.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar

There’s a buzz about de-escalation of the conflict in Myanmar, and more ceasefires breaking out with China’s intervention. Indeed, a development last week has underscored the reality that India is largely written out of the peace-making and post-conflict heft in Myanmar. China is evidently the go-to game in town for the military junta, established rebel armies, and the People’s Defense Forces which have fought a pitched battle with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) since a coup in early 2021 toppled a democratically elected civilian government.

On January 10-11, in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, representatives of the Three Brotherhood Alliance of rebel groups and the Tatmadaw agreed to a ceasefire zone along the border with China and Myanmar’s Shan State. China has officially acknowledged facilitating the meeting and its outcome. It’s likely the template will extend to other parts of Myanmar.

Matters in Myanmar escalated in October 2023, when a coalition of three ethnic armed groups of the Alliance, or “3BHA”, comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army operating in Rakhine, launched attacks on junta bases and strategically important towns in the Shan areas. This linked a strategically important swathe from the country’s northeast in Shan State along the border with China to the west-central Rakhine and Chin States, which share borders with Bangladesh and India. The attacks by 3BHA led to their controlling or influencing key towns, roads, and trading hubs.

This massively squeezed the Tatmadaw, and cramped China’s numerous geo-economic interests in Myanmar -- from extractives to transhipping, and extensive exports. China co-owns and operates two near-800km hydrocarbon pipelines of great strategic importance that cuts across Myanmar, from Rakhine by the Bay of Bengal and then through Shan State, to southwestern China. At stake in Rakhine, large parts of which is the domain of the Arakan Army, is also a vast proposed Chinese SEZ.

India too has a major energy and transshipment node in Rakhine, to link the Indian mainland to its northern arc, just north of China’s hub. It also has a stake in ensuring that anti-India rebels who have freely used Myanmar’s border areas as a safe haven, headquarters, and for weapons sourcing and training, are denied that space.

Such realities explain the reluctance of both China and India to offer anything but the most facile help to Bangladesh in its effort to contain the Rohingya crisis and begin a meaningful repatriation to Rakhine of nearly a million Rohingya refugees concentrated in southernmost Bangladesh.

Alas, the future and welfare of the Rohingya remains at the bottom of the large to-do list in Myanmar, which will prioritize the de-escalation of the countrywide conflict, a power-sharing concord with the Tatmadaw as a possible transition to an uneasy, coalition-driven civilian rule, and, of course, protection of various geo-economic and geo-strategic interests in Myanmar.


Hyphenations have for long been the bane of South Asia. The India-Pakistan overhang destroyed the idea that was SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and eminently feasible suggestions of regional trade, investment and communication. The jam has been partly bypassed by bilateral and trilateral initiatives that largely involve India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The past five years or so have seen the inevitable escalation of the hyphenation du jour: India-China. The two biggest countries and neighbours in the region, with China a bona fide superpower and India an aspirant leveraging hold-China coalitions such as the Quad and Aukus, are fiercely competitive over land, sea, trade and security in South Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral.

Even though most South Asian countries -- besides China’s regional satrap Pakistan -- have become adept at the art of balancing the insecurities and interests of India and China to leverage great benefit, it remains an irritation at best. Some, like the president of Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, who assumed office last November after winning elections on an “India Out” platform, have significantly moved the don’t-mess-with-us needle.

Muizzu visited Turkey, and then followed up with a high-optics visit to China and a red-carpet welcome last week from president Xi Jinping, dispensing with the India-first itinerary of so many previous Maldivian heads. An unsavoury social media spat at the same time triggered by three junior Maldivian ministers who aimed pejorative comments at the Indian premier in particular and India in general, escalated to an equally churlish #BoycottMaldives push by pro-Indian government social media trolls -- some of them ministers, Bollywood actors and renowned cricketers. Their message: Avoid Maldives as a tourist destination.

Tiny Maldives, with about 300sq-km of landmass dispersed over 90,000sq-km of ocean -- a vast exclusive economic zone by hugely important sea lanes -- punches way above its weight in geostrategic terms. China has already spoken of boosting tourist numbers to the Maldives to pad any shortfall of Indian tourists, besides signing a slew of economic deals and offering support for its integrity and security.

With India’s staggering myopia in regional optics as opposed to its less surprising self-obsession with internal optics, Maldives can for now be written off in the India-China tournament in 2024 as China-1, India-0. Matches are being scheduled in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, with a temporary tie in Bangladesh.


Sudeep Chakravarti is Director, Centre for South Asian Studies at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He has authored several books on history, ethnography, conflict resolution, and Eastern South Asia.




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