Asia in Review Archive 2021 (January-June)

India

Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

India seeks to expedite major infrastructure project with Myanmar

Having withdrawn its frontline troops along Pangong Tso [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], India is now reportedly expediting work on the Kaladan Road Project, an ambitious road infrastructure project that would open a gateway for New Delhi to Southeast Asian countries.

The objective of the Kaladan Road Project is to link India’s landlocked northeast with the country’s eastern coast through the southern coast of Myanmar. Together with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Road Project is considered a vital component of New Delhi’s multifaceted “Act East Policy”, which seeks to compete with China’s massive infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Foreign Policy]

Although New Delhi was able to develop a close rapport with Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, over recent years, completion of the strategic project has been delayed by over three years due to a combination of several factors. Of these, the long-ranging conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine armed group in Myanmar, assumes added significance, due to recent developments.

In seeking greater autonomy for the western Rakhine State, the AA has battled against the Tatmadaw since 2018, with hundreds of fatalities caused and more than 200,000 residents being displaced due to the conflict. In November, then, the AA surprisingly ordered its armed members to fall back as it entered a ceasefire with the Myanmar military. Lending further weight to the argument that the agreement was setting the stage for the coup d’état, the military junta later even removed the AA from list of prohibited groups [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3].

While reports suggested that Japan had brokered the deal between the Tatmadaw and the rebel AA, India may be considered the third party benefitting from the situation. For recent developments have diminished the threats from the AA on the Myanmar side of the project, albeit temporarily.

 

30 March 2021

Bangladesh visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a boost for trade, connectivity

(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 27 concluded a two-day official visit to Bangladesh, a trip that sparked both violent protest [see article in this edition] and enthusiasm that relations between the two neighbors will continue to grow. [The Indian Express]

The Indian Prime Minister arrived on March 26 to attend the concluding event of Bangladesh’s a 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan. Leaders from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives have already attended the festivities, which started on March 17 [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

On the first day of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, the two leaders witnessed the signing of five agreements involving trade, disaster management, information technology and sports. They also jointly laid the foundation stones for infrastructure development for power evacuation facilities of an under-construction nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. A new train service between Bangladesh and India was also launched by the two leaders. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times 2]

During the talks Bangladesh Prime Minister Skeikh Hasina requested India, currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to play a “strong role” in the early repatriation of the displaced Rohingya back to Myanmar. [NDTV]

Prime Minister Modi also bore the gift of an additional 1.2 million doses of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), after Dhaka had previously received 2 million free doses of the shot. Bangladesh in November signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker whose coronavirus shots are being used in New Delhi’s “vaccine diplomacy” [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. Coming at a time when New Delhi has told its international partners that it will prioritize domestic inoculations over exports of vaccines as it battles a rise in new infections, the gift lends further credence to the importance of the India-Bangladesh relationship. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

In December, the two countries had signed seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in a range of areas including trade, energy and agriculture AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4. The virtual summit marked the first high-level meeting of the two leaders since bilateral relations had nosedived after India in 2019 had passed its controversial religion-based citizenship law [see AiR No. 2, January/2020, 2]. New Delhi has since been making overtures to smoothen relations with Dhaka, with the Indian foreign secretary visiting Bangladesh twice last year [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3].

30 March 2021

South Korea-India relations: Defence chiefs agree on closer military ties 

(nm) Last week, South Korean and Indian defence ministers held talks discussing ways to foster cooperation in the security and arms industry. India also expressed support for Seoul’s policy on denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Additional topics included expanding ties in areas as diverse as cyber, space and maritime issues, as well as “the need to establish a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.” In contrast to speculations, the two did, however, not discuss the US-led Quad, a security alliance comprising India, the US, Japan, and Australia, according to South Korean officials. [Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, South Korea’s science ministry announced the country’s first homegrown rocket is on track to be launched in October this year. President Moon Jae-in responded positively to the announcement, stating the government will push aggressively for the development of the country’s first lunar orbiter. [Korea Times]

30 March 2021

India: Prime Minister Modi’s BJP vies for power in West Bengal state

(lm) Polling for the Legislative Assembly in India’s eastern state of West Bengal commenced on March 27 in the first of eight phases due to end on Aril 29. More than 90 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots for 294 assembly seats in one of the most significant state elections in India in recent years. Voters in the neighboring state of Assam also went to the polls on March 27 in the first of three phases. The results from both elections will be announced on May 2, alongside the results from Legislative Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. [The Straits Times 1]

Victory in West Bengal would be a major achievement for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seeks to expand further its power base beyond its heartland, India’s sprawling and politically febrile Hindi Belt. While the party is pushing hard to win power in the Bengali-speaking region for the first time, it faces a tough opponent in the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) led by its founder and incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The AITC has been in power in West Bengal since 2011, when it dislodged a government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that had governed the state for 34 years. [CNBC] [The Straits Times 2] [The Straits Times 3]

Campaigns have seen huge rallies, despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in India in recent weeks, including around 800,000 people attending an event in Kolkata that featured Prime Minister Modi. Hoping to draw critical votes in the key battleground state, the prime minister on March 27 visited a Hindu temple outside Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka that is sacred to the Matua community in West Bengal. The Matua sect’s vote is expected to determine the winner of at least seven of the 294 seats in the state’s Legislative Assembly. [Associated Press] [New York Times]

In a state that is considered the country’s hotbed of political violence, activists from both parties had been killed during the campaign, and fresh incidents of violence were reported on March 27 with police saying a mob threw bombs at one polling station, seriously injuring an officer. [The Straits Times 4]

30 March 2021

Bangladesh: Violent protests spread after visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

(lm) At least 13 people were killed and dozens injured in protests against a two-day visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Clashes between protesters and government forces began on March 26 after weekly prayers in three cities – Dhaka, the capital; Brahmanbaria, near the Indian border, and the coastal city of Chittagong – and have since spread across the country. [Al Jazeera 1] [Reuters] [The Straits Times]

Prime Minister Modi arrived in Bangladesh on March 26 to attend the concluding event of Bangladesh’s 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of stoking religious polarization in India and discriminating against minorities, particularly Muslims. In recent weeks, demonstrators in Muslim-majority Bangladesh had urged the Indian leader not to visit and criticized Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for issuing the invitation, saying the two countries have many unresolved disputes, including the killing of Bangladeshis by India’s Border Security Force (BSF) [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3].

A few hundred members of Hefazat-e-Islam, a tightly-knit coalition of a dozen or so Islamist organizations [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], led street processions through Chittagong and Dhaka on March 27, protesting the deaths of four of their supporters, who were killed the day before when police had opened fire at protesters who allegedly attacked a police station. Violence continued in Brahammanbaria the following day, resulting in five more deaths, according to Bangladeshi media. When the protest march turned violent, security forces opened fire to disperse the crowds. [Al Jazeera 2] [New York Times]

Other groups – including students and other Islamist outfits – also staged protests, criticizing the government for what they described as growing authoritarianism, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. At least 20 people, including two journalists, were injured when members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BSL), the student wing of the ruling Awami League, carried out multiple attacks on protests at a university in the capital Dhaka. [Dhaka Tribune]

Separately, protests were held on March 25 across Bangladesh to observe the “Bengali Genocide Remembrance Day”. Approved unanimously in 2017, the national day commemorates “Operation Searchlight”, a military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army which sought to curb the Bengali independence movement by eliminating the Awami League apparatus, alongside Bengali civilians, intelligentsia, students, politicians, and armed personnel [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]. [Hindustan Times]

30 March 2021

Sri Lanka releases 54 Indian fishermen

(lm) Sri Lanka on March 26 released 54 Indian fishermen who had been arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy two days earlier, after the Indian government reportedly made it clear that the arrest of fishermen coming on the heels of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution [see article in this edition] was seen as a hostile move. [South Asia Monitor]

The Indian fishermen were apprehended on charges of engaging in illegal fishing and using prohibited fishing methods off Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Following the fishermen’s arrest, the local fishery union in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu pressured the state and federal government to secure their release, and even threatened to boycott the upcoming Legislative Assembly election. [The Hindu]

The fisheries crisis in the Palk Bay – the water body between the southeast coast of India and Sri Lanka – has been festering for over a decade with frequent arrests of Indian fishermen who allegedly trespass into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. The series of arrests made late on Wednesday comes after the Sri Lankan Navy resumed patrolling in December, after months of limiting arrests amid fears of contracting COVID-19 from Indian fishermen. Dozens of Indian fishermen were arrested in December last year [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].

23 March 2021

Indian multinational conglomerate to develop Colombo Port WCT project

(lm) Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group has been granted a 35-year operating concession to build and operate Colombo’s West Container Terminal (WCT), a third facility under the island nation’s South Harbor development program. Adani will hold a 51 percent controlling interest in the new terminal venture, with the remainder split between its local partner and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) in a yet-to-be-announced structure. [The Wire] [JOC.com]

The deal is said to be a government-to-government balancing act after Sri Lanka in February decided to undo a 2019 cooperation pact offering India and Japan the right to operate the long-stalled Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ETC), drawing strong protests from both New Delhi and Tokyo [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. India has an additional reason to seek a foothold in Colombo Port as approximately 70 percent of the throughput at Colombo port is accounted for by Indian transshipment.

23 March 2021

India, Japan likely to abstain from UN HRC vote on Sri Lanka

(lm) India and Japan are likely to abstain from voting at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) on March 23, which will take up a resolution over what is seen as deteriorating human rights conditions in Sri Lanka, India media have reported. Forty nations, mostly from Europe, have either become co-sponsor or additional sponsors of the pending resolution; 12 of these are currently members of the council and have voting rights. [The Citizen] [The Print]

On March 12, the so-called Core Group on Sri Lanka comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro had submitted the final version of its resolution. The resolution will be informed by a scathing report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet, which documents the alarming retrograde trends on human rights in Sri Lanka and notes that the steps taken by the current government are a “warning sign” of future violations [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].

The zero draft which had earlier been circulated was further strengthened during the consultations between the member states. For a start, the changes in the final version inserts language calling on Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment on devolution, including the holding of provincial council elections, as defined in the thirteenth amendment (13A).

The amendment is a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord which sought to resolve the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) by creating provincial councils and enabling Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages while preserving English as the link language. New Delhi takes the view that a devolution of power to the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Province is essential for ethnic reconciliation and lasting peace in the island nation. Thus, India has routinely urged Colombo to fully implement the amendment at various platform, most recently when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New Delhi in February.

Moreover, the draft resolution notes the “persistent lack of accountability of domestic mechanisms” and calls to support trials in foreign countries. It also calls for strengthening the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in collecting and preserving evidence related to human rights violations in Sri Lanka, in order to use them in future accountability processes. Further, the draft has been revised to state that Sri Lanka would be featured on the UN HRC’s agenda every six months till September 2022. It also asks the OHCHR to give an oral update on Sri Lanka in September 2021, followed by a written report due in March 2022.

Anticipating a hostile resolution, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa previously wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, among others, seeking support at the 47-member Council. To follow up on his letter, President Rajapaksa two weeks ago held a phone conversation with Modi but India – unlike China, Russia, and Pakistan – has not officially declared its support to Sri Lanka. [The Hindu] [The Wire]

23 March 2021

India’s arms imports dip by 33 percent; Pakistan emerges a major importer

(lm) India’s arm imports have decreased by a whopping 33 percent in the second half of the decade, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), indicating that the country’s drive towards Atmanirbhar Bharat (‘self-reliant India) is showing first results. What is more, Pakistan has emerged as one of the largest arms importers in the Asia-Pacific during the same period, accounting for 2.7 percent of major defense imports globally. [The EurAsian Times]

The report on international arms transfers, which was published on March 15, attributed the drop in India’s arms imports mainly to an attempt to reduce dependence on Russia. In fact, arms exports by Moscow, which accounted for 20 percent of all exports of major arms between 2016 and 2020, dropped by 22 percent, according to the report. Importantly, the bulk – around 90 percent – of this decrease was attributable to a 53 percent fall in its arms exports to India. [Hindustan Times]

Pakistan, in turn, has imported about eight large arms or weapons systems from five different nations during 2016-20 with an aim to improve and enhance the capabilities of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) and Navy. Notably, China accounts for about 74 percent of the country’s arms imports – up from 61 percent during the first half of the decade – followed by Russia and Italy, which account for 6.6 percent and 5.9 percent, respectfully.

 

23 March 2021

After inaugural Quad summit, France edges strategically closer to grouping

(lm) Consistent with its 2019 Indo-Pacific strategy to be an ‘inclusive, stabilizing mediating power’, France is stepping up its Indi-Pacific maritime involvement, and is set to participate in two naval exercises in the next month. An amphibious assault ship and a frigate begun a three-months deployment in the Pacific in February – an annual event since 2015 – and will cross the South China Sea twice. [The EurAsian Times

Both ships will be leading France’s maritime Exercise La Perouse, which is expected to take place at the start of April and will be attended by India, the United States, Japan and Australia – all member states of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). After the first meeting of Quad leaders on the weekend, the countries reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific. [Hindustan Times]

Later the same month, the French Navy’s Carrier Strike Group will be joining Indian naval forces to jointly conduct this year’s iteration of their Exercise Varuna in the strategically important Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Notably, the United Arab Emirates for the first time will be joining the drills.

Moreover, seven more Rafale fighter jets supplied by France are expected to be delivered next month, completing the first squadron comprising 18 French omni-role fighters. It is the fourth batch of aircraft arriving in India since the government’s purchase four years ago of a total of 36 planes worth $9.2 billion from French defense manufacturer Dassault Aviation. The delivery of all 36 Rafale aircrafts is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021. [The Economic Times] [Mint]

 

23 March 2021

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurates country’s first security dialogue

(lm) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated on March 17 the first security dialogue in Islamabad, saying that food security and climate change will be given the most importance. The Islamabad Security Dialogue is being organized by Pakistan’s National Security Division (NSD) in collaboration with its advisory board, comprising five leading think tanks of the country. The conference aims to define the country’s new strategic direction in line with the prime minister’s vision. [Dawn] [Geo TV]

Commenting on regional peace and stability, Khan called on India to move towards resolving the contentious territorial conflict over the Kashmir region. Further elaborating, Khan said India’s decision to unilaterally end the constitutional autonomy of the Indian-administered territories [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1] was behind the breakdown of ties between the neighbors. Interestingly, the prime minister appeared to indicate that talks on Kashmir could pave the way for a discussion on trade-related issues between the two countries. [The Straits Times]

The following day, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa called for the two arch-rivals to ‘bury the past’ and move towards cooperation, adding that the burden was on New Delhi to create a ‘conducive environment’. He also said the United States had a role to play in ending regional conflicts. Timing and context of the remarks are noteworthy, considering that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commenced a three-day working visit to New Delhi later that week [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. [The Straits Times 2]

The two nations recently adopted a softer tone. Military commanders from both sides in a rare joint statement announced on February 25 they had agreed to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]

Looking at energy security next, the prime minister said that neighboring Iran had the capacity to meet Islamabad’s energy needs. In 1995, Pakistan, India, and Iran signed a deal conceived to deliver Iranian gas to India via Pakistan, but New Delhi withdrew from the agreement because of security issues and high costs. While the Iranian section of the pipeline was completed in 2011, Pakistan’s energy ministry announced in 2019 that it could not continue with the project as long as Tehran was subject to US sanctions. [Middle East Monitor]

 

23 March 2021

British Prime Minister Johnson to visit India in April

(lm) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to visit India in April as part of the United Kingdom’s new ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ strategy, the first major bilateral visit by a British prime minister since Theresa May toured Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa in August 2018. Johnson’s India trip was planned for January but postponed because of COVID-19 [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]. [Financial Times]

While Johnson’s trip to New Delhi was initially being described as a post-Brexit tilt to the Indo-Pacific, it now has become part of a plan to transform the G7 group into a broader grouping of 10 leading democracies capable of challenging China and other authoritarian states. While the idea behind a ‘D-10’ is not a novel one, it has a new impetus amid the coronavirus pandemic, chiming with US President Joe Biden who wants democratic countries to co-operate to counter the Chinese ascendancy in technology — particularly the role of Huawei in 5G. [South China Morning Post]

Importantly, the United Kingdom published on March 16 its long-anticipated “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, in which national security and international policy is articulated. Marking a significant step forward in the UK’s new life outside of the European Union, the Review describes London’s future relationship with the Middle East, North Africa, and explains an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. It is a more comprehensive and nuanced strategic framework than many of the exercises that have preceded it. [GOV.UK]

Britain’s intention to increase its presence in the Pacific was illustrated in December, when Johnson invited three Indo-Pacific countries to attend the G7 summit in Cornwall in June as guests — Australia, India and South Korea — a move that has caused raised eyebrows among some of the other attendees [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. In January then, the UK applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement between 11 countries around the Pacific Rim.

 

23 March 2021

India, Pakistan set for water-sharing talks, indicating larger diplomatic roadmap towards peace

(lm) India and Pakistan will hold the first meeting in three years of a bilateral commission created to implement and manage the goals and objectives and outlines of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) on March 23. At the forthcoming talks, the Pakistani side is likely to raise its objections regarding at least two Indian hydroelectric plants located at shared rivers. Islamabad is also expected to seek information on new projects planned by India on western rivers, and flood data arrangements for the flood season. [Hindustan Times] [The Straits Times]

The Permanent Indus Commission is supposed to meet at least once a year – alternately in India and Pakistan – under the IWT, which governs water usage on the Indus and its tributaries that flow through the two countries. Hence, the talks represent a thawing in bilateral ties, which have been frozen since the 2019 Pulwama suicide attacks that killed 40 Indian soldiers in the Indian-administered Kashmir town of Pulwama [see AiR (3/2/2019)AiR (4/2/2019)], and India’s decision later that year to strip the region’s constitutional autonomy in order to bring it into closer embrace [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1].

What is more, the reconvening of the Commission follows a rare military agreement this month to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].

Coming like a bolt from the blue, the agreement had triggered speculations about the causes that lie behind it, with many observers suggesting that China or the United States had been the driving force. News reports published on March 22, however, claim that the India-Pakistan ceasefire marked the first milestone of a four-step “roadmap for peace” between the two South Asian neighbors, which was agreed upon during secret talks brokered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that began months earlier.[Bloomberg] [The Hindu]

The next step in the process involves both sides reinstating envoys in New Delhi and Islamabad, who were pulled in 2019 after Pakistan protested against India’s move to unilaterally abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, thereby breaking the Indian-administered part of Kashmir into two union territories. Then comes the hard part: talks on resuming trade and a lasting resolution on Kashmir, the subject of three wars since India and Pakistan became independent from Britain in 1947.

Several clues over the past few months pointed at the UAE’s role. In November, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar Jaishankar met with his counterpart from the UAE, Abdullah bin Zayid Al Nahyan, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan during a two-day working visit to Abu Dhabi. The trip was followed by a visit to Abu Dhabi from Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi the following month.

Roughly two weeks before the February 25 announcement, the UAE foreign minister held a phone call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan “wherein they discussed regional and international issues of interest”. And just days before, India allowed the prime minister’s aircraft to fly over Indian airspace as he headed to Sri Lanka for a state visit – a practice suspended since the 2019 hostilities [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].

23 March 2021

India, United States agree to strengthen defense ties, expand military engagement

(lm) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh met in New Delhi on March 20 to discuss opportunities to elevate defense and military ties, at a time when Washington is keen for its partners in the region to deepen cooperation among themselves into “a network of overlapping relationships” not necessarily involving the US. Austin arrived in New Delhi late on March 19 and met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajjit Doval. [Channel NewsAsia] [The Straits Times 1]

The US Defense Secretary’s visit comes a week after the first virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. Prior to India, Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Japan and South Korea, two other important partners in the region irked by Chinese activities. His three-day working visit to New Delhi marked the first by a top member of US President Joe Biden’s administration. [The Straits Times 2]

In keeping with their intention to strengthening bilateral defense ties, the two sides also discussed India’s plan to purchase 30 armed versions of the US-made MQ-9B Predator drones as well as a large order for over 150 combat jets for the Indian Air Force and the Navy to help narrow the gap with China [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. Bilateral defense trade increased from near zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2019, notwithstanding Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ strategy, which seeks to reduce India’s dependence on exports from countries like the US and China [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

Against the backdrop of its months-long border standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), New Delhi drew even closer to Washington, a case in point being India’s announcement last October that it would sign on to the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of the four foundational agreements that Washington maintains with its other close defense partners [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].

Contentious issues also came up during discussions, after Austin was reportedly urged by a senior US senator to convey Washington’s opposition to India’s proposed purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which under US law can attract sanction. In fact, Washington last December imposed sanctions on Turkey for buying that equipment [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

 

23 March 2021

South Korea: Efforts to strengthen cooperation with the UAE, India, Russia, and LAC

(nm) South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook is visiting the United Arab Emirates and India this week. Suh will visit the UAE from Monday to Wednesday to meet his counterpart Mohammed al-Bowardi and other key military officials, as well as to visit South Korea’s special warfare unit which is deployed in the UAE to support with building training programmes for the country’s special forces.   

From Thursday to Saturday he then visits India where he will meet his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh to discuss cooperation on military technologies and to participate in the opening ceremony of the Korea-India Friendship Park that holds a monument commemorating those who have lost their lives during the 1950-53 Korean War. India provided the largest medical units to South Korea during the conflict. Some observers have speculated that the two countries will rather use the opportunity to address the US-led Quad alliance – a security alliance comprising the US, Australia, India, and Japan which as seen as opposition to China – after it had met virtually on March 12. [Korea Herald 1]

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced he would visit Seoul this week for three days to meet with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, and to jointly celebrate the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations. While Russia and South Korea have maintained active relations in spite of the pandemic, the visit comes amid rising interest in the Korean Peninsula as the US Biden administration is seeking to revive multilateral discussions. [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times]

Last week, Seoul also hosted the Korea-LAC Digital Cooperation Forum, LAC standing for Latin American and Caribbean countries. Officials from Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, and Costa Rica had come together to discuss ways how they could partner with Korea on digital technology. Chung also held separate meetings with Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodolfo Solano who voiced hope for expanding bilateral trade and investment and with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo Vila who similarly expressed expectations for expanding economic cooperation between South Korea and Central and South America in areas such as infrastructure, information and communications technology, as well as health care and medicine. Officials from Colombia met with President Moon Jae-in to discuss cooperation on environment and digital innovation, in addition to business opportunities for South Korean companies in Colombia. [Korea Herald 3] [Korea Herald 4]

 

23 March 2021

India: Student protests, free speech concerns after PM Modi critic quits top Indian university

(lm) A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, resigned on March 16 as a professor at Ashok University following a meeting with the university’s Trustees. In his letter of resignation, Mehta suggested that he had been forced to step down because his writings were considered a “political liability” for the private university and its promoters. [The Indian Express] [The Straits Times 1]

The respected scholar on political theory and constitutional law had already stepped down as vice-chancellor of Ashoka University in 2019, reportedly because the trustees were worried by his outspoken views but remained a political science professor. According to the university’s student newspaper, Mehta’s recent resignation was endorsed by the board because it would speed up efforts to acquire land needed for an expansion. [National Herald]

Arvind Subramanian, another prominent academic at the university who once served as Chief Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also resigned from his position on March 18 in solidarity with Mehta, calling his treatment an affront to “academic expression and freedom”.

The resignations caused students to hold several days of demonstrations at the university’s campus outside New Delhi, calling for boycott of classes. Furthermore, a group of marquee names from universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia issued a statement in solidarity with Mehta the following day, criticizing Ashok University for not defending him as their institutional duty. [The Wire 1]

On March 21, then, the two renowned professors, alongside Ashoka University’s Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees, issued a joint statement, in which they made clear that their decisions were determined by conversations with the university’s Founders rather than personal choices. [The Straits Times 2] [The Wire 2]

16 March 2021

Leaders of United States, Japan, India, and Australia meet in first-ever ‘Quad’ summit

(lm) The leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia met in a virtual summit on March 12, at a time when all four countries see heightened tensions with China over a variety of issues. The meeting marked the first time that talks have been held between the heads of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The collation is viewed warily by Beijing, which denounced it as an anti-China bloc. [CNN] [The Guardian]

Topics discussed during the virtual summit included supply chains, maritime security, and climate change. Notably, member states announced a partnership whereby Japan and the United States will finance manufacturing in India of the coronavirus vaccines from American drug makers Novavax Inc and Johnson & Johnson, with Australia handling the distribution among Southeast Asian and Pacific nations. While the move primarily aims at reducing manufacturing backlogs, it is worth recollecting that India in the past has urged other Quad members to invest in its vaccine production capacity to counter China’s widening vaccine diplomacy [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post 1]

The leaders also put their stamp on the creation of three new working groups. The first one will comprise of vaccine experts to devise the implementation plan, followed by two other working groups on climate change, and critical and emerging technology. [The White House]

In the run-up to the virtual summit, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi held a phone conversation on March 9 – the first since September last year – and agreed to step up bilateral cooperation to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific. [South China Morning Post 2]

Further, US Navy Admiral Philip S. Davidson – commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command – told US lawmakers at a congressional hearing on March 9 that China’s aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) had ‘opened India’s eyes to strategic cooperation’ and would therefore provide an opportunity for the other Quad members states to strengthen ties with New Delhi. [Hindustan Times]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

16 March 2021

Indian Prime Minister Modi and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia hold phone conversation

(lm) Indian Prime Minister Modi held a phone conversation on March 10 with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the son of King Salman and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. During their conversation, the two leaders agreed on supporting each other in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and reviewed the functioning of the bilateral strategic partnership. [Hindustan Times]

Since both sides in 2010 had raised bilateral relations to a strategic partnership covering security, economic, defense, and political, India-Saudi defense ties have been on the upswing. While Saudi Arabia has in recent years actively participated in the region’s overall maritime security, the first bilateral naval exercise, originally scheduled for March 2020, had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, a contingent of the Indian Army is scheduled to travel to the Kingdom in the second half of this year to participate in a joint military exercise.

Meanwhile, the United States overtook Saudi Arabia as India’s second biggest oil supplier of the month, as refiners boosted cheaper US crude purchase to record levels to offset a supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies, known as OPEC+. Saudi Arabia, which has consistently been one of India’s top two suppliers, slipped to No. 4 for the first time since at least January 2006. [Reuters]

16 March 2021

Indian Defense Ministry to take up major procurement deals for armed drones, submarines in April

(lm) Multi-billion dollar deals for 30 armed drones from the United States and six advanced submarines under Project-75I are likely to be taken by the Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) under the chairmanship of Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in April for approval. [The Hindu] [South China Morning Post]

India has long been planning to purchase 30 armed versions of the US-made MQ-9B Predator drones – ten for each service – but the process has been repeatedly delayed over the last couple of years, as New Delhi refused to succumb to the Washington’s constant push of concluding the deal. The US have given in principle approval for the sale of these armed drones to India sometime back and the deal came up for discussion third edition of the India-US 2+2 dialogue last October [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. In November, then, the Indian Navy leased two unarmed MQ-9 Predators as border tensions with China threatened to spin into a full-blown conflict but decided not to deploy the drones after the Air Force expressed apprehension about drones manned by US personnel flying over the border.

A follow-on project of India’s Project 75 [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3], Project 75I includes the acquisition of six stealth submarines through the Strategic Partnership (SP) model of the Defense Acquisition Procedure (DAP), which aims to promote the role of Indian industry in defense manufacturing and build a domestic defense industrial ecosystem.

Therefore, the submarine deal exemplifies the ‘Make in India strategy pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. To reduce India’s dependence on exports from countries like the US and China, the initiative seeks to increase investment in domestic industries—in manufacturing, it aims to create 100 million new jobs by 2022. Defense also forms a key industry in this program, and the nation’s 2021-22 defense budget allocates 64 percent of its modernization budget for purchases exclusively from the domestic sector [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

Separately, the Indian Army has leased four Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for possible deployment along the 3,488-km India-China border. During the Army Day parade held in New Delhi this January, the Indian Army for the first time had demonstrated its intend to deploy unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for future offensive military operations, including Kamikaze strikes and supplying troops closest to the area of conflict with equipment [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. [Mint]

India also commissioned its third diesel electric submarine, the INS Karanj, on March 10 – the third of six Kalvari-type submarines that New Delhi plans to add to its navy and the first built entirely by an Indian company. [Hindustan Times]

 

16 March 2021

Pakistan assures Uzbekistan of access to its ports

(lm) Pakistan has assured Uzbekistan of providing access to its two ports – Karachi and Gwadar – in a bid to enhance regional connectivity and trade. An announcement in this regard was made by Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 10, the second and final day of a two-day visit of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Kamilov to Islamabad. [Dawn]

The move would provide Uzbekistan, which currently relies on Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, with a cheap transit alternative. Islamabad, in turn, aims to expand its footprint in Central Asia by gaining access to the economies of neighboring countries and redirecting their trade through Pakistani ports. Turkmenistan, another landlocked but resource-rich region in Central Asia had also expressed its keen interest in connecting with Pakistan’s warm water ports – most notably the China-operated Gwadar port. [AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]

In December last year, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan agreed on a roadmap for the construction of a $4.8 billion trilateral railway project connecting Mazar-e-Sharif, Pehswar and Kabul. Because the security situation in Afghanistan is of central concern in the region, Uzbekistan has been engaging with the Taliban’s political leadership for some years, in what is being seen as seeking assurance for the safety of their investment. At the same time, Uzbekistan is also planning an alternative route, which connects the country with Pakistan via the Karakorum Pass, bypassing Afghanistan.

Notably, the announcement comes shortly after Uzbekistan, alongside other countries, had joined India on March 4 in commemorating ‘Chabahar Day’. Chabahar Port is being jointly developed by India, Iran and Afghanistan to boost trade ties among the three countries. Located on Iran’s energy-rich southern coast, it is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean, and thus can be easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. [AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]

16 March 2021

US Secretary of Defense scheduled to visit India this month

(lm) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is scheduled to visit India later next week to further strengthen a growing bilateral defense cooperation. During his visit three-day visit starting on March 19, Austin is expected to meet Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and other senior national security leaders. This is the first India trip by a top official of the new US Biden-Harris Administration. [The Hindu]

Speaking at the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command on Hawaii on March 13, Austin said he was travelling to Japan, South Korea, and India to strengthen ‘alliances and partnerships’ as well as to foster “credible deterrence” against China. [The Times of India]

Notably, the visit will take place a week after the first virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific [see article above].

 

16 March 2021

India likely to block Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE over security concerns

(lm) India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) said on March 10 that Indian telecom operators can only source their network equipment from government-approved ‘trusted sources’ post-June 15,2021. Any use of non-trusted products will require the licensee to obtain permission from the designated authority. [The Straits Times]

Citing potential national security risks, the DoT also said it could create could also create a ‘no procurement’ blacklist. While the department is yet to provide further details on the plans, officials say Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE Corporation are likely to feature on the embargoed list. Both companies are under scrutiny for allegedly installing ‘back door’ vulnerabilities to spy for the Chinese government.

Prior to the DoT’s announcement, Indian media reported that Huawei was willing to partner an Indian company in 5G equipment manufacturing – which would include a transfer of technology – to allay Indian security concerns. [ET Telecom]

Notably, Chinese companies are also likely not to be allowed to bid for stakes in India’s national carrier Air India and oil and gas giant Bharat Petroleum Corporation, which are among the state-owned companies New Delhi aims to privatize to achieve its disinvestment target of about $24 billion for the next fiscal year. [CNBC]

Meanwhile, India has begun to fast-track approvals of some of the more than 150 Chinese investment proposals worth over $2 billion it had put on hold after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in June [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. At the same time, New Delhi is reportedly unlikely to overturn last year’s ban on more than 100 Chinese mobile apps [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].

 

16 March 2021

India: New OCI card rules turn the spotlight on dual citizenship debate

(lm) The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification on March 4, which dramatically curtails the rights for those holding the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) – a form of permanent residency available to people of Indian origin and their spouses. Restrictions include a requirement for OCIs to obtain a special permit to any research or journalistic activities, among others. [The Straits Times]

In addition, the notification now equates OCIs to ‘foreign nationals’ in respect of ‘all other economic, financial and educational fields’, reversing the position that has held for the last 16 years wherein OCIs were equated to Non-Resident Indians rather than ‘foreign nationals’ for the purposes of their economic, financial and educational rights. [The Times of India]

Introduced in 2005 in response to demands for dual citizenship by the Indian diaspora, the OCI allowed for visa-free travel and holders enjoyed the same rights as an Indian national, barring the rights to vote in Indian elections and to hold public office. As of 2020, there are 6 million holders of OCI cards among the Indian Overseas diaspora.

Observers say the notification has likely been triggered by the defeats suffered by the government in several court judgements related to OCI cardholders. In fact, the notification reproduced a part of the guidelines issued by the ministry in 2019 on benefits to OCI cardholders, which have now been legalized through the notification. [Scroll.in] [The Hindu]

16 March 2021

India: Rights body files petition with National Human Rights Commission over Rohingya refugees

(lm) New Delhi-based rights group ‘National Campaign Against Torture’ (NCAT) on March 9 filed a petition with India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), urging the public body to process the asylum/refugee claims filed by Myanmar nationals who fled their country following the coup d’état in Myanmar last month [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [The EurAsian Times]

The rights group asked the NHRC to direct the government to not forcibly repatriate any Burmese refugee until their refugee claims have been assessed by the NHRC and further to extend humanitarian assistance to the fleeing refugees. As of the first week this month, 16 Myanmar nationals have crossed into Indian territory and are currently taking refuge in different districts in the northeastern state of Mizoram, the NCAT said in a press statement.

On March 6, authorities detained nearly 170 Rohingya in the city of Jammu in Kashmir and sent them to a holding center, potentially as part of wider nationwide crackdown for the deportation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. For the recent detention follows Prime Minister Modi’s government’s announcement in 2017 that it would deport all Rohingya. [Human Rights Watch]

About 15,000 of the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India hold ID cards registered with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR), which are supposed to offer protection from arbitrary detention. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, however, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants.

16 March 2021

Bangladesh: Rally held against Quran petition in India

(lm) The largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami, organized a rally in the capital Dhaka on March 15 to protest against a petition filed in India’s Supreme Court seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Holy Quran. [Anadolu Agency]

A local Shia Muslim leader from the state of Uttar Pradesh had previously filed petition with the Indian Supreme Court seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Holy Quran over claims that these were introduced to the religious book at a later date and are violent in nature and against the basic tenets of Islam.

In India, clerics from both Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects have strongly condemned the move and issued a fatwa – a death sentence – against the petitioner, calling on community members to ostracize him from the community and Islam. A prominent Shia Muslim cleric even urged the Supreme Court to reject the petition and sent a memorandum to Indian Prime Minister Modi to urge Indian authorities to arrest the petitioner for blasphemy and making an attempt to breach peace by vitiating the communal atmosphere in the country. [The Free Press Journal]

16 March 2021

Indian warship pays goodwill visit to Mauritius

(lm) Ahead of Mauritius’ National Day celebrations on March 12, a large amphibious warfare vessel currently deployed in the larger Indian Ocean Region (IOR) the Indian Navy visited Port Louis for a three-day stay. During its visit, the ship jointly patrolled the island nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) together with the Mauritian National Coast Guard, and participated in the National Day celebrations. [South Asia Monitor]

India and Mauritius signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CEPCA) earlier this month – New Delhi’s first such agreement with an African country – to provide preferential access to several items that cater to market requirements on both sides. Mauritius also signed a $100 million Line of Credit agreement to enable the procurement of defense assets from India. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]

16 March 2021

India summons British envoy over ‘unwarranted’ criticism of farm protests

(lm) India’s Foreign Ministry said on March 9 it had summoned the United Kingdom’s high commissioner over what it called ‘unwarranted and tendentious discussion’ of Indian agriculture reform in the British parliament. [The Straits Times]

Three new agricultural laws introduced by Prime Minister Modi’s government late last year have led to months of protests on the outskirts of New Delhi where tens of thousands of farmers have camped since last November [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].

India summoned Canada’s envoy last December following critical comments by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The same month, thirty-six British lawmakers from various parties – including some of Indian origin and others representing many constituents with links in the Indian state of Punjab – have written to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asking him to raise the issue of farmers’ agitation with the Narendra Modi government. [AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

9 March 2021

Philippines, India to reach agreement over supersonic missiles

(nd) In an effect of turning into an arms exporter, India signed a contract with the Philippines for the sale of “defense material and equipment”, which are likely to include BrahMos cruise missiles. The Indian BrahMos missile is considered to be the fastest supersonic missile in the world, travelling at three times the speed of sound and able to be fired from ships, submarines, aircraft and ground launchers. The missile itself has a range of 290 kilometers. It is likely the Filipino interest is due to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, urging the Philippines to strengthen their defense capabilities, also in light of a recent Chinese law, allowing its coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels.

India has offered the Philippines a 100-million-dollar soft loan to acquire the missiles last December with a possible extension. The deal could facilitate India’s entry as an exporter in the global defense market. Besides the Philippines, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates announced their interest, reportedly India had talks with Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. [Wio News]

 

 

9 March 2021

India, Nigeria hold inaugural session of counter-terrorism dialogue

(lm) India and Nigeria on March 6 vowed to enhance cooperation against all forms of terrorism. At the invitation of India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, his Nigerian counterpart visited New Delhi for the first Strategic and Counter-Terrorism Dialogue. [Business Standard]

Earlier India shipped nearly 4 million doses of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) to Nigeria, the third and largest delivery so far to an African country by the global COVAX initiative.

9 March 2021

India, New Zealand foreign ministers discuss Indo-Pacific aspirations

(lm) India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his counterpart from New Zealand, Nanaia Mahuta held a phone conversation on March 1 to discuss bilateral relations, as well as ways to work jointly for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. [Hindustan Times]

9 March 2021

India, Uzbekistan launch second edition of joint military exercise

(lm) A contingent of the Uzbekistan army arrived New Delhi on March 8 to participate in the second iteration of the India-Uzbekistan joint military exercise “Dustlik. Around 45 soldiers from both countries will be participating in the 10-day field training, which was first carried out in November 2019. [Outlook India]

9 March 2021

Indian Army provides combat training to Turkmenistan Special Forces

(lm) Indicating deepening defense ties, India’s Special Forces Training School (SFTS) last week commenced a series of training courses for paratroopers of the Turkmenistan Special Forces to help them build enhanced combat skills. Furthermore, a team of the Indian Army’s Special Forces will be visiting Ashgabat in August, and later be participating in this year’s Turkmen Independence Day Parade to be held on September 27. [The EurAsian Times]

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Turkmenistan after a gap of two decades. The two sides had then signed a ‘Defense Cooperation Agreement’, which underscored the growing importance of Turkmenistan and the Central Asian region for India’s security-strategic calculus. Three years later, Turkmenistan’s defense minister met with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi and emphasized intensifying bilateral defense and security cooperation through exchanges of visits of high and mid-level officials and training, among others.

More recently, the two countries held their fourth round of Foreign Office Consultations, reviewing the various aspects of bilateral relations, including political, economic, commercials, defense, scientific, cultural, education, and consular cooperation.

9 March 2021

India sending rice, medical assistance to Madagascar as drought relief

(lm) India has sent a consignment of 1000 metric tons of rice and 100,000 tablets of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as humanitarian assistance to Madagascar, where successive droughts and COVID-19 disruptions have deepened poverty and pushed an estimated 1.3 million people into famine-like conditions. Food and medical assistance are expected to reach Madagascar later this month.

Coming as it does in the wake of India deepening further its strategic bonds with both the Maldives and Mauritius [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1], there is a good case to believe that the humanitarian and disaster relief operation is complementing New Delhi’s efforts to expand its presence in the western Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In fact, the ships carrying the food assistance will also have on board an Indian naval training team, which is being deployed in Madagascar for capacity building and training of the Malagasy Special Forces for two weeks. [Hindustan Times]

What is more, Madagascar has been pitching for stronger defense ties with India, with the defense minister earlier this month saying that New Delhi would provide a security umbrella to countries in the region. The minister was attending the first ever IOR Defense Ministers Conclave, which had been organized by India’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) to promote defense cooperation among the participating countries. Significantly, the constituted the highlight of this year’s iteration of India’s premier air show, Aero India, during which the MoD released a list of 156 defense items cleared for export. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

9 March 2021

India moving to partner Uzbekistan on Chabahar

(lm) Ministers from Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia joint India in commemorating “Chabahar Day” on March 4, the third and final day of the Maritime India Summit (MIS). Held virtually, the dialogue follows on a meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Uzbek counterpart in New Delhi earlier this month. [The Economic Times]

Chabahar Port is being jointly developed by India, Iran and Afghanistan to boost trade ties among the three countries. Located on Iran’s energy-rich southern coast, it is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean, and thus can be easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. Against the backdrop of signs that the new US administration under President Biden might re-engage with Tehran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the port is being increasingly seen as a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia through Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

The first trilateral Working Group meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on the joint use of the port was held virtually in December last year, and addressed the utilization of the port for trade and transit purposes as well as the implementation of transit strategies for enhanced regional connectivity [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. Last month, then, India’s official heading the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Division in the External Affairs Ministry embarked on a two-day trip to Tehran to meet with key officials in the administration Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

9 March 2021

India arrests more than 150 Rohingya refugees, ramps up security at Myanmar border

(lm) About 170 Rohingya refugees living in the city of Jammu in Kashmir have been rounded up into a holding center. Sources saiy the mass detentions are part of a wider nationwide crackdown for the deportation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, which witnessed a coup last month [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] and where the Rohingya remain a heavily persecuted minority. [Reuters]

The Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for years asked state and territory governments to identify and deport the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees scattered across different Indian states, despite international law prohibiting states from refoulement, i.e. returning asylum seekers to a country where they risk persecution. About 15,000 of the refugees hold ID cards registered with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR), which are supposed to offer protection from arbitrary detention. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, however, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants. [Al Jazeera]

Many Rohingya believe that the latest crackdown is linked to the Legislative Assembly elections of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, which are scheduled to be held from between March and April. Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has made it an election promise to deport the Rohingya if they win. [The Guardian]

Thus, the process, which is likely to continue in the coming days, has sparked panic among the Rohingya refugee population. Being stateless in their home country of Myanmar, they are unable to travel to another country legally. Eager to avert deportation, many of them have therefore gone in hiding in other Indian states or entered Bangladesh. [Channel NewsAsia] [France24] [Voice of America]

Moreover, India has ordered the Assam Rifles, its oldest paramilitary force that is guarding the Indo-Myanmar border, to prevent any Myanmar national from crossing into Indian territory. New Delhi has also yet to respond to Myanmar’s request to send back eight police officers who had entered India’s northeastern state of Mizoram to escape taking orders from the military junta. [The Straits Times]

Since Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – overthrew and detained the country’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi this February, New Delhi has been taking a cautious approach, being wary of China’s growing influence and the high stakes involved to maintain peace and security along the India-Myanmar border. Hours before the second closed meeting of the 15-member UN Security Council, India on March 5 said that it has been discussing the situation with partner countries and the issues in the country should be resolved through peaceful manner. [Nikkei Asia] [South China Morning Post] [The Indian Express]

9 March 2021

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin likely to visit India next week

(lm) United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is likely to visit India next week, marking the first visit by a top official of the new US President’s Joe Biden’s administration to New Delhi. During his visit, Austin will likely be meeting with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh, as the two allies seek to deepen military ties to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The US defense chief will join US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a working trip to Japan and South Korea, but it was not immediately clear if Blinken will also visit New Delhi. [The Straits Times]

Rumors about Austin’s trip to New Delhi come at a time when a virtual meeting of the four leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States is impending. “This will become a feature of Indo-Pacific engagement,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on March 5, without giving details on the timing of the talks, expected to be held virtually. [Bloomberg]

Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan. The meeting was the grouping’s first under the new Biden-Harris Administration, although Washington had discussed its future role in bilateral calls with members since then [see e.g. AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]

9 March 2021

India: Thousands demand India’s top judge to quit over rape remarks

(lm) Calls have been growing for the current Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde, to resign “without a moment’s delay” after he asked a young man accused of raping a girl whether he would marry her to avoid jail. [The Straits Times]

The remarks shocked many and prompted an open letter signed by some of India’s best-known feminists and non-governmental organizations calling for the chief justice’s resignation. The letter also called attention to another rape case that Bodge was hearing on the same day and where he reportedly questioned whether sex between a lawfully wedded man and wife could ever be considered rape. [Bar and Bench] [Al Jazeera]

What is more, the girl’s family also alleged that they had agreed not to go to the police because they were promised by the accused’s mother that once the girl became an adult, they would marry the two. In a country where victims are often blamed for rape, and sexual assault carries lifelong stigma [see e.g. AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1], her family agreed to the arrangement. But after the accused backtracked from his promise and married someone else, the survivor went to the police. [BBC]

9 March 2021

India: Calls mount for ‘honor killings’ law after father beheads teenaged daughter

(lm) Calls for a new law against so-called honor killings have spurred after police in northern arrested a man who decapitated his daughter in anger over her relationship with a man he did not approve of. [Al Jazeera] [The Indian Express]

According to campaigners, thousands of women and girls are killed across South Asia and the Middle East each year due to the perpetrators’ belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family. India reported 24 of these killings in 2019, though activists considered that a significant undercount. According to a survey by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), over 30 percent of honor killings in the country take place in Western Uttar Pradesh. [CNN]

9 March 2021

India: Non-profit organization challenges new rules for social media, digital media platforms

(lm) The Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit organization which publishes The Wire news portal, has filed a petition with the New Delhi High Court, challenging India’s new guidelines that seek to regulate content on social networks and other web services in the country. [The Straits Times] [The Wire]

The petition challenges the so-called “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code”, which were announced by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) on February 25. To making media portals, over-the-top (OTT) content providers and social media intermediaries more accountable to legal requests, the guidelines grant sweeping powers to the government, including the right to demand the removal of content. The rules have come under criticism from news portals, journalists’ bodies and internet freedom advocates. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].

9 March 2021

India: Thousands of women join farmers’ protests against contentious agricultural laws

(lm) International Women’s Day (March 8) has been marked by sit-ins and hunger strikes led by female farmers against the country’s contentious agricultural laws. Local media reported that at least 40,000 women joined protests by farmers on the outskirts of New Delhi where tens of thousands of farmers have camped since last November to protest against the laws [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. [Al Jazeera 1] [Voice of America]

Before, Indian farmers began gathering on March 6 for a five-hour roadblock outside New Delhi to mark the 100th day of protests against the three contentious agricultural laws, and to add pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. [Al Jazeera 2] [The Straits Times]

Protests began on a small scale last June in Punjab – one of India’s two breadbasket states – when the government first rolled out its new agricultural policies, and have grown exponentially since they were passed as laws in September [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5]. While the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, a rally in New Delhi on January 26 turned violent, leaving one protesters dead and more than 80 police officers injured [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

Prime Minister Modi has called the laws much-needed reforms for the country’s vast and antiquated agriculture sector and has painted the protests as politically motivated [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. Moreover, police have filed criminal charges against several activists under India’s sedition law, which gives authorities broad powers to make arrests ahead of filing formal charges if an act or speech by an individual ‘excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government’ [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].

2 March 2021

China: Six Chinese detained for ‘insulting’ soldiers killed in India border clash

(dql) At least six Chinese have been detained over accusations of defaming four Chinese soldiers killed in a border clash with India last June.

Among the arrested is Qiu Ziming, a blogger with more than 2.5 million followers, who reportedly questioned the official death toll given by Chinese authorities, and the eight-month timeline before an official announcement. Qui is now suspected of “picking quarrels and causing trouble”, a broadly defined crime which carries 10 years in jail, and is often used against journalists and activists. [The Guardian]

China in 2018 passed a law in 2018 banning people from “insulting or slandering heroes and martyrs.” Originally a civil matter, the offense will be made a criminal on in an amendment to the country’s criminal law, which comes into effect next month. Under that amendment, people who “insult, slander or use other means to infringe the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs and damage the public interest of society” can be punished with imprisonment of up to three years. [CNN]

2 March 2021

India donates $20.4 to Taiwanese medical institution

(lm) To consolidate cooperation under Taiwan’s New Southbound Initiative, India has donated $20,4 million to Taipei’s National Research Institute of Chinese Medicine (NRCIM), marking the first time the Indian government has donated to a Taiwanese government institution. [Hindustan Times]

Launched in 2016 under Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the New Southbound Initiative is a people-centered policy that aims to enhance cooperation and exchange with eighteen primary target countries: 10 in the ASEAN region, six states in South Asia, and Australia and New Zealand.

While relations between New Delhi and Taipei in the past have mostly walked in the shadows of India’s strict adherence to the ‘One China Policy’, since 2014, bilateral engagements have gradually strengthened. At the time, Indian Prime Minister Modi initiated a shift from his country’s ‘Look East Policy’ to the ‘Act East Policy’ placing greater emphasis on regional cooperation. Since then, New Delhi has initiated several initiatives to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), most notably through its ‘Make in India’ initiative, which aim to encourage companies to manufacture in India [see e.g. AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].

2 March 2021

With pacts with Maldives and Mauritius, India seeks to offset Chinese influence in Indian Ocean Region

(lm) India and Mauritius have signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CEPCA) – New Delhi’s first such agreement with an African country – to provide preferential access to several items that cater to market requirements on both sides. Both countries also signed a $100 million Line of Credit agreement to enable the procurement of defense assets from India. [The Hindu]

Both documents were signed on February 22, the first day of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar two-day visit to Mauritius. During his visit, Jaishankar met with high-ranking Maldivian officials, including the president and prime minister Pravind Jugnauth – both of Indian-origin.

The signing of the CEPCA assumes added significance, coming as it does shortly after India signed a $50 million Line of Credit agreement with the Maldives and agreed to develop and maintain a key naval facility for the Maldivian Coast Guard [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].

There is a good case to believe that both events have to be seen against the larger backdrop of the ‘String of Pearls’ theory on potential Chinese government intentions in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Specifically, it is built upon the assumption that China is aiming to establish a network of commercial and military assets to support Chinese naval operations along the Sea Lane of Communications (SLOCs), which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. [South Asia Monitor]

To counter Chinese influence in the IOR, New Delhi has been stepping up efforts to deepen its sot-power bonds with both the Maldives and Mauritius. Both island nations were among the first countries to receive free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), when India first utilized its vast manufacturing capacity to bolster bilateral ties in January [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]

India’s naval footprint in the Indo-Pacific has also been boosted by growing ties with France, which enjoys basing rights in Réunion, an Indian Ocean island in East Africa. Last year, the navies of both countries for the first time conducted joint patrols from the small island nation, signaling New Delhi’s intent to expand its footprint in the stretch between the East African coastline and the Strait of Malacca.

 

2 March 2021

China backs India’s hosting of BRICS

(lm) China’s President Xi Jinping may travel to India in the second half of this year to attend the annual summit of the BRICS grouping of five major emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Moreover, Beijing on February 22 expressed its support for India hosting this year’s iteration of the summit, adding that it would not be impacted by the border crisis. [The Hindu] [South China Morning Post]

Beijing’s change of heart comes shortly after the two countries had completed the pull-back of troops from the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m, and held their tenth round of border talks to assess how the operation was going. [AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]

Since 2009, the governments of the BRICS states have met annually at formal summits. Russia hosted the most recent 12th summit in November last year, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing the summit last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called terrorism the biggest problem facing the world today, adding that there was a need to ensure that countries that shelter terrorists must also be blamed. Read between the lines, the remarks were a clear nod to China, which has repeatedly shielded Pakistan from international censure for sponsoring cross-border terrorism in India and Afghanistan [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4].

2 March 2021

Chinese cyber-attacks may have caused massive power outage in Mumbai last year

(lm) On October 12 last year, a grip failure had triggered Mumbai’s first major blackout in more than two years, causing chaos at hospitals and leading to the stoppage of its arterial suburban train network. Now, a study by Recorded Future, a US company monitoring state-sponsored cyber activities, lends further credence to the idea that the massive power outage may have been connected to the deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley four months earlier [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. [The Times of India] [New York Times]

Specifically, the US internet security firm found that Red Echo, a hacking group affiliated with the Chinese government had been repeatedly targeted a dozen critical nodes across the Indian power generation and transmission infrastructure to possibly coerce New Delhi on the border issue. However, Recorded Future on March 1 said it could not substantiate a potential link between the cyberattacks and Mumbai’s power outage. [Mint] [South China Morning Post] [Recorded Future]

Meanwhile, US-based cyber intelligence firm Cyfirma said another Chinese state-backed hacking group has in recent weeks targeted the IT systems of Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker whose coronavirus shots are being used in India’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [Reuters]

2 March 2021

India, China agree to set up hotline between foreign ministers to cool down border tension

(lm) Indicating positive momentum in China-India ties, the two neighbors have agreed to set up a hotline between their foreign ministers, complementing a military hotline already in place between the Indian Army’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and China’s Western Theatre Command. The decision was reached in a phone conversation between India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi – talking for the first time in five months – on February 25. [Al Jazeera]

Prior to the phone conversation, both sides had completed the pull-back of troops from the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m that had become a flashpoint in the prolonged border dispute [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. As per an agreement announced by India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh earlier this month, the two countries are now to hold talks to resolve the remaining issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh.

Against this backdrop, the two diplomats emphasized the need to implement the consensus reached on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Moscow last September [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2]. Thus, Jaishankar informed his Chinese counterpart that restoring normality to the broader bilateral relationship would first require complete disengagement and ensuing de-escalation along the border. 

China, however, takes the view that India’s holistic approach, comprising blocking Beijing from participating in government tenders, and banning dozens of Chinese apps [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], among other things, was going against a past consensus of containing differences while cooperating elsewhere. [The Hindu]

 

2 March 2021

India, Pakistan agree to observe ceasefire agreements along Line of Control

(lm) India and Pakistan in a rare joint statement announced on February 25 both sides had agreed to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors. However, New Delhi emphasized that its military would maintain deployments along the LoC to prevent infiltration and continue counterinsurgency operations in the Kashmir Valley. [Indian Ministry of Defense] [ACB News] [The Hindu]

India and Pakistan signed a Ceasefire Understanding in 2003, but the truce has been frayed, with frequent clashes and cross-border shelling in recent months reportedly killing multiple civilians [see e.g. AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. The return to a truce was settled during a phone conversation between the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGsMO) on February 22. Attentive observers of both countries believe the joint statement to be the result of months-long backchannel talks between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf. [The Federal] [Hindustan Times]

Coming like a bolt from the blue, the agreement triggered speculations about the causes that lie behind it.

Coming only weeks after China and India have agreed to withdraw frontline troops along Pangong Tso [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], some analysts say the moves may have been choreographed with Beijing. To be sure, there is a good case to believe that India’s decision in 2019 to unilaterally abrogate Article 370 of the constitution, thereby breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1], was at least in part motivated by concerns over a possible two-front conflict due to increased cooperation between the Islamabad and Beijing [see e.g. AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. [South China Morning Post]

In fact, while the international narrative has largely been limited to the bilateral dispute between Pakistan and India, China – through its claims on Aksai Chin and the Shaksgam Valley – remains an interested party in the territorial issue of Jammu and Kashmir. [The EurAsian Times]

At any rate, from India’s perspective, curbing cross-border infiltration and support to militancy from across Pakistan frees up more policy space to focus on the China issue. A case in point, security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir are have raised red flags over the recent arrival of ‘sticky bombs’ – small, magnetic bombs which can be attached to vehicles and detonated remotely – including 15 seized in a February raid. Indian officials say none of the devices seized in the disputed territory was produced there, suggesting they were being smuggled from Pakistan. [Reuters] [The Citizen]

Nevertheless, some Indian observers question the sincerity of the agreement, pointing out that Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has always been in flux between bilateral talks on the one hand and a militaristic approach on the other. Hence, they suggest that the ceasefire agreement may be best understood a tactical move by India. That is, New Delhi, for its part, may use the agreement to keep its toolkit ready at a time when the new US Biden-Harris administration has committed itself to pursuing a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality. [Observer Research Foundation]

2 March 2021

India: Prominent case related to farmers’ protests sparks fresh discussion on country’s sedition law

(lm) An Indian court on February 23 granted bail to a young climate activist who was arrested earlier this month for allegedly helping prepare an online document police had linked to the violent clashes in New Delhi on January 26 [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

Police had filed charges under the sedition law, a relic of the British colonial government once used against Mahatma Gandhi. Once used to suppress the native population, the 19th century sedition statute gives police broad powers to make arrests ahead of filing formal charges if an act or speech by an individual ‘excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government.’ Punishment under the law can be a fine or a maximum sentence of life in prison, or both. [Voice of America] [Bloomberg]

She joined at least seven others hit with similar charges, including a former foreign minister, journalists, authors and academics [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. The arrest was denounced by opposition politicians, student groups and several senior lawyers that say the sedition law is being misused to bully people and frighten them from expressing views contrary to government’s policies. [The Leaflet] [The Straits Times 1]

In the last five years, the number of sedition cases filed against individuals has risen by an average of at least 28 percent each year, according to data collected by Article14, a group of lawyers, journalists and academics. Further, the data showed that the increase in recent years is linked to civilian protest movements, such as the current farmers’ protests, as well as protests last year over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 [see AiR No. 51, December/2019, 3] and over the gang rape of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].

To be sure, only ten people have been convicted under the law in the five years to 2019. For Prime Minister Modi’s government, therefore, the real use of the law may lie in its ability to deny bail and keep people locked up for years while their cases trudge through the court system. [BBC] [The Straits Times 2]

2 March 2021

India: Authorities impose tougher rules on social media companies; recruit ‘cyber volunteers’

(lm) India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) announced new guidelines on February 25 to regulate content on social networks and other web services in the country, notably making making US social media giants more accountable to legal requests for swift removal of posts and sharing details on the originators of messages. Furthermore, the new regulations also require video-streaming platforms to classify content into five categories based on users’ age. [The Straits Times 1]

Published as Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, the new rules will be legally enforceable and require big social media companies to set up a grievance redressal mechanism. Platforms are also called upon to appoint executives with law enforcement within three months and will have to publish a compliance report every month detailing how many complaints they received and what action they took. Furthermore, the web services will also be required to remove some types of content, including posts that feature ‘full or partial nudity,’ a ‘sexual act’ or ‘impersonation including morphed images’ within 24 hours of a user flagging them. [CNN] [South China Morning Post]

The new regulations come after social networking service Twitter had initially refused to comply with government orders to restrain the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content related to the ongoing farmers’ protest [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. It also comes after online news portals and over-the-top (OTT) content providers were brought within the MEITY’s purview last year [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4].

Separately, India’s Home Ministry has developed plans to create a cybercrime division made up of volunteers who will police the internet for evidence of crimes, including child abuse, terrorism, and anti-national sentiment. But international rights groups, as well as digital rights activists and legal experts say the broad definitions for some of the violations could be used to further harass or censor media outlets and chill free speech in such regions as Kashmir. They also challenge the fact that anyone can sign up to be a volunteer without any need for prior verification, warning that asking citizens to police the internet could lead to bullying and eliminate opposition or diverse voices. [The Straits Times 2] [Voice of America]

 

23 February 2021

India carries out trial launch of anti-tank missiles

(lm) India on February 19 carried out trial launches of the anti-tank guided missile systems (ATGM) Helina and Dhruvastra, paving the way for their induction into Army and Indian Air Force, respectively. Developed by the Defense Research and Development organization (DRDO), both missiles are improved and advanced air-launched variants of the indigenously developed Nag missile. [Frontline]

Last September, India had successfully carried out the final trials of the Nag ATGM with a warhead.

23 February 2021

To oust Chinese firm, India offers grant for power project in northern Sri Lanka

(lm) In an effort to undo the presence of a Chinese company in its immediate backyard, India has reportedly offered Sri Lanka $12 million in grants to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands only 45 kilometers off the coast of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. [The Hindu]

The Cabinet of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in mid-January had selected a Chinese company to develop the projects – just weeks before Colombo also pulled out of three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT). Back then, New Delhi had lodged a strong protest with the Sri Lankan government, citing the project site’s proximity to the Indian coastline. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

Meanwhile, a group of political parties representing Sri Lankan Tamils – an ethno-linguistic group whose people live both in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka – have voiced opposition to Chinese involvement in the project, citing “security threats” to Tamil people and India.

23 February 2021

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Sri Lanka as Colombo balances ties with India

(lm) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded a working visit to Sri Lanka on February 23, after holding separate meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and attending an investors’ conference. [Hindustan Times]

Close partners in trade and defense, both sides developed strong bilateral ties during the Sri Lankan Civil War, when Islamabad supplied high-tech military equipment to Colombo’s military. Shortly before Prime Minister Khan’s arrival, however, Sri Lanka cancelled a scheduled speech of the Pakistani prime minister in Parliament, apparently over fears it could further harm ties with India. [The EurAsian Times]

Observers suggest that Prime Minister Khan may have suggested that Sri Lankan officials accept Pakistani support in the upcoming 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC), which will feature a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. Further, in return for giving its explicit support Islamabad might ask Colombo to adopt Pakistan’s position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. [Foreign Brief]

However, the two parties are unlikely to agree on such arrangements, considering that these would only heighten tensions between Sri Lanka and India. Colombo currently finds itself in a tight spot since it earlier this month pulled out of a three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. Prior to the decision, India had shipped free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) to Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the island nation is witnessing a rising islamophobia. Until recently [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], the government had made cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory, arguing that burials in accordance with Islamic tradition would pose a public health risk. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations had resented the policy, saying authorities used it to purposely hurt the country’s religious minorities. 

 

23 February 2021

India set to clear some new investment proposals from China in coming weeks

(lm) India reportedly plans to ease restrictions on investment from China in the coming weeks as relations between the two neighboring countries thaw amid an easing in border tensions. However, only sectors that are not sensitive to national security will be cleared, with investment proposals from Chinese smartphone makers and new-energy companies likely to be the first, according to experts. [The Straits Times] [Global Times]

Last week, India and China began disengagement along the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso – a glacial lake at 4,242m – after nine months of fitful progress to resolve the border stand-off in the Himalayas [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3].

Tension between the two countries had escalated after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in June [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. Ever since, anti-China sentiment has been soaring in India and sparked calls for a boycott of goods from the neighboring country. Against this backdrop, New Delhi framed various policies targeting China, including blocking the nation from participating in government tenders, compelling any Chinese company investing in India to seek approvals [see AiR No. 16, April/2020, 3], and banning dozens of Chinese apps [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]

In addition, India also added extra scrutiny for visas for Chinese businessmen, academics, industry experts, and advocacy groups – with the consequence of unintentionally hurting Taiwanese companies that were in the process of setting up factories in India to diversify their supply chains [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4. [The Straits Times]

23 February 2021

India takes delegation of international diplomats to tour Jammu and Kashmir region

(lm) India on February 17 and 18 hosted a delegation of 24 international diplomats in its Jammu and Kashmir union territory to showcase efforts to restore normalcy more than a year after it stripped the region’s special status. During their visit, the foreign envoys were allowed to speak with local residents to discuss their responses to recent local elections and economic opportunities [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. The trip also included meetings with officials from Indian Army and government, as well as journalists and civil society groups selected by the security services. [U.S. News] [The Straits Times]

This was the third group of dignitaries to visit the Indian-administered region since August 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories – one comprising the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, known as Jammu and Kashmir, and the second being the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1].

The president of the Pakistan-administered state of Azad Kashmir termed the tour an attempt by New Delhi to “project a false image of normalcy” in the disputed territory. [Anadolu Agency]

 

23 February 2021

India, China complete pull-back of forces along Pangong Tso lake

(lm) India and China have completed the pull-back of troops from the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m, according to a joint statement issued by the Indian defense ministry on February 21. Further, the statement acknowledged that other parts of the border remained tense and looked forward to continuing talks. [South China Morning Post]

Footage supplied by the Indian government last week showed tanks from both sides leaving the north bank of the lake and returning to their base camps. Satellite images also showed that China had withdrawn troops, dismantled infrastructure and moved vehicles to empty out entire camps. [The Straits Times] [CNN] [BBC]

After nine months of fitful progress to resolve the high-altitude border stand-off, China announced on February 10 that both countries had agreed to withdraw frontline troops along the lake that became a flashpoint in the prolonged border dispute [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. Commanders from both sides held their tenth round of border talks on February 20 to assess how the operation was going.

 

23 February 2021

Quad diplomats hold virtual meeting

(lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually on February 18 with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan under the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The meeting was the grouping’s first under the new Biden-Harris Administration, although it has discussed its future role in bilateral calls with members since then [see e.g. AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

During the meeting, Blinken and his counterparts – Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar – discussed their cooperation on various global and regional issues, including tensions in the South China Sea, climate change, North Korea and the recent coup d’état in Myanmar [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [The Hindu]

In a separate call, The US Secretary of State also met virtually the same day with his counterparts from France, Germany and the United Kingdom – a group known as the “E3”.

 

23 February 2021

India: Government liberalizes restrictions on geospatial data for map-making

(lm) The Indian government has liberalized the regulatory framework governing geospatial data, including maps through guidelines released by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on February 15. Coming at a time when advances in mapping technology are giving a lift to innovation in eCommerce and urban transportation sectors, among other, the new guidelines are considered by many a path breaking reform. [The Hindu] [DST]

Individuals and companies were hitherto required to seek approvals, security clearances, licenses for acquisition and production of geospatial data and geospatial data services, including maps.

Under the new policy, geospatial data from government agencies such as the Survey of India and the Indian Space Research Organization – i.e. data collected by security and law enforcement agencies – will also be made available to public and private companies.

However, the new policy restricts the terrestrial mapping and surveying to only Indian entities – both public and private. Furthermore, the data generated needs to be owned and stored in India, with foreign entities being allowed to license it. High resolution data – finer than 1m horizontally and 3m vertically – will remain restricted. [Hindustan Times]

23 February 2021

India: State government of Puducherry loses trust vote

(lm) The union territory of Puducherry appears to be headed for being put under President’s rule as the opposition parties in the Legislative Assembly are not keen on forming a government with the election just two months away. Earlier the Congress-led government had lost a confidence motion in the House on Friday 22. [The Indian Express]

Formed out four territories of former French India, Puducherry is one of three Indian union territories that is entitled to have an elected Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet, thereby conveying partial statehood. The Puducherry assembly has 30 elected members, with the central government nominating an additional three. Prior to the floor test, Puducherry’s government, an alliance of the Congress Party (INC) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation, DMK), found itself on the verge of collapse after six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) had resigned over the past month, causing its strength to plummet to 12 members. [The Straits Times]

Unable to prove a majority on the assembly floor, the chief minister delivered an agitated resignation speech, accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led federal government for “plotting” with Puducherry’s opposition leaders to topple a democratically elected government. To be sure, three of the MLA’s that had resigned from the legislative body last month have already joined the BJP. Moreover, Puducherry’s Lieutenant Governor, who was appointed on February 16 and asked the chief minister to prove a majority, has previously been serving as the BJP’s state unit president in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. [The Hindustan Times] [The Hindu]

 

23 February 2021

India: Authorities prepare to execute first woman since India’s independence from the UK

(lm) Prison authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh are reportedly preparing to execute a female death row inmate in what would be the first hanging of a female convict since India’s independence in 1947. The woman was found guilty of murdering seven members of her own family in 2008 after her lover was not accepted by her family. [South China Morning Post]

A lower court first issued the death penalty to the pair in 2010, with Uttar Pradesh’s High Court later upholding the sentence. The High Court refused to consider as a mitigating factor the fact that while in jail, the woman had given birth to a child who would be orphaned if his parents are executed. An appeal to India’s Supreme Court (SC) failed in 2015, and in 2016 then-President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the woman’s mercy plea. Last January, the top court also dismissed her review petition and uphold the death penalty. [Bar and Bench]

The pair’s son has made a last-ditch attempt, appealing to President Ram Nath Kovind, and to the Governor of Uttar Pradesh on February 18 to review the mercy petition and pardon his mother. Moreover, observers say the woman still has still not exhausted her constitutional remedies. These include the right to challenge the rejection of her mercy petition before the High Court and the SC on various grounds, as well as the right to file a curative petition in the SC against the decision on the review petition. The curative petition can challenge the SC’s January 2020 decision, which upheld her death sentence. [The Indian Express]

23 February 2021

India continues engagement with Maldives, signs $50 million Line of Credit

(lm) Indicating deepening security cooperation, India and the Maldives have signed a $50 million Line of Credit agreement and agreed to develop and maintain a key naval facility for the Maldivian Coast Guard. Both documents were signed on February 21, the second and final day of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visit to the Maldives. Five other agreements, including one for a $25-million Line of Credit for the development of roads, were signed the previous day. [mint] [The Hindu] [Hindustan Times]

During his visit, Jaishankar also promised that India would strongly support the candidature of Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid for President of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly next year. 

Jaishankar also said that India would like to work with the Maldives during its membership of the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22.

To counter China ’s growing financial footprint in South Asia, New Delhi has provided a host of support measures to the Maldives since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, injecting more than $2 billion trough loans, grants, credit lines and currency swaps [see e.g. AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4]. What is more, the archipelagic state was the first country to receive free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), when India first utilized its vast manufacturing capacity to bolster bilateral ties in January. [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]

 

16 February 2021

India, China initiate troop withdrawal along Northern, Southern Bank of Pangong Tso

(lm) After nine months of fitful progress to resolve the high-altitude border stand-off, China and India have begun pulling back frontline troops on February 10 along the southern and northern bank of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m. The region has high, finger-like mountain spurs above the water, and control of these spur is disputed by both countries [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]. [The Guardian]

India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on February 11 that the disengagement of troops along the glacial lake will be followed by another round of talks between top military commanders to discuss moving back soldiers from other disputed areas around the frontier. Further elaborating, the minister said the two sides had agreed to dismantle defense structures they had built on both sides of the lake, where Chinese troops are occupying an eight kilometer stretch of land once patrolled exclusively by Indian forces [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]. [The Straits Times]

Since their eighth round of talks, both sides had been considering a reciprocal disengagement plan for the North Bank of Pangong Tso that involved creating no-patrol zones, pulling back tanks and artillery, and using drones to verify the withdrawal [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. However, in the weeks later, Beijing had reinforced its troops and rapidly strengthened road infrastructure on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), stationed container housing modules across all the friction points and turned a village located in close proximity to the LAC into a major army supply depot.

Beyond the Pangong Tso, however, other friction points are yet to be addressed. A case in point is the Depsang Plains, a high-altitude plain at the northwest portion of the disputed Aksai Chin region of Kashmir, that did not feature in the purported disengagement plan. Although India controls the western portion of the plains as part of Ladakh, China currently occupies 250 square kilometers of territory claimed by India [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2].

What is more, a retired Indian army chief and current Union minister earlier this month boasted that Indian forces had transgressed the LAC more times than the Chinese. This prompted Beijing to respond a day later saying that the minister had made “an unwitting confession” and that India had been making frequent attempts “to encroach on China’s territory” and was “constantly creating disputes and frictions”. [The Hindu]

Indian observers call the disengagement a clear sign of New Delhi’s “pragmatic acceptance” of its lack of military capability to alter the situation, adding that the withdrawal was happening in line with China’s 1959 claim line. Against the backdrop of the Tibetan uprising, China’s then Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had proposed that both countries each withdraw their forces 20 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and defined this line as the “the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”. According to Indian observers, through its intrusions since last May, China has already reached the 1959 claim line in Depsang and north of Pangong Tso. [The Economic Times]

 

16 February 2021

India: Human Rights Watch demands investigation into alleged border force killings

(lm) Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made a fresh call for Indian authorities to investigate and prosecute newly alleged law violations by the Border Security Force (BSF), India’s paramilitary unit guarding borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. [Human Rights Watch]

Ten years ago, the Indian government announced that it would order the BSF to use restraint against irregular border-crossers, following the release of an HRW report which accused New Delhi of turning the border into “South Asia’s killing fields.” However, Indian and Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations have since reported that the BSF is continuing to commit abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment of both Indian and Bangladeshi border residents. [Anadolu Agency] [Union of Catholic Asian News]

 

16 February 2021

India: Twitter yields, blocks access to hundreds of Indian accounts

(lm) Social networking service Twitter has permanently suspended more than 500 accounts that had been flagged by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), acceding to the government’s order to restrain the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content related to the farmers’ protest. The company also restricted availability of several other accounts to outside the country and restricted the visibility of certain hashtags containing harmful content. [The Straits Times]

Drawing a line in the sand, Twitter has not, however, taken any action on accounts of “news media entities, journalists, activists or politicians”, reiterating its policy to prioritize providing free expression. Further, the company said it would be “actively exploring options under Indian law” both for its own practices as well as for the impacted accounts. [Twitter Safety] [CNN]

Previously, the company had briefly suspended many of those accounts at the government’s behest but unilaterally unblocked them a few hours later after a public outcry, citing “insufficient justification” to uphold the suspensions. Shortly thereafter, Twitter was hit with a non-compliance notice by the MEITY that threatened the company’s employees with “legal consequences” [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].

While Twitter and the Indian government remain at an impasse, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters have begun actively promoting Koo, an Indian microblogging site, as a patriotic alternative to Twitter. But what is more, police forces in the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Bihar have warned citizens that criticizing the government on social media or participating in protests could disqualify them from government jobs, bank loans and even obtaining passports. [Financial Times] [South China Morning Post]

 

16 February 2021

India: Prime Minister Modi reaches out to protesting farmers, says new laws are “optional”

(lm) While addressing the lower house of India’s Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 10 defended afresh the three contentious agricultural laws, saying that the country’s agricultural sector needed reform to attract private investment that would help modernize the food supply-chain and improve infrastructure. Further, the prime minister stressed the need to switch to profitable crops such as fruit and horticulture, urging Indian farmers to look beyond growing rice and wheat. [The Straits Times]

In an attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, in his address to Parliament the prime minister termed the ongoing demonstrations a “pavitra aandolan” [pious movement], only to hit out at “andolan jeevis” [people that live through agitations], who he accused of maligning the protests. [Republic World]

Shortly after Prime Minister Modi’s speech, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha [Joint Farmers Front], an umbrella body of unions leading the protests, said farmers were still protesting because the government had failed to present an “alternative” to the legislation, despite 11 rounds of talks. Last week, tens of thousands of protesting farmers held a three-hour blockade of state and national highways, indicating growing support for protesters’ demand to have the legislation fully repealed [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. [Hindustan Times]

16 February 2021

Indian Navy’s maritime exercise TROPEX-21 set to enter final stage

(lm) The Indian Navy is currently conducting its biennial Theatre Level Operational Readiness Exercise (TROPEX) over a vast geographical expanse in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and adjunct waters. The exercise, which began in early January is well underway and set to culminate later this month. The Navy’s largest wargame, it involves the participation of all of its units including ships, submarines and aircrafts, in addition to units from the Indian Army, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. [The Hindu]

The maritime exercise is carried out in three phases – independent workup phase, joint workup phase and tactical phase – to test the Navy’s transition from peacetime to hostilities. In the first phase, the Indian Navy conducted the two-day coastal defense exercise “Sea Vigil 2021” to review its coastal security preparedness [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. The maritime exercise was followed by the large-scale conjoint amphibious exercise AMPHEX drill, which was conducted in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal from January 21 to 25. The recently concluded workup phase witnessed multiple “on-target” ordnance deliveries, including missiles, torpedoes and rockets from frontline warships, aircraft and submarines to reaffirm the Navy’s capability to carry out long range maritime strikes in the Indian Ocean Region. [The Week]

9 February 2021

Sri Lanka pulls out of three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating Eastern Coast Terminal

(lm) Scuttling a 2019 trilateral agreement with India and Japan, the Sri Lankan government has decided that the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) will be exclusively operated by the state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). A cabinet meeting held on February 1 further decided to offer the West Container Terminal to India for possible investments, instead. [The Hindu 1]

India and Japan consider their presence in the Colombo Port a strategic necessity in the face of China’s presence in the adjacent Colombo Port City project, a flagship $1.4 billion project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. According to the 2019 Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC), which was signed by the administration of then-President Maithripala Sirisena, the tri-nation project was to be developed with 51 percent ownership by Sri Lanka’s government and the remaining 49 percent as an investment by Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group and other stakeholders, including Japan.

India has an additional reason to seek a foothold in Colombo Port as approximately 70 percent of the throughput at Colombo port is accounted for by Indian transshipment. But what is more, observers believe New Delhi’s assertive role in Sri Lanka to be part of larger efforts to regain strategic ground India has lost to China in its own backyard. Thus, the project has figured in talks at the highest levels, including when Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Colombo in January, laying down unequivocal terms for the Indian-backed development of a container jetty in the port [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Nikkei Asia]

A week later, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told agitating trade unions that his government decided to take forward the 2019 triparty MoC after it had reviewed “regional geopolitical concerns” [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. The concessions came at a time when Sri Lanka has been holding out a virtual begging bowl for a nearly $2 billion financial lifeline – a $1 billion currency swap arrangement and $960 million debt moratorium – from India to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3].

However, twenty-seven trade unions instigated by the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [People’s Liberation Front] (JVP) have been agitating against the deal on the grounds that it is a “sellout” of a national asset to India. The JVP and the trade unions are exploiting the fact that the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) had come to power in the 2019 Presidential election and last year’s parliamentary elections after campaigning on a platform aimed at stoking ethnic Sinhala nationalism, promising not to barter away national assets like ports and airports to other countries [see e.g., AiR No. 47, November/2019, 3].

Such a pledge was given following the SLPFA’s trenchant criticism against the leasing out of another deep seaport located in the south of the island after the port was operating at a loss and could not generate enough revenue to repay the loan the country had received to build it. The $1.12 billion deal, first announced in July 2016, allowed a Chinese state company to take over the port in Hambantota, which straddles the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, on a 99-year lease [see AiR December/2017, 3].

Soon after the Sri Lanka government succumbed to pressure from the trade unions, India asked all sides to abide by the existing understandings and commitment of the trilateral agreement. Further, India’s High Commissioner to Sir Lanka met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on February 3. [Economy Next]

On February 5, then, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) refused to provide the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) a further extension of a $400 million currency swap facility set to expire on February 1, saying that the rollover would require Colombo having a successfully negotiated staff-level agreement for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. Commenting on reports that the denial of an extension was retributive, India’s High Commission to Colombo explained that the initial $400 million currency swap facility was provided last year for an initial period of three months and a 3-month rollover was provided lasting till the 1 February 2021 [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. [The Hindu 2] [Tamil Guardian]

In light of Colombo’s change of heart, another event assumes added significance: As early as on January 18, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa selected a Chinese company to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands only 45 kilometers off the coast of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. Back then, India had lodged a strong protest Sri Lanka government, citing the project site’s proximity to the Indian coastline. [The Hindu 3] [The Indian Express]

 

9 February 2021

Iranian Defense Minister visits India, indicates deepening cooperation between New Delhi and Tehran

(lm) As US President Joe Biden is breaking away from key foreign policy hallmarks of the previous administration, India’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran is regaining momentum. Earlier this month, India’s official heading the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Division in the External Affairs Ministry embarked on a two-day trip to Tehran to meet with key officials in the administration Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. [Asia Times

During his visit, the Indian official inquired about the development of Chabahar Port, the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean that can be easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. Against the backdrop of signs that the White House under President Biden might re-engage with Tehran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the port is being increasingly seen as a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia through Afghanistan and Tajikistan [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. [India West]

Shortly thereafter, Iran’s Minister of Defense Amir Hatami arrived in India on February 3 to meet with Indian Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat. During his visit, the Iranian official also participated in the opening ceremony of India’s premier air show, Aero India [see article in this edition]. Since a decade-long UN arms embargo on Iran that barred the country from purchasing conventional weapons like tanks and fighter jets expired last October, Tehran is looking to purchase military equipment from non-Western countries, especially India and China. [Tehran Times 1] [Tehran Times 2]

In an opinion piece published by the Observer Research Foundation, the author convincingly argues that the reason behind New Delhi’s increased engagement with Tehran may not be energy security or the geopolitical wrangling in West Asia, but an increasingly challenging situation in Afghanistan. [Observer Research Foundation]

9 February 2021

India plans for revolution in defense manufacturing, says Defense Minister Singh at aviation exhibition

(lm) India is planning to spend $130 billion on military modernization to advance towards its vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant or self-sufficient India), Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said on February 3 while delivering the opening words at the 13th edition of the country’s premier air show, Aero India. Following on the announcement of India’s defense budget for the next fiscal year, the remarks were also an attempt to stymie observers who had found fault with an “negligible increase” in military spending [see articles this edition]. [The EurAsian Times]

Singh also inaugurated the second production line for light combat aircraft at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a government-owned aerospace and defense company which is also behind the development of the multirole light fighter HAL Tejas. The defense minister said several countries had already expressed interest in procuring the M1A version of the aircraft, adding that the indigenously developed HLA Tejas was better than its foreign equivalents on several parameters. Earlier this month the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the purchase of 83 advanced HAL Tejas to bolster the Indian Air Force’s combat potential. [Hindustan Times] [India Today] [The Indian Express]

Moreover, HAL on February 4 unveiled a developmental air-teaming system that will incorporate the HAL Tejas with unmanned aircrafts. As part of the Combined Air Teaming System (CATS), future variants of the multirole light fighter will act as a parent aircraft controlling four stealth unmanned aerial vehicles known as CATS Warrior to perform autonomous missions (e.g., scouting or absorbing enemy fire if attacked) using artificial intelligence. [Flight Global]

 

9 February 2021

India releases details about new defense budget, increases defense capital budget by nearly 19 percent

(lm) India increased its defense budget by about 3 percent for the fiscal year 2021-22, causing experts who had expected a robust increase in response to the protracted military standoff with China, to question the timing of the country’s military modernization program. Overall, the new defense budget totals $47.4 billion, but most of the funds allocated for defense forces go toward the salaries of about 1.3 million serving personnel, pensions, infrastructure development, and repairs. [The Diplomat] [South China Morning Post]

It is noteworthy, however, that capital expenditure, which is meant for fresh arms procurement and existing liabilities, witnessed an increase of about 16 percent from the previous year’s $15.91 billion, now valued at $18.48 billion. But what is more, existing liabilities could eat up to 90 percent of the new capital expenditure, according to Indian officials, indicating a high number of previously conducted defense contracts. [Defense News] [Anadolu Agency]

Moreover, as attentive observers have remarked, India obfuscates its military expenditure by shoving provisions for quasi-military organizations such as Industrial Reserve Force and Border Security Force, alongside expenses for dockyards and border infrastructure, in civil estimates. Hence, the actual military expenditure may be much higher than the initial estimates. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

US President Biden calls India’s PM Modi, as Washington plans for first Quad summit

(lm) US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed in a telephone call to strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States that is seen as a potential bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Lending further credence to the affirmation, Washington as reportedly proposed an online meeting with the leaders of the other Quad members. [Kyodo News] [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Reports about the virtual summit also follow on a telephone conversation between Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and his newly appointed US counterpart Lloyd Austin held last month. Back then, both officials had reasserted the importance of the Japanese-US alliance as well as cooperation with partners outside the region for a free and open Indo-Pacific [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4].

Speculation about Washington’s interest in exploring a new framework for Indo-Pacific cooperation, dubbed the “Quad Plus”, received a boost in September, when then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said that the US was aiming to ‘formalize’ the groupings’ military, economic and development cooperation. Though cautioning visions of an Indo-Pacific NATO at that time, Biegun also emphasized that the format shall remain open for other countries to join to “align in a more structured manner” [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1].

In November, then, the navies of the four countries jointly conducted the Exercise Malabar, which marked their largest joint naval drill in over a decade [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4]. While the exercise was formally independent of the Quad consultation mechanisms, observers back then considered Canberra’s participation after 13 years of absence a clear sign of the increasing strategic convergence of the four nations in the face of China’s vast military and economic power in the region [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].

 

9 February 2021

India: Tens of thousands of farmers protest new agriculture laws with blockades across the country

(lm) Tens of thousands of protesting farmers held a three-hour blockade of state and national highways on February 6 in a continuation of their months-long protest movement against new agricultural policies. The previous day, farmers in the state of Uttar Pradesh rallied in opposition to the contentious legislation, indicating growing support for protesters’ demand to have the legislation fully repealed. [The Straits Times 1] [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

The protests had been largely peaceful but turned chaotic and violent on January 26, when thousands of farmers deviated from agreed routes and headed for government buildings in Old Delhi where the annual Republic Day military parade was taking place [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].

Since then, local authorities have erected barricades and concertina wire, and even planted nails and dug trenches on roads leading to major protest site. Moreover, the government intermittently cut off electricity and water supply to one of the farmers’ protest camps, before suspending internet services at all three, and restricted journalists’ access to them. Furthermore, the Indian capital was placed on a high alert on February 6, with authorities closing several metro stations until the blockade call ended, as well as deploying nearly 50,000 security personnel. [France24] [The Straits Times 2] [New York Times]

On February 8, then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited representatives of the protesting farmers for a next round of talks, while also assuring that the Minimum Support Price (MSP), a government fixed benchmark designed to incentivize the farmers and thus ensure adequate food grains production in the country, would stay in effect. So far, 11 rounds of talks between the Samyukt Kisan Morcha [Joint Farmers Front], an umbrella body of unions leading the protests, and the federal government have failed to end the ongoing stalemate [see e.g., AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].

An opinion piece published by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) is taking a critical stance on how the federal government has introduced the reforms and the manner in which it conducted the ensuing negotiations. Noting that the outcome of the current dispute would affect India’s commitment to the transition to a more environmentally sustainable and equitable growth model, the author scarifies Modi’s administration for having failed “to communicate its case effectively to those farmers who would benefit from the reforms and who could conceivably have prevented their colleagues from hijacking the narrative”. In doing so, the authors go on to explain, it has alienated the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a center-right Sikh-centric state political party in Punjab and long-term ally of the BJP, that could otherwise have helped handle the reform’s fallout. [Observer Research Foundation]

9 February 2021

India: Government puts Twitter on notice for refusing to comply with directive, threatens prosecution

Representing the latest instance of deteriorating relations between Indian authorities and US social media platforms, the government of Prime Minister Modi has sent a notice to social networking service Twitter, warning the company of “legal consequences” over non-compliance of its demand to block content aimed at inciting violence.[Hindustan Times 1] [The Straits Times 1]

Twitter on February 1 “unilaterally” unblocked 250 accounts it had previously suspended, citing “insufficient justification” to continue the suspensions. Earlier, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) had sought an emergency blocking of content alleging that Prime Minister Modi’s administration was trying to wipe out farmers protesting against agricultural reforms. As of February 3, several Twitter users could be seen using the hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” that had led the government to call for the ban. [Arab News]

On February 4, then, Twitter received a fresh government order to suspend 1,178 accounts which Indian authorities say were being operated from outside of the country and involved supporters of a separatist Sikh movement. Many of these accounts were sharing and amplifying misinformation and provocative content on the ongoing farmers’ protests, according to Indian officials. Twitter did not comment on whether it had complied with the government’s order, but said it would review content under its rules and local laws when it receives a government report about potentially illegal posts. Further, the US company formally requested a meeting with Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology. [The Straits Times 2] [Hindustan Times 2] [Al Jazeera]

Meenakshi Lekhi, a lawmaker from Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chairperson of a parliamentary panel charged with examining the Personal Data Protection Bill, criticized Twitter for disobeying government orders, further saying she has yet to decide whether to summon company executives. [ET Telecom]

 

9 February 2021

India, United States take part in joint military exercise in Rajasthan

(lm) Since February 8, troops from the Indian and the US armies participate in the 16th iteration of the ‘Yudh Abhyas’ land drill, a regularly-scheduled bilateral exercise which allows for an exchange of knowledge between the two militaries using a UN peacekeeping scenario. Taking place in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, the two-week exercise involves around 250 soldiers from each side. [Business Standard]

2 February 2021

India, China using vaccine diplomacy to deepen bilateral ties around the world

(lm) China will be providing 300,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm under grand assistance to Nepal, Beijing’s embassy to Kathmandu announced on February 1. [The Himalayan Times]

Timing and context of the announcement are noteworthy: As part of its unprecedented Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) campaign, India ten days earlier had sent one million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Kathmandu, marking the launch of nationwide inoculation drive in the Himalayan country. Following in the wake of the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, the gesture came at a time when bilateral relations between India and Nepal continue to see an upwards trajectory, after they had initially derailed in May last year [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Reuters]

But what is more, they also take place against the larger backdrop of determined efforts by India to utilize its vast manufacturing capacity to bolster bilateral ties. While commercial overseas shipments are likely to start around March, India has already shipped free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) doses to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal, as well as to its key Indian Ocean partners, Mauritius and Seychelles. Sri Lanka began receiving vaccine consignments earlier this month and Afghanistan will do so after it has completed regulatory clearance procedures. [The Diplomat]

The shipments reflect one of India’s unique strengths: It is home to a robust vaccine industry, including the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers. The country, therefore, has a long track record of supplying medicines and vaccines to the rest of the world, especially to low- and middle-income countries. [Washington Post] [Financial Times]

These efforts put India in direct competition with China, which has made no secret that vaccine distribution is wrapped up in its broader geopolitical ambitions. For it has explicitly included vaccine distribution in its broader Health Silk Road initiative, which aims to bolster China’s international soft power. To this end, Chinese companies have made an aggressive international push to sell their COVID-19 vaccines, with Sinopharm and Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company Sinovac signing deals with more than a dozen countries. [Observer Research Foundation] [South China Morning Post]

A case in point, China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan received on February 1 a free shipment of half a million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, as Islamabad is set to launch its vaccination drive this week, starting with frontline health workers. What is more, Pakistan is due to receive a further 1.1 million doses from China by the end of this month; up to 6.8 million doses are due to arrive before the end of March. [Al Jazeera] [The Straits Times]

2 February 2021

Mongolia: Discussions over bilateral ties and vaccines gifted by India 

(nm) State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs N.Ankhbayar and Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, Jasper Wieck, held an online meeting last week, discussing strengthening bilateral ties, regional cooperation, and mutual support within international organizations, as well as exchanging their views on the current Covid-19 pandemic. Both sides agreed to hold a consultative meeting in Ulaanbaatar in September. [AKIpress 1]

Meanwhile, India has donated 1.5 million doses of the British-developed AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 to Mongolia, adding to the 10 million doses of vaccine that Mongolia had purchased from India. The donation is part of India’s vaccine diplomacy which seeks to deepen ties between India and its neighbouring states. [AkIpress 2] [Reuters]

2 February 2021

India: Party of Prime Minister Modi seeks to increase political influence in Indian state elections

(lm) Although election dates are yet to be announced, campaigning gets under way for Legislative Assembly elections in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and the eastern state of West Bengal. The elections in both states assumes added significance as they are among the last few left for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to conquer. [The Straits Times]

Despite two successive landslide victories in federal elections since 2014 [see AiR (4/5/2019)], Modi’s BJP has a mixed record in state elections. To be sure, the party was part of the winning alliance in eastern state of Bihar in India’s first major election since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Defying exit poll predictions, the BJP eclipsed its regional ally to become the senior partner in the ruling coalition [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3].

2 February 2021

India: Journalists accused of sedition over reporting of farmers’ protest

(lm) Several senior Indian journalists are facing charges of sedition over their allegedly misleading reporting and online posts about the violence and death of a protester during the farmers’ rally against agriculture reforms in New Delhi on January 26. Media groups condemned the police complaints and called them an intimidation tactic aimed at stifling the journalists. [The Straits Times]

A case was also filed against Shashi Tharoor, a senior politician of the oppositional National Congress who also serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [The Indian Express]

On the day of the protests, social networking service Twitter announced it had suspended more than 300 accounts engaged in spam and platform manipulation to protect the conversation on the service from attempts to incite violence. [The Times of India]

2 February 2021

India: Rally against agriculture reforms turns violent, as thousands of farmers divert from agreed routes

(lm) A rally against agriculture reforms in New Delhi on January 26 turned violent, after thousands of protesting farmers deviated from agreed routes and headed for government buildings in Old Delhi where the annual Republic Day parade of troops and military hardware was taking place. One protester died and more than 80 police officers were injured. [BBC]

Police had allowed the rally on the condition that it would not interrupt the annual Republic Day parade in central Delhi held to honor the date on which India officially adopted its constitution. Farmers were given specific routes for the rally but a group of them converged on the historic Red Fort, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, breached security and clambered onto the walls and domes of the fortress. In a particularly bold rebuke to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, the protesters hoisted a Sikh religious flag alongside the national flag. [South China Morning Post]

Delhi’s Police Commissioner told a media conference the following day some farm leaders had incited violence with provocative speeches, adding that the police were examining video footage to identify those who clashed with security forces. Moreover, the Indian government ordered 2,000 paramilitary reinforcements to New Delhi, while it also suspended mobile internet services suspended in parts of Delhi closed some metro stations. [Bloomberg 1] [Bloomberg 2]

Despite the violence in parts of central Delhi tens of thousands of farmers also marched peacefully. Farm union leaders the following day therefore condemned the violence and accused two outside groups of sabotaging an otherwise peaceful march. What is more, Indian farmers on January 30 began a daylong hunger strike, coinciding with the anniversary of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s death, as they sought to reaffirm the peaceful nature of their movement following the violent clashes with police. They also called off a protest planned to be held on February 1 outside Parliament when the government presents its annual budget but vowed the agitation would continue. [Associated Press 1] [Associated Press 2] [Deutsche Welle 1] [The Times of India]

In his first public comments on the months-long farmers’ agitation, Prime Minister Modi on January 31 criticized the protesters that had stormed Delhi’s historic Red Fort on the country’s Republic Day. The day before, the prime minister told opposition party leaders that the offer to suspend the three laws for 18 months still stands [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [Deutsche Welle 2] [The Straits Times]

Some observers believe the long-drawn and physically draining protests – hundreds of thousands of farmers have been striking on the capital’s outskirts since November, some 60 of them dead so far, and 11 rounds of failed talks with the government [see e.g., AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4] – could have resulted in growing frustration in the “young radicals” amongst them [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].

In the run-up to the Republic Day demonstrations, fears had long been growing that the largely peaceful protests could turn violent. Observers therefore cautioned that the incident may be grist to the mill of critics of the protests, in particular the federal government. A case in point, India’s Attorney General earlier this month had petitioned the Supreme Court to put a stop to the protests on the grounds that the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist group that the government had previously branded as “terrorists,” had infiltrated the movement [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3].

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in September last year approved three new agricultural laws aimed at overhauling the food grain procurement and sale of produce [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] in the country of more than 1.3 billion people, almost half of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly defended the legislation, saying it would bring about much needed reform that will introduce transparency, accelerate growth and attract private investment in supply chains [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].

2 February 2021

India receives consignment of 6,000 LMGs from Israel

(lm) The Indian Army has received the first batch of Negev Light Machine Guns (LMG) from Israel as it seeks to boost the firepower of frontline troops. In the first batch, 6,000 guns were delivered, while the remaining units are expected to be supplied by March. [Army Technology]

India’s Defense Ministry signed in March last year a $120.57 million capital acquisition contract with Israel Weapons Industries, an Israeli firearms manufacturer, to procure a total of 16,479 LMGs under India’s Fast Track Procedure.

2 February 2021

Nepal awards hydropower project to Indian company

(lm) Chaired by Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, a meeting of Investment Board Nepal (IBN) decided on January 29 decided to award the contract for construction of a hydropower project to India’s Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN). Delegated under the build–own–operate–transfer (BOOT) project delivery method, ownership of the project will be transferred back to the Nepalese government after 20 years of commercial operation. [South Asia Monitor] [Investment Board Nepal]

 

2 February 2021

Nepal plans to deregulate oil business, prepares new petroleum law

(lm) Nepal’s government is reportedly gearing up to enact a new petroleum law aimed at deregulating the country’s lucrative oil market. Currently, no company is allowed to import, store and distribute various petroleum products other than the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), a state-owned trading enterprise. [The Kathmandu Post]

While early attempts to deregulate the country’s oil market had failed, the government now may have another rationale behind the need for a new law: Imports of petroleum products accounted for more than 15 percent (i.e., $1,850 billion) of the country’s total import bill in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

But what is more, earlier this month, a delegation from India’s largest commercial oil company, Indian Oil Corporation visited Kathmandu to lay the groundwork for the construction of the second cross-border petroleum pipeline. In September 2018, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi had jointly inaugurated the first Nepal-India cross-border petroleum pipeline, the first in South Asia.

2 February 2021

New India-China border clash shows simmering tensions

(lm) Indian and Chinese troops have clashed along their disputed Himalayan border. While details about the latest skirmish remain foggy, Indian media outlets and independent military analysts said on January 25 that the clash occurred earlier this month in northern Sikkim, a mountainous Indian state sandwiched between Bhutan and Nepal. [New York Times]

Although no fatalities were reported and both sides remained tight-lipped, reports of a clash show that tensions are still simmering between the two Asian giants. This month satellite imagery revealed that Chinese forces have been slowly but steadily cutting away small pieces of Indian territory, constructing a new village on what had been an empty hillside two years ago in Arunachal Pradesh, another mountainous Indian border state. [Foreign Policy]

As Beijing quietly intensifies pressure against India, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has condemned China for massing troops and building infrastructure at the countries’ disputed border, describing the deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley last year [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] as having “profoundly disturbed” bilateral relations. [South Asia Monitor 2] [South China Morning Post]

26 January 2021

Indian army helicopter crashes in Kashmir

(lm) An Indian army helicopter crash-landed along the disputed along the Line of Control (LoC) on January 25, leaving one pilot dead and another critically injured. The incident occurred just days after an Indian soldier was shot dead by Pakistani snipers in the Jammu district. [Express] [Kahsmir Observer]

26 January 2021

Singapore, India sign deal for submarine rescue mission

(lm) At the 5th India-Singapore Defense Minister’s Dialogue held through video conferencing, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen on January 20 witnessed the signing of the Implementing Agreement on Submarine Rescue Support and Cooperation. Under the agreement, the navies of both countries seek to extend rescue facilities to each other’s submarines. [The Straits Times]

While discussing regional security developments, during the meeting, both ministers also reaffirmed the strong and longstanding bilateral defense relationship and their commitment to sustain defense cooperation across the three services, and in defense technology and multilateral engagements. [The Hindu]

26 January 2021

Pakistan wants India held ‘accountable’ for 2019 airstrike

(lm) Pakistan has urged the world community to hold longtime rival India “accountable” for the 2019 Balakot airstrike conducted last February when Indian warplanes crossed the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir and dropped bombs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. [Anadolu Agency]

The move comes after a leaked WhatsApp chat between Hindu-nationalist pundit Arnab Goswani and a former media industry executive revealed that the Indian air strike inside Pakistan was pre-planned, allegedly designed to perpetuate the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run up to the general elections. [South China Morning Post]

In early February 2019, a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, resulting in the deaths of more than 40 Indian paramilitary forces. The responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan condemned the attack and denied any connection to it.

Days later, Indian jets crossed into Pakistan and dropped bombs on the outskirts of the village of Balakot, characterizing the airstrike a preemptive strike directed against a terrorist training camp. The following day, in a tit-for-tat airstrike, the Pakistani Air Force shot down two Indian aircraft and arrested a pilot, who was later released as a “goodwill gesture.” [AiR (1/3/2019)AiR (4/2/2019)]

 

26 January 2021

India unlikely to use US facilities to store strategic oil reserves

(lm) India has decided to re-evaluate its plan to store its strategic oil reserves in facilities available in the United States, as New Delhi seeks to expand its domestic storage, which it consider s a safer and better option to tide over excess price volatility and short-term supply disruptions. [Energyworld]

Timing and context of the announcement are noteworthy: India’s crude oil imports last December soared to the highest levels in nearly three years to more than 5 million barrels per day (bpd) as its refiners cranked up output to meet a rebound in fuel demand, boosting prices and an accelerating de-stocking of floating storage globally. [Nasdaq]

Despite being the world’s third-biggest oil consumer and importer, India has available enough SPR to tackle emergency situations lasting for a mere maximum of nine days – compared with 198 days for Japan – making the country prone to price and supply risks. The urgency to scale up its strategic petroleum reserves (SPR) pushed New Delhi into signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Washington last July to cooperate on emergency crude oil reserves, including the possibility of India storing oil in the US emergency stockpile.

More recently, however, New Delhi has been making efforts to enhance its energy security domestically, with the government planning to offer viability gap funding (VGF) to attract bidders for the second phase of India’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves, which will add 12 days of strategic storage. [Livemint]

 

26 January 2021

India starts construction on power project, despite objections from Pakistan

(lm) India‘s government on January 20 approved a $720 million investment for a run-of-the-river hydroelectric power station on the Chenab River in the Jammu and Kashmir union territory. Formed by the confluence of two rivers, Chandra and Bhaga, the Chenab River is a major river that flows in India and Pakistan. Islamabad has routinely opposed the construction out of fears that New Delhi could use the reservoirs to create deliberate and artificial water shortage or cause flooding in Pakistan. [livemint]

Pakistan has repeatedly raised its concerns with the World Bank, stating that India’s project was not in accordance with the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), a water-distribution treaty brokered by finance institution to use the water available in the Indus River and its tributaries. Signed in 1960, the Treaty allocates the Chenab River to Pakistan for exploitation, while India is entitled to use its water for domestic and agricultural uses or for “non-consumptive” uses such as hydropower. [The Express Tribune]

In her article Priyanka Bhide considers linkages between water security and socio-economic growth for six selected cities across India, where a rapidly increasing population and urbanization have driven up water demands all across the country. [China Water Risk]

 

26 January 2021

United States to continue elevating its defense partnership with India under new Biden administration

(lm) During his confirmation hearing on January 19, the new US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, said he would continue to build on the “strong defense cooperation” with India and ensure that the militaries of the two countries can collaborate on shared interests.

Further elaborating, Austin also said he would seek to elevate the bilateral defense cooperation through existing regional multilateral engagements, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States. [The Wire] [The Straits Times]

26 January 2021

India, China hold 16-hour long inconclusive talks to resolve border dispute

(lm) A 16-hour marathon meeting between India and China to resolve the ongoing border dispute and thinning of forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh ended on January 25. The eighth and last round of the talks had taken place on November 6 during which both sides broadly discussed creating no-patrol zones, pulling back tanks and artillery, and using drones to verify the withdrawal [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [The Hindu] [Hindustan Times] [The Straits Times]

Notwithstanding periodic hopes for a resolution, however, several rounds of diplomatic and military talks have so far made little headway in deflating tensions over the disputed border. But what is more, frontline deployments of both sides remain unchanged, with more than 100,000 soldiers of both armies facing winter conditions [see latest AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2].

Recognizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, observers suggest that India is stalling for time, privily accepting that a diplomatic solution is unlikely. With both armies locked into the prospect of a long watch in the high mountains [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], the Indian Army’s performance and its sustenance through this winter may be the critical factor for New Delhi’s plans to deal with the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh.

26 January 2021

India among top 10 hit by climate change

(lm) India ranked seventh in a list of countries most affected by the devastating impacts of climate change in 2019, according to a study published on January 25 by environmental organization Germanwatch. Over the past 20 years, over 475,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of more than 11,000 extreme weather events globally and losses amounted to around US $2.56 trillion (in purchasing power parities). Eight of the 10 countries hardest-hit between 2000 and 2019 are poorer nations. [Germanwatch]

The Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) is based on data from the German reinsurance company Munich Re. It compares the number of deaths and property damage caused by extreme weather to the number of inhabitants and the gross domestic product of the country in which it strikes. It does not, however, consider slow-onset events such as rising sea levels, glacier melting or ocean warming and acidification. 

In 2019, the South Asian summer monsoon continued for a month longer than normal, with 110 percent of the long-period average being recorded by the end of September. Flooding caused by the heavy rain was responsible for 1,800 deaths across 14 Indian states and led to the displacement of 1.8 million people. Overall, 11.8 million people were affected by the intense monsoon with the economic damage estimated at $10 billion. [Business Standard] [Hindustan Times]

26 January 2021

India: Parliamentary panel questions Facebook India representatives on WhatsApp’ privacy terms

(lm) Executives of social networking giants Facebook and Twitter on January 21 fielded questions from the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology about the platforms’ ban on former US President Donald Trump’s social media accounts and WhatsApp’s now-deferred privacy policy update. [Reuters] [Forbes India]

Facebook-owned WhatsApp this month kicked off a storm when it informed users it was preparing a new privacy policy, under which it could share limited user data, including phone number and location, with Facebook and its group firms. Prior to the hearing, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology already asked Facebook to withdraw the updates, saying the new terms take away choice from Indian users. [The Straits Times]

Importantly, this is not the first time that Facebook has come under scrutiny from Indian authorities over its content moderation practices: The social media giant’s representatives were summoned by the same committee last September to report on allegations of deliberate omissions and inaction to allow anti-Muslim hate speech from politicians affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in order to secure its investment [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3].

Separately, Facebook India’s Vice President and Managing Director, Ajit Mohan told the Supreme Court (SC) on January 20 that he was well within his rights to remain silent and not be compelled by the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi Legislative Assembly. Last September, Facebook India and its senior official had appealed to India’s Supreme Court [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] to challenge two notices served upon him by the committee which is investigating the company’s alleged role in the religious riots in the city earlier last year [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3AiR No. 9, March/2020, 1]. [The Hindu]

26 January 2021

India: Unions reject government’s offer to suspend new farm laws

(lm) The Indian government on January 20 offered to suspend three contentious agricultural laws for up to 18 months in an effort to end nearly two months of mass protest by farm groups against Prime Minister Narendra Modi [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. Later the same day, however, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha [Joint Farmers Front], an umbrella body of unions leading the protests, ruled out any deal, saying the three laws must be fully repealed. [The Straits Times] [BBC]

Earlier the Supreme Court (SC) already put the implementation of the laws on hold and appointed an independent panel of experts to resolve the deadlock between the government and union representatives. However, protest leaders have refused participate in discussions with the committee, alleging that all four panel members are pro-government [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3].

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

India: Supreme Court orders indefinite stay over implementation of contentious agricultural laws

(lm) India’s Supreme Court (SC) on January 12 temporarily paused the implementation of the three agricultural laws that have caused farmers to stage a mass protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and block major roads leading to New Delhi [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. The court’s decision came a day after it had expressed its “disappointment” over how the federal government had introduced the reforms and the manner in which it had conducted the ensuing negotiations [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Financial Times]

Further, the SC set up a committee of experts to mediate between the government and representatives of protesting farmers. The committee will submit a report to the court in two months from its first meeting, which is due to be held before January 23. Yet, the agitating farmers already announced that they would not participate in discussions with the court-appointed panel, alleging that all four committee members were strong campaigners for the laws. [The Straits Times 1]

The SC on January 12 also agreed to hear the government’s petition to stop a rally planned by farmers on January 26, when India celebrates its Republic Day to honor the date on which the Constitution of India came into effect. [The Straits Times 2]

19 January 2021

Indian Navy holds pan-India coastal defense exercise

(lm) The Indian Navy on January 13 concluded its two-day biennial coastal defense exercise “Sea Vigil 2021” to review its coastal security preparedness. First conducted in 2019, the exercise covers India’s entire coastline, involving 13 coastal states and union territories along with other maritime stakeholders, including fishing and coastal communities. [The Hindu] [The Times of India]

The “Sea Vigil” coastal defense exercise is also considered a build-up towards the major Theatre-level Readiness Operational Exercise (TROPEX), an inter-service military exercise involving the participation of the Indian Army, Air Force, Navy, and the Coast Guard. The exercise generally commences at the beginning of each year and lasts a month. [South Asia Monitor]

19 January 2021

India Army showcases drone technology during Army Day parade

(lm) During the Army Day parade held in New Delhi on January 15, the Indian Army for the first time demonstrated its intend to deploy unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for future offensive military operations, including Kamikaze strikes and supplying troops closest to the area of conflict with equipment. [New Indian Express]

Taking place against the larger backdrop of the Sino-Indian border stand-off, the demonstration lends further credence to theories highlighting the emergence of a new kind of air warfare. While drones are vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons, so the argument goes, in localized smaller military engagements – the one along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) being a case in point – they do play a vital role. Lending further credence to these analyses, the army last week also signed a contract to buy undisclosed quantities of high-altitude drones from ideaForce, India’s largest manufacturer of unmanned air vehicles for defense, homeland security and industrial applications, for $20 million. [The Economic Times]

19 January 2021

Nepal to establish Economic Zones along borders with India, China

(lm) Nepal is planning to establish four cross-border economic zones, two each along the borders with India and China – as part of efforts by Kathmandu to boost trade and investment with its two neighboring countries. [The Kathmandu Post]

Among the country’s trade partners, India accounts for the largest share of exports and imports. In the last fiscal year, more than 60 percent of Nepal’s total foreign trade was done with India. China, in turn, is Kathmandu’s second largest trading partner, accounting for little more than 15 percent of Nepal’s imports but only a small portion of its export trade.

Kathmandu last year started construction on a dry port in its far western province of Dodhara-Chandani, which provides the shortest route to the sea. The first business gateway to India from Nepal’s Far-Western Development Region, the inland terminal will provide access to India’s largest seaport, Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai, and facilitate Nepal’s foreign trade and lower costs.

19 January 2021

China, Pakistan pose potential threat, says Indian Army Chief Naravane

(lm) Indian Army Chief General Naravane said on January 12 that Pakistan and China continue to pose threats to the northern and eastern borders of India, adding that India was facing the possibility of a two-front conflict due to increased cooperation between the two countries. While addressing the media on the eve of India’s Army Day, Naravane also commented on the ongoing border stand-off with China in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, saying that Indian troops deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) were prepared to “hold our ground as long as it takes”. [The New Indian Express]

While initially confirming the recent re-deployment of some 10,000 Chinese soldiers from some training areas on the adjacent Tibetan plateau [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2], the army chief also dampened expectations by adding that no change of posture had occurred on friction points along the LAC, where both sides had entered a winter deployment situation. [Anadolu Agency]

Talks between the two countries have all but been deadlocked since military officials last met in December – after more than 40 days without any dialogue – with both sides reinforcing their positions and digging their heels in, since then. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Observers of the months-long stand-off suggest the current pause in talks might be a strategic maneuver by Beijing as it casts an eye on Washington to get a better sense of what US President-elect Joe Biden’s policy toward China will entail. [South China Morning Post]

In this context, two recent events assume added significance, as they may be shaping Beijing’s considerations of US policy. To begin with, the outgoing US ambassador to India confirmed earlier this month that Washington and New Delhi had been working in “close coordination”, to help India counter what he referred to as “sustained […] aggressive Chinese activity on its border”. While the ambassador declined to provide further details, there is a good case to believe that New Delhi is relying on Washington for sharing geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensor [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1], as well as emergency purchases of cold-weather equipment for its personnel in the Himalayas [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3].

A case in point, photographs recently published by a US-based imaging company suggest that China continues construction work along the borer areas with India. [The Times of India]

What is more, a 2018 US document on its Indo-Pacific strategy was declassified on January 11, laying bare Washington’s view that India was “pre-eminent in South Asia” and that a “strong India” would “act as counterbalance to China”. [The Wire] [U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific]

12 January 2021

Pakistan: Leader of group linked to 2008 Mumbai attacks sentenced to five years in jail for terror financing

An anti-terrorism court sentenced Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, leader of the Islamist terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to five years imprisonment and a fine over a charges of terrorism financing. Earlier this month, Lakhvi was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore where he was running a medical dispensary that he allegedly used to collect funds for militant activities [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Dawn]

 

12 January 2021

Pakistan: Pakistan observes annual Right to Self-determination of Kashmiris Day

(lm) Rallies and seminars were held across Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to mark the annual Right to Self-determination of Kashmiris Day on January 5. On this day in 1949, the United Nations committed that the Jammu and Kashmir dispute would be decided through a free and fair plebiscite. The same day, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the grave human rights violations in occupied Kashmir. [Anadolu Agency]

Addressing the upper house of parliament, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reaffirmed Islamabad’s support to the pro-freedom struggle in Indian-administered Kashmir, saying Pakistan was part of the Kashmiris’ “movement for self-determination.” Qureshi also said Islamabad expects an active United States role vis-à-vis the resolution of the long-standing dispute. [Profit Pakistan]

Winding up the Senate session, the foreign minister the next day invited lawmakers from three mainstream opposition parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) – for talks to chalk out a comprehensive action plan aimed at resolution of the lingering Kashmir dispute. [Dawn]

12 January 2021

India: Supreme Court threatens to put controversial farm laws on hold

(lm) Expressing its disappointment over the federal government’s handling of the farmers’ protests, India’s Supreme Court (SC) on January 11 said it would order a stay of the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws if the government would fail to do so. The SC also reiterated the need for an independent committee [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. [The Times of India] [The Hindu]

Previously, the government of Prime Minister Modi and representatives of protesting farmers failed to break the deadlock over the contentious new agriculture laws on January 8 and said they would meet again in a week’s time. The same day, in one of the biggest shows of strength since they began a sit-in against deregulation of farm markets more than a month ago [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], tens of thousands of farmers mostly from the Sikh-dominated northern state of Punjab occupied an expressway on the periphery of New Delhi. [The Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 2] [New York Times]

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held several rounds of talks with the farmers to placate them, offering to pass a law guaranteeing a minimum support price for certain crops like wheat. Protest leaders, however, have rejected the government’s offer, vowing to continue to protest until the new agricultural reform laws are fully repealed [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3].

12 January 2021

India: Supreme Court allows federal government to build new parliament building

(lm) India’s Supreme Court (SC) has given approval for the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, which proposes to reconstruct and repurpose the central administrative area of New Delhi housing government buildings and the prime minister’s residence. On January 5, the SC voted in favor of the project by 2:1. The dissenting judge had expressed concern about the lack of public consultation before the project’s clearance. [The Guardian] [The Straits Times]

Since the project was announced in 2019, it has faced criticism from civil society groups, environmentalists, and politicians about its lack of transparency and public consultation and high cost in a time of economic crisis. In view of petitions ranging from land use to the environmental impact of the project, the SC last November halted construction but allowed paperwork and other procedures – including a groundbreaking ceremony – to continue. Hence, the ruling marks a win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had called the new building a witness to the making of an Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant or self-sufficient India) while laying the first stone in December. [The Hindu]

 

12 January 2021

Myanmar, India to cooperate in Nagaland 

(nd) Following Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane’s and Foreign Secretary H.V. Shringla’s visit to Myanmar in November, more than 50 militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), including its top leader Niki Sumi, were made to abandon their base in Myanmar by the military. Sumi returned and showed his willingness to join the ongoing Naga peace process with India’s federal government. Ever since a deadly attack on 18 Indian soldiers on June 4, 2015, Indian security forces were hunting Sumi, who was considered responsible for the ambush, while the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) claimed responsibility for the attack. Analysts suggest that it is likely that the Indian government will accept Sumi’s proposal to restore the ceasefire agreement and drop the cases against him.

India was negotiating for Burmese cooperation for a while already, with its Northeastern neighbor being key to Narendra Modi’ Act East policy. The involvement of envoys and the top military brass highlights a switch in India’s foreign policy strategy, which also included foreign tours to boost bilateral defense cooperation to counterbalance China, inter alia to Myanmar, Nepal, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. [Irrawaddy]

12 January 2021

Indian Prime Minister Modi inaugurates sections of freight corridor, calls project a “game-changer”

(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week inaugurated several sections of the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) for commercial operations. Billed as the largest rail infrastructure project in India, the DFC aims to decongest the country’s railway network by moving 70 percent of India’s goods train to two corridors. The total 2,843-km project has been in the making since 2006 with little movement on the ground. With both corridors on track for completion in December this year, it is finally ready to take off, albeit in phases.

On January 5, Modi inaugurated a 351-kilometers section of the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor (EDFC), a freight specific railway under construction in northern to eastern India. The railway will run between Ludhiana in Punjab and Dankuni (near Kolkata) in West Bengal. Two days later, the prime minister then inaugurated a 306-kilometer section of the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (WDFC), a freight corridor that will connect India’s capital, New Delhi, and its economic hub, Navi Mumbai, covering a distance of 1483 kilometers and touching all major ports along the way. [The Indian Express] [Autocar Professional]

Both an enabler and beneficiary of other key schemes of the federal government, such as the Industrial corridor or Make in India, Prime Minister Modi hailed the DFC a “game-changer” for India in the 21st century. While the majority of the EDFC is being funded through a loan from the World Bank, Japan so far extended concessional Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans of approx. $4.2 billion for development of the Western DFC. [South Asia Monitor] [Japan International Cooperation Agency]

 

12 January 2021

Indian Prime Minister Modi inaugurates 450-kilometer gas pipeline in southern India

(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has officially opened a 450-kilometer natural gas pipeline will transport gas from the southwestern state of Kerala further north to the state of Karnataka. Attending the inauguration through video link, the prime minister said the pipeline was another step towards the countries goal of “One nation, one gas grid”, which would increase the share of natural gas in India’s energy mix from 6 to 15 per cent. India is in the process of constructing more than 16,000 km of gas pipeline in a large-scale program anticipated for completion in approximately six years. [South Asia Monitor] [The Australian Pipeliner]

12 January 2021

India must do more to become China alternative for manufacturers, says outgoing US ambassador

While delivering a farewell address on the US-India partnership, Washington’s outgoing ambassador to India criticized Prime Minister Modi’s trade policies, saying New Delhi will need to take more policy action if it wants to become a new destination for manufacturing investments in the Indo-Pacific region in the post-pandemic era. [South China Morning Post]

As China is currently facing an unprecedented global backlash destabilizing its reign as the world’s factory of choice, the Modi administration has sensed an opportunity and has prioritized efforts to attract supply chains, both at central and state government level. However, attempts to attract US companies looking at setting up manufacturing facilities out of China have so far yielded little success mainly because of differences on market access. Last year, India announced its withdrawal from a crucial multilateral trade agreement with fifteen other Asia-Pacific economies, collectively known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), despite seven years of negotiations [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. Observers say decisions like these make it difficult for Indian exporters to benefit from tariff-free access to destination markets or offer reciprocity to its trading partners.

During the event, the outgoing ambassador also commented on the possibility of sanctions hanging over New Delhi’s ongoing deals with Moscow for military hardware, including the S-400 surface-to-air missile system [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. While he assured that sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) were not were never designed to harm “friends and allies” of Washington, he also cautioned that New Delhi might soon have to choose between “trade-offs”, namely inter-operability and diversification of sources of procurement. [Hindustan Times]

Meanwhile, a United States delegation led by the Consul General Hyderabad met on January 5 with the chief minister of India’s southwestern state of Andhra Pradesh. During the meeting, the delegation expressed Washington’s interest in setting up an American Hub in the state’s executive capital, Visakhapatnam – the second one in the country after Ahmedabad. [The New Indian Express]

 

12 January 2021

Nepal’s foreign minister to visit India on January 14

(lm) Bilateral relations between India and Nepal continue to see an upwards trajectory, as Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali is set to visit New Delhi on January 14 to chair the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, a foreign minister-level bilateral mechanism between the two countries established in 1987. [Hindustan Times] [The Hindu]

Gyawali will be the senior-most Nepalese official to visit New Delhi since bilateral ties had derailed in May last year, after New Delhi had announced the inauguration of a new Himalayan link road built through the disputed area of Kalapani that lies at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet and China [see e.g. AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. Shortly thereafter, Kathmandu had issued a new political map unilaterally expanding its territorial claims over the Lipulekh Pass and other mountain territory claimed by both India and Nepal [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3].

Resuming dialogue last August, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli then laid the groundwork for a reformed India outreach, calling Indian Prime Minister Modi on the occasion of India’s 74th Independence Day [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3], and stopping the distribution of a new text book that included the country’s revised political map. Back-to-back visits to Nepal by the head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]., Indian Army Chief General Naravane [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3], and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1] then laid the groundwork for Gyawali’s trip to India.

Beyond solving the boundary dispute, the Nepalese government is also hoping for Gyawali’s trip to yield a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which would include an agreement on the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines from New Delhi. While China has offered to supply its version of its CoronaVac vaccine, Nepal has given priority to Covishield, a vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), citing logistics, pricing, and New Delhi’s assurance to facilitate procurement. [The Kathmandu Post 1] [The Kathmandu Post 2] [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2021

China pulls 10,000 troops from Line of Actual Control to rear positions

(lm) Showing goodwill in de-escalating the border tension, China has reportedly withdrawn 10,000 troops from its disputed border with India over the course of the past two weeks, with Beijing acknowledging that extreme weather conditions make it impossible for both sides to fight. Still, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) frontline deployments remain unchanged, according to Indian sources. [South China Morning Post 1] [Hindustan Times]

Earlier, the Indian army on January 11 returned a Chinese soldier it had taken into custody earlier last week for transgressing into the Indian side in an area south of Pangong Tso lake. This was the second detention on the high-altitude border: Last October, the Indian Army returned another Chinese soldier it had apprehended after he ‘strayed’ across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Indian-controlled Ladakh’s Demchok area [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3]. [Deutsche Welle] [South China Morning Post 2]

Although Chinese troops have pulled back from some training areas on the adjacent Tibetan plateau, the Chinese military, for one thing, has established a fully-fledged strategic observation post near the crucial trijunction border area between India, China, and Bhutan. The bone of contention in the 2017 Doklam standoff, the plateau is of strategic importance to New Delhi, because it overlooks the Siliguri corridor, a narrow stretch of land also known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that connects India’s north-east with the mainland [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. [South China Morning Post 3]

For another thing, an unspecified number of Indian soldiers belonging to the Rashtriya Rifles, a counter-insurgency force of the Indian Army, has been shifted to the LAC. The soldiers had hitherto been deployed in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to fight the popular armed insurgency. Moreover, India’s Army Chief General Naravane said on January 12 he expected another round of talks soon, although several rounds of talks have so far made little headway in deflating tensions over the disputed border. [The Straits Times] [Anadolu Agency]

12 January 2021

Taiwan-India relations: New Delhi identifies priority areas of cooperation 

(nm) India and Taiwan are set to focus on bilateral investments, people-to-people exchanges, and technical cooperation in their bilateral relations, according to director-general of the India Taipei Association Gourangalal Das, India’s representative office in Taiwan. 

Stressing mutual disadvantages, Das pointed at “great opportunities for sustained growth to Taiwanese investors” and India’s “world-renowned manufacturing skills and know-how.” Regarding human exchange, he said his office will start out with higher education and tourism, two areas with great room for improvement. He further sees good prospects for cooperation amid restructuring of global supply chains and welcomed Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy which he said compliments India’s Act East policy. When asked about the possibility of a bilateral trade agreement, he however responded his office is currently focused on expanding trade and investments with Taiwan as current numbers are rather modest. [Focus Taiwan]

5 January 2021

Pakistan urges UN to prevent “judicial murder” of Kashmiri separatist

(lm) Pakistan called on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on January 1 to prevent the “judicial murder” of Asiya Andrabi, founding leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation, DeM). A part of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), DeM is an all-woman outfit that advocates jihad to establish Islamic law in Kashmir and to establish a separate state from India. A Delhi court last month ordered framing charges against Andrabi and her two associates for allegedly “waging war against India” and other unlawful activities, two years after she was taken into custody by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s federal anti-terror organization. [Dawn]

5 January 2021

Leader of group linked to 2008 Mumbai attacks arrested in Pakistan

(lm) Pakistan authorities on January 2 arrested Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, leader of the Islamist terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), over a separate case of terrorism financing. Lakhvi was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore where he was running a medical dispensary that he allegedly used to collect funds for militant activities. [The Straits Times]

One of the largest militant organizations in South Asia, LeT is accused by India of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left at least 174 people dead and more than 300 wounded. The Indian government’s view is that Pakistan, particularly through its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has both supported the group. Lakhvi was detained in 2015 over the attacks but granted bail months later. Since then, the government had slapped him with a series of detention orders, but judges repeatedly cancelled them. [The Hindu]

Context and timing of the arrest are significant, coming in the run-up to a series of meetings of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental organization that monitors global money laundering and terrorist financing. During the FATF’s last review in October, Islamabad was urged to complete the internationally agreed action plan by February 2021 and to demonstrate that terrorism financing probes resulted in effective sanctions [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].

Earlier this year, Pakistan also arrested firebrand cleric and alleged mastermind of the attacks Hafiz Saeed, who heads the Islamist militant organization Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (JuD), a wing of LeT, for terrorism financing. An anti-terrorism court sentenced Saeed to fifteen-and-a-half years in prison on charges of terrorism financing last week – his fourth conviction this year on similar charges [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4]. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]

5 January 2021

India clears Akash missile for export

(lm) To achieve the target of clocking defense exports worth $5 billion by 2024, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on December 30 approved the export of the indigenous Akash surface-to-air-missile systems to friendly foreign countries. To this end the CCS, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved setting up a high-level committee to provide swifter approval for export of such platforms. [Hindustan Times]

Developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Akash is India’s first indigenously designed missile system that can target fighter jets, cruise missiles, drones, and other aerial assets. However, the export version of Akash will be different from the weapon system currently deployed by the Indian armed forces. [Financial Express] [Defense World]

5 January 2021

Sri Lanka signs currency swap agreements with China and India

(lm) To boost its foreign currency reserves and maintain short-term foreign exchange liquidity, Sri Lanka is seeking currency swap facilities with the respective central banks of China and India combined worth $2.5 billion. The negotiations come at a time when Colombo is gearing up to repay a daunting $4.5 billion of its outstanding foreign loans this year. The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that is, desperately needs cash to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually. [South Asia Monitor]

Colombo’s financial vulnerability is providing a fresh opportunity for both Beijing and New Delhi to deepen their influence in the island nation as they engage in a growing contest to gain the upper hand in the strategic Indian Ocean. China, which styles itself as an all-weather friend to Sri Lanka, already provided $500 million ‘urgent financial assistance’ last year, to help cope with the economic knock-on effects of the pandemic [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3]. India, in turn, provided a $400m currency swap facility last year through the Reserve Bank of India, its central bank, helping to boost the island’s reserves [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4].

 

5 January 2021

Indian External Affairs Minister to visit Sri Lanka between January 5 and 7

(lm) Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will pay an official visit to Sri Lanka from January 5-7 at the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena. Scheduled to hold discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Jaishankar is also expected to take up the release of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu, who had been arrested last December on charges of poaching. [Hindustan Times]

The latest in a series of effort’s by New Delhi to further smoothen bilateral relations, Jaishankar’s visit marks the second high-profile trip to Colombo in two months. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval made a three-day visit to Colombo last November, meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss trade, new investments, and security amid plans to bolster bilateral ties between the two countries [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].

5 January 2021

Talks with China yet to make progress to end border stand-off, says India

(lm) While more than 100,000 soldiers of both armies remain deployed in harsh winter conditions, talks between India and China have yet to make headway to end the months-long border stand-off, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said on December 30. Notwithstanding periodic hopes for a resolution [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3], a breakthrough has hitherto eluded several rounds of diplomatic and military talks. Yet, both sides are still exchanging messages over the border situation and another round of military talks was in the offing, according to Singh. [The Straits Times]

Recognizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, observers suggest that India is stalling for time, privily accepting that a diplomatic solution is unlikely. While New Delhi’s heavy military deployment can neither punish Chinese incursions nor force Beijing to relinquish control of its newly acquired territorial gain, it may be able to contain losses and prevent any further Chinese encroachment into Indian territory, at least temporarily. With both armies locked into the prospect of a long watch in the high mountains [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], the Indian Army’s performance and its sustenance through this winter may be the critical factor for New Delhi’s plans to deal with the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. [Foreign Policy]

 

5 January 2021

India joins United Nations Security Council as non-permanent member

(lm) With a pledge to “bring human-centric and inclusive solutions” to world problems, India on January 4 officially joined the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member, beginning a two-year tenure. Speaking at the ceremony, India’s Permanent Representative pledged that India would “not shy away from raising our voice against the common enemies of humanity like terrorism.” [India Today] [The Hindu]

While this is the eighth time that New Delhi has been elected to the UNSC, India hopes that this time its presence in the UN’s highest decision-making body will help move the organization towards the ultimate reform: a permanent seat on the UNSC for India. The bid is currently backed by four of the five permanent members, namely France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. [The Diplomat]

Underscoring the importance of this endeavor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September declared that United Nations reform is “the need of the hour.” Addressing world leaders in a video address to the General Debate of the General Assembly, he also complained that his country had not been adequately rewarded for its participation in in some 50 UN peace-keeping missions.

5 January 2021

India: Army appoints first Human Rights Cell

(lm) To enhance transparency and ensure the availability of investigative expertise, the Indian Army has appointed a Major General rank officer to head its newly created human rights cell. First approved in August last year, the cell will be the nodal point to examine reports on human rights violations by the Indian Army. The Additional Director General Human Rights will assist in investigations and legalities and will also facilitate coordination with other organizations and the Union home ministry, if required. [India Today] [The Tribune]