Asia in Review Archive 2021 (January-June)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

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]