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Time to Reset Foreign Relations between South African and South Asian Countries

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Southern African and South Asian countries have realized that one of the most important means of achieving greater economic independence is through regional integration of economies. Fostering economic diplomacy between the eight member nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and  fifteen member nation  Southern African Development Community (SADC)     is  one of  the key   foreign  policy  objectives  both  regional blocs can work together at least in the  next decade .  South Africa and India can thus exercise quite a influential foreign policy focus in linking these two regions from the government’s side the basic questions revolve around the effectiveness of its current strategies. Whatever the nature and scope of Southern African and South Asian economic difficulties and whatever the degree of success may be expected in coping with them, certain factors stand out. The fact that South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC ) has articulated   a common  economic policy objective is a step towards  more effective  regional  and continental  interaction First and foremost, the Southern African   region is a rich mixture of 15 sovereign nations.

South Asia accounts to be one of the largest consumer markets with over 1.5 billion people living in eight nations covering a wide range of  products in the  eight member nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)   regional bloc. Like South Africa is now a model for other African nations, similarly. India has helped South  Asian  nations  to turn  their  attention  in ward to the African and  Asian continent. South Africa’s strategic   position at the Southern end of Africa makes it unique, overlooking the route around cape to the Far East and thus adjacent to one of the world’s busiest trade routes, especially for   oil trade. This  is also the case with  its almost un-parelled mineral wealth  and advanced  industrial commercial  and financial economy  which has tremendous American and European vested interests .  Although    South Africa   is generally   regarded   as an industrialised state its modern sector   remains   limited. South Africa’s position has further strengthened with Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is the formation of 15 member nations. In that context the   Intra-regional trade among the SAARC countries, namely India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives is about 5 percent and is  far below  its potential.

For this reason, the SARRC has taken a more neutral approach in its regional initiatives and the national interests and policies have influenced the external policies of the member states. Therefore, the responsibility of SAARC regional grouping is to facilitate a conducive political environment among member nations to deepen trade ties with key economic partners. Since the member states launched its Agreement on South Asian Free Trade (SAFTA) in 2006 the region has witnessed many dramatic changes in trade and economic cooperation at various levels. The road map for implementation of SAFTA was both politically and economically ill adopted to fully operate within member states   and scholars were beginning to question some fundamental aspects of the regional trade agreement framework.   The fact that the SAARC has articulated common economic policy objectives is a step towards more effective regional continental integration.

Over the past few years India’s foreign policy initiatives have strengthened its focus on   Southern Africa’s geopolitics. The other Fifteen South African countries, particularly South Africa, have been one of the top priorities of India. In the past four years, bilateral trade between India and South Africa   has crossed the  USD 10 billion. This has had a direct impact on the domestic markets of Southern Africa and South Asia.The African countries have been able to use this window of opportunity in their favour due to South Africa’s leading role in the continent. South Africa has had a strong interest in maintaining a more stable balance of power within the continent. The underlying fact of transformation was due to the solid political and economic achievements that the nation underwent. South Africa has maintained good relations with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), South African Development Cooperation (SADC), and Brazil Russia India China and South Africa (BRICS) member states on a number of key issues. The integration agenda of SADC has also been strengthened through the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan which is a comprehensive 15-year strategic roadmap. This plan not only boosts regional economic integration but also leads to the addressing of the socio-economic issues in this region. South Africa, as chair, provides policy direction and suitable programmes to the other member states of SADC with the aim of boosting regional trade, creating jobs and enhancing skills among the member states.

South Asia offers unique travel   products that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. When travelling to India, Sri Lanka or the Maldives it is important    to find trusted high quality travel agents that provide personalized services to the clients visiting these countries among the newly emerging markets. Since India’s economy is growing swiftly, with around 300 million middle class, the tourism sector of South Africa is seeing improved prospects with an increasing number of Indian tourists. India still continues to be as one of the  top tourist spot for South Africans with about 60,000 South Africans visiting India in 2017. South Africa is popular among Indian travelers. South Africa has enjoyed double-digit growth from the Indian market for the last five years with the numbers increasing substantially each year. Port and shipping are other areas, which benefit both nations mutually. Durban, Colombo and Mumbai have some of the busiest handling ports in Asia. Hence, a surge in the Indian and South African economy will lead to an increase in the volume of cargo cash transactions and services related to it between these regions thereby creating more jobs for the locals and expatriates of these countries.

In the sphere of transportation, vehicles imported from India are comparatively more affordable for African middle class consumers than importing them from elsewhere. Ashok Leyland, Tata and Mahindra vehicles are widely used in Sri Lanka, especially in rural areas. Setting up vehicle assembly plants in Africa or joint venture enterprises could further reduce the cost of the vehicles. Over the past few years, Indian and Sri Lankan companies have established various business ventures together to promote prosperity and to create sustainability. Indians have set up factories in Southern Africa, providing jobs in both countries. Change by nature comes from the past as well as moving towards the future.   Never the less many countries of South Africa know that they must begin to make sacrifices now for their long run survival.  Different    analysts    have interpreted    the two regions development in different ways.  Numerous countries in South Asia and in Southern Africa have grappled with economic dilemmas of how best to deal with debts left behind by previous governments. One of the most visible and most powerful trends in Southern Africa and South Asia today is the thriving Small and Medium Businesses.

As these two regions    look to the future of these member nations .It is clear that everything depends on how thoroughly the Southern African and the South Asian nations learn from the mistakes. This is a daunting task but the SADC and  SAARC  nations  must find satisfactory solutions. They must establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the two sovereign partners or continents.  This will go a long way in opening up the doors of a bright new future for South African and South Asian nations. The crucial question is how to secure such integration.  SAARC and SADC   nations have a powerful  influence on the way forward.  India    and South Africa might   take on   the future   architecture   of SAARC and SADC   in the wake of an free trade agreements (FTAs) . India or South Africa   is thus    an unlikely   saviour   of   regional   Free   trade. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) is a crucial   entry point for   Southern African   nations into economically   dynamic    area of the world    that has   been integrating   among them. .There is this further question of India’s   influence in SAARC itself?  SAARC and the South African Development Cooperation (SADC), nations have a powerful influence on the way forward. It is clear from these discussions that there is consensus among   the main players here on the need to pin down trade and cooperation. Being among the closest   prosperous economies, it is time for South Asian and South African policy makers to think beyond and make trade transactions smoother and more business friendly for both these regions.

Research scholar at Jindal School of International Affairs, India and an editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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