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Assembly, South Asia focuses on the climate crisis

Modi Will Miss The Annual Summit, But Other Leaders Are Expected To Address The Region’s Vulnerability.

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Welcome to  South Asia Brief. The highlights this week: South Asian leaders arrive in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly session, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets his Russian counterpart at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, and Sri Lanka’s GDP takes its biggest hit in two years.

Preview: South Asia at UNGA

The annual United Nations General Assembly session began on Tuesday in New York, with the major headline events taking place next week. This year, the focus is on “transformative solutions to interlocking crises.” This theme resonates with South Asian countries because of their acute vulnerability to climate change, but it could also prove awkward given the region’s subdued reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The U.N. General Assembly is always important for Pakistan because it offers a prominent platform to make pitches for key causes. For decades, Islamabad has used the summit to bring attention to the issue of Kashmir. More recently, then-Prime Minister Imran Khan highlighted the need to counter Islamophobia.

Pakistan’s recent catastrophic flooding and the global response to it will take center stage at the U.N. General Assembly. Capitalizing on this year’s theme and the urgency of the crisis, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will likely make a strong appeal for relief in his address, which is scheduled for Sept. 23. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who visited Pakistan last week, has already made amplified appeals for support.

The U.N. General Assembly meetings are also very important to India, which has long sought a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. New Delhi will use its address as it typically does: to try to make the case that it deserves a place at the top of the U.N. hierarchy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not expected to attend this year’s event. (He will also miss British Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London.)

  1. Jaishankar, the Indian external affairs minister, will speak on Sept. 24. His address will likely focus on India’s latest economic success (in the last quarter of 2021, it surpassed the United Kingdom to become the world’s fifth-largest economy); on its continuing achievements in technology; and on its contributions to tackling global challenges such as its role as a top COVID-19 vaccine exporter and its recent emissions reductions pledges.

Heads of government or state from several other South Asian countries are expected in New York as well. The top leaders from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are all on the speakers’ agenda. Along with Sharif, these leaders are likely to highlight their countries’ own climate vulnerability, and the region will likely serve as a focus for climate-related deliberations at the summit.

However, South Asia will be on the outside looking in when it comes to discussions on Russia’s war in Ukraine. No South Asian country has joined the United States in its effort to build a common front against Russian aggression. Moscow has no enemies in South Asia. In fact, it has a friend in New Delhi. At the U.N., regional leaders will be guarded in their comments about the war while emphasizing humanitarian aid. Jaishankar will make a pitch for de-escalation, a position India has often taken since the conflict began.

Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis will also likely be a top discussion point—but last year, no one from Afghanistan spoke at the U.N. General Assembly meetings. The U.N. has not recognized the Taliban regime, which has lobbied for a U.N. representative without success. The regime’s continued suppression of girls’ education won’t help its cause. There are also logistical challenges: A U.N. travel ban is in effect, and a waiver that had allowed limited travel for Taliban leaders expired last month.

Here lies a sad irony: The U.N. General Assembly hopes to provide a platform for discussing the world’s biggest challenges. But when it comes to Afghanistan—bedeviled by food insecurity, the climate crisis, poverty, and terrorism—there will be no one from the country to plead its case.

Following

Modi meets Putin. India and Pakistan’s leaders will both attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan this week. On Friday, Modi holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, treading carefully to avoid stepping on the toes of the United States and its allies. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, India has maintained a muted stance—in some cases being courted by all sides. New Delhi has close and historic ties with Moscow, still a key supplier of oil and weapons.

Although a one-on-one meeting between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been confirmed, the SCO summit marks the first time that the two leaders will come face to face since the deadly violence that erupted on their border in 2020. Last week, the countries had a breakthrough in ongoing talks: Chinese and Indian forces have mutually disengaged from the Gogra-Hot Springs region in disputed Ladakh.

Pakistan’s flood crisis deepens. Two weeks since the latest round of extreme rain and floods in Pakistan, the scale of the impact is still becoming clear. Since June, the floods have displaced more than 33 million people, destroyed crops, and disrupted livelihoods. People are sheltering in schools, public buildings, and tents. Meanwhile, a health crisis looms: Cases of dengue fever, malaria, and other diseases are rising.

Pakistani officials have said that it could take three to six months for the floodwaters to fully recede; the monsoon rains are expected to pick up again this month. Pakistan has scrambled to deliver aid to hard-hit areas under economic constraint, reopening a major highway to clear the way on Thursday. By some estimates, the total cost of the flood damage could be $30 billion.

Even as it addresses the current crisis, Pakistan “must prepare for its next cataclysm,” Fatima Bhojani writes in FP. To do so, it needs the international community to step up, she argues.

Sri Lanka’s GDP plunge. Data released Wednesday shows that Sri Lanka’s GDP fell by 8.4 percent in the second quarter compared to a year earlier as the country defaulted on its debt and saw mass protests that led to the then-president fleeing abroad. Under new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, talks with the International Monetary Fund over a $2.9 billion loan have progressed, though the process will require austerity measures.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s situation—political and economic—remains fragile. In FP, Devana Senanayake writes that the anti-government protests have revitalized the country’s leftist parties—but whether they can convert that to success at the polls is still unclear.

Under the Radar

India’s and Nepal’s foreign ministers met on Tuesday to discuss trade, energy cooperation, and their borders. But public statements from neither side mentioned a point of disagreement: India’s Agnipath military recruitment plan, which was controversial within India but also affects Nepali recruits, the Kathmandu Post reports.

India and Nepal have deep defense ties, with Nepali nationals serving in the Indian Army or receiving military training in India. The Agnipath plan technically aims to create jobs for military recruits, but mostly for short-term commissions—limiting their job security within the armed forces. When it was announced earlier this year, the plan prompted mass protests in India.

It seems Nepal is also concerned by the short commissions: It still hasn’t given its official approval for the proposal, and recruitment of Nepali nationals is halted in the meantime.

In June, FP’s Sumit Ganguly wrote that the Agnipath plan could backfire for India, leading to poor military unit cohesion and underequipped soldiers.

That’s it for this week.