Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India stands to benefit from the recent BRICS expansion, protests erupt in Pakistan over high electricity costs, and Nepal implements a significant U.S. infrastructure grant.
The main headline from last week’s BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, is that the bloc will expand, adding new members for the first time since South Africa’s admission in 2010. It may be easy to see the enlargement of BRICS—currently made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—as a bad thing for New Delhi. After all, more members could elevate Beijing’s influence in the group.
Some observers are also concerned about BRICS’s future orientation. One of the new members, Iran, is at odds with the West; the group—initially intended to promote the voices of emerging economies—could take on a more clearly anti-Western stance, especially given China’s and Russia’s influence. That would present a challenge for India, which aims to balance relations with the West and the countries beyond it.
However, this analysis overlooks the potential benefits of BRICS expansion for India. First, more members may grant China more influence on the global stage, but it also means more influence for BRICS itself. That is good for India, which has long viewed the bloc as an important entity because it champions the causes of the global south and contributes to multipolarity, two foreign-policy priorities for New Delhi.
Aside from Iran, the other new members—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are not staunchly anti-West. As a result, a larger BRICS can hardly be described as an anti-Western bloc. And half of the new members are top Indian partners: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Finally, most of the additions are in the Middle East, a growing arena for New Delhi’s engagement because of energy and trade interests and broader geopolitical considerations.
The BRICS expansion didn’t go entirely New Delhi’s way. India was reportedly opposed to adding another country that is subject to international sanctions such as Iran, which is not only hostile toward the West but also expanding ties with China. Analysts have rightly noted that most of the new members are also key sources of engagement for Beijing.
But it could have been much worse for India, especially since it also enjoys relations with all of the new members, including Iran. New Delhi will see six friendly countries added to BRICS, most of them in a region key to Indian interests.
India could face new challenges in the future: BRICS could expand further, and the next round of new members may not be as favorable to India. For example, China and Russia could push for Pakistan to join, although its weak economy would make it a poor candidate. But India enjoys strong ties with the global south, largely because of its historic role as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. Most potential new BRICS members would be at least friendly to New Delhi.
Ultimately, discussions about what BRICS expansion means for India may be getting ahead of themselves. That’s because new members could exacerbate one of the bloc’s weaknesses: a struggle to execute, or as FP’s C. Raja Mohan describes it, to turn “soaring rhetoric on global issues into concrete, practical outcomes.” This stems from BRICS’s consensus-based decision-making process. With 11 members instead of five, it will be even more difficult to reach consensus.
For now, this much is true: BRICS expansion could advance Indian interests, giving New Delhi more clout with a set of nations with which it is keen to expand relations.
Pakistan’s electricity protests. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets beginning last Friday, when electricity bills rose significantly across the country. Protesters have obstructed roads, burned their energy bills, and staged sit-ins outside power company offices. Many people have refused to pay their bills until prices come down. An influential religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, ordered a nationwide strike for Saturday.
A caretaker government took over in Islamabad just a few weeks ago, and it raised electricity tariffs because of currency devaluation and rising petroleum prices. Lowering the tariffs could violate Pakistan’s new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which requires austerity measures. Local media reports that the government sees few short-term solutions, aside from delaying payment deadlines or setting up an installment plan.
With soaring summer heat likely to continue for a few more weeks in Pakistan, public anger is unlikely to abate.
Nepal implements MCC grant. On Wednesday, Nepal formally implemented an infrastructure grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which includes road construction and a new electricity transmission line, among other projects. Nepal’s Parliament took several years to ratify the grant, largely because U.S. officials have directly linked the grant to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, raising concerns that it could drag Nepal into great-power competition.
The MCC grant was signed in 2017 and ratified last year, after Washington reportedly threatened to revisit ties with Kathmandu if lawmakers didn’t put an end to their resistance. As the grant’s implementation date grew closer, China intensified its own engagements with Nepal. In July, the two capitals signed an agreement to accelerate efforts to complete existing projects associated with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Afghanistan marks two years since U.S. exit. Wednesday marks two years since U.S. forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and this week brought more of the gloomy news that has become so common in the country since. The Taliban announced new restrictions on women’s movement in the country on Sunday, banning women from visiting a popular national park in Bamiyan province.
A Taliban official said the ban was imposed because women were seen in the park not wearing their hijabs properly.
Imran Khan’s political fate. On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court suspended former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three-year jail sentence for a corruption conviction. Khan has been behind bars since Aug. 5. However, on the same day, another court announced that Khan will be put on trial for a separate case at the prison where he is being held, meaning he will remain in jail.
This isn’t surprising, given that Khan faces multiple charges related to alleged corruption, terrorism, and his handling of classified documents—all of which his supporters say are politically motivated. Pakistan’s military wants to ensure that Khan is not able to participate in Pakistan’s next election. With the time frame for the vote unclear, that means Khan could face months of jail time.
Iwama Kiminori, Japan’s ambassador to Bangladesh, announced last weekend that the country will be just one of four to receive aid under Japan’s new Official Security Assistance project. Bangladesh’s inclusion in the initiative was previewed in a joint statement after a meeting between Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo in April.
The move underscores an oft-overlooked relationship that has quietly grown stronger in recent years. Japan has long been a top development partner for Bangladesh. Tokyo has provided funds for several high-visibility infrastructure projects, including a new port and a new elevated metro rail system in Dhaka that opened in December.
It now appears that their partnership will extend to security. Kiminori said that Bangladesh’s inclusion in the Official Security Assistance project will enable more cooperation between the countries’ security forces and that the pair have already discussed stepping up defense trade in both arms and technology.