South Asian countries’ position on the Russia-Ukraine war guided by their own national interests, experts say

Experts said the national interests of big South Asian economies guided them to abstain from the United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

NL Today

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Kathmandu: As criticisms are being made in some quarters that major South Asian countries are divided over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, experts have argued that the stance taken by these countries is guided by their own national interests. 

In a virtual discussion organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) South Asia on Monday, experts from South Asia said the national interests of big South Asian economies guided them to abstain from the United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

According to Binoj Basnyat, a retired Major General of the Nepal Army and a geopolitical and security analyst,  the decision of Nepal to stand in favor of the UN resolution against Russia is based on the precedent of the earlier border issues with its neighboring countries. The stance on the issue, according to Basnyat, is also guided by the annexation of Tibet and Sikkim by China and India, respectively. “When Nepal upheld and defended the UN Charter and the rights and independence of other small states, it supported countries alike in the region.”

In the UN Human Rights Council resolution, Nepal, the Maldives, and Bhutan voted in favor of the resolution, while bigger economies like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had abstained.

According to Dr Abdul Hannan Waheed, an editor and writer for the Maldives Business Standard, India and Pakistan abstained from the resolution as they have military ties with Russia. “For India, it is difficult to get out of ties. So is the case for Pakistan. The then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Russia the same day it invaded Ukraine,” said Dr Waheed.

Likewise, Gopilal Acharya, a freelance journalist from Bhutan said stances on issues like the Russian invasion of Ukraine are guided by nations’ own national interests. “India has military ties with Russia. Likewise, Pakistan is a pro-Chinese country, and Russia and Bangladesh have signed a nuclear agreement. Similarly, Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on Russian tourists,” said Acharya.

“Bhutan is a small nation and hardly has any military capacity. The war in Ukraine is a big lesson about the vulnerability of small nations. Bhutan hardly has any economic relations with Russia and Ukraine, except for a small segment of tourism. Our major relation is with India, and voting against Russia would impact our relations with them. But we voted against Russia,” said Acharya, adding, “as long as India takes care of certain issues tactfully, Bhutan should not worry about the direct impact of what is happening in Ukraine.”

When asked if the political parties stood united to make a common stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, experts had different answers.

According to Major General Basnyat, Nepal has always stood united when it comes to national interest issues. Basnyat gave an example of how Nepal’s political parties united when India issued a new political map putting the Kalapani region in its territory. “Nepal being between two giants–China and India, it is sensitive about border issues,” said Basnyat.

“Bigger powers like India have their own priorities with bigger nations.  Though India professes to follow its ‘Neighborhood First Policy’, it has not been followed,” he added. 

After  India incorporated the Kalapani area into its new political map in November 2019, and after diplomatic efforts from the Nepali side to rectify the move failed, Nepal had also issued a new political map putting the Kalapani region in its territory in May 2020 which was subsequently endorsed by parliament with unanimous votes in June that year.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Acharya, is unacceptable to 

to the international community including Bhutan. “At the emergency session of the UN general assembly, Bhutan made clear that it stands against Russia. However, no political parties in Bhutan took a party-based decision on the issue. But what Bhutan’s representative in the emergency meeting said was a common voice of Bhutan. So standing against Russia was the common stance irrespective of what political parties thought about it,” said Acharya.

According to Dr Hannan, two major political parties have differing views about the issue in the Maldives. “The ruling party in the Maldives is in favor of democracy. Although the main opposition supports China, they did not take a stance in favor of Russia as the Maldives doesn’t support any kind of aggression on a sovereign state,” said Dr Hannan, adding that the Maldives took a strong stance against Russia as staying neutral would be tantamount to supporting the invasion. 

Just like how two political parties have different stances, the Maldivian people also have mixed sentiments over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “The arrival of tourists from Russia and Ukraine to the Maldives is huge. This year until February 23, Russia was the largest source of tourists for the Maldives. Of the total tourists’ arrival, 15 percent was from Russia, and 2.3 percent was from Ukraine. Those who are involved in the tourism business are making opinions based on these contributions,” he said, further adding that people are also making opinions based on programs aired by Russia Today TV. “Someone who watches this TV channel every day gets influenced by lies of the Russian state-owned media. Most people are critical of the West in general and seem to stand against the West. Unfortunately, this theory is based on lies.”

During the discussion, experts also dwelled on if there can be a common consensus among South Asian countries when it comes to big issues outside the region.

 “I don’t see South Asian countries having a common stance on this issue, as countries have their own interests,” said Acharya. “The countries in South Asia will continue to remain divided on such issues.”