Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
This year, several global events produced ripple effects across South Asia. The intensification of Russia’s war in Ukraine inflicted damage—notably higher inflation—on a few economies, including Nepal and Pakistan. In March, Saudi-Iranian rapprochement opened more diplomatic space for countries in South Asia to engage with the two rivals.
A plan to build a massive transnational connectivity corridor positioned India to ramp up commercial ties with the Middle East and Europe. And finally, the Israel-Hamas war that began in October generated new diplomatic and security concerns in South Asia, which is deeply invested in Middle Eastern stability.
With these breakthroughs and flash points playing out around the world, it’s easy to overlook the big storylines within South Asia itself in 2023. Four stand out—we’ve rounded them up below.
In August, India staged a soft landing on the moon, becoming just the fourth country to do so—and the first to land on the lunar south pole. The achievement was an India-has-arrived moment, showcasing the scientific and technological prowess of the country’s space agency, which has launched hundreds of satellites since its formation in the 1960s. It also added to a big year for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: In 2023, India held the prestigious post of G-20 president and hosted the Cricket World Cup.
However, the lunar landing had some unsettling implications. It crystallized the power asymmetries between India and other countries in South Asia that can’t dream of landing on the moon. India could also now see its competition with China extend far beyond Earth. That said, the landing will also create opportunities for New Delhi to scale up space cooperation with Washington, especially since it has joined the U.S.-initiated Artemis Accords.
One of the region’s biggest humanitarian crises this year was provoked by Pakistan’s November decision to expel all undocumented immigrants, including 1.7 million Afghans, around 600,000 of whom fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Islamabad cited domestic security reasons for the move, but it likely intended to pressure the Taliban to do more to curb the presence of anti-Pakistan terrorists based in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, already grappling with immense economic and humanitarian challenges and unable to accommodate hundreds of thousands of returnees, condemned the expulsion. Both Pakistan’s move and the Taliban’s response highlighted the severity of tensions between the longtime allies—strains exacerbated by sharp increases in terrorist attacks in Pakistan carried out by Afghanistan-based militants with ties to the Taliban.
This stood in contrast to another regional diplomatic storyline this year: India’s growing relationship with the Taliban, which New Delhi once viewed as a hostile actor. In November, Afghan diplomats loyal to the pre-Taliban government closed the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, citing a lack of Indian support. Days later, Taliban officials took charge of Afghanistan’s diplomatic missions in India.
In November, U.S. authorities unsealed an indictment that described in detail a plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist in New York, allegedly orchestrated by an Indian government employee. The United States foiled the plan, but U.S. officials still had to confront the possibility that a close strategic partner had attempted an act of transnational repression on U.S. soil. The U.S.-India relationship is strong enough to weather the shock, but it shook the trust baked into their partnership.
The allegations against India underscored a regional trend: Democracy suffered in South Asia in 2023. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, officials intensified crackdowns on dissent, including arresting and jailing opposition leaders and supporters. In September, a United Nations report blamed Sri Lanka for an “accountability deficit” that results in human rights violations and abuses of power not being addressed. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban refused to ease bans on girls’ education and increased restrictions on women’s employment.
In May, the U.S. State Department announced a new visa restriction policy for Bangladesh intended to punish those hindering free and fair elections; the country heads to the polls on Jan. 7. By September, it had implemented the policy, targeting unnamed individuals. The restrictions came during a year when U.S. officials repeatedly emphasized the importance of free elections in Bangladesh; the policy also made Bangladesh the only country in South Asia aside from Afghanistan to be targeted with U.S. coercive measures in the last few years.
The visa restrictions sharpened attention on Washington’s inconsistent position on democracy in South Asia. It has crafted its Bangladesh policy around democratic principles while saying little publicly about crackdowns on dissent in Pakistan and democratic backsliding in India in 2023. With Bangladesh’s elections just a few weeks away, the U.S. moves don’t appear to have paid off: The opposition will boycott the elections and has used blockades and violence against a government that has arrested thousands of opposition leaders and supporters since late October.