What to Watch in South Asia in 2018

Two thousand eighteen will be a significant year for domestic politics and regional security in South Asia. Three issues are worth highlighting in particular: Elections, India-China rivalry, and conflict risks.

Preparing for Polls

Pakistan has national elections in 2018. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India will be preparing for national polls in 2019.

Pakistan’s government, run by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and swept into power with a large mandate in 2013, is highly vulnerable. The PML-N is hobbled by corruption charges that forced several key ministers, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to step down in recent months.

Despite its vulnerabilities, the PML-N is a strong favorite to win reelection. One main opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party, hasn’t recovered from its abysmal performance in the previous national election in 2013. The other, the newer Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), hasn’t yet matured into a national-level force. The bitterness harbored by PTI toward PML-N—the former still accuses the latter of electoral fraud in 2013—and the PML-N’s clashes with the military suggest that a PML-N triumph could inject a new level of tension into Pakistan’s volatile politics.

Afghanistan is scheduled to hold local elections in 2018. Whether they happen or not—deepening insecurity suggests they won’t—will go a long way toward determining if the more consequential presidential election in 2019 can take place. Canceled or delayed polls could stoke public anger in Afghanistan, given the unpopularity of the current national unity government—a power-sharing arrangement negotiated by Washington in 2014 after that year’s election became deadlocked by fraud allegations.

In Bangladesh, all eyes will be on the ruling Awami League (AL) party, which has cracked down aggressively against the political opposition ever since the 2014 national election, which many observers characterized as not credible. This draconian treatment raises concerns about whether the AL will allow opposition parties to campaign freely in 2018, and more broadly about the credibility of the 2019 election.

In India, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggests his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a shoo-in for reelection in 2019. However, if his party falters in any of the eight state elections scheduled for 2018, it will become more vulnerable. It’s already been on the defensive in recent months over controversial policies (such as a hastily implemented demonetization plan) and many cases of violence against religious minorities and other discriminatory acts that the BJP—a conservative, Hindu nationalist party—has failed to curb or even condemn.

Rising Power Rivalry

China’s deepening footprint in South Asia has sharpened tensions with regional rival India, and such tensions will endure in 2018. Beijing will continue to build out the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—a $62-billion transport corridor that New Delhi formally opposes because it is envisioned to go through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which is claimed by India. New Delhi, meanwhile, will push forward with its own (more modest) transport corridor project, inaugurated in 2017, which is envisioned to run between southern Iran and Afghanistan. Additionally, a brief border standoff between China and India in 2017—on the Doklam plateau, which Beijing claims as its own territory but New Delhi regards as Bhutanese—could flare up once again. Reports emerged in December that China is planning to permanently deploy troops on the contested territory.

More broadly, Beijing will continue scaling up ties with countries in the wider region as it pursues its Belt and Road initiative, a mammoth infrastructure project meant to facilitate better access to markets around the world. Of particular concern to New Delhi is Beijing’s efforts to enhance its influence in smaller South Asian nations—such as Bhutan and Nepal—where India has traditionally wielded great influence. Beijing is also likely to push back against New Delhi’s rising global stature by continuing to undercut the latter’s interests in overseas forums. Expect, for example, China to use its veto power to foil Indian attempts to join the prestigious Nuclear Suppliers Group and to get Masood Azhar, the head of the anti-India Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, designated as a terrorist by the UN.

Conflict Risks

Fortunately, prospects for China-India hostilities—beyond a fresh standoff on the Doklam plateau—are remote. Neither side has an interest in conflict, given strong levels of bilateral economic cooperation and bigger security concerns elsewhere—the North Korea nuclear threat and South China Sea tensions in China’s case, and Pakistan-based terrorism threats in India’s.

Relations between India and Pakistan are more precarious. In 2018, disagreements about terrorism (India insists Pakistan doesn’t crack down on anti-India terrorists on its soil) and territory (Pakistan rails against heavy-handed Indian security policies in India-administered Kashmir, which Islamabad claims as its own) will remain in place. Escalation is possible if India is hit by terrorist attacks, traces them back to Pakistan, and retaliates with limited airstrikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan-administered Kashmir—a scenario that played out in 2016. However, the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides—and Pakistan’s refusal to declare a no-first-use policy—ensures that any hostilities would be relatively modest so as to fall short of nuclear red lines.  

Pakistan’s election could present opportunities for rapprochement, if India believes the new government is a viable negotiating partner. New Delhi views the current Pakistani government as weak and constrained by a military that harbors little interest in improved ties with India.  

Conflict is sadly inevitable in Afghanistan. The coming year will serve as a litmus test for the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy. This policy entails dispatching more American soldiers to bolster the training mission for Afghan security forces and giving U.S. troops more freedom to fight the Taliban. The objective is to put the Taliban on the defensive and compel it to launch a reconciliation process with Kabul.

If these stepped-up military efforts deliver body blows to the Taliban, the conflict could experience a turning point. If they fail to slow Taliban momentum, it is Washington’s Afghanistan strategy that will suffer the big blow.

Either way, this much is true: In 2018, America’s longest-ever war will continue to grind on.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.