Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives discuss South Asia’s Responses to Ukraine Crisis

Unlike their bigger neighbors, these three small nation-states took a different stance

The differing geo-political, military, and economic realities of the South Asia countries seem to have determined their response to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

This was highlighted during the webinar titled ‘Ukraine Crisis: Assessing South Asia’s Responses’ held on May 31 among panelists from Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives—the three countries that decried the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The webinar was organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). The FNF aims to promote the goal of making the principle of freedom valid for the dignity of all people and in all areas of society globally.

At the emergency session called by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on March 2, Afghanistan took a neutral stand but voted in favor of the UNGA resolution calling for respecting Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

Similarly, Bhutan and Nepal criticized Russia and voted in favor of the resolution, while the Maldives took a neutral position and then became critical and voted in favor of the UNGA resolution. However, other countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan abstained from the UNGA voting.

The division, in terms of state’s individual interests in South Asia, has also been highlighted during the webinar as one major reason why it doesn’t look possible for South Asia to have a common stand on big international issues outside its region.

South Asia, as fractured as it is, despite being one of the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world, the panelist from Bhutan, Gopilal Acharya, an independent consultant and a freelance journalist, said the South Asian countries will continue to remain divided in the way they look at geopolitics outside their region.

He said he doesn’t see the possibility of the South Asian countries, even during the existence of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), making a common stand on big international issues.

“SAARC has never been a courageous body right from its start in 1986. It has been a weak link of eight South Asian countries, with a lot of inaction and a lot of infighting,” Acharya said, adding that there are perhaps chances if there is a new political will from bigger South Asian countries to strengthen and revisit SAARC.

In terms of Bhutan’s response to the Ukraine War, Acharya said the Russian aggression did not come as a surprise.

“What surprised us is the way it happened and that superpowers like Russia could take advantage of its smaller neighbor. Ukraine is also a fledgling democracy. As a sovereign nation state, an aggression by another big neighbor was totally unacceptable to the international community, including Bhutan,” he said, adding that Bhutan’s standpoint was very clear, that rules-based international order must prevail.

Talking about Nepal’s position, which was similar to Bhutan, Strategic Analyst and former Major General of the Nepal Army, Binoj Basnyat said Nepal’s decision during the UNGA voting was apparently based on national interest, particularly the developments taking place in Nepal and the border issues, and the geographical settings, and apprehension of power disputation between China and India.

“The aggression on Ukraine was quite a serious thing. In the last one year, anything of national interest/ issues has united feelings in the parliament,” he said.

The panelist from the Maldives, Dr Abdul Hannan Waheed, an established current affairs analyst, said the official statement of the Maldives was that it will not support this kind of aggression or violation of sovereign state, though it is a small country.

According to him, the reason for taking this stand is that the political elites in Maldives, the government, understood very well that even to be neutral in this case is regarded as rendering support to the invasion.

And with all the three big South Asian countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, opting to abstain at the UNGA resolution, and other smaller countries taking more principled positions to object and vote against the invasion, the webinar also saw an interesting question of interest versus principle argument. Does it mean that the larger your country is and the more interest you have, the more willing you are to sacrifice principles?

Former Major General Binoj Basnyat, while admitting that the bigger nations with stable economies have taken one side and the smaller states have taken the other side in opposing the Russian aggression, said the bigger nations in South Asia went for interest and the reason is both interest and principles for smaller nations like Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives.

Dr Waheed from Maldives said the three bigger countries in South Asia actually supported this war by Russia.

“They did not object to this invasion,” he said, adding that ironically, the competitor of India, Pakistan, had taken the same sort of stand by not objecting to the Russian invasion.

While big nations of South Asia rather strangely and tacitly supported Russia, Acharya said what possibly brought these smallest states to this common stand is because of their vulnerabilities.

“We realize that we cannot take our sovereignty for granted. We need to be very cautious while conducting our foreign policy, and how we position ourselves not just in South Asia, but with other bigger nation states outside of the region,” he said.

Deliberating on the economic impact of the crisis, the former Major General said the pace of development and economic recovery has been hit.

“Inflation has risen by two-third now and the UNDP’s report for South Asia’s economy, which stated economic growth was expected to be moderate, will dip from the second half of 2022 and 2023,” he said.

Dr Waheed said the Maldives has strong relations with both Russia and Ukraine as their major economic activity is tourism. The number one tourist arrivals to the Maldives has been from Russia with 15.5% as of February 24.

“Towards the end of this year, I think this percentage will decrease because naturally Russian tourist arrival will decrease. Similarly, the percentage of Ukrainians’ arrival is 2.3%. There were 8,000 Russians and 750 Ukrainians at the time of invasion in the Maldives. This is the indication of the relationships we have with the two countries,” he added.

For Bhutan, as a very small country with hardly any military capability and located between the two rising giants, Acharya said, “What we see happening in Ukraine is a big lesson to us about our vulnerabilities as small nation-state, especially if you are in the immediate neighborhood of the rising super powers of Asia—India and China.”

Namkhai Norbu from Thimphu