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South Asia: a region in flux

10.11.2021 - Article

More than 20% of the world’s population lives in South Asia. Although the region is seeing breathtaking development, it remains plagued by poverty and drawn-out conflicts. The region is of great importance to Germany, as trade with some South Asian countries is booming.

Regional cooperation

The skyline of Mumbai, India
The skyline of Mumbai, India© picture alliance / ZUMA Press

In 1985, the countries of South Asia decided to establish the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Afghanistan joined the group in 2007. The chief aim is close economic cooperation. So far, however, countries in this region conduct only five percent of their trade with other South Asian countries. Tense relations between India and Pakistan and demographic and economic disparities are hampering progress on joint SAARC projects (www.saarc-sec.org), for example expanding transport networks and energy links, as well as promoting trade and investment.

In addition to the SAARC, efforts to advance regional integration include the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which links a number of countries in South and South East Asia around the Bay of Bengal – although it does not include Pakistan.

Germany’s engagement in the Region

Germany has close partnerships with the countries of South Asia. Mutual visits are conducted by members of government and parliament, by means of which close contact is maintained with decision-makers in the region. Germany is an important development partner for South Asian countries and funds a wide range of projects. These include the development of renewable energies as well as promoting urban development, vocational training and democratic progress.

Since the Taliban seized de facto control of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the framework conditions for the German Government’s engagement there have been fundamentally reset. Prior to the withdrawal of international troops, Germany was the second-largest troop contributor to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. German and international partners’ efforts are currently focussed on the promotion of human rights – especially those of women and girls – as well as on promoting freedom of opinion in Afghanistan, on giving German nationals, local employees and people in need of protection who have received German Government approval for admission to Germany the opportunity to leave the country, and on the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. Germany will therefore continue its engagement, and it will remain one of the largest bilateral donors of humanitarian assistance to the country.

A bicycle covered with rugs stands in a market
A bicycle covered with rugs stands in a market© picture alliance / dpa-Zentralbild

Germany is an important economic partner for Bangladesh. In particular, Germany is the country’s largest export market, especially for textiles. An important policy focus here is raising minimum social and environmental standards. Bangladesh is a development cooperation partner of Germany, with the main projects being in the areas of renewables, promoting good governance and adaptation to climate change.

Although the Kingdom of Bhutan has friendly relations with Germany, diplomatic ties have not been established between the two countries. Nevertheless, private German associations provide active support in the education and health care sector, and help to preserve Bhutan’s cultural heritage. This assistance is supported in part by the German Embassy in New Delhi and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

India is by far Germany’s largest partner in South Asia. It accounts for approx. three quarters of the population and economic output of the entire region. Germany and India have a strategic partnership, and they conduct intergovernmental consultations every two years. The last round of comprehensive consultations, which cover the entire range of Indo-German relations, was held in Berlin on 30 May 2017. The consultations were co-chaired by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a number of cabinet members on both sides participated. The EU, too, maintains close ties with India and aims to conclude a free trade and investment agreement with the South Asian country.

Many Germans know the Maldives as a tourist destination. More than 100,000 Germans visit the chain of islands every year. The Maldives opened an embassy in Berlin in 2016. Germany and the Maldives share interests primarily in the area of climate policy. The Federal Government is closely following critical domestic political developments in the country.

A girl washing her hair on the roadside in Kathmandu, Nepal
A girl washing her hair on the roadside in Kathmandu, Nepal© picture alliance / Chad Ehlers

Germany supports Nepal’s efforts to recover from many years of civil war and to fight and overcome poverty in the country. Germany is assisting reconstruction efforts following the severe 2015 earthquake, as well as supporting the process of drawing up a national constitution.

Germany has a strong interest in the democratic and stable development of Pakistan – the world’s sixth-largest country, with a population of approximately 221 million – and wants to see it play a constructive role in the region. Bilateral cooperation focuses on good governance, energy (in particular renewable energy and energy efficiency) and sustainable economic development (especially vocational training). With 2.25 billion US dollars in bilateral trade in 2020, Germany is one of Pakistan’s most important trade partners in the EU. Germany also supports humanitarian aid projects.

Germany supports Sri Lanka as the country works to reconcile its ethnic groups following a long civil war. Germany also provides advice on constitution-related issues and promotes vocational training for young Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups. Since 2015, political relations, too, have seen rapid development. There have been a number of meetings between the countries’ heads of government, foreign and economic ministers, and members of parliament.

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