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‘Hope There’s No Quid Pro Quo’: Is US Expecting Something in Return for COVID Aid to India?

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Until last week, the US was against divesting itself of any of its much-needed store of vaccine components – as well as stock-piled jabs – in favour of India, which is reeling under a devastating second COVID-19 wave.

Several appeals by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and the Indian leadership, including External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to lift the US export restrictions on the ingredients needed to make the vaccine fell on deaf ears. 


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REUTERS / POOL

A U.S. Air Force aircraft is seen on the tarmac after landing with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) relief supplies from the United States at the Indira Gandhi International Airport cargo terminal in New Delhi, India

However, in an overnight turnaround, US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, told his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on 25 April that America would help India with deliveries of raw materials.

Although President Joe Biden said earlier this month that the US was stock-piling vaccines to inoculate its citizens first, Washington said on Thursday that it would also export the jab to India.

Although America’s initial refusal to help its “Quad” ally India triggered massive anti-US sentiment, the Biden administration’s volte-face on the matter has prompted suspicion about his motives.

“I hope there is no quid pro quo in sending help to India,” Sudheendra Kulkarni, an adviser to late Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, confided to Sputnik.

Kulkarni, who is now a commentator on Indian domestic politics and foreign policy, has joined the chorus of displeasure in the South Asian country over the Biden administration’s “initial hesitancy” to help India, despite several industry and government appeals earlier this month. 

“It was only after a huge outcry in India that Washington decided to make amends. Friends should not behave like this,” Kulkarni said.

Is the US Looking to Base its Troops in India After Withdrawing from Afghanistan?

Former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar says the Biden administration’s overnight turnaround to help India should be taken with a pinch of salt, recalling the US’ “diplomatic history of transactional relationships”.

“The big question is whether the US is relenting on the vaccine front with a view to cutting a deal with India on Afghanistan,” Bhadrakumar, India’s former envoy to Turkey and Uzbekistan, wrote in a column published in the Asia Times this week.

“The thought of it, of course, is very frightening. But if past experience is any guide, Washington has shown itself savvy at exploiting India’s difficulties,” he adds.

Washington’s change of tack came soon after President Biden announced that US troops would leave Afghanistan by 11 September, as he extended the Trump administration’s previous deadline of 1 May.

The US, however, is already planning its counter-insurgency strategy once is troops leave the war-ravaged nation. Commander of the US Central Command General Kenneth F McKenzie Jr told the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee this week that US diplomats will talk to their allies in the region in the coming days about potential basing facilities for American troops after 11 September.

Ambassador Anil Trigunayat, a former Indian diplomat and a distinguished fellow at New Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), doesn’t rule out the chances of a US naval or military base in India in the future. He noted that both countries had already sealed all the foundational agreements to ease interoperability.


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AFP 2021 / MANPREET ROMANA

In this file photo US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009.

“As such, the interoperability with the signing  of all foundational agreements between the US and India have given the requisite depth which may obviate the need for a military or naval base,” he told Sputnik.

“The US is pretty heavily present in the Gulf and can mobilise its resources in conjunction with its Quad partners should a need arise,” he added. 

He also points out that the US has been “urging” India to take a keener interest in Afghanistan, including having Indian boots on the ground.

“But in my view there is really no appetite in India under the bilateral matrix,” reckons Trigunayat, saying India isn’t ready for a “full-fledged” alliance with any power.

Is Biden Using Vaccine Aid to India to Exploit India-China Differences?

Several commentators have also suggested that America’s aid policy reversal could also be because of fears that New Delhi had started to consider offers of help from Beijing – if accepted, such aid would dent Washington’s ongoing efforts to counter China.

The offer of assistance from China comes as the two Asian powerhouses are settling the Ladakh border dispute, which has been going on since May last year. After almost a dozen rounds of military commander-level talks, Beijing and New Delhi finally began to disengage troops from the friction points in Ladakh in February this year.


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REUTERS / Indian Army

A handout photo released by Indian Army on February 16, 2021 shows the disengagement process between Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army from a contested area in the western Himalayas, in Ladakh region.

The thawing of ties between India and China coincides with the Biden administration increasing pressure on Beijing, which Washington describes as its foremost rival.

President Biden, much like his predecessor Donald Trump, has already made his strong views against China known to the world.

“We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century. We’re at a great inflection point in history,” Biden remarked in his debut address to a Joint Session of US Congress on 28 April, also pledging that the US would become an “arsenal of vaccines”.

“I told President Xi Jinping that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe, not to start conflict, but to prevent conflict,” Biden said in his address. 

The American publication Foreign Policy suggested a day after Biden’s address that America’s COVID-19 aid to India could be used by Washington to force Delhi to accept its “counter-China strategy”.

India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told Sputnik last week that India might be “encouraged” to seek aid from China should the US continue to restrict raw materials, pointing towards Beijing’s official offer to help India with its COVID-19  response.



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Texas Deputy AG Apologizes for Slamming Simone Biles as ‘National Embarrassment’

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US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.

Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.” 

“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”

“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General. 

Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics. 

“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet. 

The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday. 

Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone. 

Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”



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Aid cuts make a mockery of UK pledges on girls’ education | Zoe Williams

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With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.

The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.

There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.

The issue has never been more important than during this pandemic, which in many countries is hitting a peak having already affected girls disproportionately.

These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.

Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.

The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”

This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.

Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.

Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.

“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”

Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.

There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.

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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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