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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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Apollo Go: The Beijing neighborhood with robotaxis and driverless delivery service | International

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Book a robotaxi on a mobile app and it will pick you up in less than 10 minutes. It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in Beijing and our ride is going smoothly with no human intervention so far. “Sometimes we have to speed up manually to avoid causing traffic jams. Bicycles and motorcycles often cause traffic congestion because they ignore traffic signals,” says the driver supervising our trip, as the steering wheel magically moves by itself.

The 37-square-mile (60 square kilometers) Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD) is where the country’s first pilot project to use autonomous vehicles on public roads is happening. Located in a secluded district in the southeastern part of the city, BJHAD is the test site for a futuristic plan that envisions turning Beijing into the standard-bearer for artificial intelligence (AI). The Apollo robotaxis manufactured by Baidu and the autonomous delivery vehicles manufactured by JD.com (aka Jingdong) zip around a tranquil utopia that stands in stark contrast to the hectic jungle of downtown traffic.

“[A robotaxi] can handle an average of 15 daily bookings, most of which are trips between a subway stop and an office,” said the cab driver. In November 2021, Baidu and Pony.ai became the first companies authorized to operate a fleet of 100 robotaxis in BJHAD. As of April 2022, humans are no longer required to sit in the driver’s seat of the robotaxi, which is allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour (60 kph). The service is free for now, although the two companies are commercially licensed.

Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is diversifying its business by commercializing its AI and intelligent transportation technology. Its Apollo Go program is currently operating in seven cities, and the company plans to expand to 65 cities by 2025, and 100 cities by 2030. Unlike the Waymo robotaxis that Google began operating in 2020 in the US, Baidu’s vehicles circulate during the day, enabling them to collect more data.

Although Baidu has topped the list of Chinese companies with the most patents for AI applications over the last four years, e-commerce giant JD.com is the leader in the autonomous delivery vehicle space. In 2016, Jingdong established its headquarters in BJHAD, and its delivery robots now dominate the streets. These vehicles mainly transport orders from the 7FRESH smart supermarket chain operated by JD that combines e-commerce and traditional commerce. “Instead of people going out to buy products, we deliver them,” said Yang Han. Who works in Jingdong’s communications department.

JD’s applies big data analytical methods to the information collected from more than 400 million annual users, and utilizes it to tailor inventories to the specific needs of each 7FRESH physical stores location. The entire 7FRESH inventory is available in the app. The delivery robots, which travel at nine miles per hour (15 kph) and can carry 220-440 pounds (100-200 kilos), deliver orders in less than an hour within a three-mile (five kilometer) range.

JD employees rely on smaller robots to send documents and other items between offices in 10 minutes or less. “They speed up the work and saves us from having to run around from one place to another,” said Yang Han. The robots are able to operate elevators and open doors by themselves as they follow their delivery routes.

The robots can recognize their surroundings and avoid obstacles with a 98% accuracy rate for small objects. Information streams in through cameras and other sensors, while the navigation algorithm pinpoints their location and plans routes. JD’s cloud-based simulation platform accumulates data from every trip to continuously improve the robots’ capabilities.

The Covid pandemic spurred JD to accelerate its autonomous delivery program, enabling it to deploy small and large delivery vehicles to the Chinese cities most affected by the pandemic over the last two and a half years. In early 2020, during the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, these delivery vehicles traveled a total of 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) and delivered more than 13,000 packages.

In a country where low unemployment is one of the main pillars of its social stability goals, the move to autonomous vehicles may prove to be risky in the long run. However, Yang Han insists that the objective is to “achieve a synergy between humans and machines… The goal is to take the pressure off delivery drivers and allow them to focus on customer service and vehicle maintenance. The couriers don’t need to transport the goods. Instead, they wait by the curb for the robots to arrive, and then walk the goods to the customer’s door. “

BJHAD is part of the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, the first place in China specifically geared to AI research. The country aspires to become the world leader in AI by 2030 and to leave the “factory for the world” image behind for good.

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Afghan embassy staff remain in hiding despite being eligible for UK relocation | Global development

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More than 170 people who worked for the British embassy in Kabul remain in hiding in Afghanistan in fear for their lives, almost a year after the Taliban retook the country.

A list of Afghans currently in hiding, seen by the Guardian, shows almost 200 former interpreters, security guards and local staff waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, the departments responsible for relocating people at risk. All of those on the list are eligible for transfer to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), intended to bring those formerly employed by the UK government, and their family members, to safety in Britain.

Aarash* was employed by GardaWorld, a security subcontractor for the MoD, and worked at the British embassy for more than 10 years. He and his children have fled their home and live hidden in a basement in a village outside the city, surviving on one meal of boiled rice a day.

“The Taliban, they have access to the details of all the guards and their ID cards,” Aarash said, speaking by secure connection. “Two times, they came to search our house, so we had to escape. They say that we are criminals, that we are not true Muslims, that we worked for foreigners. If they find us, they will kill us – this is for sure.”

In August 2021, as the Taliban took Kabul, Aarash was on a coach with his family, due to be evacuated. A suicide bomb inside the airport forced the bus to turn back. He has been in hiding since.

“Every time we receive a message from the MoD, they say to wait. More than 10 months we are waiting. We hoped the British government would help us but they have done nothing – they have left us alone here to die.”

British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021
British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021. Photograph: MoD/AFP/Getty Images

Another man, speaking through a translator, said: “The Taliban came to our house, they broke everything and we had to leave very quickly. Now we are in very bad conditions. Our children cannot go to school, we cannot walk in the streets or go to the market [for food]. Every day, we are at risk. They will come for us and they will kill all of us, including the children. We are in a humanitarian crisis.”

He added: “The British government, they know everything about us. They know we are eligible [to come to the UK] because we worked for them for many years. We did good work for them. We respectfully ask the British government to help us and begin our transfer as soon as possible.”

Sarah Magill, a director of the charity Azadi, said eligible Afghans were in their tens of thousands. “They are scattered in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, in hiding and terrified. We would like more diplomatic energy and investment going into establishing pathways for them, including through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Relying solely on Pakistan, a country in political turmoil, has caused a bottleneck.”

Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghans who worked for the British government to resettle in the UK, said: “The Arap team’s slowness and unresponsiveness leaves applicants in limbo, while fearing for their lives. The processing of applications needs to be expedited, and applicants should be given clear timelines, which will also help reduce duplicate applications from Afghans simply desperate to get a response.”

It is the latest criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, with a damning report from the foreign affairs committee in May saying there has been a “total absence of plans to evacuate Afghans who supported the UK mission without being directly employed, which has put lives at risk”.

In response to a written question last week, armed forces minister James Heappey said one Arap case dating from when the scheme opened remains unresolved. He added that it “relates to an individual we have contacted three times, requesting further information relating to their eligibility”.

However, earlier this month, in response to a parliamentary question, Heappey said decisions on only two of the 3,226 Arap applications received since April 2022 had been processed. Heappey told MPs that 9,500 Afghans have been relocated to the UK under Arap but added: “We think we’ve got about the same to go in terms of the number of people who are eligible.”

Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton station in southern England, 24 August 2021.
Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton in southern England, 24 August 2021. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office this month launched an online system, where those eligible can send an “expression of interest” in being transferred to the UK as part of its Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), which is separate to Arap. The ACRS is designed to support those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and members of minority groups based, for example, on ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Former GardaWorld and British Council employees will be considered, but it is not possible to apply for the scheme.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Between April and the beginning of June, 683 eligible Afghan civilians along with their families and dependants were relocated to the UK under Arap.

“In total, the Ministry of Defence has relocated over 9,500 Arap principals and their families since the beginning of the scheme. We know there is still a way to go to bring all those who are eligible to safety in the UK; the government is continuing to work with third countries to facilitate the relocation of those who are eligible under Arap.

“We continue to process applications in the order in which they are received, which has meant that some of the newer applications are still being worked through. We recognise there are too many individuals waiting for an answer, and this is not acceptable. This is why we are putting more resource into a dedicated team for processing Arap applications.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain

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At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.

The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”

At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.

Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.Valeria Mongelli (Bloomberg)

Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.

On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.

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