News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia – a region home to a quarter of the world's population – was written by Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center. Delivered Thursday.
April 29, 2021, 6 p.m.
Welcome to the South Asian Foreign Policy Letter.
The highlights of this week: The US announces a delayed pandemic relief package For India, officials are preparing for the opportunity Taliban attacks on US troops after May 1stand the Cabinet of Sri Lanka approved a Burqa ban.
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This week India was responsible for every third reported coronavirus case worldwide. On Wednesday there were seven straight days of more than 300,000 new cases every day, with nearly 120 people dying from COVID-19 every hour. And the real numbers are likely higher: many experts say the official numbers are below the death toll, and the COVID-19 test positivity rate has hit up to 40 percent in Delhi.
The world has now mobilized to help India and more than a dozen countries have pledged aid. After a belated response, the United States announced plans to provide raw materials for vaccine production, oxygen and other supplies, and investments to strengthen vaccine manufacturing capacity.
There are several reasons for Washington's slow response: the already overwhelmed Biden government has few high-level, India-focused officials, and it is cautious about foreign aid planning while still fighting the pandemic itself. But there was radio silence for several days even as leading US rivals such as China, Iran and Russia expressed solidarity with India and offered assistance. Indian officials and the public were surprised.
The White House eventually reversed course to allay concerns about a possible rift with the announcement of support, expressions of support from nearly a dozen senior officials, and a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Relations between the United States and India have grown exponentially and built trust over the past two decades, and the countries share converging interests about China's rise. US-India relations may have suffered a setback, but last week's events are unlikely to leave a permanent scar.
Nonetheless, the delay in the US response has exposed some lingering Indian concerns about the United States. For some Indian commentators, the delay exacerbated the perception that Washington is not a truly reliable partner. Some prominent politicians agreed. Baijayant “Jay” Panda, national vice president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, tweeted that a major challenge to US-India relations was “our institutional memory of having been disappointed in previous decades. Now, despite the development of many bilateral synergies, that memory will remain. "
This complaint could also enliven some commentators on India's left, who see Russia as a more reliable partner and are uncomfortable with New Delhi's growing proximity to Washington. More than a decade ago, obstructive communist political parties nearly torpedoed a civil nuclear deal between the US and India that is now seen as a milestone. During a 2014 visit to the state of Bihar, where left-wing parties are influential, I heard students and academics protesting US policies in the region and lamenting the US-India partnership.
Support for the United States remains robust within the Indian government and political elite. But Washington sees its relationship with New Delhi as broad and focused on engaging with the general public. It should not take lightly any concerns about its slow response to the coronavirus crisis in India, especially that of influential pro-US citizens. Voices.
The slow US response could exacerbate New Delhi's longstanding opposition to a formal alliance with Washington or another foreign government. Indian foreign policy expert Aparna Pande recently noted that the delay "reinforces the argument … that strategic autonomy is the way to proceed, not the way forward".
In addition, the delay in US assistance highlights a challenge to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between Australia, India, Japan and the United States that has been gaining momentum recently. The Quad identifies working with pandemics as a priority, and leaders reached an agreement in March on the manufacture and distribution of vaccines. However, a few weeks later, Washington was slow to respond when a quad member was exposed to a pandemic.
This separation suggests that the Quad needs a non-defensive, non-allied equivalent to NATO Article 5 that treats an armed attack on one member as an attack on all members and requires joint responses. The group could benefit from a mechanism to ensure collective responses when an emergency occurs to a member.
US aid is now on its way to India. But with new cases and deaths, central and state governments still struggling to fix the lack of oxygen, and only a fraction of the population vaccinated, India is nowhere near out of the woods. It is worth thinking about how to ensure that aid for India or another Quad member comes more quickly in a crisis in the future.
Saturday May 1st: India's COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility is being extended to those over the age of 18, although access to vaccines remains limited due to cost and supply issues.
Saturday May 1st: The United States faces a pre-agreed deadline for their full military withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to his 2020 deal with the Taliban.
Sunday May 2nd: Ten year anniversary of the US raid on Osama bin Laden premises in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Preparation for May 1st in Afghanistan. The 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban calls for all remaining US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by Saturday, May 1. Although Biden has pledged to end the U.S. military presence, his plan is for the withdrawal to be completed by September. 11 – four months after the original deadline. (Recent reports suggest it could be completed by July 4th.)
The Taliban insist that the May 1 deadline cannot be breached and have warned that they will not rule out attacks on US troops after that date. The group's news suggests that the United States failed to get the insurgents buy-in for an extension – one of the first major political targets of the Biden administration in Afghanistan.
Washington takes the threat of attack seriously. The Pentagon is sending 650 soldiers to Afghanistan and increasing air force capacity to protect the remaining 3,500 U.S. soldiers after May 1. On Tuesday, the State Department ordered unneeded US workers to leave the embassy in Kabul. Such measures are designed to prevent US forces from withdrawing under fire in the worst case scenario, which would lead to troubling memories of the chaotic final withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.
Détente developments between India and Pakistan. Last week, new information was released on Pakistan's deliberations on creating tension between India and Pakistan. Since the two sides agreed a ceasefire on the border in February, Pakistani officials have remained keen to improve relations with India so that Pakistan can focus more on economic and other domestic challenges, Dawn reported.
However, Al Jazeera's reporting revealed that Islamabad will only resume formal dialogue if New Delhi takes certain steps to make life easier in India-administered Kashmir. These steps include ending communication and movement bans, releasing political prisoners, restoring statehood rights, revoked in 2019, and reducing the number of Indian security forces in Kashmir.
Getting India to comply is a huge task. The nationalist government has taken a tough stance on Kashmir, and responding to Pakistani demands would create political risks for a government already under fire for being slow to respond to the coronavirus crisis. On the other hand, the Al Jazeera report suggests that Islamabad is asking New Delhi to respond to several requests – not all. Given India's current state of emergency, India now has a more compelling reason than Pakistan to ease tension so it can focus on its internal front.
Sri Lanka's burqa ban. On Tuesday, the Sri Lankan cabinet approved a ban on all full face veils, including the burqas. The Minister of Public Security has called burqas "a sign of religious extremism". Although the decision requires parliamentary approval to become law, it is expected to be passed by a majority of the ruling party. The move has generated some public opposition, particularly from the Muslim community, which makes up around 9 percent of Sri Lanka's population.
The move follows on from the government's other discrimination against Muslims in Sri Lanka. By February, Colombo had ordered compulsory cremations for all COVID-19 victims, despite Islam prohibiting the practice. Last month the government announced its intention to ban more than 1,000 Islamic schools. Notably, the latest annual report by the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom, released last week, identifies India and Pakistan as "countries of particular concern," but only briefly mentions Sri Lanka.
Under the radar
While the coronavirus crisis is making headlines in India, the effects of the pandemic in Jammu and Kashmir have received less attention. Locals in the Kashmir Valley, where communities face difficulties even under normal circumstances due to persistent government policies, paint a bleak picture of the impact of the pandemic there.
Fahad Shah, the Srinagar-based editor of the Kashmir Walla, said this week that the Indian government held large public events and attracted tourists from all over India to Kashmir during the pandemic – part of an ongoing effort to project normality since the region lost their autonomy status in August 2019. Although the government recently imposed some restrictions, it has not yet canceled an annual pilgrimage that could bring 600,000 people to Kashmir in June.
"With the second wave of the virus only growing, Jammu and Kashmir will face disaster if the cases get higher," Shah said. Bad health infrastructure, economic underperformance and media censorship that inhibit the exchange of information increase the risks.
"Today we are in a much stronger position against corona than we are in 2020."
– Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan spoke at a webinar on April 27 when India recorded more than 300,000 new COVID-19 cases for the sixth consecutive year.
Mujahid Barelvi, a columnist for Pakistan Today, highlights Pakistan's rich tradition of philanthropy, which has resulted in a charity-to-GDP ratio similar to wealthier countries like the UK and Canada. However, he regrets that most of the donations go to individuals rather than organizations. A more institutionalized donation would "maximize" the impact of philanthropy on education, health care and poverty reduction, he argues.
A devastating editorial in Bhutan Kuensel Newspaper rails against new government plans for more bars and alcohol sales. "This smells like something really sulphurous," it argues, highlighting the threats alcohol poses to Bhutanese society: from its role in car accidents and crime to its impact on education levels and employment.
Senior Policy Researcher Abdullah Ar Rafee Writes for South Asian Voices about Bangladesh's COVID-19 vaccination battles after India, its main supplier, suspended vaccine exports. Patent issues are limiting indigenous production, and nearly a third of the population is affected by online misinformation campaigns.