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The US-India relationship has a brand new prime precedence

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to a quarter of the world's population. Delivered Thursday.

May 27, 2021, 6:10 p.m.

Welcome to the South Asian Foreign Policy Letter.

The highlights of this week: India's Foreign Minister visits the United States with an emphasis on the pandemic, Diplomacy between the US and Pakistan sees great development, and India's government is saving too Twitter.

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How COVID-19 could shape US-India relations

The U.S.-India relationship is back on track after experiencing some unexpected turmoil last month when Washington was slow to respond to the catastrophic surge in coronavirus in New Delhi. The White House has now more than made up for the delay. Senior officials starting with US President Joe Biden have issued statements of support and solidarity. The government has signed major COVID-19 relief packages to India and intends to ship vaccines as well.

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar is visiting the United States this week, where he highlighted how reducing the surge in coronavirus is currently a top priority for US-India relations, as well as the threat of China's rise. While in Washington, Jaishankar is expected to meet with senior US officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell. In addition to COVID-19, these discussions are also intended to cover defense relations and multilateral cooperation.

Jaishankar's meetings in New York and Washington so far have mainly revolved around boosting the production and distribution of vaccines, and highlighted an agreement reached during the March Quadrangular Security Dialogue Leaders Summit. Jaishankar is also pushing for a surrender of intellectual property rights for vaccines – endorsed by Biden – and for other products such as medical devices and personal protective equipment. The foreign minister has met with corporate interlocutors, including a new global task force that is raising funds for India.

The laser-like focus on the pandemic is understandable. The virus is still spreading widely in rural India and only 3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. The surge has also sparked a new public health crisis: an outbreak of a rare black fungus that affects the respiratory tract. Experts say people have been exposed while being treated for the coronavirus, especially when using steroid treatments. The government has counted nearly 9,000 cases in the past few weeks, with more than 250 deaths – mostly among people who have or have had COVID-19.

But amid these pandemic discussions, China still plays a big role in US-India relations. There is a broader strategy behind pandemic cooperation, even if the immediate goal is to get India's recovery under control. Efforts by the United States and India – in collaboration with the Quad partners, South Korea and the European Union – to develop robust global vaccine supplies would counter the competing efforts of China (and increasingly Russia). As the world's leading vaccine manufacturer, India has a comparative advantage under normal circumstances.

Earlier this year, India exported millions of COVID-19 vaccines while China's own export program was slow to take shape. But Beijing eventually picked up speed: by the end of March it had exported 115 million vaccines, compared with 63 million in New Delhi. China has now produced 230 million cans – more than all other countries combined. India hadn't even exported 70 million cans before its alarming second wave forced it to suspend exports and focus on domestic demand.

Considering how vaccine exports fit into strategic competition with China could put the cart before the horse. But when both New Delhi's and Washington's relationship with Beijing are the coldest in decades, it's only natural for officials to think about how to get the upper hand on their mutual rival.

28th of May: In Washington, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

2th of June: The Carnegie Endowment will host a discussion on the development and future of the Indian military.

3rd of June: The South Asia Center at the London School of Economics is holding a discussion on the potential impact of Cryptocurrencies in South Asia.

Washington-Islamabad Diplomacy. The US and Pakistani national security advisors met in Geneva on Monday – one of the few known face-to-face high-level meetings between countries under the Biden administration. The same language was used as each side read the meeting. This is an unusual development that suggests a desire to coordinate the messaging. Both declarations described discussions on a range of bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual concern.

The meeting likely dealt with options for counter-terrorism cooperation following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Washington is trying to figure out how to maintain a counter-terrorism capacity from outside the country and is considering the placement of military personnel and assets on bases in neighboring countries. Pakistan is a logical candidate on one level: it borders Afghanistan and has agreed basic US agreements in the past.

But Islamabad has repeatedly turned down the option, including several times this week. The move would not be popular with the public, and if Islamabad even considered approving Washington’s motion, it would insist on major US concessions – like restoring security aid, which has been suspended since 2018. However, the Pentagon notes that nothing has been ruled out Islamabad's public rejections should not necessarily be valued at face value.

New Delhi's Twitter War. On Monday, New Delhi police visited Twitter's offices in the capital and the nearby city of Gurgaon. The police, who come under the control of the central government, said they had sought more information on Twitter's reasons for labeling a tweet from a spokesman for the ruling party as "rigged media." The tweet accused the political opposition of trying to derail the government's pandemic response.

Twitter's offices have closed, leading critics to wonder if the government raid was more than anything an act of intimidation. New Delhi has been sparring with Twitter for several months. Earlier this year, the company refused to comply with an order to close accounts that criticized the government. But it has become more accommodating. Dozens of critical posts about the pandemic response were removed over the past month, and this week users discovered that several anti-government accounts had been withheld in India.

These worrying developments raise questions about the government's priorities during the pandemic. They also threaten to undermine an online platform that has played a vital role in securing vital public health assistance for Indians.

Even more trouble in Nepal. Nepal has been facing a serious political crisis and one of the worst coronavirus waves in the world at the same time for weeks. The political crisis deepened this week when the Nepalese parliament was dissolved after Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli was unable to form a new government after losing a vote of confidence. Elections are scheduled for November, but the campaign will be challenging due to the pandemic.

While the sheer number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Nepal is dwarfed by India's neighboring countries, the effects of the surge are tragically similar: oxygen starvation, collapse of health infrastructure, and dying outside of hospitals. Just under 1 percent of Nepalis are fully vaccinated, and for the next five months the fate of the country rests in the hands of a Lame Duck government.

The new passports in Bangladesh show a major change. The travel documents have long said: "This passport is valid for all countries in the world except Israel", but the last two words will not appear on the new electronic passports. The government hadn't made any public comments on the change until Gilad Cohen, a senior Israeli official, tweeted about it on Saturday. The timing of the tweet was uncomfortable for Dhaka, shortly after Israel's military attack on Gaza, which Bangladesh condemned.

Like all Muslim-majority countries in South Asia, Bangladesh does not recognize Israel. In response, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said the move is not a change in policy and the travel ban to Israel remains in place. He said the change was "made to maintain global standards" as no passport from any other country contained the "except Israel" clause. (This is technically not true: Pakistan's passports contain these words.)

Cohen's tweet urged Dhaka to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. However, this is unlikely and not only due to the lack of receptivity for the idea in Bangladesh. Dhaka does not want to risk damaging its relations with Muslim majority countries, especially countries that host Bangladeshi workers. Remittances make a crucial contribution to the country's economy.

“Probably all of this will shit. But we are also confident that we have political cover and that no one will give a shit. "

– An anonymous source telling the Daily Beast the Biden government's view that the US government will not suffer politically if there are "terrible developments" in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal because the US public does strongly supported.

A newly built subway train, a project planned as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), runs through a route in Lahore, Pakistan on October 26, 2020.ARIF ALI / AFP via Getty Images

Scientists Katharine Adeney and Filippo Boni have published a fascinating new paper for the Carnegie Foundation on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Pakistani component of the Beijing Belt and Road Initiative. They argue that contrary to popular belief, decisions regarding CPEC have not been entirely dictated by Beijing, but are often guided by Islamabad's own priorities.

"Examining the domestic contours of the CPEC shows that Pakistani actors exerted important influence throughout the process, while Chinese actors at times met important Pakistani demands," write Adeney and Boni.

Writing for Tolo News, Aisha KhurramThe student and activist at the University of Kabul calls on young people on all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan to start new grassroots efforts that complement the “top-down approach” of the peace process and “can give the locals a sense of personal responsibility and responsibility, Reduce misunderstandings, heal trauma and create a favorable environment for reintegration. "

The Pakistani author Bina Shah writes for Dawn on Pakistani Foreign Minister's controversial comments on Israel. She argues that Pakistani politicians "need to find out what constitutes anti-Semitism at the international level". "This is not the time for Pakistanis to return to what is widely viewed as anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes," she writes.

Teesta SetalvadThe Indian activist writes for the Indian Express about how COVID-19 exposed the dire state of Indian prisons. If possible, she advocates other punitive measures. "Given the miserable conditions in Indian prisons and the lack of political will to ensure proper surveillance, the option of house arrest must be seen as a positive opportunity," she writes.

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