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‘A free and open Indo-Pacific’: With a single phrase, Shinzo Abe changed America’s view of Asia and China

South Korea | July 25, 2022

To many in Asia-Pacific, Shinzo Abe was prescient in recognizing the challenge a rising China posed to the American-led system of political and military alliances.

And the former Japanese Prime Minister — killed by an assassin’s bullet on July 8 — arguably did more than any of his Western contemporaries to meet that challenge.

Abe, who served two separate terms and was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, will be remembered by many as the leader who finally led the country out of the shadows of World War II.

He foresaw that the rapid growth of China’s People’s Liberation Army — fueled by one of the world’s fastest growing economies — would upset the regional balance of power, and argued Japan would, as a result of this shift, have to rethink its post-war, US-imposed pacifist constitution.

In 2014, Abe’s government reinterpreted that constitution to enable the Japanese military to theoretically fight overseas. And he gave it the tools to do so, buying stealth fighters and building Japan’s first aircraft carriers since World War II to accommodate them.

But perhaps his biggest contribution to the defense of his country — and to many, the security of the wider Asia region — lies not in military equipment, but in language; in his coining of the simple phrase: “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”


Paradigm shift

With those few words, Abe transformed the way many foreign policy leaders talk — and think — about Asia.

Today, much to the annoyance of China’s leaders, that phrase is everywhere. It is used like a mantra by the US military and is the vocabulary of choice for any aspiring Western diplomat.

So it can be hard to remember that, before Abe, few people in these circles talked of the “Indo-Pacific” at all.

Before 2007, the preference in Washington was to conceptualize Asia as that great stretch of the globe spanning from Australia to China to the United States — and to refer to it as the “Asia-Pacific.”

This concept had China at its center — anathema for Abe who, like many Japanese, feared Beijing’s growing clout meant his country could be bullied by a far larger neighbor.

Abe’s aim was to encourage the world to view Asia through a far wider lens — that of the “Indo-Pacific,” a concept spanning both the Indian and Pacific oceans that he first promoted in a 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament titled the “Confluence of the Two Seas.”

This rethinking of Asia’s boundaries did two things. Firstly, it shifted the geographical center to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea — conveniently focusing minds on an area of the world where Beijing has territorial disputes with a string of nations.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it brought into the picture the one country in the world that could act as a counterweight to China through its sheer size alone: India.


Bringing India into the fold

Abe recognized “India’s importance as a democratic balancer to future Chinese hegemony” and “began systematically wooing Indian leaders to the framing,” wrote John Hemmings, of the East-West Center in Washington, in a 2020 evaluation of Abe that coincided with the end of his second stint as Prime Minister.

“Including a democratic India in the future of Asia was not only good geopolitics, it was good geo-economics, as India’s population and democratic system balanced out China’s equally large population and authoritarian system.”

Abe became a driving force behind the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which brought India into a partnership with Japan, the US and Australia that launched the same year as his “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech.

The partnership has its roots in relief efforts for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but it gained an “ideological component” in a 2006 campaign speech by Abe, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It was then reborn in 2007 as a strategic forum featuring semi-regular summits, information exchanges and –crucially — joint military drills that have met pushback from China.

Months later Abe outlined his vision of a “broader Asia … an immense network” spanning countries that share “fundamental values” such as freedom and democracy, and common strategic interests.

That description appeared to leave little room for China, which has felt threatened by the Quad ever since, and whose Foreign Minister Wang Yi has openly accused the US of trying to encircle China with an “Indo-Pacific NATO.”


A free and open Indo-Pacific

When for a while it appeared China’s hostility might scupper the Quad, which fell apart in 2008 following threats of economic retaliation by Beijing, Abe played his hand once again.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abe first outlined his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” at a keynote speech in Kenya in 2016.

His vision consisted of three pillars: the promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade; the pursuit of economic prosperity; and a commitment to peace and stability.

The term acted “as a foil for Beijing’s increasingly China-centric vision of Asia’s future, while promoting openness and values to attract regional hedgers,” said Hemmings, of the East-West Center.

The year after Abe’s Kenya speech, the Quad was reborn — and the Trump administration unveiled its own concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

By the time of Abe’s death the Quad had expanded significantly. In the past two years the four countries have held two joint naval exercises, convened around the mantra of promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”


Abe’s legacy

Writing after Abe’s death, Robert Ward, Japan chair of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted how Abe had restructured his country’s foreign policy, “driven by his quick recognition of the threat to Japan and the regional order from China’s rapid rise.”

As such, Ward wrote, it was “hard to overstate the transformational importance of his legacy, both inside and outside Japan.”

The breadth of Abe’s influence is clear from the tributes that followed his death.

Among the statesmen paying their respects was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has referred to Abe as a “dear friend” since meeting him in 2007, and declared last Saturday a day of national mourning in India for the former Japanese leader.

Telling, too, were the tributes from the US — China’s biggest rival and Japan’s biggest military ally.

Under Abe, ties between the US and Japan had reached a “new level,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, and this was reflected in President Joe Biden’s order that US flags be flown at half-staff at all public buildings in the country and all federal facilities around the world.

It was also reflected in the White House’s official tribute. Abe was “a faithful friend to the United States,” the White House said. “He worked with American Presidents of both parties to deepen the alliance between our nations and advance a common vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”


Words of remembrance

There’s that line again, “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The phrase has become ubiquitous in US policy and military statements, while in 2018 the Pentagon’s Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii changed its name to Indo-Pacific Command to recognize “the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans as America focuses West.”

In a speech titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in Indonesia last December, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would “work with our allies and partners to defend the rules-based order that we’ve built together over decades to ensure the region remains open and accessible.”

Then at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore last month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin used the term “rules-based order” or variants eight times.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida used the term 19 times as he explained Japan’s promotion of “a free and open Indo-Pacific” vision that had “come to gain broad support in the international community.”

That “broad support” may be Abe’s most enduring legacy. A tribute, in its own way, to the vision Abe had hinted at eight years earlier in his own speech to the Shangri La Dialogue.

Telling his audience Tokyo was ready to take the lead in making the region prosperous for all, Abe had called on all countries to observe international law so that future generations could “share in this bounty.”

Chinese officials to travel to Solomon Islands to sign agreements

Honiara, Solomon Islands | Tue, April 19, 2022

China will send officials to the Solomon Islands next month to sign cooperation agreements, the Pacific nation’s parliament was told on Tuesday, amid a backlash from the United States, Australia and New Zealand over new security ties between Beijing and Honiara. The Chinese embassy and Solomon Islands officials have initialled a security pact that would allow Chinese police to protect infrastructure and social order, but it has not yet been signed by ministers.

Last week, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja travelled to Honiara to ask Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare not to sign the security framework agreement with China which Canberra fears could lead to a Chinese military presence in the Pacific islands. The White House said on Monday a high-level United States delegation including White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell will also travel to Honiara to discuss concerns over China, as well as the reopening of a US embassy.

On Tuesday, Honiara’s parliament was told by Douglas Ete, chairman of the public accounts committee and lawmaker for East Honiara, that Chinese foreign ministry officials would arrive next month. “The PRC foreign affairs is heading to Honiara in the middle of May to sign multilateral agreements and cooperations with the Solomon Islands government,” he said, referring to China.

Ete said the visit meant the two nations would increase trade, education and fisheries cooperation. He added that he rejected the idea of Solomon Islands signing a security pact with China to establish a military base. Sogavare told parliament the proposed security agreement would not include a Chinese military base.

Canberra is concerned the security pact, details of which have not been made public, could be a step towards a Chinese military presence less than 2,000 km (1,200 miles) from Australia. Sogavare’s office said it could not confirm which Chinese officials would travel to Honiara.

Putin Briefed French and German Leaders on Russia-Ukraine Talks -Kremlin

March 13, 2022 | 9:00 p.m.

(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz about the state of negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv and responded to their concerns about the humanitarian situation in Ukraine during a three-way phone call on Saturday, the Kremlin said.

The Kremlin did not elaborate on Putin’s comments about the state of talks, 17 days into the war that began when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

On Friday, Putin said there had been “certain positive shifts” in the talks, which have been taking place in Belarus, but gave no details.

The Kremlin statement said Macron and Scholz raised questions about the humanitarian situation arising from what Russia calls its special military operation in Ukraine, and Putin responded with allegations of human rights abuses by Ukrainian forces. It did not cite evidence in support of those allegations.

The three leaders agreed to keep in contact, the Kremlin said.

Malaysia refuses to allow Israelis at sport event

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Thu, November 25, 2021

Muslim-majority Malaysia is refusing to grant visas for Israeli players to participate in a major squash tournament next month, the sport’s governing body says, sparking anger in the Jewish state.

It is the latest instance of the Southeast Asian nation, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, attempting to bar athletes from the country. The World Team Championship for men is due to take place in Kuala Lumpur from December 7-12, with 26 squads participating.

But the World Squash Federation (WSF) said it had “been made aware that, at present, the Malaysian authorities have not accepted yet to provide visas for the Israel squash team”. “The WSF is committed to the principle of open and inclusive world championships in which all member nations who wish to participate are welcome to do so,” the governing body said in a statement to AFP.

The WSF added it is in contact with Malaysia’s squash body and hoped that “a fair and practical solution can be achieved”. The Israel Squash Association said it plans to turn to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland if the WSF can’t resolve the issue.

“It’s a shame that they are mixing sports with politics,” association chairman Aviv Bushinsky told AFP. “Those who close their eyes — all the countries that participate and let something like that happen — they allow racism and discrimination to take place in sports.

” The Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia, the country’s squash organisation, declined to comment. The tournament was earlier this year moved to Malaysia from New Zealand because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions. In 2019, Malaysia was stripped of the right to host the World Para Swimming Championships for threatening to refuse Israeli athletes.

And in 2015, Israeli windsurfers had to pull out of a competition on the island of Langkawi after being refused visas. The Palestinian cause enjoys widespread support in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the populaton are ethnic Malay Muslims, and entry into the country on an Israeli passport is forbidden.

G20 agrees on 1.5 degree climate change target: sources

Rome, Italy | Sun, October 31, 2021

G20 countries have agreed on the need to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in language tougher than the 2015 Paris accords, several sources said Sunday.

Three sources told AFP that diplomats had approved language for a final summit communique going beyond what was agreed six years ago, when the landmark climate deal called for capping global warming at well below 2 degrees, and ideally closer to 1.5 degrees.

The declaration, expected to be released later Sunday, will talk about keeping the 1.5 degrees target “within reach”, one source said, without elaborating.

Earlier drafts seen by AFP suggested that G20 countries were going to fall short of a firm pledge on the 1.5 figure, but officials worked through the night to toughen up the language ahead of crucial UN talks on climate starting in Glasgow Sunday.

The Group of 20 major economies emit nearly 80 percent of carbon emissions, and a promise of action on their part would provide a much-needed boost to the make-or-break COP26 summit. Opening the formal discussions on climate on the second and final day of the Rome summit Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged counterparts to aim high.

“The decisions we make today will have a direct impact on the success of the Glasgow summit and ultimately on our ability to tackle the climate crisis,” he said. He added: “We need to set long-term goals which are consistent with the objectives of the Paris agreement and make short-term changes to achieve them.

” Experts say meeting the 1.5 degree target — the most ambitious goal in the 2015 Paris climate deal — means slashing global emissions nearly in half by 2030 and to “net-zero” by 2050.

New initiatives launched to strengthen cyber defences of businesses

Singapore | Fri, October 8, 2021

A new toolkit that could help to simplify cybersecurity and enable businesses to make more informed trade-offs between security, system usability and cost was launched by the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) on Thursday (Oct 7).

The SG Cyber Safe cybersecurity toolkits are tailored for large enterprise leaders, small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners, IT teams, and employees, said CSA in a media release on Thursday.

“Although 80 per cent of Singapore SMEs embrace digital transformation and have digital transformation in place, cybersecurity has been the key reason for small enterprises not digitalising,” said CSA.

The toolkit for enterprise leaders and SME owners will focus on the business reasons for business leaders and SME owners to invest in cybersecurity.

This includes rationalising investment in cybersecurity, and how fostering a culture of cybersecurity would enable enterprises to “reap the benefits of digital transformation”, said CSA.

The cybersecurity toolkit for employees is intended for enterprises to “plug and play” as an employee programme for raising awareness and conducting cybersecurity training.

The content addresses the most common cyber threats faced by employees such as phishing, as well as weak cybersecurity practices such as using compromised and weak passwords.

It will also encourage employees to learn about cybersecurity to stay cyber safe at work as well as in their private life.

“This is crucial as employees are the first line of defence and key to any enterprise’s cybersecurity,” said CSA.


Beyond toolkits, CSA will also partner the industry to further drive cybersecurity awareness to local businesses, individuals and the wider community.

It launched a new partnership programme that aims to equip businesses and enterprises with tools and information to strengthen their cybersecurity.

Under the new SG Cyber Safe Partnership Programme, enterprises will help to develop training content, products and services, or community outreach programmes to raise awareness and encourage adoption of good cybersecurity practices by businesses and the public.

Speaking at the launch of the programme, Minister of State for Communications and Information Tan Kiat How said cybersecurity is a “collective responsibility” that requires the Government and the industry to work closely together.

“The Government alone cannot reach out to all businesses to encourage them to strengthen their cyber resilience. Private-public collaboration is therefore key to ensuring that businesses stay cyber-secure,” he said.

“We welcome other industry partners who are keen to work with CSA to drive cybersecurity awareness, shift attitudes and encourage adoption amongst enterprises in their digitalisation journeys.”

Nineteen local and international business organisations, trade associations and societies have joined the programme as SG Cyber Safe partners, said CSA.

They include companies such as Google and Dell, as well as organisations such as the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Information Security Professionals.

The Singapore Business Federation will work with CSA to reach out to their business community through events, webinars and curated content, to enhance the cybersecurity awareness of SMEs, said CSA.

Some partners are looking to develop products and services to complement CSA’s SG Cyber Safe initiatives.

Local software start-up V-Key, for example, has contextualised its identity solution as a multi-factor authentication solution for SMEs, offering better protection for high-value accounts.

To help SMEs defend their business against cybercrime, Mastercard has created the Mastercard Trust Centre, which gives companies free online access to trusted cybersecurity research, education, resources and tools.

While the partnership programme has a tenure of two years, partner companies may approach CSA to discuss an extension of their participation after their initial tenure.

CSA said that being an SG Cyber Safe partner organisation is “not tantamount to” the authority endorsing the partnering company or its products and services as possessing a higher cybersecurity rigour.

“Instead, SG Cyber Safe partners and other business enterprises may apply to be certified under the SG Cyber Safe Trustmark when it is launched in 2022,” said CSA.

The programme is one of the major initiatives under the Safer Cyberspace Masterplan, which was launched last year.

The masterplan was developed in consultation with the cybersecurity industry and academia, to raise the general level of cybersecurity in Singapore for individuals, communities, enterprises, and organisations.

Key areas of focus include securing Singapore’s core digital infrastructure, safeguarding cyberspace activities and empowering a cyber-savvy population.

On Tuesday, Singapore launched an updated national cybersecurity strategy, signalling that it will take a more proactive stance in dealing with new cyber threats and technological shifts.

CSA also said it will seek to grow the market to develop more “Made-in-Singapore” cybersecurity products and services.

It will also focus on investing heavily in people to boost capabilities and develop its cybersecurity workforce.

Twenty years after 9/11, one of the last US Marines killed in Afghanistan comes home

Lawrence, United States | Sun, September 12, 2021

US Marine Sergeant Johanny Rosario returned to her hometown in Massachusetts in a casket on Saturday, one of the last American service members killed in Afghanistan during a war set in motion exactly two decades ago by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Several hundred people gathered near the Farrah Funeral Home in Lawrence, Mass., where Rosario’s remains arrived in a black hearse with a police motorcycle escort.

Marines in dress uniform carried the casket into the funeral home, as veterans in the crowd, some of whom had not worn a uniform in years, snapped to attention. “We came out because she is a hero to us,” said Mary Beth Chosse, who waited for several hours with her 12-year-old son, Gavin. Chosse’s older son is a Marine on active duty. “Sergeant Rosario’s sacrifice and bravery should always be remembered.

Rosario, 25, was among 13 US service members killed in an Aug. 26 suicide bombing outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul. She was helping to screen evacuees at a checkpoint at the airport’s Abbey Gate when the bomb ripped through a crowd. Scores of Afghans also were killed in the attack. The last US troops left Afghanistan four days later.

About 7,100 US military personnel have been killed in conflicts tied to the Sept. 11 attacks, with about 2,500 of those deaths happening in Afghanistan, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute. The financial cost of those conflicts runs to nearly $6 trillion, according to the project. Like many Americans, Sheila Arias, 41, remembers Sept. 11, 2001 in vivid detail.

She was at a hair salon in Lawrence when she watched the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapse after al Qaeda hijackers seized control of two airplanes and crashed them into the buildings. Hijacked airplanes would also crash into the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Arias soon after enlisted in the US Army, leaving a comfortable, steady job as a clerk in Lawrence’s water department to join the military effort to root out al Qaeda. “There was no question that I had to serve,” Arias said. “I’m sure Johanny Rosario felt the same way.”

‘Always Remember Her Name’

Rosario, who was 5-years-old when the attacks occurred, would begin her service years later, when the United States was already deeply involved in Afghanistan. Shortly after graduating from high school in 2014, she enlisted and landed with the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

Eventually she would become a supply chief, a role usually held by a more senior noncommissioned officer, according to the Marines, and volunteered to be a member of the female engagement team to interact with Afghan women, barred by local custom from talking to male strangers. Just three months before her death, she was recognized with an award for her attention to detail and expertise in tracking and reconciling some $400,000 worth of open supply requisitions.

On Saturday, a group of her friends from Lawrence High School huddled near the steps of the funeral home. Wearing black face masks, they spoke of Rosario’s desire to serve her country, take college courses and financially support her family. One of the women, who like the others declined to give her name, cradled a framed picture of Rosario in a formal gown. “I can’t talk. I would just cry,” the woman said.

Like many residents in Lawrence, a working-class city about 30 miles (48 km) north of Boston with a strong Hispanic community, Rosario’s roots extend to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, said William Lantigua, a former mayor of the city who knows her family. Rosario is survived by her mother and a younger sister.

On Saturday, Maria Ogando joined the crowd gathered to pay tribute to Rosario after driving an hour from Worcester, Massachusetts with her family. Her daughter, 9-year-old Kayla, wore a T-shirt with Rosario’s full name on the back.

“She is a hero and it is very sad for me to see her pass away,” Kayla said. “But I will always remember her name and what she did for our country.”

Sydney COVID-19 cases seen topping 2,000 a day

Sydney, Australia | Mon, September 6, 2021

Sydney, the epicentre of Australia’s biggest coronavirus outbreak, is expected to see daily infections peak next week, authorities said on Monday, as they look to speed up immunisations before easing lockdown rules.

Australia is trying to contain a third wave of infections that has hit its two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and its capital Canberra, forcing more than half the country’s 25 million people into strict stay-at-home restrictions.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the government’s modelling revealed the state would require its highest number of intensive care beds in early October, with “additional pressure on the system” in the next few weeks.

Daily cases in Sydney’s worst-affected suburbs are expected to rise to as high as 2,000 until the middle of this month, the modelling showed. “If too many of us do the wrong thing, (if) there are too many super-spreading events, we could see those numbers higher,” Berejiklian said during a media briefing in Sydney, the state capital.

A total of 1,071 COVID-19 cases are currently in New South Wales hospitals, with 177 people in intensive care (ICU), 67 of whom require ventilation. Officials have said they had quadrupled ICU beds to about 2,000 in the state early last year to handle the pandemic.

The state reported 1,281 new cases on Monday, most of them in Sydney, down from 1,485 a day earlier. Five new deaths were recorded. Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, reported 246 new cases on Monday, its biggest daily rise of the year.

Despite the recent outbreaks, Australia’s coronavirus numbers have remained relatively low at around 63,000 cases and 1,044 deaths helped by hard lockdowns and border restrictions. But businesses have had to bear the brunt, with Australia on the brink of a second recession in as many years.

Melbourne’s giant observation wheel, part of the city’s skyline for more than 15 years, will close permanently due to COVID-related “travel restrictions and sustained shutdowns”, its operator said on Monday. Australian Industry Group, meanwhile, has warned the country could face power blackouts in summer if quarantine-weary workers refuse to cross state borders for repairs and maintenance.

Merkel, Germany’s ‘eternal’ chancellor, prepares to leave the stage


Berlin, Germany | Thu, August 26, 2021

She was called “the leader of the free world” as authoritarian populists were on the march in Europe and the United States but Angela Merkel is wrapping up a historic 16 years in power with an uncertain legacy at home and abroad.

In office so long she was dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Merkel, 67, leaves with her popularity so resilient she would likely have won a record fifth term had she wanted to extend her mandate. Instead, Merkel will pass the baton as the first German chancellor to step down entirely by choice, with a whole generation of voters never knowing another person at the top.

Her supporters say she provided steady, pragmatic leadership through countless global crises as a moderate and unifying figure. Yet critics argue a muddle-through style of leadership, pegged to the broadest possible consensus, lacked the bold vision to prepare Europe and its top economy for the coming decades.

What is certain is that she leaves behind a fractured political landscape, with the question of who will govern Germany next wide open just weeks before the September 26 election. Assuming she stays on to hand over power, she will tie or exceed Helmut Kohl’s longevity record for a post-war leader, depending on how long the upcoming coalition negotiations drag on.

Do the right thing’

The brainy, unflappable Merkel has served for many in recent years as a welcome counter-balance to the big, brash men of global politics, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin. A Pew Research Center poll late last year showed large majorities in most Western countries having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs”.

However the last days of her tenure have also been marred by what Merkel called the “bitter, dramatic and terrible” return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan — a debacle in which she shares the blame as German troops pull out. A trained quantum chemist raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel has long been in sync with her change-averse electorate as a guarantor of stability.

Her major policy shifts have reflected the wishes of large German majorities — among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster — and attracted a broad new coalition of women and urban voters to the once arch-conservative CDU

Austerity queen’

Before the coronavirus pandemic, her boldest move — keeping open German borders in 2015 to more than one million asylum seekers — seemed set to determine her legacy. But while many Germans rallied to Merkel’s “We can do it” cry, the move also emboldened an anti-migrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), ushering a far-right bloc into parliament for the first time since World War II.

At the same time, hardline leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban accused her of “moral imperialism” with her welcoming stance. Six years on, she lamented this month, the European Union appears no closer to a unified policy on migration.

The woman once known as the “climate chancellor” for pushing renewables also faces a mass movement of young activists arguing Merkel has failed to face up to the climate emergency, with Germany not even meeting its own emissions-reduction commitments.

She became Europe’s go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin championed swingeing spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for debt-mired countries. Angry protesters dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” and caricatured her in Nazi garb while defenders credit her with holding the currency union together.

More recently, despite admitted missteps in the coronavirus pandemic including a sluggish vaccine roll-out, Germany’s infection levels and death toll have remained lower than those of many European partners relative to its population.

Kohl’s ‘girl’ to ‘Mummy’

Merkel, the EU’s and G7’s most senior leader, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became Germany’s youngest and first female chancellor in 2005. She was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954 in the port city of Hamburg, the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman and a school teacher.

Her father moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist East at a time when tens of thousands were headed the other way. She excelled in mathematics and Russian, which has helped her maintain the dialogue with the other veteran on the world stage, Russia’s Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Merkel kept the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1977 and divorced five years later. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel, who was working in a chemistry lab, joined a pro-democracy group that would merge with Kohl’s Christian Democrats.

The Protestant from the east whom Kohl nicknamed his “girl” would later be elected leader of a party until then dominated by western Catholic patriarchs. As she rose to power, party rivals sneeringly called her “Mutti” (Mummy) behind her back but she deftly — some said ruthlessly — eliminated potential challengers.

Although her name has come up on wish lists for key EU or United Nations posts, Merkel has said she will leave politics altogether. Asked on her final trip to Washington in June what she looked forward to most, she replied “not having to constantly make decisions”. Germany to help Afghans seeking to leave beyond Aug. 31 deadline, says Merkel featured by Most Viewed People urged to stay vigilant despite improved conditions in some regions PeduliLindungi app optimizes pandemic control Treating COVID-19 as endemic means little to desperate people Booster shots for senior officials cause outrage Kamala Harris says US will ‘speak up’ on South China Sea Taliban must not let Afghanistan become terror ‘breeding ground’: Indonesia Actress hit with $46 mn tax fine as China targets celebrity culture Credit lender Kredivo expands to Vietnam YouTube says it removed 1mn ‘dangerous’ videos on Covid-19 World’s largest floating solar park to be built in Batam.

Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

London, United Kingdom | Thu, August 12, 2021

Three new conditions reported by a small number of people after vaccination with COVID-19 shots from Pfizer and Moderna are being studied to assess if they may be possible side-effects, Europe’s drugs regulator said.


  • The Swiss government plans to halt most free COVID-19 testing for people who are not vaccinated now that nearly half the population has got the jabs.
  • French vaccination centres have been hit by vandalism and daubed with Nazi-themed tags as the government steps up its vaccination drive.
  • Britain on Tuesday reported its highest daily COVID-19 death toll since March.
  • France will strengthen lockdown rules in the overseas territory of Guadeloupe.

Asia Pacific

  • India is in talks to buy 50 million doses of Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE’s vaccine, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
  • Authorities in Myanmar currently have no plan to include minority Rohingya Muslims living in densely-packed camps as they begin vaccinating priority groups in western Rakhine State, the junta-appointed local administrator said.
  • China’s tighter social restrictions to fight its latest outbreak, now in its fourth week and involving more than a dozen cities, are hitting the services sector especially travel and hospitality in the world’s second-largest economy.
  • Melbourne extended its lockdown by a week and New Zealand placed limits on travel from Indonesia and Fiji


  • The Pan American Health Organization is preparing to increase vaccine availability for member countries, officials said.
  • California became the first US state to require that its teachers and other school staff be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19.
  • Cuba is bringing back hundreds of doctors working abroad and converting hotels into isolation centers and hospitals.

Middle East and Africa

  • Iran’s supreme leader said the pandemic was the country’s “number-one problem” and must urgently be curbed, and called for greater efforts to import and produce vaccines.

Medical Developments

  • The World Health Organization said a clinical trial in 52 countries would study three anti-inflammatory drugs as potential treatments for COVID-19 patients.
  • Roughly one-third of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms, according to a review of data from more than 350 studies published through April 2021.
  • Pregnant women should be vaccinated against COVID-19, based on a new analysis that did not show increased risk for miscarriage, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Economic Impact

  • Global shares hit record highs Wednesday after data showed US consumer price increases slowed in July, easing concerns that the Federal Reserve will imminently signal a scaling back of bond purchases.
  • US consumer prices increases slowed in July even as they remained at a 13-year high on a yearly basis and there were tentative signs inflation has peaked as supply-chain disruptions caused by the pandemic work their way through the economy.

Sajid Javid apologises for urging people not to ‘cower from covid

London, United Kingdom | Sun, July 25, 2021

British health minister Sajid Javid apologised for and deleted a tweet urging people to take a COVID-19 vaccine and not to “cower” from the virus, saying on Sunday he had made “a poor choice of word”.

Javid, who replaced Matt Hancock as health minister last month after his predecessor stepped down for breaking COVID rules by kissing an aide in his office, had been criticised for using the word “cower” when tens of thousands in Britain have died from the virus and many are trying to keep safe.

Britain, which has one of the highest official COVID death tolls, has shifted its strategy to fight coronavirus from using restrictions to limit its spread to opening up society in the hope vaccines will protect most people from serious illness.

Cases are high, but so is uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, and officials argue the shift is needed to help businesses in sectors such as hospitality and the night-time economy. Writing on Twitter, Javid said on Sunday he had “deleted a tweet which used the word ‘cower’.”

“I was expressing gratitude that the vaccines help us fight back as a society, but it was a poor choice of word and I sincerely apologise. Like many, I have lost loved ones to this awful virus and would never minimise its impact.”

On Saturday, he had written that he had recovered after testing positive for COVID, after suffering mild symptoms. “Please – if you haven’t yet – get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”

Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, was one of several lawmakers from opposition parties and people who had lost family members to the pandemic to criticise his use of the phrase “cower from”. “127,000 people have died from this virus, tens of thousands of whom would still be here if it wasn’t for the catastrophic failures of your government,” she said on Twitter. “So how dare you denigrate people for trying to keep themselves and their families safe.

Sydney sees worst day of 2021 as Delta COVID-19 outbreak spreads

Sydney, Australia | Thu, July 8, 2021

Australia’s New South Wales state on Thursday reported its biggest daily rise in locally acquired cases of COVID-19 for the year as officials struggle to stamp out a growing cluster of the highly infectious Delta variant in Sydney.

New South Wales (NSW) reported 38 new local cases, up from 27 a day earlier, as its capital Sydney prepares for a third week of a lockdown.

“We don’t want to prolong the lockdown, we don’t want to see Sydney or New South Wales going in and out of lockdown until we have the vast majority of our population vaccinated,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

Berejiklian implored residents to limit visits to family as data suggested the virus was spreading during such meetings, and urged people with flu-symptoms to take their entire family for COVID-19 tests due to the highly transmissible Delta strain.

She has promised this would be the last lockdown Sydney would need to endure in the pandemic although only around 10% of the country has been fully vaccinated.

Of Thursday’s cases, 26 were either in isolation throughout or for part of their infectious period, while 11 spent time in the community while they were infectious.

One case is under investigation. Total infections neared 400 amid the largest outbreak of 2021 in the state, since the first case was detected in the city more than three weeks ago in a limousine driver who transported overseas airline crew.

A strict stay-at-home order had been enforced in Sydney, Australia’s largest city and home to a fifth of the country’s 25 million population, since June 26 for two weeks restricting people’s movements and limiting gatherings.

That was extended on Wednesday until July 16 after restrictions failed to curtail the spread with officials frustrated after finding new infections linked to illegal gatherings and people flouting social distancing rules.

Australia has fared much better than many other developed countries in keeping COVID-19 numbers low, with just under 30,900 cases and 910 deaths, however, a slow vaccination rollout has taken the shine off some of this success.

Bidens to have tea with Queen Elizabeth as G7 ends

United Kingdom | Sun, June 13, 2021

US President Joe Biden and his wife Jill will have tea with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle on Sunday at the end of the G7 summit and as he wraps up the British leg of his first international trip since taking office.

The 95-year-old British monarch will greet the Bidens in the Quadrangle of the castle, home to the royal family for nearly 1,000 years and where she has spent much of her time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

After their arrival, a Guard of Honour formed of The Queen’s Company First Battalion Grenadier Guards will give a Royal Salute, and the US National Anthem will be played, Buckingham Palace said.

The queen has already met the Bidens on their visit to Britain, having hosted a reception for the leaders of the Groups of Seven rich nations and their spouses on Friday night in Cornwall, on the southwest tip of England where a three-day summit has been held.

“Joe and I are both looking forward to meeting the queen,” Jill Biden said after they arrived in Britain on Thursday. “That’s an exciting part of the visit for us.

Biden will become the fourth president and first lady she has received at Windsor, following the Trumps in 2018, the Obamas in 2016, President George W. Bush and his wife in 2008 and the Reagans in 1982.

During her 69 years on the British throne, the longest reign of any English monarch, there have been 14 US presidents, of which Elizabeth has met all bar Lyndon Johnson.

Despite the loss in April of Prince Philip, her 99-year-old husband of more than 70 years, and her age, the queen has shown her determination to carry on with her official duties as head of state during the high-profile G7 summit.

After hosting the leaders on Friday where she cracked a joke during the official photocall, she provoked more laughter at another official engagement for a local project immediately afterwards when she cut a cake with a long ceremonial sword.

On Saturday, she was back in Windsor for a military parade to mark her official birthday, the first one she has marked without Philip. After leaving Windsor, Biden will head off to a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday, a US-EU summit on Tuesday and a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva the following day.

Japan should not follow the Western policy on Myanmar, senior official says

Tokyo, Japan | Fri, May 28, 2021

Japan should play a bridging role to Myanmar’s junta rather than following the Western policy of regime change, said a senior official at the Japan-Myanmar Association, which has strong ties with Myanmar’s military.

“I argue that Japan must position itself as a bridge between the Tatmadaw and the United States and other democratic countries rather than blindly aligning itself with the Western policy of regime change,” Yusuke Watanabe, the association’s secretary general, said in an opinion piece for the Diplomat magazine.

The Japan-Myanmar Association is a private group Yusuke Watanabe’s father and politician Hideo Watanabe launched to rally support for the wave of Japan’s investment in the Southeast Asian country. The association includes retired government bureaucrats and business executives and members of big Japanese companies.

A former cabinet minister Hideo Watanabe has long been Tokyo’s point man for economic relations, backing Myanmar’s huge development project of Thilawa Special Economic Zone development, and has a long track record of working closely with the junta, including junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government on Feb. 1, citing alleged fraud in an election three months earlier, and has since waged a deadly crackdown which has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Japan, a major aid donor with long ties to Myanmar, has not placed explicit sanctions against the Myanmar military, unlike other nations such as the United States and Britain. The Japanese government did halt negotiations on new aid to Myanmar, but not existing aid projects.

“Leveraging its decades-long economic cooperation, Japan can now directly work with the Tatmadaw to reverse China’s geoeconomic influence,” Watanabe added, also warning of Russia’s growing influence in Myanmar.

Any drastic move to cut ties with Myanmar’s military could result in China winning more influence, a senior Japanese official told Reuters in February after the coup. Chinese investment in Myanmar has surged in recent years, driven by Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan.

“Japan must realise its historic mission of guiding Myanmar’s military government in service of a free and open Indo-Pacific and remain unafraid even if its actions diverge from those of the US and other democratic allies,” Watanabe said.

Malaysia reports new daily record of 44 COVID-19 deaths

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Sat, May 15, 2021

Malaysian health authorities on Saturday reported 44 new COVID-19 deaths, the highest daily fatality rate so far, while new infections remained above 4,000 for the fourth straight day.

The health ministry said in a tweet that 4,140 new coronavirus cases were reported on Saturday, pushing the total past 466,000 with 1,866 deaths – the third highest infection rate in the region behind Indonesia and the Philippines.

On Thursday, Malaysia reported its highest number of new coronavirus cases in more than three months, as the Southeast Asian country deals with a fresh spike in infections.

The health ministry reported 4,855 new cases – the highest since Jan. 31 – and 27 deaths. It has seen a total of 458,077 coronavirus cases and 1,788 fatalities.

Malaysia declared a nationwide lockdown on Monday, prohibiting inter-district travel and shutting down schools. It has been under state of emergency since January to curb the spread of the virus.

The latest spike is partly due to highly infectious variants found in recent weeks. Earlier this week, the health ministry warned new daily cases could hit 5,000 by mid-May, a number not seen since late January.

Thousands of revelers join Wuhan music festival

Wuhan, China | Mon, May 3, 2021

Thousands of people attended the first day of the Wuhan Strawberry Music Festival on Saturday. In warm conditions on the first day of a five-day May Day national holiday revelers in the central Chinese city danced, bounced and screamed with delight as some of their favorite acts took the stage. The festival was making a return in Wuhan after it was forced to be online only last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

A representative for the organisers told Reuters that numbers were being restricted this year, adding that around 11,000 people were there on Saturday. Barriers were set up in front of each stage and security personnel restricted numbers in those areas. Some spectators wore masks, but many did not.

People in Wuhan, where COVID-19 first emerged, lived through more than two months of stringent restrictions during the world’s first coronavirus-induced lockdown. Since then the city has been almost completely virus-free, according to official data. That and the general trend in recent months in the country, which has only reported a few sporadic outbreaks, has greatly eased fears in China about the virus.

“Last year we (in Wuhan) suffered from the coronavirus,” said 23-year-old student and Wuhan resident Gao Yuchen. “It has not been easy to get to where we are today. People here have put in huge efforts and paid a big price (for being hit with the virus). So I feel very excited to be here (at the festival),” Gao said.

The two-day event brings together well-known and not so well-known domestic singers and bands across three stages in Wuhan’s Garden Expo park. Sister “Strawberry Music Festival” events are being held in other cities, including Beijing, during the national holiday. Attendees came to Wuhan from all over the country, like 29-year-old Zhang Hongkai, from Shijiazhuang in Hebei province.

“This is my first time at an event like this held outdoors,” Zhang said. “I really like the atmosphere.” Mainland China reported 16 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, down from 13 a day earlier, the country’s national health authority said on Saturday. All the new cases were imported infections originating overseas, the National Health Commission said in a statement.

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in mainland China now stands at 90,671, while the death toll remains unchanged at 4,636, many of whom were Wuhan residents. China carried out about 11.6 million vaccinations against COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number administered to more than 265 million, according to data released by the National Health Commission on Saturday.

India Covid patients flock to makeshift tent for lifesaving oxygen

Ghaziabad, India | Wed, April 28, 2021

Himanshu Verma sighed in relief as a mask was fitted over his mother’s face, allowing the Covid-19 sufferer to breathe in oxygen as she sat alongside a busy road on the outskirts of New Delhi. As record infections spark severe shortages of the gas in hospitals, desperate patients are flocking to a tent outside a gurdwara — a Sikh place of worship — in Ghaziabad city, arriving in cars, rickshaws and even ambulances. “We needed treatment but we couldn’t find any beds in Delhi’s hospitals,” Verma, 32, told AFP as his mother, 58-year-old Poonam, was connected to an oxygen concentrator.

“We will stay here all night if we have to. We don’t have any other options.” Around him, people stricken with the infectious disease gasped for breath as they lay on benches and in the back of rickshaws. Anxious family members fanned them with pieces of cardboard as temperatures soared to a sweltering 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We are getting more cases day by day,” said 28-year-old Ishant Bindra, a volunteer with Khalsa Help International, an NGO set up by the gurdwara. The World Health Organisation has estimated that about one in five people with Covid-19 suffer from respiratory distress and need oxygen therapy.

India has recorded 2.3 million fresh infections in the past week. In Delhi, the worst-hit city, around 20,000 to 25,000 cases are added every day. Patients have died outside hospitals, gasping for air, as they wait to be admitted. In some places, even those who managed to get in then reportedly died due to the facilities’ low oxygen supplies. Some families said on social media that they were asked by hospitals to source their own cylinders.

Severe crunch

Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with frantic appeals for places to buy tanks and refills, often alongside readings of dangerously low oxygen levels in the blood. Priyanka Mandal, 30, said she wasn’t able to get her 55-year-old mother Pushpa, who suffers from diabetes, admitted to a hospital after her condition deteriorated. She eventually found someone willing to sell her a cylinder and six kilogrammes (13.2 pounds) of oxygen for 30,000 rupees (US$400) — far higher than usual market prices.

“She’s been having constant fever and now she’s not able to breathe,” Mandal told AFP, adding that their oxygen supply was running out. The gurdwara has also struggled to refresh its stock, a reflection of the severe crunch gripping Delhi even as medical supplies arrive in India from international donors. Volunteers fan out to other cities up to several hours’ drive away, looking for places willing to fill the cylinders. The site had several tanks on Monday, volunteer Supreet Singh told AFP.

But on Tuesday, as night fell, it was still trying to refill its empty ones as it supplied oxygen to waiting patients via an oxygen concentrator, which produces oxygen from ambient air. Wearing full protective gear, volunteers cleaned pressure gauges and pipes as they waited for the full cylinders of the life-saving gas to arrive. “No matter how much time it takes, I have to wait here,” Mandal said. “I only have my mum, I don’t even have my dad now… as I lost him in a road accident. So I have to help her survive.

Biden-Suga statement to express concern about human rights in China

Japan | Sun, April 11, 2021 | 09:05 pm

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden will express their deep concern about human rights violations in China in a joint statement to be released after a Japan-US summit next week, Japanese government sources said Saturday.

The summit, scheduled for Friday in Washington, comes as the Biden administration ramps up criticism of China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region and actions concerning Hong Kong. Suga has said those issues must be addressed based on basic human rights principles. It would be rare for Japanese and US leaders to single out human rights issues in China in a joint statement.

Tokyo and Washington are now arranging the wording of the planned statement. It is almost certain that China would express strong protest against such a statement as interference in its domestic affairs. While the United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on China over the Uyghur issue, Japan remains cautious about following suit.

Suga will likely brief Biden on Tokyo’s stance in the meeting. They are also expected to agree on the importance of ensuring peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, where tensions are rising.

Suga has underscored the need for Japan and the United States to cooperate to maintain deterrence and create an environment where Taiwan and China can resolve their differences peacefully.

As part of increased vigilance against China’s maritime assertiveness, the joint statement will also affirm the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea fall under the scope of a Japan-US security treaty, according to the sources.

Suga and Biden are expected to make clear Article 5 of the 1960 security treaty, which states the United States will defend territories under Japan’s administration from armed attack, applies to the group of islets. The uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu and frequently sends coast guard ships nearby to assert its ownership.

Australia misses vaccine target as concerns grow over slow rollout

Australia | Wed, March 31, 2021 | 9:58pm

Shares Australia will fall well short of its initial Covid-19 vaccination target, Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted Wednesday, claiming European export restrictions were partly to blame.

Largely coronavirus-free Australia has been heralded globally as a pandemic success story, but it is one of the few rich nations to have an extremely limited vaccination rollout. So far, just 670,000 doses have been administered in Australia, according to official statistics, far below the initial plan to jab four million people by the end of March.

Morrison said that target had been “dispensed with” months ago, and that strangled exports of three million doses from Europe were “obviously going to impact the early success”.

“It’s not a race,” he said, accusing critics of “wanting to play politics with vaccine and distribution”. Critics have warned that Australia’s slow vaccination rate risks new clusters emerging and an indefinite delay in reopening the country’s borders. Richard Holden, an economist at the University of New South Wales, said that Morrison “has to say ‘it’s not a race'”.

“Because if it was, we would have been lapped multiple times and be battling it out for 75th place,” he tweeted. “Of course it’s a race—against the virus and outbreaks, and for economic recovery.

” Early in the pandemic, Morrison had boasted that Australia would be “at the front of the queue” for vaccines after a slew of deals with pharmaceutical firms AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Novavax. His government had set an initial target of having all adults fully vaccinated by October.

On Wednesday, Morrison indicated that the target had changed, saying “we are on track for our first dose for everyone by the end of October”.

Political finger-pointing

The crisis has resulted in some political finger-pointing, with state authorities on Wednesday angrily rejecting Canberra’s claim that they were to blame for the delays. New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian — an ally in Morrison’s conservative Liberal party — said she was not happy with such “untrue” and “extremely unfair” suggestions.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk described them as “outrageous”. Australia has largely avoided widespread coronavirus transmission but has regularly had to scramble to contain outbreaks originating from hospitals and hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals.

Around two million people are currently in lockdown in greater Brisbane — Australia’s third-largest city — after around a dozen cases were detected. The country has reported around 30,000 Covid-19 cases in total out of a population of 25 million since the pandemic began — including those detected in quarantine for overseas travellers.

Authorities are hoping that local production of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines will now kick up a gear and provide around one million doses a week.

South Korea, US say North Korea must denuclearize

South Korea | Thu, March 18, 2021 | 07:58 pm

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday reaffirmed in talks with their direct South Korean counterparts the joint goal of achieving complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, highlighting the importance of maintaining the ironclad alliance the two countries share. Austin and Blinken arrived in South Korea earlier in the day, embarking on a two-day visit to their country’s key ally in the Northeast Asia region. They each held their first in-person talks with South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook and Foreign Minister Chung Eui Yong.

“Minister Suh Wook and Minister Austin reassured complete denuclearization and a permanent peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula as South Korea and the United States’ joint goal,” said South Korea’s Defense Ministry in a statement released after the talks ended. The statement also showed that the two ministers also agreed on the importance of a rules-based international order, stressing the need for security cooperation among South Korea, the United States, and Japan.

“The two ministers also shared thoughts that security cooperation among South Korea, the United States, and Japan is crucial in responding to threats from North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles, and forming a cooperative Northeast Asia defense system,” the ministry said. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also released a statement upon Blinken and Chung’s talks, saying that they reaffirmed the two countries’ strong alliance as a linchpin to peace, security, and prosperity for Northeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific region and the world. “The two ministers especially agreed to continue coordination to hold a South Korea-US leaders’ summit as soon as possible,” the statement said.

Blinken and Austin’s first in-person South Korea visit comes after a CNN report that US intelligence has assessed that North Korea could be preparing to carry out its first weapons test since President Joe Biden took office in January. It also comes a day after North Korean media said Kim Yo Jong, leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister and close aide, had lambasted ongoing US-South Korea joint military exercises and criticized the Biden administration for wanting to spread the “smell of gunpowder from across the ocean.”

The US pair’s trip to South Korea follows a three-day visit to Japan, where they and their Japanese counterparts reaffirmed their commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea and urged Pyongyang to abide by its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions. “Given the unprecedented challenges posed by both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China, the US-ROK alliance has never been more important,” Austin said at the outset of the talks with Suh on Wednesday while stressing that the United States’ commitment to the alliance with South Korea, which has been steadfast for 70 years, remains ironclad.

Suh, in response, expressed gratitude for Austin’s early visit, and said “nothing is more important than upholding combined readiness and deterrent power against North Korea during the process of improving the South Korea-US alliance.” Blinken, speaking at the beginning of his talks with Chung, also acknowledged that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs are shared challenges between Washington and Seoul, while saying that his country “will continue to work together with South Korea and other allies and partners, including Japan, toward the denuclearization of the DPRK,” referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea.

The US official highlighted the values of democracy, harshly criticizing North Korea’s authoritarian regime for abusing its people. He also took aim at China, blasting it for eroding autonomy in Hong Kong, its posturing over Taiwan and asserting maritime claims in the South China Sea. The two countries’ foreign and defense ministers are set to meet together Thursday for their first two-plus-two meeting in over four years.

Blinken told reporters in Tokyo that the Biden administration is currently conducting, in consultation with Japan and South Korea, a “thorough” review of US policy toward North Korea that is expected to be completed in “the coming weeks.” The US secretaries of state and defense last visited South Korea at the same time in 2010.

Negotiations on how much of the costs of hosting US troops South Korea should shoulder had dragged on under the administration of former US President Donald Trump, which reportedly demanded a sharp increase in Seoul’s contribution. But South Korea said on March 10 it had agreed with the United States to increase its share of costs by 13.9 percent this year from 2019 under a multiyear deal.

Myanmar ‘provisional government’ appoints leader to counter junta

Bangkok | Wed, March 10, 2021 | 08:43 pm

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), led by lawmakers from pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), announced on Tuesday that it has appointed Mahn Win Khaing Than as Myanmar’s acting vice president.

The CRPH’s move is seen as acting on its desire to establish a de facto “provisional government” until Suu Kyi and others are released.

The newly appointed acting vice president had served as the speaker of the upper house of Myanmar’s parliament until the military staged a coup on Feb. 1, detaining Suu Kyi and other NLD officials. He will “perform the duties of the president,” the CRPH said in a statement.

According to local media, he is an ethnic minority Karen as well as a Christian — an estimated 70% of Myanmar’s people are Burman Buddhists. He is also the grandson of Ba Khaing, a politician who was assassinated in 1947 along with independence hero Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. He became a lawyer and reportedly joined an ethnic Karen political party in 1990.

He joined the NLD in 2013 and in the 2015 elections won a parliament seat from the state of Kayin. In 2016, he was appointed as speaker of the upper house, seen as part of Suu Kyi’s bid to increase ethnic diversity.

Following the coup, the military detained and “dismissed” Suu Kyi, the state counselor and de facto top government leader, and President Win Myint, among other NLD officials, sparking international condemnation. Suu Kyi had concurrently served as foreign minister.

The CRPH insists that the NLD administration led by Suu Kyi is the country’s legitimate government. On March 2, the CRPH also appointed nine acting cabinet ministers, including acting foreign minister.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s state-run television reported on Tuesday that Kyaw Zwar Minn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.K., who had called for Suu Kyi’s release, has been recalled. It explained that the diplomat “did not act in accordance with the responsibilities given” to him.

Support for the CRPH is growing among officials sent from Myanmar to international organizations and diplomatic missions.

Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, appointed before the recent political upheaval, read out a CRPH statement condemning the coup in late February during a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Myanmar’s military “dismissed” the top U.N. envoy, but the CRPH said it will let him stay in the post.

Briton jailed for breaking Singapore quarantine rules

Singapore / Fri, February 26, 2021 / 04:15 pm

A British man was jailed for two weeks Friday for violating Singapore’s strict coronavirus rules by leaving his room at a luxury hotel while under quarantine to meet his fiancee. Nigel Skea was also fined Sg$1,000 (US$750) for the breach, while Singaporean Agatha Maghesh Eyamalai — now his wife — was jailed for a week for helping him.

Passing sentence, judge Jasvender Kaur said the couple had been “overcome with emotions because they had not seen each other for a long time”. But she said disruptions to relationships were inevitable during the pandemic, and the court must send a “clear message” such violations could not be tolerated.

Skea, 52, arrived in September from London to visit Eyamalai and was ordered to undergo a mandatory, two-week quarantine at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia hotel. He texted Eyamalai, 39, details of where he was staying and she booked a separate room at the same hotel, 13 floors higher.

He then sneaked out of his room and walked up the emergency staircase to the 27th floor where Eyamalai, who was not under quarantine, opened the emergency exit door for him. The pair spent the night together, but a security guard caught him the next morning as he tried to return to his own room.

He could not access his floor via the emergency staircase, so he had to walk down to the fourth floor, where he was spotted. He was also not wearing a mask, another violation of virus rules. The couple, who were married in November, had pleaded guilty.

Their lawyer, Surinder Singh Dhillon, told reporters they would not appeal the sentences as “they want to finish this matter, and he wants to go back home as soon as possible”. Authorities in the city-state have been uncompromising when it comes to those breaking virus rules, and some foreigners have had their work permits revoked. Singapore has been mildly affected by the pandemic, reporting nearly 60,000 cases with 29 deaths.

Australia suspends travel ‘bubble’ with New Zealand


New Zealand | Mon, February 15, 2021 | 07:55 pm

Australia has suspended quarantine-free travel with neighbouring New Zealand after three new community cases of COVID-19 were detected in Auckland over the weekend. New Zealand said on Sunday it was locking down its largest city after new cases emerged in the country, which has been credited with virtually eliminating the virus within its borders.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, convened an urgent meeting late on Sunday and it was decided that all flights originating in New Zealand would be classified as “Red Zone” flights for an initial period of 72 hours from Monday.

“As a result of this, all people arriving on such flights originating within this three-day period will need to go into 14 days of supervised hotel quarantine,” Australia’s Department of Health said on its website. The travel bubble was set up so that New Zealanders could get to Australia without needing to spend 14 days in a hotel, although quarantine was mandatory for people travelling in the other direction.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that genomic sequencing of the latest COVID-19 community cases showed they were the variant B1.1.7, the more transmissible variant first detected in the UK.

“We were absolutely right to make the decision to be extra cautious because we assumed it was going to be one of the more transmissible variants,” Ardern said in a Facebook Live post on Monday. The source of the new cases is still unknown as results do not link directly to any other positive cases detected in New Zealand to date.

Ardern raised restrictions in Auckland to Level 3 through Wednesday, shutting public venues and prohibiting gatherings outside homes, except for weddings and funerals of up to 10 people. Schools will stay open for children of essential workers but others were asked to stay home.

The COVID-19 alert for the rest of the country was raised to Level 2, with all gatherings limited to 100 people, including at restaurants and cafes.

Singapore approves Moderna vaccine as inoculation drive continues


Singapore | Wed, February 3, 2021 | 09:13 pm

Singapore said Wednesday it has approved the use of drugmaker Moderna’s vaccine, the second vaccine to which the government has given the nod after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that arrived last December. The Health Sciences Authority said it has granted an “interim authorization” for the use of the vaccine in the city-state, with the first shipment expected to arrive around March.

Taking into account some delays in the shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Singapore is aiming to have enough vaccines for all Singaporeans and long-term residents within this year, with the government promising free but voluntary vaccinations.

Aside from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, Singapore has also signed a purchase deal with China’s Sinovac Biotech for the vaccine it has developed. Singapore began its vaccination campaign on Dec. 30 with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. So far, more than 175,000 people here have received their first dose, among which 6,000 have received their second dose.

Earlier on Tuesday, Singapore’s parliament passed a law limiting the use of data collected for coronavirus contact-tracing after the government admitted it could be accessed by police, sparking privacy concerns. The city-state last year rolled out a programme called “TraceTogether” for tracking close contacts of Covid-19 patients that works via both a phone app and dongle, but uptake was initially slow, Agence France-Presse has reported.

It rose to more than 80 percent of residents after government assurances the data would only be used to fight the virus and a decision to make it mandatory for accessing some public places. But there was an outcry last month when officials admitted police could access information gathered in the scheme as part of investigations, and had already done so during a murder probe.

On Tuesday, lawmakers approved legislation limiting the cases in which police can get hold of the data. It did not cut them off entirely but will give them access only during investigations into seven categories of serious offence, including possession of firearms, terrorism and rape.

Australia set for 10th day of no local COVID-19 cases


Sydney, Australia | Wed, January 27, 2021 | 08:53 pm

Australia is on track for a 10th day of no new local COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with its most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) hoping to ease coronavirus restrictions this week after controlling a fast-spreading cluster. Australia’s most populous state NSW has recorded no local cases for 10 days after low single digit numbers earlier in January.

Victoria state, which is hosting the Australia Open tennis tournament, has gone three weeks without a local case. Other states and territories which have mostly been COVID-free, some for months, will report daily case numbers later on Wednesday, but are expected to report zero local infections.

Australia’s success in curbing small outbreaks, with a total 22,000 local cases since March 2020 and 909 deaths, comes at a time when global coronavirus cases are edging towards 100 million with the death toll surpassing 2 million. An advertising campaign will be launched later on Wednesday to encourage people to take the COVID-19 vaccine after the country’s regulator this week approved the Pfizer-BioNtech shot.

A rollout is expected in late-February. NSW made masks mandatory in indoor venues such as shopping centres and cinemas, imposed a cap on public gatherings while suspending dance floors even for night clubs to successfully curb outbreaks in Sydney’s northern beaches and western suburbs.

The outbreaks saw other states and territories close borders or restrict travel from NSW. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklien told the Australian Broadcasting Corp she hoped to receive medical advice later in the day that would allow her to ease restrictions this week. “In New South Wales our policy always is don’t keep restrictions or burden our citizens a day longer than you need to.

I’m hoping to have confirmation of advice that allows us to announce that later this week,” she said. Despite its relative success in handling the pandemic, Australia’s international borders will likely remain shut to non-citizens this year although there may be exclusive travel arrangements called “bubbles” with its South Pacific neighbours.

Australia had a one-way “travel bubble” with New Zealand where those arriving from the latter didn’t have to quarantine, but that arrangement was suspended for 72 hours on Monday after a highly infectious coronavirus strain was found in New Zealand.

Turkey’s Erdogan to visit Indonesia in 2021


Jakarta | Fri, December 25, 2020 | 06:32 pm

Indonesia and Turkey are working on a plan for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to come to Jakarta next year for an official visit, as the two sides missed out on the opportunity to celebrate a milestone anniversary this year. Jokowi visited Ankara in 2017 and Erdogan was originally scheduled to visit Indonesia in the second half of 2020 to mark 70 years of diplomatic relations, but the pandemic put the plan on ice.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi discussed the follow-up visit with her Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Jakarta on Tuesday, when they also signed a diplomatic training agreement.

Retno said the two countries were looking at forming a “high-level strategic council” as a forum for their leaders to regularly discuss strategic bilateral, regional and multilateral issues. The two ministers are also hoping that negotiations on the Indonesia-Turkey Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IT-CEPA) will be completed next year, as mandated by the presidents of both countries.

“The IT-CEPA has the potential to increase bilateral trade between Indonesia and Turkey. It will also serve to demonstrate our commitment to an open, fair and free multilateral trade system, and to concerted efforts to support post-epidemic economic recovery,” said Retno. Indonesia is one of Turkey’s largest trade partners in the Asia-Pacific, and the two sides are targeting US$10 billion in bilateral trade by 2023.

“When we look at the trade volume between the two countries, it is around US$1.5 billion. The total population of our two countries is 350 million, so $1.5 million is far [below] our true potential,” Çavuşoğlu said in a joint press event after the meeting.

Retno said Indonesia also welcomed the increasing interest in Indonesia among Turkish investors, especially in shipping, agriculture and infrastructure. “I also conveyed to the Turkish Foreign Minister about the recently enacted Job Creation Law, which I believe can create a climate that is increasingly conducive to Turkish investment in Indonesia,” she added.

The two foreign ministers hailed the close cooperation between their countries in the security and defense industry following Çavuşoğlu’s working meeting with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto on Dec. 22.

“Regarding technology and industrial cooperation, since last June, intensive talks have been initiated by the two countries to cooperate in the aerospace industry, in electric cars, rocket launch sites, satellites and satellite launch vehicles, as well as medical and pharmaceutical technology,” said Retno. The two Muslim-majority countries also discussed the latest developments in the Middle East and jointly expressed the need to strengthen the Organization of Islamic Cooperation amid the challenges in the Islamic world. Specifically regarding the Israel-Palestine issue, Retno said she reaffirmed Indonesia’s commitment to stand behind Palestine.

“The Palestinian issue must be resolved based on various [United Nations] Security Council resolutions and internationally agreed parameters, including the two-state solution,” she stressed. Indonesia has pledged to recognize Israel only after Palestine had gained independence under the two-state solution, although details have recently emerged that the United States was offering financial incentives to Indonesia to normalize relations with Israel. Unlike Indonesia, Turkey has formal ties with Israel, although the past year has seen tensions rise between the two over the Middle East conflict.

Fireworks in pandemic: Bali to allow New Year’s Eve celebrations

Jakarta | Fri, December 11, 2020 | 06:16 pm

The Bali provincial administration will allow hotels, restaurants and tourists destinations to hold the upcoming New Year’s Eve celebration under COVID-19 health protocols in a bid to revive the famed resort island’s tourism sector.

There have not been any restrictions issued by the administration, Bali Tourism Agency head Putu Astawa said. “There are no restrictions yet. We still allow [celebrations] on the condition that health protocols are implemented and capacity is limited to 50 percent,” he said on Friday.

Bali Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) head Dewa Nyoman Rai Darmada said his office would deploy personnel to help monitor locations where there were likely to be crowds. The supervision is part of efforts to make sure that all parties adhere to COVID-19 health protocols during New Year’s Eve.

“We will conduct direct field monitoring at gathering points,” he said. However, Darmadi further said that the Bali authorities would soon issue an appeal for residents not to congregate in large crowds for New Year’s Eve celebrations. The authorities believed that residents would follow the required health protocols amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he said, adding that this was because everyone in Bali wanted the tourism sector to recover.

“Bali people really feel the burden of [the decline] in tourism. Tourism is almost empty and [they are faced] with layoffs. They are fully aware about upholding health protocols to keep Bali safe from COVID-19,” Darmadi said.

Satpol PP has been actively conducting raids against health protocols violations. A total of 11,693 people were netted in raids from September to the second week of December. Of that figure, 1,722 people were fined while the rest were given warnings. Tourism is the backbone of Bali’s economy, contributing around 60 percent of the island’s gross regional product.

The pandemic has severely hit the province’s local economy, 80 percent of which relies on tourism. At least 2,667 people who work in the tourism sector on the island have lost their job, and 73,631 people have been forced to take unpaid leave.

Health Ministry data show that 112 more people in Bali contracted the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the total number of cases on the island to 15,182. The province has recorded 455 fatalities and 13,791 recoveries as per Thursday’s data.

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