US, Japan show united front on China in Biden’s first summit

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden meet the press at the Rose Garden of the White House on April 16, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 17 April 2021

US, Japan show united front on China in Biden’s first summit

  • ‘We’re going to work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century’

WASHINGTON: The United States and Japan vowed Friday to stand firm together against an assertive China and to step up cooperation on climate change and next-generation technology as President Joe Biden made his first summit a show of alliance unity.
After waiting nearly three months for his first foreign guest due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden told Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that Japan enjoyed the United States’ “iron-clad support” on security issues and beyond.
“We’re going to work together to prove that democracies can still compete and win in the 21st century,” Biden, affectionately calling the Japanese leader “Yoshi,” told a socially distanced news conference in the White House Rose Garden.
A joint statement called for “candid conversations” with China and did not hold back, raising concerns over Beijing’s growing maritime moves, its clampdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and growing tension over Taiwan.
The statement reiterated that the US-Japan Security Treaty covers the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands – one of several areas in the region where Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu, has increasingly shown its might.
The United States and Japan “recognize the importance of deterrence to maintain peace and stability in the region,” the statement said.
“We oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” read one line highlighted by Suga.
The Chinese embassy in the United States hit back on Saturday, expressing “strong concern and firm opposition” to the comments.
“It cannot be more ironic that such an attempt at stoking division and building blocs against other countries is put under the banner of ‘free and open,’” a statement by the embassy said, referring to a US pledge to build a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.
The matters raised “bear on China’s fundamental interests and allow no interference,” it added.
Biden and Suga also emphasized “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” as Beijing steps up air incursions in Taiwan.
While cautiously worded, it was the first time a Japanese leader has joined a US president in a statement on Taiwan since the allies separately switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the 1970s.
Taiwan is an especially sensitive issue for Beijing, which claims the self-governing democracy.
The forthright statement comes despite Japan’s efforts in recent years not to antagonize China, its top trading partner, including by not joining Western nations in sanctions over human rights.
Suga echoed Biden’s themes as he described the US-Japan alliance as the “foundation of peace and stability” in the region.
“Freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are the universal values that link our alliance,” Suga said.
In a highly unusual comment by a Japanese leader on the US domestic scene, Suga also voiced concern over a wave of attacks in the United States against people of Asian descent.
Biden’s second in-person summit will take place next month with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, part of the new administration’s strategy of shoring up alliances as it zeroes in on China as America’s most pressing challenge.
On another of his key priorities, Biden said he and Suga agreed on the need for “ambitious” climate commitments and indicated that both nations would soon announce goals by 2030.
Biden will lead a virtual summit next week in hopes of rallying climate pledges amid growing evidence of a planetary crisis as average temperatures hit record highs and natural disasters become more frequent.
Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, promised under the Paris accord to reduce emissions by 26 percent by 2030 but from 2013 levels – a goal that experts say is not bold enough to meet Suga’s goal of a carbon-neutral Japan in 2050.
“We confirmed that Japan and the US will lead global decarbonization,” Suga said.
Biden and Suga said they would step up joint development and testing of fifth-generation Internet – as well as the sixth-generation technologies of the future.
The United States and Japan must “maintain and sharpen our competitive edge” and ensure that “those technologies are governed by shared democratic norms that we both share – norms set by democracies, not by autocracies,” Biden said.
China’s Huawei has taken an early dominant role in 5G, which is becoming a crucial part of the global economy, despite heavy US pressure on the company, which Washington argues poses threats to security and privacy.
A joint statement said the United States had committed $2.5 billion and Japan another $2 billion.
Masashi Adachi, a special adviser to Suga, told reporters that the agreement was more about joint development than fresh funding, pointing to several projects underway in Japan on 5G development.
Suga in September succeeded Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who was one of the few democratic allies to manage to preserve stable relations with Biden’s volatile predecessor Donald Trump.
Biden and Suga also recommitted to the denuclearization of North Korea and discussed next moves following Trump’s unusually personal diplomacy with the totalitarian state.


What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

Updated 21 min 8 sec ago

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

  • Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible

India said on Wednesday it has found around 40 cases of the Delta coronavirus variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it more transmissible, and advised states to increase testing.
The variant, called "Delta Plus" in India, was first reported in a Public Health England bulletin on June 11.
It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible.
"The mutation K417N has been of interest as it is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage), which was reported to have immune evasion property," India's health ministry said in a statement.
Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
As of June 16, at least 197 cases has been found from 11 countries - Britain (36), Canada (1), India (8), Japan (15), Nepal (3), Poland (9), Portugal (22), Russia (1), Switzerland (18), Turkey (1), the United States (83).
India said on Wednesday around 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, with "no significant increase in prevalence". The earliest case in India is from a sample taken on April 5.
Britain said its first 5 cases were sequenced on April 26 and they were contacts of individuals who had travelled from, or transited through, Nepal and Turkey.
No deaths were reported among the UK and Indian cases.
Studies are ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of vaccines against this mutation.
"WHO is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as we are doing for other Variants of Concern with additional mutations," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"For the moment, this variant does not seem to be common, currently accounting for only a small fraction of the Delta sequences ... Delta and other circulating Variants of Concern remain a higher public health risk as they have demonstrated increases in transmission," it said.
But India's health ministry warned that regions where it has been found "may need to enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination."
There are worries Delta Plus would inflict another wave of infections on India after it emerged from the world's worst surge in cases only recently.
"The mutation itself may not lead to a third wave in India - that also depends on COVID-appropriate behaviour, but it could be one of the reasons," said Tarun Bhatnagar, a scientist with the state-run Indian Council for Medical Research.


US blocks websites linked to Iranian disinformation

Updated 23 June 2021

US blocks websites linked to Iranian disinformation

  • Justice Department seizes 36 Iranian-linked websites, many of them associated with either disinformation activities or violent organizations
  • Several sites were back online within hours with new domain addresses, sites seized included Press TV, government's English-language TV channel

DUBAI: The US Justice Department on Tuesday blocked some three dozen websites, many of them associated with Iranian disinformation activities, a US government source said, adding an official announcement was expected.
The source in Washington spoke after notices appeared earlier on Tuesday on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been seized by the United States government as part of law enforcement action.
Iranian news agencies said that the US government had seized several Iranian media websites and sites belonging to groups affiliated with Iran such as Yemen’s Houthi movement.
Some sites later started to display as normal.
The website of the Arabic-language Masirah TV, which is run by the Houthis, read:
“The domain almasirah.net has been seized by the United States Government in accordance with a seizure warrant ... as part of a law enforcement action by the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The site quickly opened up a new, working website at www.almasirah.com.
Iran’s Arabic language Alalam TV said on its Telegram channel: “US authorities shut down Al-Alam TV’s website.”
A US Justice Department spokesperson had no immediate comment. Two US government sources indicated that the Justice Department was preparing an announcement on this issue.
The notices appeared days after a prominent hard-liner and fierce critic of the West, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected as Iran’s new president and after envoys for Iran and six world powers including Washington adjourned talks on reviving their tattered 2015 nuclear accord and returned to capitals for consultations.
Notices also appeared on websites of Iran’s English-language Press TV and Lualua TV, an Arabic-language Bahraini independent channel which broadcasts from Britain.
“In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message appears on the websites of Iranian and regional television networks that claims the domains of the websites have been ‘seized by the United States Government’,” Press TV said on Twitter.
Last October, US prosecutors seized a network of web domains which they said were used in a campaign by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to spread political disinformation around the world.
The US Justice Department said then that it had taken control of 92 domains used by the IRGC to pose as independent media outlets targeting audiences in the United States, Europe, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The semi-official Iranian news agency YJC agency said on Tuesday the US move “demonstrates that calls for freedom of speech are lies.” 


New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

Updated 23 June 2021

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

  • The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: After enjoying nearly four months without any community transmission of the coronavirus, New Zealanders were on edge Wednesday after health authorities said an infectious traveler from Australia had visited over the weekend.
New Zealand has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic and continues to pursue an elimination strategy.
The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths. But its vaccination campaign has been far slower than in most developed countries, with just 13 percent of the population having gotten their first dose.
Although there were no immediate cases confirmed as a result of the traveler’s visit from Sydney to New Zealand’s capital Wellington, authorities were asking people at more than a dozen locations to self-isolate for two weeks and get tested.
They also imposed physical distancing requirements in the Wellington region and restricted crowd sizes to 100 from Wednesday evening through Sunday.
“I’m confident that if we do all the things we have done in the past, if people do what is asked of them, we will reduce the risk,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health.
Bloomfield said the traveler was linked to a Sydney outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant that originated in India.
The outbreak in Australia’s largest city has grown to 31 cases and led to a tightening of restrictions
It began last week when a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive. He was not vaccinated and is suspected to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew.
Residents living in the worst-affected parts of Sydney have been told they can only travel outside the city for essential reasons. Authorities have also made masks compulsory outside homes and limited the number of household visitors to five.
New Zealand has stopped quarantine-free travel from the Australian state of New South Wales for at least three days.
New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free travel bubble in April, although it has been temporarily halted several times as Australia has dealt with small community outbreaks.
Health authorities said the traveler had visited New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa as well as a number of restaurants, stores and tourist spots. Te Papa announced it was closed and would provide updates as the situation unfolded.
Health authorities said the traveler visited Wellington from Saturday through Monday before returning to Australia and testing positive for COVID-19. They said four close contacts of the traveler were self-isolating and had all tested negative for the virus.


Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Updated 23 June 2021

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

  • The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights group Global Witness says.
A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and “like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report, published late Tuesday.
That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm in the country.
Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that break our rules.”
Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks, Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.
“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan while she worked there.
The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.
Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned down a village.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social media management platform NapoleonCat.
“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many people in the country, Facebook effectively is the Internet.
On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians, Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no history of liking or following specific topics and searched for “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search results to show pages, and selected the top result — a military fan page whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”
Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of interference in last year’s election and support of violence against civilians.
A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters who vandalize surveillance cameras.
“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you are not afraid to die, keep going.”
Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates our policies to help keep people safe.”
Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the “very basics” of its own guidelines.
“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are designed, trained, and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,” said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness. “This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”


Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash

Updated 23 June 2021

Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash

  • The former NBA star, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six other passengers were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020
  • The settlement agreement would end legal action against the pilot's estate and the helicopter company

LOS ANGELES: Kobe Bryant’s widow has agreed to settle a lawsuit against the pilot and owners of the helicopter that crashed last year, killing the NBA star, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Vanessa Bryant, her children and relatives of other victims filed a settlement agreement notice Tuesday with a federal judge in Los Angeles but terms of the confidential deal weren’t disclosed.
If approved by the court, the settlement — first announced by KABC-TV — would end a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit filed against the estate of the pilot and the owner and operator of the helicopter that crashed into a hillside on Jan. 26, 2020.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Pilot Ara Zobayan climbed sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in February that blamed pilot error for the crash. The NTSB said a series of poor decisions led Zobayan to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging.
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc. for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
The settlement agreement would end legal action against Zobayan’s estate, Island Express Helicopters Inc. and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp. The suit alleged the companies didn’t properly train or supervise Zobayan and that the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.
Island Express Helicopters has denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” it couldn’t control. It countersued two Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”
The settlement agreement wouldn’t include the countersuit against the federal government.