China conducts fresh drills around Taiwan as US lawmakers visit

Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft maneuver during an earlier joint combat training exercises around Taiwan. (Xinhua via AP)
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Updated 15 August 2022

China conducts fresh drills around Taiwan as US lawmakers visit

  • Beijing calls drills a ‘deterrent’ against Washington and Taipei

BEIJING: China said Monday it had organized fresh military drills around Taiwan, as a delegation of visiting United States lawmakers met the island’s leader after a similar trip by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heightened fears of conflict.

The unannounced two-day trip came after Beijing sent warships, missiles and jets into the waters and skies around Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that China’s leaders claim and have vowed to one day seize.

The five-member congressional delegation — led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts — met with President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday, according to Washington’s de facto embassy.

“The delegation had an opportunity to exchange views with Taiwan counterparts on a wide range of issues of importance to both the United States and Taiwan,” it said.

The bipartisan trip sparked a caustic response from Beijing, which said it had carried out “combat readiness patrol and combat drills in the sea and airspace around Taiwan island” on Monday.

“This is a solemn deterrent against the US and Taiwan for continuing to play political tricks and undermining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Shi Yi, spokesman for the Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command, said in a statement, promising to “resolutely defend national sovereignty.”

Taiwan’s government has accused Beijing of using Pelosi’s visit as an excuse to kickstart drills that would allow it to rehearse for an invasion.

China’s Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan but says it will use force if necessary to take the island and bristles at any perceived treatment of it as a sovereign nation state.

In response to the delegation’s visit, Beijing called on Washington to “stop going further down the wrong path of hollowing out and distorting the one-China principle, so as not to cause further damage to China-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

“China will take firm and forceful measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing.

That decades-old threat was reiterated in a white paper published last week when China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said it would “not renounce the use of force” against its neighbor and reserved “the option of taking all necessary measures.”

It added, however: “We will only be forced to take drastic measures to respond to the provocation of separatist elements or external forces should they ever cross our red lines.”

Taipei has remained defiant throughout the standoff with Beijing, with foreign minister Joseph Wu saying after a meeting with the delegation that their visit showed the island had not been cowed by China’s threats.

“Authoritarian China can’t dictate how democratic Taiwan makes friends, wins support, stays resilient and shines like a beacon of freedom,” Wu said in a tweet.

“Their visit once again demonstrates that China cannot dictate nor instruct other countries’ politicians not to visit Taiwan,” Lo Chih-cheng, a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said.

Pelosi has stood by her visit but President Joe Biden said the US military was opposed to the trip by his fellow Democrat, who is second in line to the presidency after the vice president.

Congress is constitutionally an equal branch of government in the United States, with lawmakers free to travel where they wish, and Taiwan enjoys bipartisan backing in divided Washington.

The United States switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. But it remains a key ally of Taiwan and maintains de facto diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Washington’s official policy opposes both Taiwan declaring independence and China forcibly changing the island’s status.

It remains deliberately ambiguous about whether it would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if China invaded.

Visits by senior US officials to Taiwan have happened for decades and even Pelosi’s trip was not without precedent — then-speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich visited in 1997.

But the frequency and profile of US visits has increased both under former president Donald Trump and Biden.

Taiwan has also seen a flurry of delegations visit from Europe and other Western allies in recent years, partly in response to Beijing’s more aggressive stance under Chinese President Xi Jinping.


Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

Updated 05 December 2022

Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

  • The growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues
  • Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production

STOCKHOLM: Sales of arms and military services grew in 2021, researchers said Monday, but were limited by worldwide supply issues related to the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine increasing demand while worsening supply difficulties.
The top 100 arms companies sold weapons and related services totalling $592 billion in 2021, 1.9-percent more than the year before, said the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
However the growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues.
“The lasting impact of the pandemic is really starting to show in arms companies,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP.
Disruptions from both labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials were “slowing down the companies’ ability to produce weapons systems and deliver them on time.
“So what we see really is a potentially slower increase to what many would have expected in arms sales in 2021,” Tian said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also expected to worsen supply chain issues, in part “because Russia is a major supplier of raw materials used in arms production,” said the report’s authors.
But the war has at the same time increased demand.
“Definitely demand will increase in the coming years,” Tian said.
By how much was at the same time harder to gauge, Tian said pointing to two factors that would impact demand.
Firstly, countries that have sent weapons to Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars will be looking to replenish stockpiles.
Secondly, the worsening security environment means “countries are looking to procure more weapons.”
With the supply crunch expected to worsen, it could hamper these efforts, the authors noted.
Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production, accounting for over half, $299 billion, of global sales and 40 of the top companies.
At the same time, the region was the only one to see a drop in sales: 0.9 percent down on the 2020 figures.
Among the top five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — only Raytheon recorded an increase in sales.
Meanwhile, sales from the eight largest Chinese arms companies rose 6.3 percent to $109 billion in 2021.
European companies took 27 of the spots on the top 100, with combined sales of $123 billion, up 4.2 percent compared to 2020.
The report also noted a trend of private equity firms buying up arms companies, something the authors said had become increasingly apparent over the last three or four years.
This trend threatens to make the arms industry more opaque and therefore harder to track, Tian said, “because private equity firms will buy these companies and then essentially not produce any more financial records.”


US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

Updated 04 December 2022

US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

  • Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east

KYIV: The head of US intelligence says fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is running at a “reduced tempo” and suggests Ukrainian forces could have brighter prospects in coming months.
Avril Haines alluded to past allegations by some that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news — for Russia — about war developments, and said he “is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia.”
“But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture of at this stage of just how challenged they are,” the US director of national intelligence said late Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Looking ahead, Haines said, “honestly we’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict” and her team expects that both sides will look to refit, resupply, and reconstitute for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring.
“But we actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that,” she said. “And I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east, near the town of Bakhmut, while shelling sites in the city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month after an 8-month Russian occupation.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lashed out at Western efforts to crimp Russia’s crucial oil industry, a key source of funds for Putin’s war machine, saying their $60-per-barrel price cap on imports of Russian oil was insufficient.
“It is not a serious decision to set such a limit for Russian prices, which is quite comfortable for the budget of the terrorist state,” Zelensky said, referring to Russia. He said the $60-per-barrel level would still allow Russia to bring in $100 billion in revenues per year.
“This money will go not only to the war and not only to further sponsorship by Russia of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will be used for further destabilization of those countries that are now trying to avoid serious decisions,” Zelensky said.
Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the 27-nation European Union agreed Friday to cap what they would pay for Russian oil at $60 per barrel. The limit is set to take effect Monday, along with an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.
Russian authorities have rejected the price cap and threatened Saturday to stop supplying the nations that endorsed it.
In yet another show of Western support for Ukraine’s efforts to battle back Russian forces and cope with fallout from the war, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on Saturday visited the operations of a Ukrainian aid group that provides support for internally displaced people in Ukraine, among her other visits with top Ukrainian officials.
Nuland assembled dolls out of yarn in the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag with youngsters from regions including northeastern Kharkiv, southern Kherson, and eastern Donetsk.
“This is psychological support for them at an absolutely crucial time,” Nuland said.
“As President Putin knows best, this war could stop today, if he chose to stop it and withdrew his forces — and then negotiations can begin,” she added.


Indonesia’s Mt. Semeru unleashes lava river in new eruption

Mount Semeru releases volcanic materials during an eruption on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022 in Lumajang, East java, Indonesia. (AP)
Updated 05 December 2022

Indonesia’s Mt. Semeru unleashes lava river in new eruption

  • Semeru volcano on Java island spews a column of ash 1.5km into the air
  • Indonesia has the largest population globally living in close range to a volcano

JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia’s highest volcano on its most densely populated island released searing gas clouds and rivers of lava Sunday in its latest eruption.
Monsoon rains eroded and finally collapsed the lava dome atop 3,676-meter (12,060-foot) Mount Semeru, causing the eruption, according to National Disaster Management Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari.
Several villages were blanketed with falling ash, blocking out the sun, but no casualties have been reported. Several hundred residents, their faces smeared with volcanic dust and rain, fled to temporary shelters or left for other safe areas.
Thick columns of ash were blasted more than 1,500 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) into the sky while searing gas and lava flowed down Semeru’s slopes toward a nearby river.
Increased activities of the volcano on Sunday afternoon prompted authorities to widen the danger zone to 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the crater, said Hendra Gunawan, who heads the Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Center.
He said scientists raised the volcano’s alert level to the highest and people were advised to keep off the southeastern sector along the Besuk Kobokan River, which is in the path of the lava flow.
Semeru’s last major eruption was in December last year, when it blew up with fury that left 51 people dead in villages that were buried in layers of mud. Several hundred others suffered serious burns and the eruption forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. The government moved about 2,970 houses out of the danger zone.
Semeru, also known as Mahameru, has erupted numerous times in the last 200 years. Still, as is the case with many of the 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, tens of thousands of people continue to live on its fertile slopes.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of fault lines, and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.

 


Concern as English local authority admits 39 Albanian child migrants missing

Updated 04 December 2022

Concern as English local authority admits 39 Albanian child migrants missing

  • FOI request shows 20 percent of 2022 intake ‘disappeared’ while in Kent County Council care

LONDON: Up to 20 percent of Albanian child migrants relocated to an English council in 2022 have been classified as disappeared after going missing, the BBC reported.

Kent County Council admitted 197 unaccompanied Albanian child migrants up to Oct. 31, but figures show that 39 have gone missing.

Officials said that the council is working closely with the UK Home Office to protect and safeguard vulnerable migrant children.

It comes as figures revealed that almost 12,000 Albanians crossed into the UK this year.

The number is an almost 4,000 percent increase on last year’s figure.

Ecpat UK, a campaign group that aims to protect vulnerable children, described the figures obtained by the BBC through a Freedom of Information request as “concerning.”

Head of policy, advocacy and research Laura Duran said that the 20 percent figure represented a “really high” number of missing children.

“We’re really concerned they are at risk of exploitation or have effectively been trafficked,” she said.

“They could be facing labor exploitation in different industries such as construction or car washes. They could be criminally exploited in drug distribution or in cannabis farms, or they could be sexually exploited.”

In a statement, Kent County Council said: “While all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are vulnerable to exploitation, research and experience evidences that some nationalities are particularly vulnerable and can go missing from local authority care very quickly.

“Kent County Council has used both established safeguarding protocols, including the National Referral Mechanism, and initiated multi-agency strategies to minimize the risks for these children as much as possible.

“The council continues to take a proactive role in safeguarding all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in its care.”


Ukraine detains 8 over Banksy mural theft

Updated 03 December 2022

Ukraine detains 8 over Banksy mural theft

  • The stencil image of a person in a nightgown and gas mask holding a fire extinguisher next to the charred remains of a window in the town of Gostomel went missing on Friday
  • The image is in good condition and in the hands of the authorities
KYIV: Ukraine has detained eight people over the theft from a wall in the Kyiv suburbs of a mural painted by elusive British street artist Banksy, the authorities said.
The stencil image of a person in a nightgown and gas mask holding a fire extinguisher next to the charred remains of a window in the town of Gostomel went missing on Friday, they said.
“A group of people tried to steal a Banksy mural. They cut out the work from the wall of a house destroyed by the Russians,” Kyiv governor Oleksiy Kuleba said in a post on Telegram late Friday.
He attached the image of a gaping hole in the wall where the image once stood.
“Several people were detained on the spot,” he said. “The image is in good condition and in the hands of the authorities.”
Other works in the area thought also to be the work of Banksy are under police protection, he said.
Kyiv police chief Andriy Nebitov said “eight people had been identified” as possibly involved, and a preliminary inquiry had been opened into the matter.
“All were aged between 27 and 60 years old. They are residents of Kyiv and Cherkasy” some 200 km (120 miles) southeast of the capital, he said.
Last month, Banksy posted an image of the stencil of a gymnast performing a handstand on the wall of a wrecked building in Borodyanka, another suburb of the capital.
He then posted a video of several more of his artworks, including the person in a gas mask holding the fire extinguisher.
Others included the portraits of a bearded man scrubbing up in a bathtub, and a young boy in a karate outfit slamming his adult opponent to the ground.
Together with towns such as Bucha and Irpin, Borodyanka and Gostomel were severely hit by Russian bombardment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.