How setbacks in Afghanistan slowed global progress on UN’s gender equality goal

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Taliban fighters fire into the air to disperse Afghan women protesters in Kabul on August 13, 2022. (AFP)
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Afghan women refugees rally in front of the UN headquarters in New York to protest the loss of their rights under Taliban rule. (AFP)
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Afghan women in Kabul as a convoy of Taliban fighters makes its way down the road. (AFP)
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Updated 24 September 2022

How setbacks in Afghanistan slowed global progress on UN’s gender equality goal

  • Decades of achievements wiped out in mere months since Taliban takeover in August 2021
  • Globally, women lost an estimated $800 billion in income in 2020 due to the pandemic
  • Norwegian representative underscores need to keep situation of women in Afghanistan high on the UN agenda

NEW YORK CITY / BOGOTA, Colombia: Since the Taliban seized Kabul in August 2021, two decades of progress in women’s education, employment, and empowerment in Afghan public life have been dramatically rolled back, leading to calls for the international community to increase pressure on the regime.

Speaking at a recent UN news conference, Naheed Farid, an Afghan women’s rights activist who was the youngest-ever politician elected to the nation’s parliament in 2010, urged world leaders to label the Taliban a “gender apartheid” regime.




Afghan women’s rights activist Naheed Farid speaks at a UN conference on women rights. (Supplied)

“Afghan women are experiencing one of the biggest human rights crises in the world and in the history of human rights. What is happening in Afghanistan is gender apartheid,” Farid told reporters in New York on Sept. 12. 

“I’m not the first to say that. But the inaction of the international community and decision-makers at large makes it important for all of us to repeat this every time we can.”

Just as it had in South Africa in the 1980s and ’90s, Farid said the apartheid label could be a catalyst for change in Afghanistan, where severe restrictions have been placed on women’s movements, right to work and access to education since the Taliban took power.




The OIC and other multilateral bodies need to get the Taliban to respect women’s and human rights issues, says advocate Naheed Farid. (Supplied)

When world leaders meet for the UN General Assembly in New York City, Farid said, they must speak with Afghan women living in exile and try to grasp the severity of the situation facing women and girls in Afghanistan.

“All Afghan women, regardless of where they are, feel abandoned by the international community, feel like their voices are not heard, and their demands not reflected in any of the discussions and policies impacting the future of their countries,” she said.

Farid called on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other multilateral bodies to create a platform for Afghan women to directly negotiate with the Taliban on women’s rights and human rights issues. 

Also speaking at the press conference, Najiba Sanjar, an Afghan feminist and human rights activist, urged governments to maintain sanctions on the Taliban, to ban the group’s representatives from the UN, and for all delegations meeting with regime officials to include women. 

“There was a need to engage with the Taliban to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan, but this engagement first must not be behind closed doors with the absence of Afghan women,” said Sanjar.

“Secondly, the engagement with the Taliban should not give legitimacy and recognition to the Taliban. And, as always, and especially this month before the world convenes for the UN General Assembly, we ask that Afghan women are not forgotten, not silenced, and not relinquished as collateral damage of the world’s broken promises.”

According to a new UN report, achieving full gender equality worldwide could be centuries away, with existing disparities compounded in recent times by multiple global crises and a backlash against empowerment of women in some countries.




By the end of 2022, around 383 million women and girls will live in extreme poverty compared to 368 million men and boys, says UN report. (AFP)

In 2015, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals — a set of aspirations covering everything from ending hunger to making education available to all — to be achieved by 2030. Among them was the goal of gender equality. 

However, according to the UN report, titled “Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2022,” compiled by UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, this goal is unlikely to be achieved this century, let alone by the end of the decade.

At the current rate of progress, the report estimates it will take up to 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace, and at least 40 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments. 

To eradicate child marriage by 2030, the report says progress must be 17 times faster than the progress of the last decade. It also points to a reversal in the reduction of poverty and says rising prices are likely to exacerbate this trend. 

By the end of 2022, around 383 million women and girls will live in extreme poverty compared to 368 million men and boys. Many more will have insufficient income to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and adequate shelter in most parts of the world, the report adds.

“This is a tipping point for women’s rights and gender equality as we approach the halfway mark to 2030,” Sima Bahous, UN Women executive director, said in a statement. 

“It is critical that we rally now to invest in women and girls to reclaim and accelerate progress. The data show undeniable regressions in their lives made worse by the global crises — in incomes, safety, education, and health. The longer we take to reverse this trend, the more it will cost us all.”

Several overlapping crises have contributed to this reversal in women’s rights and opportunities. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions have taken a disproportionate toll on women and women-headed households. 

In 2020, school and preschool closures during the pandemic required 672 billion hours of additional unpaid childcare globally. Assuming the gender divide in care work remained the same as before the pandemic, women would have shouldered 512 billion of those hours.

Globally, women lost an estimated $800 billion in income in 2020 due to the pandemic, and, despite a rebound, their participation in labor markets is projected to be lower in 2022 than it was pre-pandemic.

 

 

At the same time, regional conflicts and the impact of climate change have displaced millions. There are now more women and girls who are forcibly displaced than ever before — some 44 million women and girls by the end of 2021. 

Meanwhile, about 38 percent of female-headed households in war-affected areas experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, compared to 20 percent of male-headed households, according to the UN report.

The war in Ukraine has only compounded this food insecurity, causing a spike in the market price of bread, cooking oils, and other staples in some of the world’s most vulnerable, import-dependent contexts. 

“Cascading global crises are putting the achievement of the SDGs in jeopardy, with the world’s most vulnerable population groups disproportionately impacted, in particular women and girls,” Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs at UN/DESA, said in a statement.

“Gender equality is a foundation for achieving all SDGs and it should be at the heart of building back better.”

Isolated on the world stage, deprived of essential financial assistance, and afflicted by drought and other natural disasters, Afghanistan is uniquely vulnerable to this amalgam of crises. 

A recent survey of women inside Afghanistan highlighted at the press conference by Sanjar, found that only 4 percent of women reported always having enough food to eat, while a quarter said their income had dropped to zero. 

Family violence and femicide have reportedly increased, and 57 percent of Afghan women are married before the age of 19, the survey found. There are even cases of families selling their daughters and their possessions to buy food.  

“We are all watching the sufferings of women, girls and minorities from the screens of our TVs as if an action movie is going on,” Sanjar told reporters. “A true form of injustice is taking place right in front of our eyes. And we are all watching silently and partaking in this sin by staying complacent and accepting it as a new normal.”  

And the Taliban’s treatment of women could be worsening the situation for Afghanistan as a whole. Unless the Taliban shows it is willing to soften its hardline approach, particularly on matters relating to women’s rights, the regime is unlikely to gain access to billions of dollars in desperately needed aid, loans and frozen assets held by the US, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. 

Furthermore, keeping women out of work costs Afghanistan up to $1 billion, or 5 percent of gross domestic product, according to the UN. 

“It is more important than ever to keep the situation of women in Afghanistan high on our agenda,” said Mona Juul, permanent representative of Norway to the UN, speaking at the Sept. 12 UN press conference, which was organized by the Norwegian mission.

Norway is the penholder on Afghanistan-related issues at the Security Council. The role of penholder refers to the member of the UN body that leads the negotiations and drafting of resolutions on a particular issue.

Juul added: “One year after the Taliban takeover, the situation for women and girls has deteriorated at a shocking scale and speed. Countries, like my own, will continue to engage with the Taliban directly to underscore how girls’ education and women’s participation are fundamental, not least to respond to the dire humanitarian and economic crisis in the country.”

 

Studies have shown that each additional year of schooling can boost a girl’s earnings as an adult by up to 20 percent with further impacts on poverty reduction, better maternal health, lower child mortality, greater HIV prevention, and reduced violence against women. 

“In Afghanistan, like everywhere else in the world, sustainable peace and development can only happen when women fully participate in all aspects of political life,” said Juul. “No country can afford to leave behind their women and girls.”

For millions of Afghan women and girls who had experienced some semblance of freedom under a UN-recognized government from 2001 to 2021, the future under the Taliban appears unfathomably bleak.

“I’m hearing more and more stories from Afghan women choosing to take their life out of hopelessness and despair,” said Farid. 

“This is the ultimate indicator on how bad the situation is for Afghan women and girls — that they are choosing death, and that this is preferred for them than living under the Taliban regime.” 

 


Salman Rushdie says he feels ‘lucky’ in first interview since stabbing

Updated 06 February 2023

Salman Rushdie says he feels ‘lucky’ in first interview since stabbing

  • Novelist still struggling to write in the aftermath of ‘colossal attack’
  • Brands assailant Hadi Matar ‘an idiot’ but says he does not want to be ‘a victim’

LONDON: Author Salman Rushdie has said he feels “lucky” to be alive in his first interview since he was stabbed in New York.

Speaking to the New Yorker magazine, Rushdie said his “main overwhelming feeling is gratitude” that he had not been more severely injured during the incident, which saw him require emergency treatment and left him hospitalized for six weeks.

“The big injuries are healed, essentially. I have feeling in my thumb and index finger and in the bottom half of the palm. I’m doing a lot of hand therapy, and I’m told that I’m doing very well.

“I’m able to get up and walk around. When I say I’m fine, I mean, there are bits of my body that need constant checkups. It was a colossal attack.”

The Indian-born British American writer was attacked on stage at a talk at the Chautauqua Institution on Aug. 12 by 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who is thought to have been inspired to attack Rushdie by the fatwa issued by the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini for his book “The Satanic Verses.”

Rushdie, who spent several years in hiding after the fatwa was issued, was stabbed multiple times in the neck and torso by Matar, going blind in one eye and losing the use of a hand.

Matar has been charged with attempted second-degree murder and attempted second-degree assault, both of which he denies.

Rushdie said he only blames his assailant for the attack and holds no bitterness toward anyone else, despite the venue in question having insufficient security measures in place.

“I don’t know what I think of him, because I don’t know him,” Rushdie said of Matar, who has admitted to not having read “The Satanic Verses” in its entirety.

“All I’ve seen is his idiotic interview in the New York Post. Which only an idiot would do. I know that the trial is still a long way away. It might not happen until late next year. I guess I’ll find out some more about him then.”

Rushdie continued: “I’ve tried very hard over these years to avoid recrimination and bitterness. I just think it’s not a good look. One of the ways I’ve dealt with this whole thing is to look forward and not backwards. What happens tomorrow is more important than what happened yesterday.

“I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim. Then you’re just sitting there saying, ‘Somebody stuck a knife in me! Poor me’ … Which I do sometimes think.”

He admitted, though, that writing had become difficult in the aftermath of the attack. “There is such a thing as PTSD, you know,” he said.

“I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

Rushdie was speaking ahead of the publication of his latest novel, “Victory City,” which he had completed prior to the fateful day at the Chautauqua Institution.

He added that the future of his writing career remains unclear following the attack.

“I’m going to tell you really truthfully, I’m not thinking about the long term,” he said. “I’m thinking about little step by little step. I just think, ‘bop till you drop.’”

He did suggest, though, that he could write a sequel to his memoir “Joseph Anton,” which would almost certainly address the attack.


Alleged Daesh ‘Beatle’ to go on trial in UK

Aine Davis is accused of belonging to a group of hostage-takers who were radicalized in London. (Metropolitan Police)
Updated 06 February 2023

Alleged Daesh ‘Beatle’ to go on trial in UK

  • Aine Davis is accused of belonging to the notorious group of hostage-takers, who grew up and were radicalized in London
  • Allegedly involved in abducting more than two dozen journalists and relief workers from the US and other countries

LONDON: An alleged member of Daesh’s “Beatles” kidnap-and-murder cell will face trial in the UK this month on terrorism charges, a judge said on Monday.
Aine Davis is accused of belonging to the notorious group of hostage-takers, who grew up and were radicalized in London.
Active in Syria from 2012 to 2015, they were allegedly involved in abducting more than two dozen journalists and relief workers from the United States and other countries.
The group members were nicknamed the “Beatles” by their captives because of their distinctive British accents.
The hostages, some of whom were released after their governments paid ransoms, were from at least 15 countries, including Denmark, France, Japan, Norway, Spain and the United States.
Daesh tortured and killed their victims, including by beheading, and released videos of the murders for propaganda purposes.
Davis, 38, will go on trial on February 27 at the Old Bailey criminal court in London, judge Mark Lucraft said on Monday.
He faces two charges related to providing money for terrorist purposes and one of possessing a firearm for a purpose connected to terrorism.
The judge also extended Davis’s detention in custody to March 3. It was due to run out on Friday.
Davis did not appear in court and the video link to his prison was not working.
His lawyer, Mark Summers, said he had been able to speak to his client about extending custody.
The lawyer predicted the trial would take less than two weeks.
Davis was arrested in Turkiye in 2015 and sentenced to seven and half years for membership of Daesh in 2017.
He was released in July last year and deported from Turkiye the next month. He was then arrested when he arrived at Britain’s Luton airport.
In 2014, his wife Amal El-Wahabi became the first person in Britain to be convicted of funding Daesh extremists after trying to send 20,000 euros — worth $25,000 at the time — to him in Syria.
She was jailed for 28 months and seven days following a trial in which Davis was described as a drug dealer before he went to Syria to fight with Daesh.
Two of the “Beatles,” El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, have received life sentences in the United States.
The fourth in the group, executioner Mohammed Emwazi, was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015.


British workers stage largest strike in history of health service

Updated 06 February 2023

British workers stage largest strike in history of health service

  • Biggest strike in 75-year history of National Health Service
  • Government urges workers to call off walkouts

LONDON: Health workers in Britain began their largest strike on Monday, as tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walk out in an escalating pay dispute, putting further strain on the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Nurses and ambulance workers have been striking separately on and off since late last year but Monday’s walkout involving both, largely in England, is the biggest in the 75-year history of the NHS.
Nurses will also strike on Tuesday, while ambulance staff will walk out on Friday and physiotherapists on Thursday, making the week probably the most disruptive in NHS history, its Medical Director Stephen Powis said.
Health workers are demanding a pay rise that reflects the worst inflation in Britain in four decades, while the government says that would be unaffordable and cause more price rises, and in turn, make interest rates and mortgage payments rise.
Around 500,000 workers, many from the public sector, have been staging strikes since last summer, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to resolve the disputes and limit disruption to public services such as railways and schools.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union wrote to Sunak over the weekend asking him to bring the nursing strike “to a swift close” by making “meaningful” pay offers.
“We’ve got one of the busiest winters we have ever had with record levels of funding going into the NHS to try and manage services,” Maria Caulfield, the minister for mental health and women’s health strategy, told Sky News on Monday.
“So every percent of a pay increase takes money away.”
The government has urged people to continue to access emergency services and attend appointments during the strikes unless they had been canceled but said patients would face disruption and delays.
NURSES LEAVING
The NHS, a source of pride for most Britons, is under extreme pressure with millions of patients on waiting lists for operations and thousands each month failing to receive prompt emergency care.
The RCN says a decade of poor pay has contributed to tens of thousands of nurses leaving the profession — 25,000 over just the last year — with the severe staffing shortages impacting patient care.
The RCN initially asked for a pay rise of 5 percent above inflation and has since said it could meet the government “half way,” but both sides have failed to reach agreement despite weeks of talks.
Meanwhile, thousands of ambulance workers represented by the GMB and Unite trade unions are set to strike on Monday in their own pay dispute. Both unions have announced several more days of industrial action.
Not all ambulance workers will strike at once and emergency calls will be attended to.
In Wales, nurses and some ambulance workers have called off strikes planned for Monday as they review pay offers from the Welsh government.
Sunak said in a TalkTV interview last week he would “love to give the nurses a massive pay rise” but said the government faced tough choices and that it was funding the NHS in other areas such as by providing medical equipment and ambulances.


Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

Updated 06 February 2023

Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

  • Rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition
  • The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition
HONGKONG: Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opened Monday with dozens of pro-democracy figures accused of trying to topple the government in a case critics say reflects the criminalization of dissent in the Chinese territory.
The 47 defendants, who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, face up to life in prison if convicted.
Sixteen have pleaded not guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion” over an unofficial primary election.
The other 31 have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial.
A rare, small protest erupted before the court convened, despite the large police presence.
One man was seen raising his fist in solidarity.
The defendants maintain they are being persecuted for routine politics, while rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition.
Most of the group have already spent nearly two years behind bars.
They now face proceedings expected to last more than four months, overseen by judges handpicked by the government.
The case is the largest to date under the national security law, which China imposed on Hong Kong after huge democracy protests in 2019 brought tear gas and police brawls onto the streets of the Asian financial hub.
Wielded against students, unionists and journalists, the law has transformed the once-outspoken city.
More than 100 people had queued outside the court, some overnight, hoping to see the trial begin on Monday.
Chan Po-ying, a veteran campaigner and wife of defendant “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, joined supporters carrying a banner that read “Crackdown is shameless” and “Immediately release all political prisoners.”
“This is political persecution,” she said outside the court.
Inside, Leung repeated his not-guilty plea, adding: “Resisting tyranny is not a crime.”
Those on trial represent a cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition — including activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, professor Benny Tai and former lawmakers Claudia Mo and Au Nok-hin.
Most — 34 out of 47 — have been denied bail, while the few released from custody must abide by strict conditions, including speech restrictions.
Families of the accused have called these measures “social death.”
The group was jointly charged in March 2021 after organizing an unofficial primary a year earlier.
Their stated aim was to win a majority in the city’s legislature, which would allow them to push the protesters’ demands and potentially force the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader.
According to prosecutors, this was tantamount to trying to bring down the government.
“This case involves a group of activists who conspired together and with others to plan, organize and participate in seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining (the government)... with a view to subverting the State power,” the prosecution said in its opening statement.
More than 610,000 people — about one-seventh of the city’s voting population — cast ballots in the primary. Shortly afterwards, Beijing brought in a new political system that strictly vetted who could stand for office.
The case has attracted international criticism, and diplomats from 12 countries including the United States, Britain, Australia and France were seen at the court Monday.
“This is a retaliation against all the Hong Kongers who supported the pro-democratic camp,” Eric Lai, a fellow of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, told AFP of the trial.
“Beijing will go all out — even weaponizing the laws and court — to make sure democratic politics in Hong Kong cannot go beyond the lines it drew.”
The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition.
“It is as if the national security law is now the new constitution for Hong Kong and the judges are playing their role in making sure that happens,” said Dennis Kwok, Hong Kong’s former legal sector legislator.
Weeks before the hearing began, Hong Kong’s Chief Justice Andrew Cheung defended the courts against accusations of politicization.
“Whilst inevitably the court’s decision may sometimes have a political impact, this does not mean the court has made a political decision,” Cheung said.

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

Updated 06 February 2023

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

BEIJING: China on Monday accused the United States of indiscriminate use of force when the American military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon Saturday, saying that had “seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations.”
The US shot down a balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft.
Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the US Embassy on Sunday over the “US attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
“However, the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace, which obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Xie said.
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
Xie repeated China’s insistence that the balloon was a Chinese civil unmanned airship that blew into US mistake, calling it “an accidental incident caused by force majeure.”
China would “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely safeguard China’s interests and dignity and reserve the right to make further necessary responses,” he said.
US President Joe Biden issued the shootdown order after he was advised that the best times for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said. Military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
“What the US has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations since the Bali meeting,” Xie said, referring to the recent meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Indonesia that many hoped would create positive momentum for improving ties that have spiraled to their lowest level in years.
The sides are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights, but Beijing is most sensitive over alleged violations by the US and others of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Beijing strongly protests military sales to Taiwan and visits by foreign politicians to the island, which it claims as Chinese territory to be recovered by force if necessary.
It reacted to a 2022 visit by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island and staging threatening military drills seen as a rehearsal for an invasion or blockade. Beijing also cut off discussion with the US on issues including climate change that are unrelated to military tensions.
Last week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned Pelosi’s successor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, not to travel Taiwan, implying China’s response would be equally vociferous.
“China will firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests,” Mao Ning said. McCarthy said China had no right to dictate where and when he could travel.
China also objects when foreign military surveillance planes fly off its coast in international airspace and when US and other foreign warships pass through the Taiwan Strait, accusing them of being actively provocative.
In 2001, a US Navy plane conducting routine surveillance near the Chinese coast collided with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese fighter pilot and damaging the American plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing at a China naval air base on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan.
China detained the 24-member US Navy aircrew for 10 days until the US expressed regret over the Chinese pilot’s death and for landing at the base without permission.
The South China Sea is another major source of tension. China claims the strategically key sea virtually in its entirety and protests when US Navy ships sail past Chinese military features there.
At a news conference Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Blinken said “the presence of this surveillance balloon over the United States in our skies is a clear violation of our sovereignty, a clear violation of international law, and clearly unacceptable. And we’ve made that clear to China.”
“Any country that has its airspace violated in this way I think would respond similarly, and I can only imagine what the reaction would be in China if they were on the other end,” Blinken said.
China’s weather balloon excuse should be dismissed outright, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military affairs and foreign policy at Stanford University.
“This is like a standard thing that countries often say about surveillance assets,” Mastro said.
China may have made a mistake and lost control of the balloon, but is was unlikely to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit, Mastro said.
For the US administration, the decision to go public and then shoot down the balloon marks a break from its usual approach of dealing with Beijing on such matters privately, possibly in hopes of changing China’s future behavior.
However, Mastro said, it was unlikely that Beijing would respond positively.
“They’re probably going to dismiss that and continue on as things have been. So I don’t see a really clear pathway to improved relations in the foreseeable future.”