Blinken will be the latest top US official to visit China in a bid to keep ties on an even keel

Secretary of State Antony Blinken accompanied by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, walk to meet the media after a bilateral meeting at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 26, 2023. (AP/File)
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Updated 20 April 2024
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Blinken will be the latest top US official to visit China in a bid to keep ties on an even keel

  • The United States and China also are battling over trade and commerce issues, with President Joe Biden announcing new tariffs on imports of Chinese steel this past week
  • Talks between Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected, although neither side will confirm such a meeting is happening until shortly before it takes place

WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China this coming week as Washington and Beijing try to keep ties on an even keel despite major differences on issues from the path to peace in the Middle East to the supply of synthetic opioids that have heightened fears over global stability.
The rivals are at odds on numerous fronts, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, Taiwan and the South China Sea, North Korea, Hong Kong, human rights and the detention of American citizens. The United States and China also are battling over trade and commerce issues, with President Joe Biden announcing new tariffs on imports of Chinese steel this past week.
The State Department said Saturday that Blinken, on his second visit to China in less than a year, will travel to Shanghai and Beijing starting Wednesday for three days of meetings with senior Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Talks between Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected, although neither side will confirm such a meeting is happening until shortly before it takes place.
The department said in a statement that Blinken would “discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues,” including the Middle East, the war in Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
He will also talk about progress made in “resuming counternarcotics cooperation, military-to-military communication, artificial intelligence, and strengthening people-to-people ties” and will reaffirm how important it is for the US and China to be “responsibly managing competition, even in areas where our two countries disagree,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
The trip follows a phone call this month between Biden and Xi in which they pledged to keep high-level contacts open, something they had agreed to last year at a face-to-face summit in California. Since that call, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has visited China and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken by phone with his Chinese counterpart. Meetings at lower levels also have taken place.
Despite those encounters, relations are rocky. The US has recently become more vocal in its calls for China to stop supporting Russia’s military-industrial sector, which Washington says has allowed Moscow to boost weapons production to support the war against Ukraine.
“We see China sharing machine tools, semiconductors, other dual-use items that have helped Russia rebuild the defense industrial base that sanctions and export controls had done so much to degrade,” Blinken said Friday. “Now, if China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.”
Blinken also has pushed for China to take a more active stance in pressing Iran not to escalate tensions in the Middle East. He has spoken to his Chinese counterpart several times since the Israel-Hamas war began six months ago as he has sought China’s help in getting Iran to restrain proxy groups it has supported, armed and funded in the region.
That topic has taken on new urgency since direct back-and-forth attacks by Iran and Israel on each other’s soil in the past week.
Also high on the agenda for Blinken will be Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The US has strongly condemned Chinese military exercises threatening Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province and vowed to reunify with the mainland by force if necessary. Successive US administrations have steadily ramped up military support and sales for Taipei, much to the anger of Chinese officials.
In the South China Sea, the US and others have become increasingly concerned by provocative Chinese actions in and around disputed areas. In particular, the US has voiced objections to what it says are Chinese attempts to thwart legitimate activities by others in the waterway, notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
That was a major topic of concern earlier this month when Biden held a three-way summit with the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Philippines.


NATO defense ministers thrash out new security aid and training support plan for Ukraine

Updated 58 min 36 sec ago
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NATO defense ministers thrash out new security aid and training support plan for Ukraine

  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons

BRUSSELS: NATO defense ministers gathered Thursday hoping to agree on a new plan to provide long-term security assistance and military training to Ukraine, after Hungary promised not to veto the scheme as long as it’s not forced to take part.
The ministers are meeting over two days at NATO headquarters in Brussels in the last high-level talks before a summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington on July 9-11, where the military organization’s leaders are expected to announce financial support for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Western allies are trying to bolster their military support as Russian troops launch attacks along the more than 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line, taking advantage of a lengthy delay in US military aid. European Union money was also held up by political infighting.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is chairing Thursday’s meeting, said that Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons, ammunition and funds they can expect to receive.
“The whole idea is to minimize the risk for gaps and delays as we saw earlier this year,” Stoltenberg told reporters. The hold-up, he said, “is one of the reasons why the Russians are now able to push and to actually occupy more land in Ukraine.”
Since Russia’s full-fledged invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s Western backers have routinely met as part of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, run by the Pentagon, to drum up weapons and ammunition for Kyiv. A fresh meeting was held at NATO headquarters on Thursday.
While those meetings have resulted in significant battlefield support, they have been of an ad-hoc and unpredictable nature. Stoltenberg has spearheaded an effort to have NATO take up some of the slack.
The idea is for the 32-nation military alliance to coordinate the security assistance and training process, partly by using NATO’s command structure and drawing on funds from its common budget.
Stoltenberg said he hopes Biden and his counterparts will agree in Washington to maintain the funding level for military support they have provided Ukraine since Russia launched its full-fledged invasion in February 2022.
He estimates this at around 40 billion euros ($43 billion) worth of equipment each year.
On Wednesday, Hungary announced that it would not veto the plan as long as it’s not forced to take part.
“I asked the Secretary-General to make it clear that all military action outside NATO territory can only be voluntary in nature, according to NATO rules and our traditions,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said. “Hungary has received the guarantees we need.”
The world’s biggest security alliance does not send weapons or ammunition to Ukraine as an organization, and has no plans to put troops on the ground. But many of its members give help on a bilateral basis, and jointly provide more than 90 percent of the country’s military support.
The other 31 allies see Russia’s war on Ukraine as an existential security threat to Europe, but most of them, including Biden, have been extremely cautious to ensure that NATO is not drawn into a wider conflict with Russia.
NATO operates on the basis that an attack on any single ally will be met with a response from them all.


G7 leaders seek deal to use interest from Russian assets for Ukraine

Updated 13 June 2024
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G7 leaders seek deal to use interest from Russian assets for Ukraine

  • The Middle East, migration and artificial intelligence are also on the packed agenda
  • For a second year running, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend the summit, taking part in talks on Thursday

BARI: Group of Seven leaders will aim to boost funding for Ukraine in its war with Russia and offer a united face in confronting China’s political and economic ambitions at their annual summit in southern Italy on Thursday.
For a second year running, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend the summit, taking part in talks on Thursday, and he is due to sign a new, long-term security accord with US President Joe Biden.
The G7 leaders look likely to announce they have agreed at least in principle on plans to issue $50 billion of loans for Ukraine using interest from Russian sovereign assets frozen after its invasion of Ukraine to back the multi-year debt package.
“I think we will have the major tentpoles of this decided, but some of the specifics left to be worked through by experts on a defined timetable,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said of the discussions.
“I think we are on the verge of a good outcome here,” he added.
Officials acknowledge the plan is complex, with legal experts still having to thrash out the details that will need the backing of European nations, particularly Belgium, which is not in the G7.

Packed Agenda
With the Middle East, migration and artificial intelligence also on a packed agenda, the June 13-15 summit in the southern Italian region of Puglia would be taxing for leaders at the best of times, but most of them are also bowed down by their own domestic woes.
Only the host, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is riding high after triumphing in Italy’s European election last weekend, but achieving meaningful results in the luxury Borgo Egnazia hotel resort will be a tall order.
Biden’s goal at the G7 was to reinforce the idea that the United States is best served if it is closely aligned with its democratic allies and partners, Sullivan said, when asked about the prospects of it being the president’s last summit given he faces a re-election battle in November.
Underscoring US determination to punish Moscow for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Washington on Wednesday dramatically broadened sanctions on Moscow, including by targeting China-based companies selling semiconductors to Moscow.
By announcing new restrictions on Chinese firms on the eve of the G7 meeting, Biden is no doubt hoping to persuade Western allies to show greater resolve in confronting Beijing over its support for Russia and its industrial over-capacity.
Speaking ahead of the start of the summit, Sullivan said that China was a significant creditor to many heavily indebted countries.
“The G7 communique is not singling out or focusing on a single country,” he said, but added that China needed to play a constructive role in dealing with the debt burden.


Eight EU countries call for restricting Russian diplomats’ movement

Updated 13 June 2024
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Eight EU countries call for restricting Russian diplomats’ movement

PRAGUE: Eight European Union foreign ministers called on the EU to ban Russian diplomats from moving freely around the bloc and restrict them to countries where they are accredited, in a letter to EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
“Free movement of holders of Russian diplomatic and service passports, accredited in one host state, across the whole Schengen area is easing malign activities,” according to the letter, dated June 11, seen by Reuters.
The ministers said that intelligence, propaganda “or even preparation of sabotage acts are the main workload for a large number of Russian ‘diplomats’ in the EU,” and while expulsions were important, the threat remained.
“We believe the EU should strictly follow the reciprocity principle and restrict the movement of members of Russian diplomatic missions and their family members to territory of a state of their accreditation only,” they said.
“This measure will significantly narrow operational space for Russian agents,” added the letter, which was signed by ministers from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.


French citizen Louis Arnaud held in Iran arrives in Paris

Updated 13 June 2024
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French citizen Louis Arnaud held in Iran arrives in Paris

  • Arnaud, a 36-year-old consultant, set off in July 2022 on a round-the-world trip that led him to Iran

PARIS: French citizen Louis Arnaud returned to Paris Thursday after being held in Iran since September 2022 and sentenced last year to five years in jail on national security charges.
Emerging from a small plane at Le Bourget airport outside Paris, a visibly tired but smiling Arnaud shook hands with Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne before embracing his parents, according to images aired on television.
Arnaud linked arms with his relatives as they entered a private room at the airport out of view of the cameras.
“I am very glad to welcome one of our hostages who was indeed held arbitrarily in Iran,” Sejourne said.
“Our diplomatic service is still at work” to free three other French citizens: Jacques Paris, Cecile Koller and a man named only as Olivier held in Iranian jails, he added.
Arnaud, a 36-year-old consultant, set off in July 2022 on a round-the-world trip that led him to Iran.
It was “a country he had long dreamed of visiting for the richness of its history and its welcoming people,” his mother Sylvie said several months ago.
But he was arrested in September 2022 with other Europeans accused of joining demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who died after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly breaching the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.
While Arnaud’s traveling companions were soon released, he was kept in prison before his November sentencing for propaganda and harming Iranian state security.
Frenchman Benjamin Briere and French-Irish dual national Bernard Phelan were freed by Iran in May 2023 for “humanitarian reasons.”
Both had been severely weakened by a hunger strike.
Tehran, which holds around a dozen Western citizens, is accused by their supporters and rights groups of using the prisoners as bargaining chip in international negotiations.


UN refugee agency says record 117 mln people forcibly displaced in 2023

Updated 13 June 2024
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UN refugee agency says record 117 mln people forcibly displaced in 2023

  • UNHCR report stated that there had been a yearly increase in the number of people forcibly displaced over the last 12 years

GENEVA: The United Nations refugee agency on Thursday said the number of people forcibly displaced stood at a record 117.3 million as of the end of last year, warning that this figure could rise further without major global political changes.

“These are refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, people being forced away by conflict, by persecution, by different and increasingly complex forms of violence,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Conflict remains a very, very deep driver of displacement.” In its report on global trends in forced displacement, UNHCR said that there had been a yearly increase in the number of people forcibly displaced over the last 12 years.

UNHCR estimates that forced displacement has continued to increase in the first four months of 2024, and that the number of those displaced is likely to have exceeded 120 million by the end of April. “Unless there is a shift in international geopolitics, unfortunately, I actually see that figure continuing to go up,” Grandi said, referring to the risk of new conflicts.

The conflicts that have driven displacement include the war in Sudan, which Grandi described as “one of the most catastrophic ones” despite garnering less attention that other crises.

More that 9 million people have been internally displaced and another 2 million have fled to neighboring countries including Chad, Egypt and South Sudan, Grandi said. “People are arriving in the hundreds every day,” he said, referring to the influx of people seeking safety in Chad. In Gaza, Israel’s bombardment and ground campaign have caused around 1.7 million people – nearly 80 percent of the Palestinian enclave’s population – to become internally displaced, many of them multiple times.

Grandi warned that the possible crossings of Gazans into Egypt from the southern border town of Rafah to escape Israel’s military offensive would be catastrophic. “Another refugee crisis outside Gaza would be catastrophic on all levels, including because we have no guarantee that the people will be able to return to Gaza one day,” Grandi said.