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EU seals investment pact with China

BRUSSELS, Dec 30: Chinese and European Union leaders sealed a landmark investment pact on Wednesday that would make it easier for their companies to invest in each other’s economies despite concerns around Beijing’s patchy labour rights record.

President Xi Jinping had intervened earlier this month to extend key market access concessions to businesses under the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that had been under discussion for years. President Xi’s concession persuaded the European Union to accede to the pact that Brussels expects to open up lucrative opportunities for its businesses.

“Today, the EU and China concluded in principle negotiations on an investment agreement,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted after a video call with President Xi that also involved EU Council president Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron; and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who holds the rotating presidency of the EU till tomorrow and was seen to have pushed hard for the deal.

President Xi told the meeting that the investment deal will offer bigger markets and a better business environment for both Chinese and European investments. It shows China’s determination and confidence in opening up, President Xi said, adding that the pact would stimulate the global economy, promote economic globalisation and free trade.

But the EU’s big win, as its leaders have projected the agreement, deals a huge blow to the US President-elect Joe Biden’s hopes of rebuilding the transatlantic alliance in an effort to take on an assertive China.

There has been no reaction from the United States to the agreement so far; there will be more than one. President-elect Biden’s choice for national security adviser Jake Sullivan had earlier this month tweeted the incoming Biden administration’s request to hold “early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices”.

Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau too had called for more consultations and transparency to bring EU’s transatlantic allies on board. “A good, balanced deal is better than a premature one,” the minister tweeted last week. Members of European Parliament too have expressed concern at the EU rushing through the agreement.

Indian officials who have been tracking the negotiations say President Xi’s concession was timed to get the agreement done and dusted before the end of Germany’s presidency and the Biden administration takes charge in a few weeks.

One official said the promptness with which the EU had set aside concerns around China’s rights record also erodes its credibility as a defender of human rights, and that of its lawmakers.

The pact with China comes less than a fortnight after European lawmakers adopted a resolution to condemn forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region, where workers from the Muslim Uighur community are coerced to manufacture goods ranging from cars to medical protective equipment that are often sold on the EU market.

Beijing’s standard response to such criticism of its rights record has been a loud denial. An Indian official said it was unlikely that Beijing would have agreed for verification of its claim that its companies do not use forced labour.

According to the EU, China had committed to pursue ratification of the International Labor Organization’s rules on forced labour.

The 27-nation bloc said the agreement is the most ambitious that China has ever agreed with a third country and will give additional access to many areas including the electric cars and hybrid vehicles sector, as well as private hospitals, telecoms, cloud and financial services, international maritime transport and air transport-related services. According to EU figures, China is now the bloc’s second-biggest trading partner behind the United States, and the EU is China’s biggest trading partner. China and Europe trade on average over €1 billion a day.

China cautions against use of ‘Tibet card’, says it will damage bilateral ties

NEW DELHI, Dec 30: Against the backdrop of US President signing into law measures to bolster the right of Tibetans to choose the next Dalai Lama, Beijing on Wednesday cautioned that any move to play the “Tibet card” to meddle in its internal affairs would further damage India-China relations.

The Chinese embassy in New Delhi outlined Beijing’s position on the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, signed into law by Trump on Monday, in a response to what it said were reports in the Indian media supporting the US legislation and “advocating Indian interference in China’s Tibet (Xizang) affairs”.

The unusually blunt statement from the Chinese embassy spokesperson Ji Rong called for “an objective and fair stance” on the “highly sensitive nature” of Tibet-related issues and China’s territorial integrity.

“We hope some Indian media take an objective and fair stance on issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, grasp the highly sensitive nature of Xizang-related issues, look at Xizang’s economic and social progress objectively, do more to help China-India bilateral relations move forward instead of advocating playing ‘Tibet card’ to meddle in China’s internal affairs and further damage the bilateral relations,” Ji said.

There was no immediate reaction to the statement from Indian officials.

The development comes amid the nearly eight-month military standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has taken bilateral relations between the two countries to an all-time low. The two sides haven’t been able to agree on disengagement and de-escalation at friction points on the LAC despite several rounds of diplomatic and military talks.

Ji noted that under the “Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation” signed by India and China in 2003, New Delhi recognised Tibet Autonomous Region as part of Chinese territory, and didn’t allow Tibetans to engage in political activities against China.

“It is in the fundamental interests of China and India... to enhance political mutual trust, properly manage differences, and strive to return China-India relations to the track of healthy and stable development,” Ji said.

The Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which was passed by the US Congress earlier this month, strengthens US support for Tibet, including by sanctioning Chinese officials if they try to appoint the next Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government usually refers to the current Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since he escaped from Tibet in 1959, as a “separatist” or “splittist”. China has also bristled at visits by the Dalai Lama to areas such as Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims.

Chinese officials have said the next Dalai Lama will be chosen within Tibet in compliance with Chinese laws and regulations and through a process that will have to be ratified by authorities in Beijing. They have also said that the current Dalai Lama and India cannot have any role in this process.

The Chinese embassy spokesperson contended the US legislation “maliciously distorts [Tibet’s] social development, makes groundless accusations, denigrates China’s ethnic and religious policies, and interferes in the normal reincarnation procedure of living Buddhas under the pretext of human rights and religion”.

She further contended that the “real purpose of the act is to undermine Xizang’s prosperity and stability” and that the legislation “grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs and gravely violates the fundamental principles of international laws”.

The spokesperson claimed Tibet “has been part of China since ancient times” and its affairs are “purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference”.

Tibet-related issues are “not about ethnicity, religion or human rights, but an important matter of principle concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, and the Chinese government is “determined in safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests”, she said.

“China firmly opposes any country, organisation or individual supporting the anti-China separatist activities of the ‘Tibetan independence’ forces in any form and under any pretext,” she added.

Japan to join ‘Five Eyes’ to check China’s clampdown on Uyghurs

TOKYO, Dec 29: Amid calls within the Japanese government to join the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance, it provided key inputs to the US and the UK regarding Chinese clampdown on Uyghurs, reported Kyodo News.

Five Eyes is a network of five nations -- Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US who collaborated to better respond to increasing threats by North Korea and China. Japan is on its way to become the ‘sixth eye’.

A person close to Japan-US relations disclosed on Monday that Japan had provided intelligence to the US and the UK last year on China’s forceful detainment of Muslim Uyghur minority people on condition of keeping the source confidential, reported Kyodo News.

The US as well as the UK stepped up their criticism against the Chinese severe crackdown on Uyghurs in the Xinjiang autonomous region, said the source.

Based on the information gathered from Japan, the Trump administration placed a series of sanctions on Beijing for human rights violations against Uyghurs, such as visa restriction on Chinese officials, heightening bilateral tensions, reported Kyodo News.

Earlier, Vice President Mike Pence in 2019 claimed that “Communist Party imprisoned more than a million Chinese Muslims, including Uyghurs, in internment camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing.”

No space for unilateral attempts to change status quo in free Indo-Pacific: Japanese ambassador

NEW DELHI, Dec 29: There is no space for unilateral attempts to alter the status quo by coercion in a free and open Indo-Pacific region, be it in Ladakh or the East China Sea, Japan’s ambassador to India, Satoshi Suzuki, said against the backdrop of concerns in both countries about China’s actions.

Japan perceives India as the “most natural strategic partner” to promote a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and this year’s Malabar naval exercise was an example of efforts by the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad to ensure the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and uphold freedom of navigation and overflight, he said in an interview.

Suzuki also said it is important to involve other countries in efforts by Japan, Australia and India to create resilient supply chains, following the launch of this initiative through a ministerial meeting in September. This trilateral initiative is also part of the Japanese government’s efforts to help Japanese industries diversify supply chains and become more resilient.

Asked specifically about the India-China border standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and China’s aggressive actions within Japan’s territorial waters, Suzuki replied, “In a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific where the rule of law prevails, there is no place for any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion.

“Be it in Ladakh, in the East China Sea, or in the South China Sea, Japan stands firm to uphold the principles that underpin a rules-based international order. I think this is also the best example where we have seen growing strategic convergence in both countries’ thinking.”

Japan, which was among the first countries to call for maintenance of status quo on the LAC, has been grappling with the activities of Chinese official vessels in its territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Suzuki said, India has been Japan’s “most natural strategic partner” to promote the vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga informed Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their first phone conversation on September 25 that his administration will “continue to attach significance to this vision”.

Following the presence of all four members of the Quad – Japan, India, Australia and the US – in this year’s Malabar exercise, Suzuki said he looked forward to seeing the four maritime forces continuing to operate together in future.

“These four countries, or the Quad, share a common vision of ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific in which the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are ensured, and all countries enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight. The Malabar exercise this year was a great example of our joint efforts to this end,” he said.

While speaking of the Japanese government’s efforts to help the country’s companies diversify their supply chains and the backing for two pilot projects and feasibility studies in India, Suzuki said a “further improvement of business environment is important here (in India)”.

He added, “To make India more attractive to investors, predictability and stability of business environment are critical, including the continued free flow of goods, such as intermediary goods which are indispensable to fulfil ‘Make in India’ objectives.”

Suzuki also said Japan remains committed to the flagship Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail project, with tenders for important packages, including the largest civil package, having been successfully made. Japan also wants to explore more collaborations in third countries with India after their successful efforts in building roads and bridges in Bangladesh and working on the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in the Maldives, he said.

Apart from supporting the Indian government’s efforts for post-Covid recovery through 50 billion yen (about Rs 7,500 crore) budget support and 1 billion yen (about Rs 150 crore) grant assistance, Japan also backs the concept of a patent pool, to which India has expressed support, to promote voluntary licensing of intellectual property to enable emerging countries to have access to vaccines and medicines, Suzuki said.

UK, EU reach post-Brexit trade deal

BRUSSELS, Dec 24: Britain and the European Union have struck a provisional free-trade agreement that should avert New Year’s chaos for cross-border commerce and bring a measure of certainty to businesses after years of Brexit turmoil.

The breakthrough came Thursday with just over a week to go until the UK’s split is completed. Now comes the race to approve and ratify the deal before the UK leaves the EU’s economic structures at the end of the year. The British and European parliaments both must hold votes on the agreement.

Months of tense and often testy negotiations gradually whittled differences between the two sides down to three key issues: fair-competition rules, mechanisms for resolving future disputes and fishing rights. The rights of EU boats to trawl in British waters remained the last obstacle before it was resolved. However, key aspects of the future relationship between the 27-nation bloc and its former member remain unresolved.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had insisted the UK would “prosper mightily” even if no deal were reached and the UK had to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms. But his government has acknowledged that a chaotic exit was likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods.

Britain withdrew from the EU’s political institutions on January 31, and an economic transition period expires on December 31.

India sends warship to deliver aid to Vietnam, conduct exercise in South China Sea

HO CHI MINH CITY, Dec 24: An Indian warship reached Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday with 15 tonnes of humanitarian relief supplies for people affected by floods in central Vietnam as part of New Delhi’s efforts to assist countries in the region amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The visit by the corvette INS Kiltan is also aimed at enhancing maritime cooperation between the two navies and contributing to regional security and stability. On its departure from Ho Chi Minh City, the warship will undertake a “passing exercise” with the Vietnam People’s Navy in South China Sea during December 26-27.

INS Kiltan arrived at Nha Rong port under “Mission Sagar-III”, part of India’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief assistance to friendly foreign countries during the pandemic, the defence ministry said.

The relief materials will be handed over to Vietnam’s central steering committee for national disaster prevention and control. “This assistance is reflective of the deep people-to-people connect between the two friendly countries,” the ministry said.

Mission Sagar-III was launched in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of SAGAR or security and growth for all in the region, and “reiterates India’s position as a dependable partner and the Indian Navy as the preferred security partner and first responder”, it added.

On Monday, India and Vietnam signed seven agreements in areas ranging from defence to petrochemicals and unveiled a joint vision for enhanced security cooperation to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific during a summit between Modi and his counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

The developments came against the backdrop of concerns in both countries about China’s aggressive actions. India also handed over one of 12 patrol boats being made for Vietnam under a $100-million line of credit, and Modi described Vietnam as “an important pillar of India’s Act East policy and an important ally of our Indo-Pacific vision”.

Centre Explains Cancelled India-Russia Meet After Rahul Gandhi Barb

NEW DELHI, Dec 23: The India-Russia annual summit was cancelled because of the Covid crisis, the government said today, denouncing what it called "false and misleading" reports suggesting otherwise. The foreign ministry's statement came shortly after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that "damaging traditional relationships" was dangerous for India's future.

"The India-Russia Annual Summit did not take place in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. This was a mutually agreed decision between the two governments. Any imputation otherwise is false and misleading. Spreading false stories in important relationships is particularly irresponsible," foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

Earlier, Rahul Gandhi had tweeted, along with a media report: "Russia is a very important friend of India. Damaging our traditional relationships is short-sighted and dangerous for our future."

Some reports have linked the cancellation of the summit for the first time since 2000 to Moscow's comments on Monday expressing reservations about India joining the Quadrilateral coalition or Quad, saying it would be detrimental to inclusive dialogue for ensuring peace and stability in the region.

The Quad, a grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia, is aimed at ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and is seen as a counter to growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Deputy Chief of the Russian mission Roman Babushkin said: "We are facing some attempts by some countries to create containment and alienation in the Indo-Pacific region which could threaten and jeopardise basic principles for regional cooperation, for example ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity... Quad would be detrimental to the inclusive dialogue in the region."

India and Japan oppose attempts to ‘unilaterally change status quo by coercion’

NEW DELHI, Dec 22: India and Japan on Tuesday said they strongly oppose all attempts to “unilaterally change the status quo by coercion” and activities that escalate tension, against the backdrop of concerns about China’s assertive actions across the region.

The matter figured in a phone conversation between defence minister Rajnath Singh and his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi, according to a readout from Japan’s defence ministry. Without naming China, the readout said the ministers intend to “continue exchanging views in light of the current events occurring in the region”.

The statement was perceived as a strong endorsement for India’s demand for restoration of status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh sector, where tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a faceoff since May. Japan has its own concerns about the activities of Chinese vessels in waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The two defence ministers “concurred in sending a clear message that they strongly oppose any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion or any activities that escalate tension”, the readout said. Singh and Kishi also “shared the view on highlighting the importance of a free and open maritime order based on the rule of law”, it said.

They also agreed to “vigorously promote defence cooperation and exchanges to uphold and reinforce the free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Singh said in a tweet that he and Kishi had expressed satisfaction at ongoing bilateral defence cooperation. “India is committed to further elevate engagements with Japan under the Special Strategic & Global partnership framework,” he added, without giving details.

In July, Japanese ambassador Satoshi Suzuki had said that his country opposes any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo” along the LAC after a conversation with foreign secretary Harsh Shringla.

In recent weeks, there has been closer coordination between the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad – India, Australia, Japan and the US – in the wake of China’s aggressive actions across the Indo-Pacific. Australia’s navy participated in the trilateral Malabar naval exercise after a gap of several years.

During their phone conversation, Singh and Kishi exchanged views on regional situations, including in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and reaffirmed their continued close cooperation, the readout said.

The two ministers also discussed recent achievements such as the signing of Japan-India Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) or logistics support agreement in September and the successful completion of the Malabar naval exercise in November.

They welcomed the fact that bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation and exchanges were promoted despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singh and Kishi further discussed cooperation against risks imposed by infectious diseases that could affect peace and security and the promotion of India-Japan efforts such as sharing lessons learned in humanitarian aid and disaster response operations during the pandemic, finding new opportunities for cooperation in third countries to make them more resilient to the pandemic, and exchanging views on reinforcing the rules-based international order, including working together to counter disinformation in the context of the pandemic.

Covid-19 is ‘out of control’ in UK: British health secretary Hancock

LONDON, Dec 20: Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday admitted that the coronavirus is out of control, hours after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a lockdown on London and southeast England, sparking fury by cancelling Christmas plans of millions of people at short notice.

The Netherlands and Belgium have banned flights from the UK to prevent a new Covid-19 variant from entering the countries, as reports said other European countries were considering similar measures.

Scotland banned travellers from England, while Wales went into another lockdown as health officials tried to grapple with the new variant of the Covid-19 virus that is assessed to be up to 70% faster in transmission than the earlier strain - most evident in recent days in Kent.

Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether the coronavirus is under control, Hancock said, “No, sadly”, adding that the situation now is “incredibly difficult”. The best gift that people could give for Christmas is to stay at home and not spread the virus, he said.

London and southeast England have been placed in the new Tier 4 of the Covid-19 alert system, which has varying curbs, from Tier 1 (lowest) to Tier 4 (toughest; equivalent to a full lockdown). People are prohibited from travelling to and out of a Tier 4 zone.

Hancock indicated in Sunday’s media interviews that London’s lockdown could last months, until a vaccine is rolled out across the population. “There are no easy answers or easy options. I think the mistake would be to ignore new scientific evidence,” he added.

So far, 350,000 people have received the first shot of a two-dose vaccine delivered by Pfizer-BioNTech. London’s airports, train stations and roads were clogged on Saturday night as thousands tried to escape the new lockdown restrictions that came into effect early on Sunday. Scotland Yard said the police would enforce Tier 4 rules from Sunday.

People’s fury at Christmas plans being cancelled was reflected in screaming newspaper headlines on Sunday and veteran Conservative MP Charles Walker calling on Hancock to resign, amid growing criticism in the ruling party over the handling of the pandemic.

Hancock said he understood Walker’s frustrations, which he admitted are shared by millions of others. But he said he is focused on the job and “of course” will be staying in his position, adding, “I am dealing with a global pandemic in the best way I can... and we must take action, however uncomfortable we find it.”

He said he is “very worried” about the health service’s capacity to deal with the current crisis, saying there are currently 18,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, just below the peak seen during the first wave in March and April.

Scotland Yard commander Alex Murray said on Sunday, “I know Londoners will be deeply saddened by the news that the planned relaxation of the rules over the Christmas period has been scrapped. The news on the virus spread is stark and deeply concerning, and we must all now take immediate action to prevent the spread by staying at home and keeping ourselves safe.

“Across the city, officers will be deployed to take action against those people whose selfish action risks jeopardising the health of Londoners. Likewise, we will continue our joint enforcement with London’s 32 local authorities – clamping down on those businesses that also flout the rules and put health at risk.”

Murray warned, “Our fight against the virus is not over. The rules are very clear and our collective actions in the next two weeks will have a direct impact on how quickly our city will recover. If people ignore these new rules, make reckless decisions that risk lives, I make no apology for the subsequent enforcement action that will follow.”

Nepal’s President dissolves Parliament, announces mid-term polls

KATHMANDU, Dec 20: Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Sunday dissolved Parliament at the recommendation of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and announced mid-term general election in April-May.

President Bhandari has announced April 30 for the first phase and May 10 for the second phase of the mid-term election, according to a notice issued by Rashtrapati Bhawan.

She dissolved Parliament as per Article 76, clause 1 and 7, and Article 85 of the Constitution of Nepal, according to the notice.

Earlier, an emergency Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Oli decided to recommend the President for the dissolution of Parliament’s House of Representatives.

The 275-member House of Representatives, which is the lower house of Parliament, was elected in 2017. The upper house is National Assembly.

The move comes as the intra-party feud reached climax in the ruling NCP which has been witnessing months long tussle between two factions, one led by 68-year-old Oli and Party’s chairman and another led by 66-year-old “Prachanda", also the executive chair of the party and former premier.

Afghan troops kill 74 Taliban terrorists during clashes in Kandahar province

KABUL, Dec 20: As many as 74 Taliban terrorists have died during clashes with the Afghan armed forces in Kandahar province, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said on Sunday.

“74 #Taliban were killed and 15 others were wounded in Zheria, Dand, Panjwae and Arghandab districts of Kandahar province, yesterday,” the ministry wrote on Twitter.

The clashes happened after the Afghan National Army launched an assault on Taliban terrorists who were preparing to attack positions held by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, the ministry said, adding that a large number of weapons were also seized.

Kandahar province has been the site of fierce clashes over recent days. According to data provided by the Afghan Ministry of Defence, 82 Taliban terrorists were killed in the province earlier this week amid a sustained military operation.

Afghanistan continues to be ravaged by violence and bomb blasts in spite of the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the Taliban, which began this past September in Qatar.

Pompeo accuses CCP of blocking WHO investigation, spreading misinformation

WASHINGTON, Dec 19: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday slammed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for continuing to spread disinformation regarding Covid-19, and obstructing the investigation of the World Health Organization (WHO) in finding out the origin and spread of the virus.

In a press statement, Pompeo said: “Even today, nearly a year after the world first learned of the outbreak, the CCP is still spreading disinformation regarding the virus and obstructing a WHO investigation into its origin and spread. It is also peddling vaccines that lack essential data on safety and efficacy, due to a fundamental disregard for transparency and accountability regarding results from clinical trials. Both actions put Chinese citizens, and the world, at risk.”

He further pointed out that the CCP has punished scientists, doctors and journalists who tried to alert the world to the dangers of the virus, which allowed a ‘controllable outbreak’ to become a global pandemic.

The Secretary of State also called for other nations to demand transparency from Beijing regarding the origin of Covid-19, adding that if not done, China’s record of public health crises makes another future pandemic originating from the country ‘depressingly likely’.

“Time and again, democracies that value transparency, the rule of law, property rights, and free-market capitalism have produced innovative solutions to public health crises. Freedom unleashes human potential, and competition spurs better outcomes, at lower costs. In contrast, authoritarian regimes control information and stifle innovation,” he said.

China has been criticised widely across the world for its alleged role in the spread of the novel coronavirus that has infected over 75 million people across the world. More than 1.6 million people have lost their lives to the virus.

While some accuse it of being complicit, others deem it culpable in the spread.

Iran begins construction of underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

DUBAI, Dec 18: Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its atomic program, according to satellite photos.

Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, whose discovery by the West in 2009 came in an earlier round of brinkmanship before world powers struck the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo likely will trigger new concern in the waning days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

“Any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies Iran.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained from Maxar Technologies by the AP show the construction taking place at a northwest corner of the site, near the holy Shiite city of Qom some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran.

A December 11 satellite photo shows what appears to be a dug foundation for a building with dozens of pillars. Such pillars can be used in construction to support buildings in earthquake zones.

The construction site sits northwest of Fordo’s underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential airstrikes. The site is near other support and research-and-development buildings at Fordo.

Among those buildings is Iran’s National Vacuum Technology Center. Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.

A Twitter account called Observer IL earlier this week published an image of Fordo showing the construction, citing it as coming from South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute.

The Twitter user has identified himself as a retired Israeli Defense Forces soldier with a civil engineering background. He asked that his name not be published over previous threats he received online. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute acknowledged taking the satellite photo.

Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump cited Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies and other issues in withdrawing from the accord, though the deal focused entirely on Tehran’s atomic program.

When the US ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits as a series of escalating incidents pushed the two countries to the brink of war at the beginning of the year. Tensions still remain high.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead make it “a nuclear, physics and technology center.”

“This location was a major sticking point in negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal,” Lewis said. “The US insisted Iran close it while Iran’s supreme leader said keeping it was a red line.”

Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment there.

Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Iran’s parliament has passed a bill that requires Tehran to enrich up to 20%, a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. The bill also would throw out IAEA inspectors.

Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.

While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill, the country’s Guardian Council later tweaked and approved it. The bill seeks to pressure European nations to provide relief from crippling US sanctions.

Meanwhile, an Iranian scientist who created its military nuclear program two decades ago recently was killed in a shooting outside of Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel, which has long been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade, for the attack. Israel has not commented.

Quad member states review connectivity cooperation, security in Indo-Pacific

NEW DELHI, Dec 18: Senior officials of the four countries in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad on Friday reviewed cooperation in connectivity and infrastructure development and security issues across the Indo-Pacific region.

The virtual meeting of officials of India, Australia, Japan and the US was a follow-up to the last such official discussions in September, and the second ministerial meeting of the Quad held in Tokyo on October 6. It also came in the wake of Australia participating in the Malabar trilateral naval exercise by India, Japan and the US last month.

The officials exchanged views on regional and global issues of common interest and reviewed “ongoing and proposed practical cooperation in...connectivity and infrastructure development, and security issues, including counter-terrorism, cyber security, maritime security [and] humanitarian and disaster relief, with the objective of promoting peace, security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific”, the external affairs ministry said.

The officials highlighted the need to ensure safe, effective and affordable access to Covid-19 vaccines. In the context of the global pandemic, they “underscored the importance of enhancing the resilience of supply chains for an expeditious and sustainable global economic recovery”, the ministry said.

The four countries reiterated their commitment to a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific based on shared values and principles and respect for international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The four members of the Quad have stepped up their efforts to ensure security across the Indo-Pacific and to build alternative and resilient supply chains against the backdrop of China’s increasingly assertive actions across the region.

Friday’s meeting was joined by officials of India’s external affairs ministry, Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade, Japan’s foreign ministry and the US state department.

The meeting also expressed appreciation for the Vietnamese chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the outcomes of the East Asia Summit held in November. The officials reiterated support for Asean-centrality and Asean-led mechanisms, particularly the East Asia Summit, in the regional architecture for the Indo-Pacific, and their readiness to work with Asean and all other countries to realise a “common and promising vision for the Indo-Pacific”.

570,000 Uighurs forced to work on cotton farms in Xinjiang: Think tank report

BEIJING, Dec 15: More than a half a million ethnic Muslim minorities mostly from the Uighur community have been coerced into picking cotton through a forced labour programme, a new report has said.

The report by the Washington-based Centre for Global Policy said at least 570,000 locals from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) province were marshalled into cotton farms under forced labour scheme.

The centre collected evidence from official government documents available online on the programme that was implemented in at least three Uighur-majority regions within the vast province.

The province produces more than 80% of China’s cotton while China supplies over 20% of the world’s produce of the cash crop.

“New evidence from Chinese government documents and media reports shows that hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority labourers in Xinjiang are being forced to pick cotton by hand through a coercive state-mandated labour transfer and ‘poverty alleviation’ scheme, with potentially drastic consequences for global supply chains,” the report said.

The Chinese foreign ministry on Tuesday dismissed the report, saying it was concocted and part of the continued international attempt to slander China.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that helping people from all ethnic groups in Xinjiang to achieve stable employment is a different concept from forced labour.

Wang added that workers of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang choose occupations according to their own wishes, and sign labour contracts with companies in accordance with the principle of equality and voluntariness.

“They will not be discriminated against due to differences in ethnicity, gender, and religious beliefs. Governments at all levels in Xinjiang fully respect ethnic minorities, and provide necessary training for voluntarily registered workers to improve their skills for employment,” Wang said.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors have rejected calls by exiled Uighurs to investigate China for alleged crimes against humanity in XUAR.

Reports from The Hague said that members from Uighur exiled had handed a dossier of “evidence” to the court in July accusing China of locking more than a million Uighurs in re-education camps and of forcibly sterilising women.

But the office of prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said on Monday it was unable to act because the alleged acts happened on the territory of China, which is not a signatory to The Hague-based ICC.

Pompeo slams China’s treatment of Uyghurs, compares it to Nazi Germany

WASHINGTON, Dec 15: US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo criticised China over curtailing the religious freedom of Uyghurs.

In an interview with Rob Schmitt of ‘Wake Up America’, Pompeo lambasted China for treating a million Uyghur Muslims in ways that are just absolutely devastating and equated it with Nazi’s Germany ethnic cleansing of the Jews in the 1930s.

“China, which is devastatingly bad, they’re treating a million Uyghur Muslims in ways that are just absolutely devastating, things we haven’t seen since Germany in the 1930s,” said Pompeo.

Various testimonies surfacing from the non-Chinese world reveal that Beijing has in fact intensified its operations against Uyghurs by putting more people in internment camps during the pandemic times.

In fact, the Uyghur Muslims in Chinese “re-education” camps are forced to eat pork every Friday, confirmed Sayragul Sautbay, who was one of the victims of the atrocities being committed by the Chinese government.

Answering to a question of Schmitt regarding effects of coronavirus on churches, synagogues, worship places, which have been closed or shut down and how repressive regimes like China is using the situation to their benefit in suppressing Uyghurs, Pompeo upheld religious freedom as one of the fundamental rights.

“I am incredibly proud of the work we have done on religious freedom. It’s this most fundamental right, this human right that - from which all others flow. If you get religious freedom rights and tolerance for people of faith, so many good things happen in your country. So we’ve worked on this - is so we’ve worked hard on religious freedom,” remarked Pompeo.

He also rued the fact that leaders across the world are opening bars and casinos but places of worship were still not permitted to open.

“It’s very discouraging to see leaders use an excuse of the coronavirus to allow bars and casinos to be open, but not permit places of worship, people to gather around their faith,” he said.

Hong Kong becoming another Chinese-run communist city, says Mike Pompeo

HONG KONG, Dec 15: Hong Kong is becoming just another Chinese-run communist city, US State Secretary Michael Pompeo said on Monday, adding that the United States has challenged the imprisonment of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai under the National Security Law.

Jimmy, the 73-year-old Hong Kong media tycoon and advocate for democracy, was denied bail on Saturday, after being charged with the draconian National Security Law.

Lai was handcuffed and chained around the waist while being escorted to court earlier today, South China Morning Post reported.

He is expected to spend the coming four months in detention while police comb through his social media posts and examine his overseas visits to gather evidence.

Calling Jimmy Lai a “true patriot”, Pompeo said: “He cares deeply about the people of Hong Kong, as does our administration. This is another example where General Secretary Xi Jinping broke a promise. He made a 50-year commitment for freedom for the people of Hong Kong and he’s now bashed it. He’s now taken it away with his national security law that caused the imprisonment of Jimmy Lai, who was simply trying to speak about the basic rights for the people of Hong Kong.”

In an interview with Newsmax, Pompeo said the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted.

“I fear that Hong Kong is becoming just another Chinese-run communist city, and that’s too bad. It’s inconsistent with what Xi Jinping had promised and it’s another example of the fact that you simply can’t trust with the Chinese Communist Party says. You have to verify every single thing that they assert,” he said.

In August 2020, Jimmy was arrested under the new National Security Law.

The charge stems from comments Lai purportedly made on Twitter and in interviews asking foreign countries to sanction the city.

This comes after a number of former pro-democracy lawmakers were arrested in the month of October over protests after the draconian National Security Law was imposed on the city by Beijing.

The law criminalizes secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces and carries with it strict prison terms. It came into effect from July 1.

Several of those disqualified were sitting lawmakers, who were subsequently ejected from the parliament by Beijing overruling constitutional precedent and bypassing Hong Kong’s courts on November 11, sparking the mass resignation of the entire pro-democratic camp.

Real danger of goodwill dissipating with China: Jaishankar

NEW DELHI, Dec 12: External affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Saturday India was being tested and that he was confident that it would meet the national security challenge along the contested border amid the stalemate with China over the eastern sector of Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)

“We are being tested. I have every confidence we will rise to the occasion and meet the national security challenge. But beyond that, at this time, I would really frankly keep my own counsel,” the Union minister said during an interactive session at the annual general meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

Jaishankar called the events along the LAC very disturbing that have raised some very “basic concerns", adding “what has happened in eastern Ladakh was not actually in China’s interest as it has significantly impacted public sentiment in India.”

Recalling the ties between India and China when he was younger and how the relationship has evolved over the years, Jaishankar said, “Professionally, I have seen the evolution of how the Indian public feels about China over the last many decades and I am old enough to remember much more difficult days, especially in my childhood and in my teens,” he said.

The minister expressed concern over the future of bilateral ties between the two countries and said the events of this year have not helped at all. “In fact, I think the real danger is that the goodwill which was so carefully developed will dissipate,” he added.

When asked about when India and China are likely to arrive at a resolution, Jaishankar said, “I would not go into the prediction zone at all whether it is going to be easy or not, and what will be the timelines and so on.”

For almost eight months now, the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been locked in a tense border standoff in the Ladakh region with no breakthrough yet despite multiple rounds of discussions between top authorities.

Iran executes journalist who encouraged 2017 protests

TEHRAN, Dec 12: Iran on Saturday executed a once-exiled journalist over his online work that helped inspire nationwide economic protests in 2017, authorities said, just months after he returned to Tehran under mysterious circumstances.

Iranian state television and the state-run IRNA news agency said that Ruhollah Zam, 47, was hanged early Saturday morning. The reports did not elaborate.

In June, a court sentenced Zam to death, saying he had been convicted of “corruption on Earth,” a charge often used in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government.

Zam’s website AmadNews and a channel he created on the popular messaging app Telegram had spread the timings of the protests and embarrassing information about officials that directly challenged Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

Those demonstrations, which began at the end of 2017, represented the biggest challenge to Iran since the 2009 Green Movement protests and set the stage for similar mass unrest in November of last year.

The initial spark for the 2017 protests was a sudden jump in food prices. Many believe that hard-line opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani instigated the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, trying to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, the backlash turned against the entire ruling class.

Soon, cries directly challenging Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be heard in online videos shared by Zam. Zam’s channel also shared times and organizational details for the protests.

Telegram shut down the channel over Iranian government complaints it spread information about how to make gasoline bombs. The channel later continued under a different name. Zam, who has said he fled Iran after being falsely accused of working with foreign intelligence services, denied inciting violence on Telegram at the time.

The 2017 protests reportedly saw some 5,000 people detained and 25 killed.

The details of his arrest still remain unclear. Though he was based in Paris, Zam somehow returned to Iran and found himself detained by intelligence officials. He’s one of several opposition figures in exile who have been returned to Iran over the last year.

France previously has criticized his death sentence as “a serious blow to freedom of expression and press freedom in Iran.”

A series of a televised confessions aired earlier this year over his work.

During an interview on July, Zam said he has lost some 30 kilograms (66 pounds) since his arrest in October 2019. He said following the arrest that he could meet his father after nine years and his mother and sister after some six years.

Zam is the son of Shiite cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, a reformist who once served in a government policy position in the early 1980s. The cleric wrote a letter published by Iranian media in July 2017 in which he said he wouldn’t support his son over AmadNews’ reporting and messages on its Telegram channel.


India keeps independent ties with countries: MEA

NEW DELHI, Dec 11: New Delhi on Friday pushed back against the Russian foreign minister’s stand that the West’s Indo-Pacific policies were aimed at enmeshing India in “anti-China games”, saying the country has an independent foreign policy based on its national interests.

India’s long-standing ties with Russia, including in the sphere of military-technical cooperation, stand on their own merits and New Delhi doesn’t perceive the Indo-Pacific as an exclusive club directed against any country, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had created a flutter in diplomatic circles by telling a meeting of state-run think tank Russian International Affairs Council on Tuesday that Western powers were promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad to engage India in “anti-China games”. At the same time, Lavrov said, the West is trying to undermine Russia’s partnership with India.

Asked about these remarks at a weekly news briefing, Srivastava said, “India has always pursued an independent foreign policy based on its national interest. India’s relationship with each country is independent of its relations with third countries.”

He added, “We hope that this is well understood and appreciated by all our partners.”

India’s position on the Indo-Pacific had been “unequivocally outlined” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018. “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members or as a grouping that seeks to dominate. It is not directed against any country. It stands for a free, open and inclusive region,” Srivastava said.

While addressing the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, Lavrov had also said that the “very tough pressure” from the US on India concerning military-technical cooperation is part of the efforts to undermine the partnership with Russia.

The remarks were apparently a reference to the US threat of imposing sanctions on India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for the $5.4-billion deal with Russia for S-400 air defence systems.

However, Srivastava said India’s long-standing relations with Russia were characterised as a “special and privileged strategic partnership”, and 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of this strategic partnership. “Our relations with Russia stand on their own merits, including in the sphere of military-technical cooperation,” he said.

Russia currently accounts for more than 60 per cent of the inventory of India’s armed forces despite New Delhi’s efforts to acquire weapon systems from more diverse sources, including the US, Israel and France. The US has pushed India in recent years to acquire more American military hardware.

While India has acquired platforms such as Chinook and Apache helicopters and C-17 heavy lift aircraft and leased MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from the US, it has also inked big-ticket deals with Russia for acquiring the S-400 systems and assault rifles.

With aim at China at Asean meet, Rajnath advocates self-restraint

NEW DELHI, Dec 10: In a thinly veiled reference to China, defence minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday called on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its dialogue partners to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that complicate the situation.

Singh’s remarks, made during a virtual gathering of the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) that was joined by his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, came against the backdrop of the India-China standoff in Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

“As we enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, will go a long way in bringing sustained peace to the region,” Singh said in his address.

He also expressed appreciation for the central role of Asean-led forums, including ADMM Plus, in promoting dialogue and engagement for a pluralistic and cooperative security order in Asia amid the “current regional environment with visible strains”.

India has accused China of unilaterally attempting to change the status quo along the LAC since April this year. Following a clash in June that killed 20 Indian soldiers and caused unspecified Chinese casualties, both countries have mobilised tens of thousands of troops that have dug in along the LAC for the harsh winter.

Singh had met Wei on the margins of a meeting of defence ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Moscow in September and there have also been meetings and contacts between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, senior military commanders and diplomats but the two sides haven’t been able to agree on disengagement on the LAC.

ADMM Plus, which comprises the 10 members of Asean and its eight dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US, was formed in 2010 to strengthen security and defence cooperation for peace and development in the region. This year’s meeting was chaired by Vietnam.

Noting the observance of the 10th anniversary of ADMM Plus, Singh said field training and table-top exercises help members of the grouping understand each other and maintain peace in the region. “Our ability, to collectively respond to challenges in the region based on the fundamentals of freedom, inclusivity and openness will define our future,” he said.

“Threats to the rules-based order, maritime security, cyber-related crimes and terrorism...remain the challenges that we need to address as a forum,” he added.

ADMM Plus has grown into a “fulcrum of peace, stability and rules-based order in this region” and India’s concepts of “vasudhaive kutumbakam” or “the whole world is one family” and “sarve bhavantu sukhinah” or “all be at peace” emphasise inclusivity, equality and openness, Singh said.

The Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific underscores the “impetus to cultivate strategic trust and continuously promote Asean centrality in the regional architecture”, he added.

“Our collective achievement in the past decade has been remarkable in advancing multilateral cooperation through strategic dialogue and practical security cooperation,” Singh said.

The members of ADMM Plus are major stakeholders in the regional security dynamic and exercises in maritime security, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations have helped build confidence, he said.

“Cyber security and military medicine are at the forefront of our challenges today. Another notable step has been the adoption of the concept paper on expanding Asean Direct Communication Infrastructure to the Plus countries,” Singh said.

ADMM Plus needs to continue its efforts to address threats such as bioterrorism, transnational trafficking and pandemic diseases and the grouping’s joint statement on “Advancing partnership for sustainable security” in 2019 reflected the commitment to maintaining regional peace, stability and security, he added.

The members of the group should build capacity to address shared security challenges that are increasingly trans-boundary in nature, and they should also forge closer military-to-military interactions and cooperation, Singh remarked.

China cites 5 different explanations for Ladakh violations: Jaishankar

NEW DELHI, Dec 9: China has offered “five differing explanations” for its deployment of thousands of soldiers on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that pushed bilateral ties into their most difficult phase ever, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Wednesday.

India-China ties have been “very significantly damaged” by Beijing’s violation of agreements on maintaining peace and tranquillity on the LAC, and extensive contacts at different levels between the two sides have so far failed to address the basic issue that “agreements are not being observed”, he said in an online conversation with the Australian think tank Lowy Institute.

With the India-China border standoff in its eighth month, Jaishankar said, “We are today probably at the most difficult phase of our relationship with China, certainly in the last 30 to 40 years...or even more.”

Noting that the 20 Indian soldiers killed in the clash at Galwan Valley on June 15 were the first military casualties on the LAC since 1975, Jaishankar said the relationship has been “very significantly damaged” because all positive developments in the past 30 years – including China becoming India’s second largest trade partner and engagements in tourism and travel – were based on the fact that the two sides had agreed to maintain peace and tranquillity in border areas while trying to solve the boundary question.

Pointing to multiple agreements signed since 1993 that committed both parties not to bring large forces to the LAC, he said, “Now for some reason, for which the Chinese have to date given us five differing explanations, the Chinese have violated it.

“The Chinese have literally brought tens of thousands of soldiers in full military preparation mode right to the LAC in Ladakh. Naturally the relationship would be profoundly disturbed by this.”

Jaishankar didn’t go into the details of the five explanations offered by the Chinese side. While there were arguments and face-offs between troops in the past, there had never been a major breach of understanding, he said. With soldiers of the two sides very close to each other this year, it was “not entirely surprising that something went horribly wrong”, he said in a reference to the Galwan Valley clash that resulted in 20 Indian casualties and “completely changed national sentiment”.

Getting the relationship back on track is now a “very big issue”, though communications between the two sides aren’t an issue, Jaishankar said. He had personally spoken on phone with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and met him on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Moscow, while there were also meetings and contacts between the defence ministers, military commanders and diplomats.

“Communication is not the issue, the issue is the fact that we have agreements and those agreements are not being observed,” he added.

Jaishankar said China had, since 2008-09, evolved into a “very much more nationalistic” country, and this was being expressed “down the line in a variety of ways and in policies”. All of this was happening at a time when the global order is witnessed the creation of a new architecture and new norms and regimes because of rebalancing and multi-polarity, he added.

Responding to a question on India’s relations with the US under president-elect Joe Biden, Jaishankar said the former vice president had made a “big contribution” to bilateral ties while in the Senate foreign relations committee and his “goodwill for India is very manifest”.

Deep convergences in many areas have brought India and the US closer since the time of former president Bill Clinton’s administration, and Washington now realises New Delhi’s more prominent role in a multi-polar world as it needs more partners while going beyond the traditional system of alliances, he said.

Jaishankar expressed satisfaction at the rapid expansion of ties between India and Australia in the past 18 months, saying the two “cricket-playing Commonwealth democracies” can contribute to shaping the emerging global order. The two countries are expanding an existing trilateral with Japan and looking at shaping new ones with Indonesia and France, he said.

Study finds over 2 million UK families likely to plunge into poverty amid Covid-19 crisis

LONDON, Dec 9: Over one million UK families comprising 2.4 million people experienced destitution in 2019, but the number is expected to double, as the Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the United Kingdom’s economy into its deepest recession since recording began, a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) revealed on Wednesday.

“This study, the third in the Destitution in the UK series, reveals that even before the Covid-19 outbreak destitution was rapidly growing in scale and intensity. Since 2017 many more households, including families with children, have been pushed to the brink,” the JRF’s research said.

The foundation defines destitution as when a household cannot afford two or more of the essentials we all need to live, like shelter, food, heating and clothing.

According to the report, of the 2.4 million people that experienced destitution at any point during 2019, around 550,000 were children. It also found that one in five destitute people are homeless or suffer from drug and alcohol problems, while some 54 per cent have a chronic health problem or disability.

“I’m appalled, I’m ashamed and I’m angry. Nearly 2.5 million people experienced destitution in 2019. That’s more than a 50 per cent increase since 2017. More than half a million children are growing up with the experience of destitution,” JRF director Helen Barnard said in a video published on Twitter in which she called for improving social security, building more social homes and creating better paid, more secure jobs.

The study said although destitution has risen sharply across the UK, the highest levels are in northern cities and towns.

Protests in several world cities in support of Indian Farmers

By Deepak Arora

NEW YORK, Dec 6: Indian farmers got support in several world cities in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Punjabi diaspora descended in thousands on city squares during the weekend to express solidarity with the the farmers protesting on inter-state borders of Delhi against India's new farm laws.

A few of the prominent cities where the Indian farmers got support included Washington DC, San Fransicso, New York, Oakland, Indiana, Dallas, London, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Auckland.

In the US, protests were held outside the Indian consulate in San Francisco and Indian embassy in Washington D.C.

The Indian high commission on Sunday questioned the security provided by Scotland Yard after nearly 4,000 protestors were allowed to gather to protest against farm laws in a demonstration that it said included anti-India elements.

Scotland Yard arrested four people, including a man and three teenagers, and advised motorists to avoid the area around the Indian mission in central London after thousands converged from various parts of the UK, leading to traffic jams in the area for some hours.

Indian quarters expressed strong disappointment over the security arrangements after the protestors were allowed despite restrictions in place over Covid-19 and the police stating that a “robust policing plan” was in place.

Indian diplomat Vishwesh Negi said, “The high commission had been informed that as per normal practice permission had been sought... for a drive-past protest involving about 40 vehicles. We were also aware that the police had given specific warning against the gathering of more than 30 people”.

“The developing situation was brought to the attention of the UK Foreign Office and Home Office. The London Metropolitan Police managed, controlled and eventually disposed the crowds. We could see that a few violent were arrested”.

“Our high commission has been coordinating closely with the authorities concerned and we will, together with them, address the issues that have come up: for example, how this gathering of thousands could take place without specific permission, etc,” he added.

The teenagers were arrested after they were seen setting off “firework towards a large crowd. They were also found to be in possession of a number of other fireworks,” the police said, adding that officers are in attendance at the protest in the Aldwych area.

Motorists were advised to avoid Strand, Waterloo Bridge and Fleet Street near the Indian mission, which was cordoned off by a line of police officers, while a large crowd shouted slogans and held placards against the Narendra Modi government on the other side of the road, demanding scrapping of the controversial farm laws.

There were also some demonstrations at Trafalgar Square. Reports from various parts of London and some approach roads into the capital also witnessed traffic jams as cars bearing flags and placards were driven by protestors arriving from various places.

Negi added, “As expected, it soon became clear that the gathering was led by anti-India separatists who had taken the opportunity of the farm protests ostensibly not to back the farmers in India but use the opportunity to pursue their own agenda”.

“As many are aware, the protest against agriculture reform bills in India is part of a democratic process. It is work in progress in our functioning democracy. Government of India is in talks with the protesters which are still ongoing. Needless to say, it is an internal issue of India”.

Indian officials have been briefing interlocutors in the British government and parliament in recent days on the fundamental features of farm sector reforms.

The protestors had gathered in central London even after the police issued a reminder that strict regulations remain in place to help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease. The reminder meant that anyone gathering for the protest risks enforcement action by officers, the police said.

Trudeau reiterates support to Indian farmers

TORONTO, Dec 5: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reiterated that Canada will always stand up for the right to protest peacefully and human rights anywhere in the world and that Canada was pleased to see "moves towards de-escalation and dialogue".

When asked specifically about India's threat that his remarks can damage bilateral ties, he said again that Canada will always support the right to protest peacefully.

Earlier on Friday India had summoned the Canadian envoy and formally denounced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's remarks on the farmer protests, warning that "such actions will seriously damage ties".

The centre conveyed to the Canadian High Commissioner its strong objection to Trudeau's recent comments and those by other parliamentarians, including ministers.

"Comments by Canadian leaders on Indian farmers constitute an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs. Such actions, if continued, will have a seriously damaging impact on bilateral ties," the foreign ministry said.

On Monday, speaking at an event to mark the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Mr Trudeau had spoken in support of farmers in India and weighed in on the right to peaceful protest.

"Canada will always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protest," said the 48-year-old.

He was the first world leader to comment on the protest by farmers who faced water cannons, tear gas shells and lathicharge by the police in Haryana and Delhi before they were allowed to protest peacefully in the national capital.

India had immediately responded saying the comment was "ill-informed" and "unwarranted".

"We have seen some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India. Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes," foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had said.

36 British MPs back farmers’ protest, want UK to raise issue with India

LONDON, Dec 5: Thirty-six British MPs from various parties - including some of Indian origin and others representing many constituents with links in Punjab – have written to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asking him to raise the issue of farmers’ agitation with the Narendra Modi government.

Coordinated by Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the letter seeks an urgent meeting with Raab and an update on representations the foreign office may have made with India on the issue, including during the recent London visit by foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

Signatories to the letter include MPs from Labour, Conservative and Scottish National Party, including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Virendra Sharma, Seema Malhotra, Valerie Vaz, Nadia Whittome, Peter Bottomley, John McDonnell, Martin Docherty-Hughes and Alison Thewliss.

The letter says: “This is an issue of particular concern to Sikhs in the UK and those linked to the Punjab, although it also heavily impacts on other Indian states. Many British Sikhs and Punjabis have taken this matter up with their MPs, as they (are) directly affected with family members and ancestral land in the Punjab”.

Stating that several MPs had recently written to the Indian high commission about the impact of India’s three farm laws, the letter alleges that they fail “to protect farmers from exploitation and to ensure fair prices for their produce”.

British MPs have also been commenting on the farmers’ agitation on the social media in recent days.

Preet Kaur Gill, Labour MP from Birmingham Edgbaston and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Party for British Sikhs, reacted to images of protests from Delhi: “This is no way to treat citizens who are peacefully protesting over the controversial Farmers Bill in India”.

“Shocking scenes from Delhi. Farmers are peacefully protesting over controversial bills that will impact their livelihoods. Water cannons, and tear gas, are being used to silence them”, she added on Twitter.

Dhesi posted images from the protests and said: “It takes a special kind of people to feed those ordered to beat and suppress them. I stand with farmers of the #Punjab and other parts of #India, including our family and friends, who are peacefully protesting against the encroaching privatization of #FarmersBill2020”.

Bangladesh ships Rohingya to remote island despite outcry

DHAKA, Dec 4: More than 1,600 Rohingya refugees sailed on Friday from Bangladesh’s southern port of Chittagong for the remote island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, a naval official said, despite opposition from humanitarian groups against the move.

The South Asian nation says it is only moving refugees who are willing to go and that this will ease chronic overcrowding in camps that are home to more than one million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.

But refugees and humanitarian workers say some of the Rohingya had been coerced into going to Bhashan Char, a flood-prone island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago.

The naval official said the Rohingya were on board seven boats, with two more carrying supplies.

Pictures taken from one of the vessels showed refugees lined up on blue plastic chairs under the watch of uniformed sailors.

“The government is not taking anyone to Bhashan Char forcibly. We maintain this position,” Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told reporters late on Thursday.

Humanitarian and human rights groups have said the island is flood-prone and vulnerable to frequent cyclones, while the government has not allowed the United Nations to carry out a safety assessment.

They were among more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in 2017 following a military-led crackdown that the UN said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies genocide and says its forces were targeting Rohingya rebels who attacked police posts.

Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed 12 families whose names were on the lists but had not volunteered to go, while Refugees International said the move was “nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people in violation of international human rights obligations”.

Two aid workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said refugees had come under pressure from government officials who used threats and offers of cash and other enticements to persuade them to go to the island.

More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after several months at sea in an attempt to flee Bangladesh. Rights groups say they are being held against their will and have complained of human rights violations.

Iran ready to show goodwill if US, Europe abide by nuclear deal: Foreign Minister

ROME, Dec 3: Iran will fully comply with a 2015 deal aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons if both the United States and Europe honour their original commitments, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Thursday.

US President Donald Trump quit the pact in 2018, saying it did not do enough to curb Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs or its militant influence in the Middle East.

However, president-elect Joe Biden has said he will rejoin it if Tehran first resumes strict compliance. He has also said he would work with allies “to strengthen and extend it”.

Addressing a Rome conference via video-link, Zarif said the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could not be renegotiated but it could be resurrected.

“The United States has commitments. It is not in a position to set conditions,” he said.

Iran’s Guardian Council watchdog body approved a law on Wednesday that obliges the government to halt U.N. inspections of its nuclear sites and step up uranium enrichment beyond the limit set under the 2015 deal if sanctions are not eased within two months.

Zarif said that although the government did not like the law, it would nonetheless implement it.

“But it is not irreversible,” he said. “The Europeans and USA can come back into compliance with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact the actions we have taken ... will be rescinded. We will go back to full compliance.”

Zarif said economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration had cost Iranians $250 billion and made it impossible to buy medicines and vaccines needed to combat the coronavirus, which has taken a particularly heavy toll on his country.

“It is a crime against humanity,” he said, adding that the US measures were preventing European companies from doing business in Iran, dashing hopes of a massive upswing in trade after the 2015 deal was signed.

“Europeans say they are in full compliance (with the deal) but they simply are not. ... We don’t see any European companies in Iran, we do not see any European country buying oil from Iran, we do not see any European banks send us our money,” Zarif said.

The foreign minister said he hoped that neighbouring Arab states, some of which have recently forged ties with Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, would seek dialogue with Tehran once Trump left office.

“We are their neighbours. We will be in this region together. I do not believe that they want to allow Israel to bring the fight to Iran,” Zarif said.

Trudeau expresses concern at farmers’ protest; India says remarks ‘unwarranted’

OTTAWA, Dec 1: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that Ottawa has conveyed its concerns about the protest by Indian farmers to New Delhi, but the external affairs ministry dismissed his remarks as “unwarranted” as they pertained to the country’s internal affairs.

Trudeau made the remarks while participating in a Facebook video interaction organised by Canadian MP Bardish Chagger to mark Guruparb or the 551st birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. The event was joined by Canadian ministers Navdeep Bains and Harjit Sajjan and members of the Sikh community.

In his opening remarks during the interaction, Trudeau said: “I would be remiss if I didn’t start also by recognising the news coming out of India about the protest by farmers. The situation is concerning and we’re all very worried about family and friends.

“I know that’s a reality for many of you. Let me remind you, Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest. We believe in the importance of dialogue and that’s why we’ve reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns.”

Hours later, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said in a brief statement: “We have seen some ill-informed comments by Canadian leaders relating to farmers in India. Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country.”

Srivastava added, “It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.”

People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that Trudeau’s comments appeared to be aimed at Canada’s influential Indian-origin diaspora.

Trudeau also referred to the Covid-19 pandemic and said this “is a moment for all of us to pull together”. He added, “We’re going to be there to continue to work together as we are there to help each other out.” He also said it was important to remember Guru Nanak’s teachings of compassion, equality and selfless service, which are at the heart of both Sikhism and Canadian values.

Trudeau is probably the first world leader to comment on the protest by Indian farmers, which entered its fifth day on Monday. The protest is aimed at against a set of laws to liberalise farm trade and open up agricultural markets. The Union government has offered talks to the protestors camping at New Delhi’s borders, but they have insisted on the repeal of the laws.

The comments weren’t seen favourably in New Delhi, especially at a time when both India and Canada have been taking steps to restore normalcy to bilateral ties that were hit by Trudeau’s perceived softness on pro-Khalistan activists in Canada during his first term.

UK’s new points-based visa system opens from Jan 1

LONDON, Dec 1: A month before the UK completes the Brexit process and begins a new phase from January 1, 2021, a new points-based immigration system that treats professionals from EU countries at par with those from India and other countries opened on Tuesday.

Under the new set-up, designed along the lines of Australia’s points system, points will be awarded for a job offer at the appropriate skill level, knowledge of English and for a minimum salary of £25,600 per year. Skilled worker visas will be awarded to those who gain enough points.

When the UK was a member of the EU - it formally left in January this year and is in the transition period - citizens from member-states were able to move and work in the UK under the “freedom of movement” facility.

This facility ends with the completion of the Brexit process and the end of the transition period on December 31 this year, making it mandatory for EU citizens to go through the same visa rules as applicable to others.

The UK’s home office said that applications can be made online, with decisions expected within three weeks. Applicants will need to have enough money to pay the application fee (ranging from £610 to £1,408), the healthcare surcharge (usually £624 per year), and be able to support themselves (usually by having at least £1,270 available). The visa lasts for up to five years before it needs to be extended.

UK home secretary Priti Patel said, “This government promised to end free movement, to take back control of our borders and to introduce a new points-based immigration system. Today, we have delivered on that promise.

“This simple, effective and flexible system will ensure employers can recruit the skilled workers they need, while also encouraging employers to train and invest in the UK’s workforce. We are also opening routes for those who have exceptional talent or show exceptional promise in the fields of engineering, science, tech or culture.”

Besides the skilled worker visas, other visas also opened on Tuesday, including global talent visas for people who can show they have exceptional talent or exceptional promise in the fields of science, engineering, humanities, medicine, digital technology or arts and culture.

Also open are innovator visas for persons seeking to establish businesses in the UK based on innovative, viable and scalable business ideas, and start-up visas for persons seeking to establish businesses in the UK for the first time.

The student route and child student route opened on October 5, 2020 to eligible international students from across the globe, the home office said.

China's Chang'e-5 Moon mission probe touches down

BEIJING, Dec 1: China has successfully put another probe on the Moon. Its robotic Chang'e-5 mission touched down a short while ago with the aim of collecting samples of rock and dust to bring back to Earth.

The venture has targeted Mons Rümker, a high volcanic complex in a nearside region known as Oceanus Procellarum.

The lander is expected to spend the next couple of days examining its surroundings and gathering up surface materials.

It has a number of instruments to facilitate this, including a camera, spectrometer, radar, a scoop and a drill.

The intention is to package about 2kg of "soil", or regolith, to send up to an orbiting vehicle that can then transport the samples to Earth.

It's 44 years since this was last achieved. That was the Soviet Luna 24 mission, which picked up just under 200g.

Unlike the launch of the mission a week ago, the landing was not covered live by Chinese TV channels.

Only after the touchdown was confirmed did they break into their programming to relay the news.

Images taken on the descent were quickly released with the final frame showing one of the probe's legs casting a shadow on to the dusty lunar surface.

The US space agency congratulated China. Nasa's top science official, Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, said he hoped the international research community would eventually get the chance to analyse any samples sent home.

"When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community," he tweeted.

The 8.2-tonne Chang'e-5 spacecraft "stack" was launched from the Wenchang spaceport in southern China on 24 November (local time). It arrived above the Moon at the weekend and then set about circularising its orbit before splitting in two.

One half - a service vehicle and return module - stayed in orbit, while a lander-ascender segment was prepared for a touchdown attempt.

The Chinese space agency said this lander-ascender element put down at 15:11 GMT (23:11 China Standard Time). The precise position was reported as 51.8 degrees West longitude and 43.1 degrees North latitude.

Chang'e-5's success follows China's two previous Moon landings - those of Chang'e-3 in 2013 and Chang'e-4 last year. Both of these earlier missions incorporated a static lander and small rover.

A total of just under 400kg of rock and soil were retrieved by American Apollo astronauts and the Soviets' robotic Luna programme - the vast majority of these materials coming back with the crewed missions.

But all these samples were very old - more than three billion years in age. The Mons Rümker materials, on the other hand, promise to be no more than 1.2 or 1.3 billion years old. And this should provide additional insights on the geological history of the Moon.

The samples will also allow scientists to more precisely calibrate the "chronometer" they use to age surfaces on the inner Solar System planets.

This is done by counting craters (the more craters, the older the surface), but it depends on having some definitive dating at a number of locations, and the Apollo and Soviet samples were key to this. Chang'e-5 would offer a further data point.

Reports from China suggest the effort to retrieve surface samples may last no longer than a couple of days. Any retrieved materials will be blasted back into orbit on the ascent portion of the landing mechanism, and then transferred across to the service vehicle and placed in the return module.

The orbiter will shepherd the return module to the Earth's vicinity, jettisoning it to make an atmospheric entry and landing in the Siziwang Banner grasslands of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. This is where China's astronauts also return to Earth.

"Chang'e-5 is a very complex mission," commented Dr James Carpenter, exploration science coordinator for human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency.

"I think it's extremely impressive what they're trying to do. And what I think is fascinating is you see this very systematic, step by step approach to increasing their exploration capabilities - from the early Chang'e missions to this latest one."

Russia deploys advanced S-300 missiles to disputed islands near Japan

MOSCOW, Dec 1: Russia said on Tuesday it had deployed a number of its new S-300V4 missile defence systems for combat duty on a disputed chain of islands near Japan, a move that is likely to anger Tokyo.

The Russian Defence Ministry’s Zvezda TV station said the mobile air defence system designed to counter ballistic and aerial attacks was on Iturup, one of four islands held by Russia that Japan claims and calls the Northern Territories.

“Short-range anti-aircraft missile systems are already on duty on the island of Iturup in Sakhalin Region. Now the air defence ‘heavy artillery’ has arrived. The so-called large air defence system: the S-300V4,” Zvezda said.

The Soviets seized the islands, known as the Southern Kuriles, at the end of World War Two and a territorial row over them has prevented the two sides signing a formal peace treaty since and strained relations for years.

Japan is highly sensitive to military moves by Russia on the strategically important chain of islands that stretch northeast from Japan’s Hokkaido to the Russian Far East region of Kamchatka.

Russia said in October it planned to deploy the missile system on the islands for the first time, but that the move would be part of military drills and not for combat duty.

The deployment comes not long after former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who mounted a push to resolve the dispute and tried to win over Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced he was stepping down in August.

Nirav Modi’s UK jail remand extended again

LONDON, Dec 1: The Westminster Magistrates Court on Tuesday further extended the prison remand of diamantaire Nirav Modi, who is facing a trial for extradition to India to face charges of major financial offences linked to a Mumbai branch of the Punjab National Bank (PNB).

The remand needs to be extended every 28 days, which means he will remain in the Wandsworth jail in west London at least until December 29, when it is likely to be extended again.

Concluding statements in the ongoing extradition trial are due to be made on January 7 and 8 by the Crown Prosecution Service on India’s behalf and by Modi’s lead lawyer, Claire Montgomery.

At the last hearing on November 3, citing the December 2018 judgment on the extradition of businessman Vijay Mallya, the court had rejected objections by Modi’s defence team on admitting evidence submitted by the Indian government in the latter’s extradition case.

District judge Samuel Goozee said he was bound by the Mallya judgment delivered by chief magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, who also dealt with the issue of admissibility of India’s evidence and decided to accept them. He said he would adopt the “approach taken in Mallya”.

Statements of several witnesses to Modi’s alleged fraud are part of India’s documentation in the case, including individuals who alleged that they were threatened at the behest of Modi.

Modi is the subject of two extradition requests; one processed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the other by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Charges against Modi involve the PNB’s Mumbai branch that extended his companies loans worth over Rs 11,300 crore. The CBI case relates to large-scale fraud upon PNB, through the fraudulent obtaining of Letters of Understanding (LOUs/ loan agreements); the ED case relates to the laundering of the proceeds of that fraud.

The second extradition request was made on the basis of two additional offences as part of the CBI case, relating to allegations that Modi interfered with the CBI investigation by “causing disappearance of evidence” and intimidating witnesses (“criminal intimidation to cause death”).

The magistrates court had cleared Mallya’s extradition in December 2018. His appeals in the high court were also turned down, but the extradition currently awaits resolution of a legal process, widely believed to be an application for asylum.

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