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US, Japan, Indonesia ramp up pressure on Beijing over activities in South China Sea

BEIJING, March 30: The United States, Japan and Indonesia have escalated pressure on China over its activities in the South China Sea after an ongoing tussle between Beijing and the Philippines over a disputed reef came to light last week, South China Morning Post reported.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on Monday morning that the US "stands with our ally, the Philippines" in the face of what he called China's "maritime militia" amassing at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands. "We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order," he wrote.

Meanwhile, the Japanese and Indonesian defence ministers agreed at a meeting on Sunday to send a message that their two countries would strongly oppose any action by China that could escalate tensions in the contested regional waterway.

According to Japan's Nobuo Kishi, this will include a boost to their defence cooperation and a joint exercise in the South China Sea.

Early this month, Phillippines said that over 200 Chinese vessels have massed at a disputed reef in the West Philippine sea.

In an unusual announcement published by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) on its Facebook page, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea said ships have "massed" at the Julian Felipe Reef, the official Philippine name for Whitsun Reef, Manila Times reported.

Julian Felipe Reef is a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, and northeast of Pagkakaisa banks and reefs or the Union Reefs. The reef is claimed by China and the Philippines both.

The reef is also claimed by Vietnam, which calls it Da Ba Dau. Hanoi has said the Chinese vessels are infringing on its sovereignty.

The Philippines' air force has been holding air patrols over Chinese fishing vessels on the reef. Meanwhile, their air force has made repeated calls to Beijing for their withdrawal from the area, Al Jazeera reported.

In response to the Chinese vessels, the Philippines foreign ministry has filed a diplomatic protest against China while the Philippine navy and coast guard ships have been deployed in the area to monitor the situation.

"We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines," said Philippines defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

An international tribunal at The Hague in 2016 supported the Philippines' claim to the reef as part of its exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the ruling was rejected by Beijing, which claims more than 90 per cent of the disputed South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.

Beijing's rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South Sea has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific.

Myanmar death toll tops 500 as protesters defy junta's forces

YANGON, March 29: Myanmar's security forces have killed at least 510 civilians in nearly two months of efforts to stop protests against a Feb. 1 coup, an advocacy group said on Monday, as thousands of people took to the streets again despite the growing toll.

Another 14 civilians were killed on Monday, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said, as it also updated figures for previous days. The total killed on Saturday, the bloodiest day so far, had risen to 141, figures showed.

The White House condemned the killings of civilians as an "abhorrent" use of lethal force and renewed a call for the restoration of democracy, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Myanmar's generals to stop the killings and repression of demonstrations.

Monday's dead included at least eight in the South Dagon suburb of Myanmar's main city, Yangon, the AAPP said.

Security forces there fired a much heavier-calibre weapon than usual to clear a barricade of sand bags, witnesses said and a video clip showed. It was not immediately clear what type, although a community group posted a picture of a soldier with a grenade launcher.

State television said security forces used "riot weapons" to disperse a crowd of "violent terrorist people" who were destroying a pavement and one man was wounded.

Police and a junta spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment.

Two people were also killed in shooting in the central town of Myingyan, said student leader Moe Myint Hein.

Despite the violence, crowds turned out in towns across the country, according to media and social media posts.

One of the main groups behind the protests, the General Strike Committee of Nationalities, called in an open letter on Facebook for ethnic minority forces to help those standing up to the "unfair oppression" of the military.

"It is necessary for the ethnic armed organisations to collectively protect the people," the group said.

OCI cardholders no longer need to carry old passports for India

PARIS, March 30: People of Indian origin and Indian diaspora having overseas citizens of India card are now not required to carry their old, expired passports for travel to India, as required earlier, the Embassy of India in Paris said on Tuesday.

According to the Embassy of India in Paris, the Overseas Citizens of India card is required to be re-issued each time a new passport is acquired by the cardholder up to the age of 20 years. "OCI card is required to be re-issued once on acquiring a new passport after completing 50 years of age," the Embassy said.

"The requirement of carrying old and new passports along with the OCI card has been done away with. Henceforth, an OCI cardholder travelling on the strength of the existing OCI Card bearing old passport number is not required to carry the old passport. However carrying the new (current) passport is mandatory," the embassy added.

The OCI card is issued to people of Indian origin globally which gives them almost all the privileges of an Indian national except for the right to vote, government service and buying agricultural land. The OCI card gives them visa-free travel to India.

As per media reports, The Indian government relaxed the second provisions last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The timeline has been extended multiple times so far. However, this is for the first time that the guidelines have been relaxed for carrying old passports and the new passports along with the OCI cards for overseas Indians.

Old OCI rules desired that the overseas Indians carry the old passport as well along with the new passports and the OCI card.

Myanmar police kill over 100 protestors

YANGON, March 28: Defence chiefs from a dozen countries on Sunday jointly condemned the bloodbath in Myanmar a day earlier, when at least 100 people -- including several children -- were killed after security forces opened fire on protesters.

The newly imposed junta staged a major show of might for its annual Armed Forces Day Saturday as the deaths since the February 1 coup climbed to at least 423, according to a local monitoring group.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the generals ousted and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering mass protests demanding a return to democracy.

The defence ministers of 12 countries including the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia on Sunday condemned the Myanmar military's use of lethal force against civilians.

"A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting -- not harming -- the people it serves," the rare joint statement said.

"We urge the Myanmar Armed Forces to cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar that it has lost through its actions."

Mourners were expected to turn out for funeral processions across the country Sunday, after the bloodiest day since the putsch.

In the capital Naypyidaw Saturday there was a grand parade of troops and military vehicles, and junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing warned in a speech that acts of "terrorism" were unacceptable.

Violence erupted across the country with the military using live rounds in more than 40 townships across nine regions including the largest city Yangon, local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said.

By sunset it was the deadliest day since the junta seized power, AAPP saying at least 90 people had been killed.

"Junta forces shot machine-guns into residential areas, resulting in many civilians, including six children between ten and sixteen-years old, killed," AAPP said.

"The fact the illegitimate military regime is targeting children is a grave act of inhumanity."

A reporter in Kyeikhto township, Mon state, was shot with a live bullet and suffered a leg wound, AAPP said.

Min Aung Hlaing once again defended the coup and pledged to yield power after new elections during his parade speech Saturday.

But he also issued a threat to the anti-coup movement, warning that acts of "terrorism which can be harmful to state tranquility and security" were unacceptable.

"The democracy we desire would be an undisciplined one if they pay no respect to and violate the law", he said.

Armed Forces Day commemorates the start of local resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II, and usually features a military parade attended by foreign military officers and diplomats.

The junta announced that eight international delegations attended Saturday's event, including those of China and Russia -- with a state media broadcast showing Russian deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin in the audience.

Meanwhile, rebels in eastern Myanmar said they had been targeted in air strikes late Saturday, hours after the rebel group had seized a military base.

The move marked the first such air assault since the military seized power, against the Fifth Brigade of the Karen National Union (KNU) -- one of the country's largest armed groups, which says it represents the ethnic Karen people.

The junta did not immediately comment, and there was no official confirmation of any casualties.

Taiwan terms incursion by Chinese warplanes 'unnecessary', 'thoughtless'

TAIPEI, March 28: Taiwanese premier Su Tseng-change has termed the incursion by Chinese warplanes into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADZ) as "unnecessary" and "thoughtless."

Twenty Chinese warplanes entered ADIZ on Friday, a day after Taipei and Washington signed an accord to strengthen maritime cooperation.

Air defence identification zones are early warning systems that help countries detect incursions into their airspace.

Any aircraft entering such an area is supposed to report its route and purpose to the "host" nation, though the zones are classified as international airspace and pilots are not legally bound to make such a notification.

According to Focus Taiwan, Friday's show of force was the biggest in terms of the number of planes deployed since Taiwan began to make public PLA aircraft's movements near Taiwan in mid-September.

Taiwan's premier and foreign minister discussed the issue on Saturday, Taiwan News reported. Taiwan foreign minister Joseph Wu condemned the act in a tweet but said the country will not submit under pressure.

"This dangerous provocation by autocratic China highlights the threats faced by democratic #Taiwan on the front line. But we aren't interested in caving in. Such actions won't stop us from being a force for good in the world and reliable partner of like-minded countries," he tweeted.

Asked for a comment at a cultural event on Saturday, Su Tseng-chang said the incursions were an "unnecessary" and "thoughtless" act because the money spent on military intimidation could have been better spent developing the country and improving the quality of life of its people.

"It's a shared hope of living and working in peace, while Beijing is doing the opposite," he added. "The memorandum signed earlier between Taiwan and the U.S. elaborates on the bilateral efforts made for peace and stability in the region, the wish shared by Chinese people as well."

Philippines sends fighter aircraft over Chinese vessels in South China Sea

MANILA, March 28: The Philippine military is sending light fighter aircraft to fly over hundreds of Chinese vessels in disputed waters in the South China Sea, its defence minister said, as he repeated his demand the flotilla be withdrawn immediately.

International concern is growing over what the Philippines has described as a "swarming and threatening presence" of more than 200 Chinese vessels that Manila believes were manned by maritime militia.

The boats were moored at the Whitsun Reef within Manila's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

The Philippine military aircraft were sent daily to monitor the situation, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement late on Saturday.

Lorenzana said the military will also beef up its naval presence in the South China Sea to conduct "sovereignty patrols" and protect Filipino fishermen.

"Our air and sea assets are ready to protect our sovereignty and sovereign rights," Lorenzana said.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has said the vessels at Whitsun Reef were fishing boats taking refuge from rough seas and that there were no militia aboard.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reaffirmed to China's ambassador, Huang Xilian, the Philippines had won a landmark arbitration case in 2016, which made clear its sovereign entitlements amid rival claims by China, his spokesman said last week.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which at least $3.4 trillion of annual trade passes.

Purchase of Russian S-400 a ‘done deal’, Turkey tells US

BRUSSELS, March 24: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has told United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile-defence system was “a done deal”, in their first face-to-face meeting since the latter took office.

NATO allies Turkey and the US have been at odds over a host of issues in recent years, including Syria, human rights and the S-400 system acquisition, over which Washington has sanctioned Ankara and removed it from its F-35 fighter jet programme.

“On the S-400s, we reminded them once again why Turkey had to buy them, and repeated that Turkey had bought them and this is a done deal,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Brussels, where the two officials met on Wednesday on the sidelines of a NATO meeting.

Describing the talks as constructive, Cavusoglu said Ankara Turkey to meet its future defence needs primarily from NATO allies and agreed on the need to keep discussing differences with Washington.

“We may discuss these and what future steps to take on strategic topics by establishing a bilateral working group,” he said. “We need to work on a roadmap.”

The US State Department said Blinken had “urged” Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 air defence system. Washington has repeatedly rejected a working group to discuss the S-400s.

Former US President Donald Trump in December imposed sanctions on Ankara’s military procurement agency over the acquisition.

Washington says the S-400s pose a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and to NATO’s broader defence systems. Turkey rejects this, saying S-400s will not be integrated into NATO and purchasing them was a necessity as it was unable to procure air defence systems from any NATO ally on satisfactory terms.

Cavusoglu and Blinken also discussed planned Afghanistan peace talks in Istanbul next month, the State Department said.

Spokesman Ned Price said the US also raised Turkey’s decision at the weekend to pull out of an international treaty designed to protect women from violence.

Blinken “expressed concern over Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention … and emphasised the importance of democratic institutions and respect for human rights,” he said.

Turkey said domestic laws, not outside fixes, would protect women’s rights.

While the Biden administration is still formulating its overall policy on Turkey, it insists that it sees the country as a key ally.

“It’s no secret that we have differences with Turkey,” Blinken said at the two-day NATO meeting on Tuesday.

“It’s also no secret that Turkey is a long-standing and valued ally, and one that I believe we have a strong interest in keeping anchored to NATO.”

UAE brokered India-Pakistan détente, says report

NEW DELHI, March 22: The Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment on the latest in a series of reports that the India-Pakistan détente, signalled by the ceasefire announcement by border commanders at the Line of Control (LoC) last month, was prompted by a back-channel dialogue between Indian and Pakistani officials, and facilitated by a third country.

On Monday, international news agency Bloomberg reported that the two governments had begun to work on a four-step “roadmap for peace” facilitated by the United Arab Emirates government. The report said the surprise joint statement announced by the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) on February 25, that agreed to end cross LoC ceasefire violations (CFVs), was the outcome of talks “brokered by the UAE” months earlier and that the visit of UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to Delhi on February 26 also discussed progress in the India-Pakistan “peace” process with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

At least two Indian national dailies and an international portal have previously reported on the back-channel, allegedly led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and interlocutors in Pakistan including Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa.

In addition, the Bloomberg report said the ceasefire announcement was the first step agreed to in the road, and that according to an unnamed official, more would follow.

“The next step in the process, the official said, involves both sides reinstating envoys in New Delhi and Islamabad, who were pulled in 2019 after Pakistan protested India’s move to revoke seven decades of autonomy for the disputed Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir. Then comes the hard part: Talks on resuming trade and a lasting resolution on Kashmir, the subject of three wars since India and Pakistan became independent from Britain in 1947,” the Bloomberg report said.

The Ministry of External Affairs, which has declined to comment on the previous reports, maintained its silence when asked for a response to the Bloomberg story. Both UAE diplomatic sources and Pakistani officials also refused to confirm or deny the reports.

However, several developments in the past month have pointed to a broader peace process in play, not restricted only to the LoC ceasefire, which has held since February 25.

To begin with, statements from officials in the past week, particularly from Pakistan PM Imran Khan and General Bajwa as well as Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla have been shorn of the customary rhetoric.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also wished Imran Khan a speedy recovery from Covid-19 after he was diagnosed last week, sidestepping previous hostility between the two leaders and India has allowed Pakistani sporting teams to visit for the first time in three years.

Next week, both Foreign Ministers S. Jaishankar and Shah Mehmood Qureshi will attend the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe on March 30, which is being seen as an opportunity for engagement. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation- Regional Anti-Terror Structure (SCO-RATS) secretariat has announced that Indian troops would be part of counter-terror joint exercises, due to be held by the 8-nation grouping in Pakistan later this year, which would be a first.

Meanwhile an eight-member Pakistani delegation headed by Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters Meher Ali Shah travelled to Delhi for Indus treaty talks on Tuesday, with the Indian team led by Indian Commissioner Pradeep Saxena, to be held after more than two years.

The UAE FM continues to guide the talks, said the Bloomberg report, which cited a recent telephone conversation Zayed had with Imran Khan. While India has consistently and publicly rejected any chance of third-party mediation between India and Pakistan, there have been several offers, including one by former U.S. President Donald Trump, to facilitate talks.

In February 2019, after the Balakot strikes and Pakistani action at the LoC that saw an Indian pilot captured in Pakistan after his plane was shot down, Trump had said he had spoken to both sides to ensure the pilot’s release. At the time, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had also announced that he had telephoned Modi and Khan to de-escalate tensions and promote “peaceful dialogue” between the two.

ETAN Calls for End to Military Coup and Repression in Myanmar

By Deepak Arora

NEW YORK, March 22: As the death toll continues to climb and resistance to military rule in Myanmar continues, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) has strongly condemned the February 1 military coup d’état in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the ongoing violence being perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the people. "We call for an immediate end to military rule and repression," according to John M. Miller, Coordinator ETAN.

ETAN stands in solidarity with the people of Myanmar as they once again are called on to resist military oppression.

"Our hearts and encouragement are with them, and ETAN activists around the world are working to get our own governments to support their rights. We applaud the resilience of the people of Myanmar and join with people across Southeast Asia, including in Timor-Leste and Indonesia, who stand in solidarity with them."

Since ETAN’s inception nearly 30 years ago, we have campaigned against U.S. government military and diplomatic support for authoritarian regimes and their human rights violations. We come together with people of conscience everywhere to urge corporations and governments to be on the right side of history.

We call on the U.S. government to immediately end all financial, economic and political support to the Myanmar military regime. We urge all U.S. and transnational corporations not to support the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) through natural resource extraction, online services, or other economic activities.

We urge all governments, especially Myanmar’s ASEAN and other neighbors, to similarly sever ties with Myanmar’s security forces by ending any weapons sales to, joint exercises with, and training of its military and police.

As the world learned from the victorious struggle of the people of Timor-Leste against Indonesia’s illegal occupation, determined resistance can overcome even the most brutal military force. Such regimes lose their last shreds of legitimacy when they declare martial law, censor the media, imprison peaceful advocates, and attack and murder public protesters. Reprehensible acts like these strengthen the resolve of the people to reclaim their rights, and of people everywhere to act in solidarity.

The military in Myanmar must immediately end its assault on its people, free any political prisoners, and step aside to allow the elected government to resume its work by respecting democracy and ensuring the human rights of everyone in the country.

Philippines says 200 Chinese vessels spotted at disputed reef in South China Sea

MANILA, March 21: The Philippine government expressed concern after spotting more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels it believed were crewed by militias at a reef claimed by both countries in the South China Sea, but it did not immediately lodge a protest.

A government body overseeing the disputed region said late Saturday that about 220 Chinese vessels were seen moored at Whitsun Reef on March 7. It released pictures of the vessels lying side by side in one of the most hotly contested areas of the strategic waterway.

The reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, is a boomerang-shaped and shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. It's well within the country’s exclusive economic zone, over which the Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources,” the agency said in a statement.

The large numbers of Chinese boats are “a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation,” it said, although it added that the vessels were not fishing when sighted.

When asked if the Philippines would file a protest, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted, “only if the generals tell me.”

Chinese Embassy officials did not immediately issue any comment. China, the Philippines and four other governments have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich and busy waterway for decades.

Critics have repeatedly called out President Rodrigo Duterte, who has nurtured friendly ties with Beijing since taking office in 2016, for not standing up to China’s aggressive behavior and deciding not to immediately seek Chinese compliance with an international arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historic claims to virtually the entire sea. China has refused to recognize the 2016 ruling and continues to defy it.

The arbitration body also ruled that China had breached its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Filipinos when Chinese forces blocked them from Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines in 2012. The Philippines, however, could also not deny Chinese fishermen access to Scarborough, according to the ruling. The decision did not specify any other traditional fishing areas within the Philippines’ exclusive zone where fishermen from China and other countries could be allowed to fish.

“When Xi says ‘I will fish,’ who can prevent him?” Duterte said two years ago as he defended his nonconfrontational approach, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“If I send my marines to drive away the Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you not one of them will come home alive,” Duterte said then, adding that diplomatic talks with Beijing allowed the return of Filipinos to disputed fishing grounds where Chinese forces had previously shooed them away.

Duterte has sought infrastructure funds, trade and investments from China, which has also donated and pledged to deliver more Covid-19 vaccines as the Philippines faces an alarming spike in coronavirus infections.

European nations signal united opposition against China's intimidation in South China Sea

CANBERRA, March 19: In a united opposition against China's intimidation in the South China Sea, the UK, France and Germany are sending warships to the South China Sea to pushback Beijing's assertiveness in the region.

Jamie Seidel, in an article in news.com.au - Australia based news site - wrote that "With diplomatic efforts meeting a wolf-warrior response, international forums gagged, and trade used as a coercive cudgel, Europe is reacting with growing alarm at China's aggressiveness."

"The dispatch of warships by the UK, France and Germany to the Indo-Pacific could draw a backlash from China and create new tension. But its positive effects - in terms of deterring Chinese adventurism in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea - arguably outweigh its negative ones," wrote Hiroyuki Akita, a Japanese international security commentator. "This would set a higher bar for a Chinese decision on military action."

The move to deploy warships in the South China Sea came after Beijing's motives for building the world's largest navy.

At this week's Two Sessions, National Assembly of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman Xi Jinping reasserted his desire to build a world-beating fleet.

"Our country's current security situation is largely unstable and uncertain," Xi told the assembled delegates. Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe added to the drumbeat, declaring China had "entered a high-risk phase".

China officially possesses the world's largest navy, with some 360 ships in active service. By 2035, Xi wants 40 major combatants afloat, reported news.com.au.

"Already commanding the world's largest naval force, the People's Republic of China is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar icebreakers at an alarming speed," warns the US Pentagon's recent Advantage at Sea report.

In December last year, NATO for the first time issued a report putting China on an equal threat footing as Russia.

France has led the way since in signalling its renewed interest in the "Far East" as it has territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It maintains military facilities on Reunion Island, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Britain has announced its new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth will spearhead a multinational task force in its first active deployment later this year. This small fleet is expected to conduct exercises in the South China Sea.

Also, the United States has publicly praised Germany's decision to send a frigate through the South China Sea to Japan in August. "We welcome Germany's support for a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific," a US State Department release reads. "The international community has a vital stake in the preservation of an open maritime order."

A handful of warships will, on their own, appear insignificant to Beijing. But, the UK, France, Germany and The Netherlands are signalling their willingness to at least show their flags in opposition to China's regional intimidation, wrote Seidel.

Moreover, the European countries' ships are modern, capable and designed to operate seamlessly with the US and their crews regularly train with each other around the globe.

This makes them ideal for providing moral and physical support for the evolving Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between India, Japan, Australia and the United States, wrote Seidel.

Meanwhile, Beijing finds itself increasingly friendless - mainly because of its own 'wolf warrior' diplomacy and military intimidation.

Now it must consider the cost of broad international fallout if it were to make any aggressive move.

"If China takes military action in the Indo-Pacific involving the US, for instance in the Taiwan Strait, Europe is unlikely just to watch and do nothing," Dr Nicolas Regaud of France's Institute for Strategic Research told The Nikkei.

Taiwan bolsters South China Sea deployments, gets U.S. submarine parts approval

TAIPEI, March 18: Taiwan's newly-appointed defence minister said on Wednesday it has strengthened deployments in the disputed South China Sea and that the United States has approved the export of sensitive technology to equip Taiwan's new submarine fleet.

China, which claims democratic Taiwan as its own territory, has increased its military activity near the island in recent months seeking to pressure Taipei to accept Beijing's sovereignty. Taiwan has vowed to defend itself.

Speaking in parliament, Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, who took up his post last month, said Taiwan has increased personnel and armaments on Itu Aba, the main island Taiwan occupies in the South China Sea.

Itu Aba, also known as Taiping island, is the largest naturally occurring island in the Spratleys and is garrisoned by Taiwan's Coast Guard.

"They are capable of starting a war," Chiu told the parliament when asked by a lawmaker on whether China could attack Taiwan. "My goal is for us to be ready at all times."

Chiu said Taiwan was bolstering its position there due to China's "expansionism" in the region, though it was not currently considering a return to a permanent army garrison.

China has built man-made islands in the South China Sea and air bases on some of them. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims in the strategic waterway.

Separately, Chiu said that the United States had approved export permits for all of the sensitive equipment needed by Taiwan's indigenous submarine fleet, which it started building last year.

He added that Taiwan's arms purchases from the United States - the island's main source of weapons - had not been impacted by the new Biden administration taking office in Washington and were continuing.

Taiwan is modernising its armed forces, especially as it face almost daily challenges from China in the airspace and waters near the island, including frequent Chinese air force missions into Taiwan's air defence identification zone.

Chiu said these missions were part of China's war of attrition against Taiwan, whose forces are dwarfed by Beijing's, and defence forces were already adjusting on how to deal with such incursions, though did not give details.

"If we match them one for one, it costs a lot," he said.

US sanctions 24 officials over Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong, hours before first face-to-face talks with China

WASHINGTON, March 18: The US has announced sanctions against another 24 Chinese officials in response to Beijing’s ongoing clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, just hours ahead of the first face-to-face talks between the Biden administration and China.

The sanctions come after China changed Hong Kong’s electoral law by reducing the role of the public to select its leaders and required candidates to be vetted to ensure their loyalty to Beijing.

The use of sanctions “underscores our deep concern” with those changes that Beijing has imposed on Hong Kong, said Anthony Blinken, US secretary of state.

“This action further undermines the high degree of autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong and denies Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance, a move that the United Kingdom has declared to be a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

But it risks upsetting Beijing on the eve of the first in-person meeting between US and Chinese officials since president Joe Biden took office in Washington.

On Thursday, Blinken and Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, are due to meet with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and senior foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi.

The meeting, to be held in Anchorage, is a chance for both sides to set the tone for the relationship going forward.

The US has said it would tackle disagreements over trade and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, while China has continually warned that Washington was “interfering” in domestic affairs.

Alaska will be Blinken’s last stop on his inaugural foreign trip after becoming US secretary of state, travelling this week with US defence secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with their counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul.

The US has used this trip to signal that it is working in concert with allies to tackle a shared concern – China.

A joint statement by the US and Japan issued Tuesday said China presented “political, economic, military and technological challenges” and was engaged in “coercion and destabilising behaviour toward others in the region.”

The statement also expressed concern over China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Chinese officials targeted by the latest sanctions from the US include Wang Chen, part of China’s elite 25-person Politburo and those responsible for developing and implementing a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong that criminalises anything authorities deem as terrorism, secession, subversion and foreign collusion.

The Trump administration had already barred some of these individuals and their family members from travelling to the US as of December. Now, they also face financial sanctions as specified under the US Hong Kong Autonomy Act – for instance, restrictions on banking.

An earlier round of sanctions announced by the US last fall affected ten Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including the city’s leader Carrie Lam.

Over the weekend, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared China had breached the Joint Declaration for the third time in less than nine months after electoral changes for Hong Kong were announced.

As such, he said China had demonstrated “a state of ongoing non-compliance” with the treaty, signed in 1984 and meant to guarantee freedoms in the former colony after being returned from British to Beijing rule.

Residents flee Yangon suburb fearing fresh Myanmar military crackdown, EU readies sanctions

YANGON, March 16: Thousands of residents fled an industrial suburb of Myanmar's commercial capital on Tuesday, after it was placed under martial law by the ruling junta following bloody anti-coup protests over the weekend.

"Here is like a war zone, they are shooting everywhere," a labour organizer in the Hlaing Tharyar district told Reuters, saying that most residents were too frightened to go outside.

More than 40 people were killed by security forces in protests in Hlaing Tharyar on Sunday and several factories were set ablaze. The families of many of the victims attended their funerals on Tuesday.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military staged the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government on Feb. 1 and detained her and other members of her party, drawing widespread international condemnation.

France said the European Union would approve sanctions against those behind the coup next Monday.

The junta, meanwhile, charged the international envoy of the ousted government with treason for encouraging a civil disobedience campaign and calling for sanctions, army-run television said. The charges carry a possible death sentence.

Doctor Sasa - who is not in the country - said he was proud to have been charged.

"These generals have committed acts of treason every day. Taking what they want for themselves, denying the people their rights and oppressing those that stand in their way," he said in a statement.

More than 180 protesters have been killed as security forces try to crush a wave of demonstrations, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

39 killed in bloodiest Day in Myanmar After Coup

YANGON, March 15: In another bloody day in Myanmar, 39 protestors were killed. In the industrial suburb of Hlaingtharyar, in the western part of Yangon in Myanmar, security forces killed at least 22 people after Chinese-owned factories were set ablaze on Sunday.

Further, martial law was imposed in Hlaingtharyar and other districts of Yangon and mobile data was blocked across the country.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said further 17 people were killed in other places making it the bloodiest day since the military coup started.

Since the 1 February military coup against the elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, reports and videos of extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture of prisoners have been circulating in the media.

The AAPP estimates the death toll to have risen to at least 126 people. Over a couple thousand pro-democracy protestors were detained on Saturday, 300 of whom have since been released.

After the arson attacks on Chinese-financed factories, China’s embassy described the situation as “very tense.” However, they did not comment on the killings taking place on a daily basis.

The statement said, "China urges Myanmar to take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the safety of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar."

Protestors suspect that the military is being supported by China, which is why there has been a growing anti-China sentiment since the coup, the BBC reported.

Myanmar has seen several ‘bloodiest’ days so far, and the situation continues to grow bleak.

Research by Amnesty International revealed that the military Junta has been using battlefield weapons against protestors across the country. Analysis of over 50 videos by Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab shows indiscriminate use of semi-automatic rifles, snipers, and sub-machine guns.

For much of Myanmar’s independent history, it has remained under military rule failing to see peaceful transition of power or having its election results marked as “null and void”.

However, free elections were held in 2015, following relaxation of restrictions in 2010, with the installation of Suu Kyi’s government in 2016.

In 2017, Myanmar’s army cracked down on Rohingya Muslims, following militant attacks on the police in Rakhine State. Their crackdown was later described by the UN, a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," confirming their prevailing authority in the politics of the state.

Following the landslide victory by the National League for Democracy and Suu Kyi in November 2020, the military alleged fraud as military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party performed poorly.

The coup was also attributed to the failure of government to postpone the elections, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a First, Biden-Modi-Suga-Morrison Write Joint Op-ed, Commit to Free Indo-Pacific Region

WASHINGTON, March 14: In a rare move, the four leaders of the recent Quad Summit — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga – shared vision for an Indo-Pacific region that is “free, open, resilient and inclusive”, in a joint opinion piece published by Washington Post on Sunday.

“We are striving to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is accessible and dynamic, governed by international law and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, and that all countries are able to make their own political choices, free from coercion. In recent years, that vision has increasingly been tested. Those trials have only strengthened our resolve to reckon with the most urgent of global challenges together,” they wrote.

The governments of all four countries, they said, have worked closely for years. “On Friday, for the first time in “Quad” history, we convened as leaders to advance meaningful cooperation at the highest level. To strengthen our quest for a region that is open and free, we have agreed to partner to address the challenges presented by new technologies and collaborate to set the norms and standards that govern the innovations of the future.”

Terming climate change both a strategic priority and an urgent global challenge, including for the Indo-Pacific region, the leaders wrote, “That’s why we will work together and with others to strengthen the Paris agreement, and enhance the climate actions of all nations. And with an unwavering commitment to the health and safety of our people, we are determined to end the covid-19 pandemic because no country will be safe so long as the pandemic continues.”

They said pandemic is among the greatest risks to health and economic stability in recent history, and “we must work in partnership to stop it in its tracks”.

“Now, we are launching an ambitious effort to help end covid-19. Together, we pledge to expand and accelerate production in India of safe, accessible and effective vaccines. We will partner at each stage to ensure that vaccines are administered throughout the Indo-Pacific region into 2022. We will combine our scientific ingenuity, financing, formidable productive capacity and long history of global-health partnership to surge the supply of life-saving vaccines, in close collaboration with multilateral organizations including the World Health Organization and Covax Facility. Our vaccine initiative will be guided by a Quad Vaccine Experts Working Group that brings together the sharpest scientific leaders from Australia, India, Japan and the United States to meet the region’s pressing needs. And though the pandemic prevents us from meeting in person, we will do so before the end of 2021. The promises we make today must translate into a healthier and more prosperous Indo-Pacific tomorrow.”

“We are proud to announce these bold steps — and eager to begin the work our countries must undertake to achieve them. Ending and recovering from the pandemic, standing up to climate change, and advancing our shared regional vision will not be easy. We know we cannot and will not succeed without coordination and cooperation. We will renew and strengthen our partnerships in Southeast Asia, starting with the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, work with the Pacific Islands, and engage the Indian Ocean region to meet this moment. The Quad is a flexible group of like-minded partners dedicated to advancing a common vision and to ensuring peace and prosperity. We welcome and will seek opportunities to work with all of those who share in those goals.”

Over the course of these past months, each of us has grieved the suffering that our people and the world have endured, the four leaders wrote.

“But in this dark hour, our partnership offers a spark of hope to light the path ahead. Our foundations of democracy and a commitment to engagement unite us. We know we can provide for the safety and prosperity of our people at home by confronting global crises together, with purpose and resolve. We summon from tragedy the strength and resilience to unify and overcome. And we recommit ourselves, once again, to an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, secure and prosperous.”

Leaders of the four countries gathered on Friday for the first online summit of the Quad group of nations, which is seen as part of efforts to balance China’s growing military and economic power.

Free Indo-Pacific essential, say Quad leaders

WASHINGTON/ NEW DELHI, March 12: U.S. President Joe Biden met leaders of Australia, India and Japan on Friday, a group central to his efforts to counter China's growing military and economic power, and said a free and open Indo-Pacific region was crucial to all of them.

The White House says the virtual meeting of the countries known as the Quad, the first at leader level, shows the importance Biden places on the Indo-Pacific region and that it will focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, and on reviving economic growth.

"A free and open Indo Pacific is essential to each of our futures," Biden told the meeting from the White House. "The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all our allies in the region, to achieve stability."

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wanted the four "to forge strongly ahead toward the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific".

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said "We will work together, closer than ever before, for advancing our shared values and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific."

Australia also emphasized the importance of regional security cooperation.

A joint statement issued at the end of the Summit stated: "We bring diverse perspectives and are united in a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific. We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion."

It stated "We recall that our joint efforts toward this positive vision arose out of an international tragedy, the tsunami of 2004. Today, the global devastation wrought by COVID-19, the threat of climate change, and security challenges facing the region summon us with renewed purpose. On this historic occasion of March 12, 2021, the first-ever leader-level summit of the Quad, we pledge to strengthen our cooperation on the defining challenges of our time."

The statement said "Together, we commit to promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. We support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity. We commit to work together and with a range of partners. We reaffirm our strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Full of potential, the Quad looks forward to the future; it seeks to uphold peace and prosperity and strengthen democratic resilience, based on universal values."

The Quad leaders also announced financing agreements to support an increase in manufacturing capacity for coronavirus vaccines in India, something New Delhi has called for to counter Beijing's widening vaccine diplomacy.

They also set up a group of experts to help distribute vaccines in the region, as well as working groups for cooperation on climate change, technology standards, and joint development of emerging technologies.

Biden, Modi To Meet Virtually On Friday As Part Of 'Quad' Event

NEW DELHI, March 9: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will participate in the first online summit of the Quad bloc of nations on Friday, where the new US President Joe Biden is also participating. It is not yet known if they will have an exclusive meeting. The two leaders have had telephonic conversations twice, the last one after Mr Biden's victory, where among other issues, they had discussed the Quad meeting.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are the two other participants of the Quad – revived in 2017 to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

The leaders will discuss "regional and global issues of shared interest, and exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region," the government said.

"The summit will provide an opportunity to exchange views on contemporary challenges such as resilient supply chains, emerging and critical technologies, maritime security, and climate change," read a statement from the foreign ministry.

The agenda will also include the ongoing efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The leaders will "explore opportunities for collaboration in ensuring safe, equitable and affordable vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region," the government said.

At the last meeting of the Quad in October, the four nations had re-affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of the border dispute with China and the southeast Asian giant's aggressive military behaviour in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea.

Then US Secretary of state Pompeo had taken a hard line on China, asking the participating nations to unite against Beijing's "exploitation, corruption and coercion" in the region.

In February, Quad was discussed by Modi and Biden when the US President dialled New Delhi. The two leaders had agreed to the need to strengthen Indo-Pacific security through the Quad grouping.

"The leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad," the White House had said in a statement.

Second Myanmar official dies after arrest, junta steps up media crackdown

YANGON, March 9: An official from deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) died in custody after he was arrested early on Tuesday, the second party figure to die in detention in two days, as security forces broke up street protests against the military junta.

Police also cracked down on independent media, raiding the offices of two news outlets and detaining two journalists.

Myanmar has been in crisis since the army ousted Suu Kyi's elected government in a coup on Feb. 1, detained her and other NLD officials, and set up a ruling junta of generals.

The NLD's Zaw Myat Linn died in custody on Tuesday after he was arrested in the country’s main city of Yangon around 1:30 a.m., said Ba Myo Thein, a member of the dissolved upper house of parliament.

"He's been participating continuously in the protests," Ba Myo Thein said. The cause of death was not clear.

In a Facebook live broadcast before he was detained, Zaw Myat Linn urged people to continue fighting the army, "even if it costs our lives."

"Their power must never last," he said.

Neither the military nor the police responded to calls for comment.

Zaw Myat Linn is the second NLD official to have died in custody in the last two days. Khin Maung Latt, who had worked as a campaign manager for an NLD MP elected in 2020, died after he was arrested on Saturday night.

More than 1,900 people have been arrested across the country since the coup, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.

Police broke up scattered demonstrations in Yangon - the former capital and still the commercial hub - and other towns across Myanmar with tear gas and stun grenades on Tuesday.

As night fell, soldiers fired weapons in different districts of the coastal town of Dawei, while at least two people were wounded earlier in the day, one by a gunshot, in the town of Mohnyin in the north, local media said.

Witnesses said two journalists from Kamayut, an independent media company, were arrested, while the military raided the offices of Mizzima News in Yangon.

Live footage posted to social media also showed a raid after nightfall on the offices of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

A day earlier, the junta stripped Mizzima, DVB, and three other outlets of their licences. They had all been active in covering protests against the coup.

At least 35 journalists have been arrested since the Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar Now reported, of which 19 have been released.

The U.S State Department said it "strongly condemned the junta for the... violent crackdowns on those peacefully taking to the streets and on those who are just doing their jobs, including independent journalists who have been swept up."

Daily protests against the coup are being staged across the country and security forces have cracked down harshly. More than 60 protesters have been killed and more than 1,800 detained, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an advocacy group, has said.

Queen Takes Racism Claims Of Harry And Meghan 'Very Seriously': Palace

LONDON, March 9: Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday responded to explosive racism claims from her grandson Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, voicing deep concern and sympathising with their troubles with royal life.

"The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan," she said in a statement.

"The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.

"Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members."

Buckingham Palace has come under mounting pressure to respond to the claims made in an Oprah Winfrey interview first broadcast on Sunday, which triggered a crisis unseen since the anguished days of Harry's late mother, Diana, in the 1990s.

It set off a whirl of speculation about the identity of the senior royal who asked how dark their child's skin would be before he was born.

Meghan, whose mother is black and father is white, also spoke about how she had suicidal thoughts, but failed to receive any support during her time in the royal family.

Winfrey was left open-mouthed by the racism claim, which reportedly left the palace in turmoil and scrambling how best to address it.

Prince Charles, Harry's father and the heir to the throne, earlier ignored a question about what he made of the interview, as he made his first public appearance since the row erupted.

A YouGov poll of 4,656 people after the interview aired on British television on Monday indicated almost a third (32 percent) felt the couple was unfairly treated, the same proportion as those who thought the opposite.

But older people were more likely to side with the royal family, the poll suggested.

Japan PM Talks to Modi, Says 'Concerned' Over Change in Status Quo in East, South China Sea

NEW DELHI, March 8: In n a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga on Monday expressed concern over “unilateral attempts” to change the status quo in the East and South China Sea, China’s recently-passed Coast Guard Law and the situation in Hong Kong.

China passed a law last month explicitly allowing, for the first time, its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.

In the interaction which lasted for about 40 minutes, Suga and Modi affirmed their cooperation towards realising a free and open Indo-Pacific. They also agreed to steadily advance both Japan-India bilateral cooperation and Japan-Australia-India-US quadrilateral cooperation.

The Prime Ministers also talked about Japan-India relations and decided they would “continue their effort to materialise” the “Japan-India Special Strategic and Global Partnership” through cooperation in security and defense, economic relationship including digital fields and people-to-people exchanges.

During their discussion on the current regional situation, Suga expressed concern over “unilateral attempts” to change the status quo in the East and South China Sea, China’s Coast Guard Law, the situation in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

The Indo-Pacific has emerged as the current region of geopolitics with the China’s territorial and maritime ambitions on display. With its recent meetings, the Quad grouping is being speculated as a possible counter to Beijing.

Meanwhile, the two leaders also welcomed the progress on the high-speed rail project and the signing of the Memorandum of Cooperation on specified skilled workers.

Amid the deteorating condition in Myanmar after a coup by the military group ‘Junta’, Modi and Suga both expressed grave concerns over the scenario and said they would closely work together in the matter.

Australia cuts Myanmar military ties amid ‘rising death toll’

YANGON, March 8: Australia has suspended its defence cooperation programme with Myanmar amid concern about the “escalating violence and rising death toll,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said as the country’s military steps up its crackdown on enormous protests against its coup last month.

Myanmar was plunged into turmoil after the army detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and officials from her National League for Democracy party on February 1 and seized control of the country. The coup has triggered a national Civil Disobedience Movement and mass protests in which dozens have been killed.

Australia was among 13 countries that have been providing assistance to military that seized control of Myanmar in a coup.

“We continue to strongly urge the Myanmar security forces to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against civilians,” Payne said.

Australia’s bilateral defence ties with Myanmar’s military are restricted to non-combat areas such as English-language training which have continued even after the brutal crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017 that led hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.

“Australia has finally ended a training programme it should never have started in the first place,” Anna Roberts, the executive director of the London-based Burma Campaign, said in a statement.

“Twelve more countries are still engaged in training and cooperation with the Burmese military. Countries providing training to the Burmese military have sided with the military, which is shooting peaceful protesters. They cannot claim non-interference in Burma’s internal affairs when they are helping one side. A military which is killing civilians.”

The Burma Campaign said that the 12 countries still providing training to Myanmar’s military include China, India, Pakistan and Ukraine.
Campaigners are calling for a complete arms embargo on the country.
Australia will also redirect immediate humanitarian needs to the mostly Muslim Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, Payne said on Monday and bypass Myanmar government bodies.

“We have also looked at the development programme and development support that we are providing and redirected that with an absolute focus on the immediate needs of some of the most vulnerable and poor in Myanmar which is one of the poorest countries in ASEAN,” Payne was quoted as saying by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Australia said it would continue to demand the immediate release of Sean Turnell, an economist and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, authorities said. Turnell has been detained with limited consular access since the coup.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is tracking arrests, says 1,790 people had been detained since the coup as of March 7. A total of 1,472 remain in custody.

Chinese foreign minister says India, China should create 'enabling conditions' to resolve border issues

BEIJING, March 7: China and India should stop "undercutting" each other, shed mutual "suspicion" and create "enabling conditions" by expanding bilateral cooperation to resolve the border issue, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Sunday.

Calling the boundary dispute as not the "whole story" of the China-India relationship, Wang said that both countries were friends and partners but they should shed suspicion at each other.

Answering a question at his annual press conference on the current state of India-China relations following the tense standoff in eastern Ladakh since May last year and how Beijing viewed the relationship going forward, he said it is important that both countries manage their disputes properly and expand bilateral cooperation.

"The boundary dispute, an issue left from history, is not the whole story of the China-India relationship.

"It is important that the two sides manage disputes properly and at the same time expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the issue," Wang said at an online press conference held on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's Parliament.

In his lengthy answer, Wang, who is also a State Councillor, did not touch upon the recent disengagement of troops from the most contentious north and south banks of the Pangong Lake area in eastern Ladakh after the 10th round of military-level talks between the two sides.

Wang's comments on the border issue came days after he held a 75-minute telephonic conversation with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar during which the latter emphasised that the disengagement of troops at all friction points is necessary to bring peace and tranquillity on the border and for the development of bilateral relations.

Also on Friday, India's Ambassador to China Vikram Misri met Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui and called for completing the disengagement of troops from all areas in eastern Ladakh, saying that it would help restore peace and tranquillity at the border and provide conditions for progress in bilateral ties.

In his remarks, Wang pointed out that the world expects both China and India to safeguard the common interests of the developing countries and advance multipolarity in the world.

The similar national conditions of the two countries also mean that they share the same or similar positions on many major issues, he said.

"Therefore," Wang stressed, "China and India are each other's friends and partners, not threats or rivals."

“The two sides need to help each other to succeed instead of undercutting each other. We should intensify cooperation instead of harbouring suspicion at each other,” he said.

Without directly referring to the eastern Ladakh standoff, Wang said, “the right and wrongs at what happened at the border area last year are clear, so are the stakes involved.”

“We are committed to settling the boundary dispute through dialogue and consultation. At the same time we are resolved to safeguard our sovereign rights," he said, reiterating China's stance on the border standoff.

Wang said it falls on both sides to solidify the existing consensus, strengthen dialogue and communication and improve the various management mechanisms to jointly safeguard the peace and tranquillity in the border areas.

On how China looks to move forward its relations with India after the border standoff, Wang said, “in the year ahead we hope India will work with China to truly deliver on the important common understanding reached by our leaders that the two countries are not threats to each other but opportunities for each other's development.”

Both sides should consolidate existing consensus, strengthen dialogue and communication, improve the control mechanism and jointly safeguard peace in the border areas, he said, expressing hope that India will meet China halfway in the new year to benefit both peoples.

“Together we can bring greater benefits to the 2.7 billion people in China and India, make greater contributions to the advent of the Asian Century,” he said.

He said the China-India relationship is essentially about how the world’s two largest countries get along and pursue development and rejuvenation together.

“As two ancient civilisations, next door to each other and as two major emerging economies with each over one billion people, we have broad common interests and tremendous potential for cooperation,” he said.

At home, both countries face the “historic mission” of bettering lives, accelerating growth, Wang added.

The border standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies erupted on May 5 last year following a violent clash in the Pangong Lake area and both sides gradually enhanced their deployment by rushing in tens of thousands of soldiers as well as heavy weaponry.

Subsequently, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a fierce hand-to-hand combat on June 15 in the Galwan Valley, an incident that marked the most serious military conflicts between the two sides in over four decades. Eight months after the confrontation, China admitted that its four soldiers were killed in the fight.

Party official dies in custody after Myanmar security raids

YANGON, March 7: An official from Aung San Suu Kyi's party has died in custody in Myanmar after being arrested during raids by security forces in Yangon.

On Sunday the body of U Khin Maung Latt was released to his family, who were reportedly told that he had died after fainting.

Photos show a bloodstained cloth around the 58-year-old's head.

Activists say he was beaten while being detained by police and soldiers, and subjected to a harsh interrogation.

Protests continue against last month's coup despite a bloody crackdown.

The UN says more than 50 people have been killed since the military detained Ms Suu Kyi, Myanmar's democratically elected leader, on 1 February.

The authorities have exhumed the body of one victim, 19-year-old Kyal Sin, and said she had not been killed by police as she had been shot from behind.

Kyal Sin, known as Angel, was 19

'Everything will be OK' teen mourned in Myanmar

In another development, the military rulers asked neighbouring India to return several police officers who had crossed the border seeking refuge after refusing to carry out orders.

How did U Khin Maung Latt die? He actively campaigned for candidates of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in recent general elections and was also known for his welfare work, The Irawaddy reports.

He had been "violently beaten and kicked before being taken from his home" at around 22:00 (15:30 GMT) on Saturday, according to witnesses quoted by the news outlet.

On Sunday morning, his family was informed he had died after "fainting" and they collected his body from a military hospital.

Japan mulling to send armed forces in East China Sea amid rising Chinese activity: Report

TOKYO, March 7: Amid escalating tensions in the disputed East China Sea, Japan is mulling to send its armed forces to deal with the surge in Chinese activity in the Japanese-controlled Diaoyu Islands, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.

The Chinese Coast Guard has expanded its presence in the contested water near the Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkakus.

The increased activity by China comes after it implements a new law that allows Beijing's quasi-military force to use weapons against foreign ships that Beijing sees as illegally entering its waters.

The frequency of Chinese coastguard vessels entering the waters has risen from twice a month last year to twice a week in February, according to the Japan Coast Guard.

A Japanese official said Tokyo was alarmed by the Chinese activities and was considering its response.

"Under our domestic law, the self-defence forces can use weapons as law enforcement against unlawful activities on behalf of our coastguard if the Chinese coastguard enters our territorial waters including surrounding the Senkaku Islands without permission," the SCMP quoted the official as saying.

While stressing that Japan did not intend to escalate the situation, the official said Tokyo would try to increase pressure on China on the diplomatic front, such as seeking support from countries like Britain and Canada.

The islands in question have long been an object of territorial disputes between China and Japan.

Last month, Japan lodged a protest with China after two Chinese ships intruded into Japanese coastal waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, local media reported.

China has conflicting territorial claims with four of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam -- as well as Taiwan in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, US warships carried out freedom of navigation operations in an apparent bid to challenge Chinese claims and actions in the area.

38 killed in bloodiest day of military's crackdown in Myanmar

YANGON, March 4: Police in Myanmar broke up demonstrations in several places with tear gas and gunfire on Thursday, but there was no immediate word on casualties a day after the United Nations said 38 people had been killed in the bloodiest day since last month's coup.

A day before, Myanmar security forces were seen firing slingshots at protesters, chasing them down and even brutally beating an ambulance crew in a video showing a dramatic escalation of violence against opponents of last month’s military coup. A U.N. official speaking from Switzerland said 38 people had been killed Wednesday, a figure consistent with other reports though accounts are difficult to confirm inside the country.

The increasingly deadly violence could galvanize the international community, which has responded fitfully so far. The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that Wednesday was the bloodiest day since the coup happened on Feb. 1.

"We have now more than over 50 people died since the coup started and more have been wounded," Burgener said.

Demonstrators have regularly flooded the streets of cities across the country since the military seized power and ousted the elected government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Their numbers have remained high even as security forces have repeatedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds to disperse the crowds, and arrested protesters en masse.

The intensifying standoff is unfortunately familiar in a country with a long history of peaceful resistance to military rule, and brutal crackdowns. The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in the Southeast Asian nation after five decades of military rule.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent television and online news service, also tallied 38 deaths. A toll of at least 34 was compiled by a data analyst in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. He also collected information where he could on the victims’ names, ages, hometowns and where and how they were killed – an effort he said he had made to honor those who were killed for their heroic resistance.

According to the data analyst's list, most were in Yangon, where 18 died. In the central city of Monywa, which has turned out huge crowds, eight deaths were reported. Three deaths were reported in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, and two in Salin, a town in the Magwe region. Mawlamyine, in the country’s southeast, and Myingyan and Kalay, both in central Myanmar, each had a single death. As part of the crackdown, security forces have also arrested hundreds of people, including journalists.

The escalation of the crackdown has led to increased diplomatic efforts to resolve Myanmar's political crisis but there appear to be few viable options. It's not yet clear if Wednesday's soaring death toll could change the dynamic.

India Downgraded To 'Partly Free' In Report By US Think Tank

WASHINGTON, March 4: India was downgraded to "partly free" for the first time since 1997 in an annual ranking of democracies by the U.S.-government funded research group Freedom House, which cited worsening civil rights under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The world's largest democracy slipped in rankings this year because of continuing discrimination against its Muslim citizens and increased harassment of government critics and journalists, according to the "Freedom in the World' report released by the Washington-based organization.

The report cited "a multi-year pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies." It listed several events in 2020 like religious riots in Delhi, use of sedition laws against critics and hardships endured by migrant workers after Modi announced a sudden lockdown to control the coronavirus pandemic.

India was among 73 nations downgraded for declines in political rights and civil liberties, affecting three-fourths of the world's population. The report, which ranks 210 nations, found that states designated "Not Free" have reached the highest since 2006. Those affected included not just authoritarian states like China, Belarus, and Venezuela, but also troubled democracies like the U.S. and India.

India's status change means that less than 20% of the world's people now live in a "free" country -- the smallest proportion since 1995, the report said. The changes in India since Modi took charge in 2014 "form part of a broader shift in the international balance between democracy and authoritarianism, with authoritarians generally enjoying impunity for their abuses and seizing new opportunities to consolidate power or crush dissent," the report said.

Freedom House was formally established in New York in 1941 to promote American involvement in World War II and the fight against fascism, according to its website.

Magnitude 7.2 Earthquake Strikes New Zealand, Tsunami Warning Issued

WELLINGTON, March 4: A severe 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the east of New Zealand's North Island on Friday, prompting a tsunami warning, and authorities advised people in some coastal areas to move immediately to high ground.

There were no immediate reports of damage, but the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said there was land and marine threat in some areas of the east coast of North Island.

"Coastal inundation (flooding of land areas) is expected in areas under Land and Marine threat," NEMA said in a tweet.

The closest major city to the epicentre is Gisborne with a population of about 35,500. People near the coast from Cape Runaway to Tolaga Bay were told to evacuate.

Authorities said the first waves may have already reached areas around East Cape from Cape Runaway to Tolaga Bay at about 3:34 a.m. local time.

They said tsunami activity will continue for several hours and the threat must be regarded as real until the warning is cancelled.

"Hope everyone is ok out there - especially on the East Coast who would have felt the full force of that earthquake," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern posted on Instagram.

There was no tsunami threat to the capital Wellington and other regions, but civil defence authorities asked residents across the country to stay away from beaches and marine areas as there could be strong and unusual currents.

The New Zealand government's seismic monitor Geonet pegged the quake at a magnitude of 7.2 with a depth of 94 km (58 miles).

More than 60,000 people reported feeling the quake on GeoNet's website, with 282 describing the shaking as "severe" and 75 saying it was "extreme". Most others described it as light.

Aftershocks were still being recorded in the area.

Ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy Jailed In Corruption Case: Report

PARIS, March 1: Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption on Monday and handed a three-year prison sentence after a court in Paris convicted him for trying to illegally influence a judge during his time in office.

The sentence includes two years suspended, which means it is unlikely Sarkozy will physically go to prison.

He is almost certain to appeal and remains free, with no arrest warrant issued.

The verdict is the latest twist in the tumultuous political career of the 66-year-old who ruled France from 2007 to 2012 and remains a favourite for many on the right.

The conviction is likely to undermine any attempted comeback to frontline politics, an ambition he has denied, but which has been promoted by many supporters ahead of 2022 presidential elections.

Only one other French president, Sarkozy's political mentor Jacques Chirac, was put on trial after leaving office, but he was excused from having to attend his 2011 corruption trial because of ill health.

Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence over the creation of ghost jobs at the Paris city hall to fund his party when he was mayor.

The verdict on Monday related to a case of influence peddling and corruption, one of at least four separate investigations into the former leader, who married former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni while in office.

Sarkozy was accused of offering to help a judge obtain a senior job in Monaco in exchange for putting pressure on an inquiry into his campaign finances.

The former president told the court during the trial he had "never committed the slightest act of corruption".

Prosecutors called for him to be jailed for four years and serve a minimum of two, and asked for the same punishment for his co-defendants -- lawyer Thierry Herzog and the judge Gilbert Azibert.

"The events would not have occurred if a former president, as well as a lawyer, had kept in mind the magnitude, the responsibility, and the duties of his office," prosecutor Jean-Luc Blachon told the court as the trial wound up in December.

The graft and influence-peddling charges -- among several legal cases against him -- carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and a fine of one million euros ($1.2 million).

Defying deadly crackdown, crowds again protest Myanmar coup

YANGON, March 1: Police in Myanmar’s biggest city fired tear gas Monday at defiant crowds who returned to the streets to protest last month's coup, despite reports that security forces had killed at least 18 people a day earlier.

The protesters in Yangon were chased as they tried to gather at their usual meeting spot at the Hledan Center intersection. Demonstrators scattered and sought in vain to rinse the irritating gas from their eyes, but later regrouped.

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar after five decades of military rule. It came Feb. 1, the same day a newly elected Parliament was supposed to take office. Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would have led that government, but instead she was detained along with President Win Myint and other senior officials.

The army has leveled several charges against Suu Kyi — an apparent effort by the military to provide a legal veneer for her detention and potentially to bar her from running in the election the junta has promised to hold in one year. On Monday, Suu Kyi made a court appearance via videoconference and was charged with two more offenses, her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters.

Accused of inciting unrest, she was charged under a law that dates from British colonial days and has long been criticized as a vaguely defined catch-all statute that inhibits freedom of expression. That charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The other charge from Monday carries a one-year sentence.

Following her detention on the day of the coup, the 75-year-old Suu Kyi was initially held at her residence in the capital of Naypyitaw, but members of her National League for Democracy party now say they don't know where she is.

Since the takeover, a movement of protests in cities across the country has been growing — and the junta's response has become increasingly violent.

The U.N. said it had “credible information” that at least 18 people were killed and 30 were wounded across Myanmar on Sunday. Counts from other sources, such the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent television and online news outlet, put the death toll in the 20s.

Any of the reports would make it the highest single-day death toll since the military takeover. The junta has also made mass arrests, and the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that as many as 1,000 people were detained Sunday. Several journalists have been among those detained, including one for The Associated Press.

At least five people are believed to have been killed Sunday in Yangon when police shot at protesters, who have remained nonviolent despite provocation from the security forces and pro-military counter-demonstrators.

People erected makeshift sidewalk shrines Monday at the spots where several of the victims were shot and also paid their respects by standing outside the hospitals where the bodies were being released to families.

In Dawei, a small city in southeastern Myanmar where five people were reported killed Sunday, the number of protesters on the streets Monday was lower than usual, but they paraded to the applause of bystanders.

Confirming the deaths of protesters has been difficult in areas outside Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw. But in many cases, there was evidence posted online such as videos of shootings, photos of bullet casings collected afterwards and gruesome pictures of bodies.

In a statement published Monday in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry declared that the junta “is exercising utmost restraint to avoid the use of force in managing the violent protests systematically, in accordance with domestic and international laws in order to keep minimum casualties.”

But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests “unacceptable,” said U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

“Words of condemnation are necessary and welcome but insufficient. The world must act. We must all act," the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said in a separate statement.

He proposed that countries could institute a global embargo on the sale of arms to Myanmar and “tough, targeted and coordinated sanctions” against those responsible for the coup, the crackdown and other rights abuses.

Social media posts from Myanmar have increasingly urged the international community to invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” to intervene directly to restrain the junta.

Any kind of coordinated action at the United Nations, however, would be difficult since two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto it.

Instead, some countries have imposed or are considering imposing their own sanctions. In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying the U.S. is “alarmed” by the violence and stands in solidarity with Myanmar's people.

Washington is among those that have levied sanctions, and Sullivan said it would “impose further costs on those responsible,” promising details “in the coming days.”

Members of Suu Kyi's party have also created a committee that they are asking other countries to recognize as a provisional government and the true representatives of Myanmar's people.

The committee recently appointed a doctor and philanthropist from the ethnic Chin minority to be a special envoy to the United Nations.

In an interview Sunday night with the AP, the envoy, Sasa, who uses one name, said he would discuss with U.N. human rights expert Andrews pursuing legal actions against the generals through international courts.

“We are looking at international criminal courts and other U.N. mechanisms. It will be a little bit difficult to do it though the United Nations Security Council but we are looking at great length what can be done" to bring these generals to account, he said, speaking from a secret location due to fears for his safety.

Many expect Myanmar’s military to be intractable, but Sasa said he believes the junta is already beginning to see the difficulty of running a functioning government.

“I hope that they will come to the negotiating table, so we can talk together,” said Sasa.

Among the arrests made Sunday, the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners was able to identify about 270 people, bringing to 1,132 the total number of people the group has confirmed has been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.

Thein Zaw, an AP journalist, was taken into police custody on Saturday morning while providing news coverage of the protests. He remains in police custody.

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