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Imran Khan’s ‘googly’ ensured presence of Indian ministers at Kartarpur Corridor event: Shah Mahmood Qureshi

ISLAMABAD, Nov 29: Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi Thursday said Prime Minister Imran Khan bowled a “googly” to ensure Indian government’s presence at the groundbreaking ceremony of the landmark Kartarpur Corridor.

Qureshi’s remarks came a day after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj categorically ruled out the possibility of resumption of bilateral talks with Pakistan unless it stops cross-border terror activities against India.

Pakistan earlier invited Swaraj for Wednesday’s ceremony. But Swaraj said she was unable to travel to Kartarpur Sahib due to prior commitments. India was represented at the events by Union ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri.

Qureshi said that opening of the Kartarpur border was a “big achievement” of the cricketer-turned-politician’s government, which on Thursday completed the first 100 days in office after winning the general elections.

“Imran delivered a googly and India sent two ministers to Pakistan,” he said, using a cricketing term.

A googly is a leg-spinner’s prize weapon, which is almost undetectable.

Qureshi noted that it was the same Indian government that had said it will not engage with Pakistan.

He said a meeting with Indian counterpart Swaraj was fixed on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last year but it was cancelled by India. He also said that India refused to engage even after the letter written by Prime Minister Khan to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to resume bilateral talks.

He was referring to the letter Khan wrote in September, seeking to seeking to re-start the bilateral talks.

Nearly 24 hours after agreeing to have a bilateral meeting between Swaraj and Qureshi on the sidelines of the UNGA, India called off the meeting, citing the brutal killings of three policemen in Jammu and Kashmir and Islamabad releasing postage stamps “glorifying” Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani.

“Tensions with India are not hidden from anyone but our approach is people-centric and we need peace for people to prosper. We need peace in order to speed up the development of our country,” Qureshi said.

He recalled that “Imran Khan said he will take two steps for every one step India takes.” Qureshi also condemned the violence in Kashmir and said that Pakistan always stood with people of Kashmir and would always stand by them. “This is one issue on which all political parties are united,” he said.

Speaking on Pakistan’s “achievements” in international relations during the first 100 days of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, Qureshi said that Pakistan’s case at global level was not heard before — something he said his ministry was trying to address.

“Our neighbour wanted to weaken Pakistan,” he said, in an apparent reference to India. “We could not present Pakistan’s case before the world because we did not have a lawyer.

The foreign minister said that the first thing on the government’s foreign agenda was to have better relations with Afghanistan.

The Pakistan foreign minister said the new government has now carved out from scratch the country’s foreign policy priorities. He said government was committed to have peaceful ties with all neighbours. He said that Pakistan had set up institutional framework with Afghanistan to settle all problems.

Qureshi said that Pakistan gave a lot of importance to relations with Iran and would not let the ties with Tehran to deteriorate.

He said relations with China were solid and poised to further deepen as the two sides have given new direction to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Qureshi also said Pakistan wanted to strengthen ties with the United States, which has been pressing Islamabad to do more to curb terrorism.

Punjab CM Amarinder declines Pakistan’s Kartarpur invite

NEW DELHI, Nov 25: Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has declined Pakistan’s invitation to attend the foundation stone laying for the Kartarpur corridor even as his minister Navjot Singh Sidhu has decided to attend the occasion.

Amarinder Singh cited continued terrorist attacks in his state and killings of Indian soldiers by Pakistan armed forces to decline Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s invitation to the ceremony.

Sidhu, who has earlier visited Pakistan for its Prime Minister Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony, said his application to attend the event is now lodged with the ministry of external affairs.

Responding to invitation of Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to attend opening ceremony of #KartarpurCorridor corridor, Navjot Singh Sidhu writes "I look forward to meeting you on this historic occasion. My application for permission to attend is now lodged with MEA".

Earlier, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had declined an invitation to her, citing prior commitments and deputed Union ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri for the event.

On Thursday, India and Pakistan announced they would develop Kartarpur corridor in their respective areas, linking Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district with the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan.

Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, the final resting place of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev, is located across the Ravi river in Pakistan and is about four kilometres from the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur district of Punjab in India.

The corridor, once built, will give Indian pilgrims easy access to the shrine.

Taiwan ruling party suffers election losses

TAIPEI, Nov 25: Voters in Taiwan have delivered a strong rebuke to the island’s pro-independence ruling party in local elections, emboldening the China-friendly opposition, one of whose main figures says he will now reach out to Beijing to forge more friendly ties.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered major elections loss on Saturday, losing two key mayoral races, while the opposition Kuomintang took or retained control of 15 cities and counties, leaving the DPP with only six.

With little more than a year before presidential elections, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who has had tense relations with Beijing since her election in 2016, on Saturday took responsibility for her party’s losses and resigned as DPP chairwoman.

The Kuomintang mayor-elect of the southern port city of Kaohsiung, formerly a DPP stronghold, moved swiftly on Saturday night to reach out to China, telling local media he will set up a working group on China relations and will break down barriers.

“We have no walls around our hearts,” said Han Kuo-yu, who has previously described Taiwan independence as being “more scary” than syphilis.

The Kuomintang has sent delegations to China since Tsai took office, where they have been warmly received. China has refused to have direct contacts with Tsai’s administration.

China, which claims Taiwan as a wayward province, said the elections showed people wanted peaceful relations with Beijing.

“The results reflected the strong will of the Taiwan public in hoping to continue to share the benefits of the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait, and their strong wish in hoping to improve the island’s economy and people’s wellbeing,” said a statement by China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office and carried by state media.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said China should respect Taiwan’s internal affairs and democracy and not “interpret the expectations of Taiwan’s people toward relations across the Taiwan Strait”.

In an implicit warning to China not to contact newly-elected Kuomintang officials, the council said deliberately political Chinese approaches to local governments and people would not help “positive interactions” with Taiwan.

Voters also rejected a referendum that would have seen the island join the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Taiwan, rather than “Chinese Taipei”, a move which would have angered Beijing.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said it showed voters “putting Taiwanese athletes’ interests at stake is against people’s will”. “The attempts of ‘Taiwan independence’ are doomed to fail,” it added.

The WeChat account of the overseas edition of the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said Han had realized one important reality: “Taiwan will only be good if relations across the Taiwan Strait are good”.

China is suspicious that Tsai wants formal independence, a red line for Beijing which regards Taiwan as its own.

Tsai says she wants only the status quo with China, but will defend Taiwan’s security. Chinese law mandates the use of force to prevent the island from seceding.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have heightened with China conducting military drills around the island and snatching away Taiwan’s dwindling number of diplomatic allies.

DPP Secretary General Hung Yao-fu, asked on Saturday about whether the China factor had played a role in influencing the elections, reiterated there had been a problem with “fake news”.

“I think this time was a deep lesson, in terms of fake news messing up with a lot of people’s judgment or not getting clear information,” he told reporters.

Saskatchewan Premier to promote trade, investment with India

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Nov 22: Premier of the province of Saskatchewan in Canada Scott Moe will travel to India from Friday for nine days. While in India, the Premier will visit Delhi and Mumbai and meet key Indian political leaders and senior officials, business leaders, and students.

Speaking on his visit, Scott Moe said "Saskatchewan is a world-leading producer of sustainable food, fuel and fertilizer, which gives us the unique ability to work with India to enhance its food and energy security."

"India's economy and population are booming and Saskatchewan has what India needs to support that growth."

It may be mentioned that India is Saskatchewan's third largest international trade market.

Premier Moe said: “India is already one of Saskatchewan’s most important trading partners and we look forward to strengthening our commercial relationship and deepening our friendship."

"During my visit to India, I look forward to expanding our trade relations while highlighting Saskatchewan’s academic and innovation strengths.”

Moe said potash, uranium and pulse tariffs are among the items on the agenda. Officials from Cameco will be attending some meetings, as will representatives from Saskatchewan Polytechnic and the University of Regina.

Moe said Saskatchewan's three largest trading partners are the United States, China and India.

The Premier will be accompanied by high-level officials from the Government of Saskatchewan as well as corporate and academic leaders.

Strengths of Saskatchewan: The province of Saskatchewan is among the most important global producers and exporters of food, fuel and fertilizer.

Saskatchewan is Canada's leading exporter to India, with sales of 1.15 billion in 2017. Its natural strengths include dynamic, skilled and innovative producers and world-class agricultural research and development facilities and universities.

35 killed in suicide bomb attack in market in northwest Pakistan

PESHAWAR, Nov 23: A suicide bomb attack on a crowded festival and market in northwest Pakistan’s northwest killed at least 35 people on Friday and wounded 20, police said.

The blast occurred at around the same time that three attackers tried to storm the Chinese consulate in Karachi. Two policemen and the three attackers were killed. The Karachi attack was claimed by a separatist insurgent group called the Balochistan Liberation Army, and did not appear to be connected to the attack on the market in the northwestern region of Orakzai.

In Orakzai, a suicide bomber drove a motorcycle into a crowd attending a festival and market that attracts people from different religious communities, before detonating his explosives. No group claimed responsibility.

“It was a suicide blast at the festival that takes place every Friday,” said Abbas Khan, the assistant commissioner of the district, told Reuters.

Khan said that among the 35 dead were three members of the minority Sikh community and two security officials.

The Geo television channel showed footage of military officials cordoning off the bomb site.

Orakzai was formerly a semi-autonomous part of Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal area along the Afghan border.

The region was for decades a refuge for Islamist militants fighting in Afghanistan, and more recently against the Pakistani state.

The Pakistani military stepped up operations along the border in 2009 and has managed to clear some areas of militants.

The tribal areas were incorporated into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May.

Interpol elects South Korean Kim Jong Yang President over Russian frontrunner

DUBAI, Nov 21: Russia's ambitions to head international police agency Interpol were dashed Wednesday after delegates chose acting head South Korean Kim Jong Yang to take the role.

Alexander Prokopchuk, a former Russian Interior Ministry official had been expected to be elected president, but critics opposed his nomination, accusing Moscow of using Interpol's systems to target and pursue the Kremlin's political foes.

On Monday a bipartisan group of US senators released a letter saying the election of Prokopchuk would be "akin to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse."

Kim was elected at the 87th session of the organization's General Assembly in Dubai, which gathered around 1,000 senior law enforcement officials from across the globe. Kim will serve as president for the remainder of the current mandate, until 2020.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had endorsed Kim, a South Korean police official, to replace former president, Meng Hongwei, who was recently detained on his return to China.

The organization's former president, Meng Hongwei, went missing on his return to China in late September. His wife Grace Meng raised the alarmed 10 days later and said she'd received threats via social networks and telephone.

Chinese authorities later announced Meng was being held and investigated for alleged corruption. Meng, who was also a vice minister of public security in China, has been accused of accepting bribes and committing unspecified other crimes.

A statement from Interpol's Secretary General Jurgen Stock dated October 6 said the organization had requested "clarification" from the Chinese authorities on Meng's status.

"Interpol's General Secretariat looks forward to an official response from China's authorities to address concerns over the President's well-being," the statement said.

The following day the international law enforcement agency released another statement, confirming it had received Meng's resignation.

In his first public comments since Meng went missing, Stock told a news conference earlier this month that the organization had to accept its former president's resignation.

"There's no reason for me to suspect that anything was forced or wrong," Stock said, according to reports.

China building on new reef in South China Sea: think tank

BEIJING, Nov 21: China has installed a new platform on a remote part of the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea which could be used for military purposes, according to recent satellite images reviewed by a U.S. think tank.

The strategic waterway is claimed almost in its entirety by China, whose continued building of military and other installations on artificial islands and reefs there has unnerved the region and angered Washington.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said the images showed a “modest new structure” on Bombay Reef, topped by a radome and solar panels.

“The development is interesting given Bombay Reef’s strategic location, and the possibility that the structure’s rapid deployment could be repeated in other parts of the South China Sea,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday.

The purpose of the platform and radome was unclear, but it could be for military use, it said.

“The reef is directly adjacent to the major shipping lanes that run between the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south, making it an attractive location for a sensor array to extend Chinese radar or signals intelligence collection over that important sea lane,” the group said.

China’s Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands was not in dispute, and there is nothing wrong with China carrying out construction work on its own territory.

“As for the specific situation you mention, I have no understanding of it,” Geng told a daily news briefing.

Vietnam also claims the Paracels. Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over 50 killed in blast at religious gathering in Kabul

KABUL, Nov 20: A suicide bomber blew himself up in the Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday, killing more than 50 people, three government officials said.

Najib Danish, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said more than 70 other people were injured in the attack.

“A suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a wedding hall where Islamic religious scholars had gathered to commemorate the birthday of Prophet Mohammad,” Danish said.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blast.

Taliban kill 30 policemen in west province: Afghan officials

KABUL, Nov 15: Afghan officials say the Taliban have killed 30 policemen in a blistering overnight attack in western Farah province.

Provincial council member Dadullah Qani said on Thursday that the onslaught on the police outpost in the province’s district of Khaki Safed began late on Wednesday and continued for more than four hours.

In Kabul, lawmaker Samiullah Samim said the district police commander, Abdul Jabhar, was among those killed.

The Taliban managed to flee with a large amount of weapons and ammunition.

Samim says retaliatory airstrikes killed 17 Taliban fighters.

The Taliban have in recent months been staging near-daily attacks across Afghanistan, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan forces. Authorities no longer regularly provide casualty figures but unofficial estimates say about 45 Afghan police or soldiers are killed or wounded daily.

Saudi Arabia implicates royal adviser, top spy in Jamal Khashoggi killing, to seek death for five accused

Riyadh/Beirut, Nov 15: A Saudi royal adviser and a senior intelligence official played key roles in the mission that ultimately led to the killing of government critic Jamal Khashoggi and authorities will seek the death penalty for five people who confessed to the murder.

Eleven people out of the 21 held in the case have been charged over Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, Shaalan Shaalan, deputy attorney general, said in a televised news conference.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who runs the day to day affairs of the world’s top oil exporter, had no knowledge of the mission, he added.

The killing of Khashoggi, a palace insider who turned critic, has provoked a global outcry and tarnished the reputation of the 33-year-old young prince, whose efforts to cast himself as a bolder reformer and trusted U.S. ally have often chafed against his policies abroad.

Saudi Arabia stuck by its earlier narrative that the Washington Post columnist was killed after a mission to abduct him went awry. The deputy chief of intelligence ordered that Khashoggi be brought back to the kingdom, Shaalan said. The team killed him after the talks failed and his body was handed to a collaborator in Turkey, he added.

Asked whether Saud al-Qahtanti, an aide to Prince Mohammed, had any role in the case, Shaalan said that a royal adviser had a coordinating role and had provided information. The former adviser was now under investigation, the prosecutor said, declining to reveal the names of any of those facing charges.

The prosecution ‘demands the death penalty for those who ordered and executed the killing and they’re five people,’ he said at the conference in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has asked Turkey to share the results of its investigation and recordings of the killing, and is planning to sign a ‘special mechanism’ to ensure this happens, he said. “The prosecution is still waiting for Turkey to hand over what was asked of them,” he said.

Turkey has shared an audio recording of the killing with the US, France, Canada, Germany, U.K., but it has stopped just short of blaming Prince Mohammed.

It demanded on Wednesday an international investigation into the case, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said those who ordered the killing should be identified and brought to justice. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, had any knowledge of the operations.

Sri Lanka parliament passes no-confidence motion against Mahinda Rajapakse

COLOMBO, Nov 14: Sri Lanka’s parliament passed a motion of no-confidence in the controversially appointed government of Mahinda Rajapakse on Wednesday, a day after the Supreme Court overturned a presidential decree dissolving the legislature.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ruled that a majority of the 225-member assembly supported a no-confidence motion against Rajapakse who was made prime minister on October 26 in place of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The result does not automatically mean that Wickremesinghe, whose party is the biggest in parliament, has won the constitutional showdown. President Maithripala Sirisena retains the power to choose the next prime minister.

13 hidden North Korean missile bases outed in new report

WASHINGTON, Nov 13: Thirteen undeclared North Korean missile operating bases were identified in a new report, undermining the Trump administration’s claims that its outreach to Pyongyang is making progress in getting Kim Jong Un’s regime to give up its nuclear weapons program.

The 13 sites are among an estimated 20 bases, small and dispersed across the country, that are believed to have underground facilities containing mobile launchers that can be quickly dispersed to other locations, according to the report from Beyond Parallel, a group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Although not designed as launch sites, the bases could be used to launch short-range as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The dispersed nature, small size of operating bases, and tactics and doctrine employed by ballistic missile units provide the best chances for their survival given the KPA’s technology and capabilities,” according to the report, using an acronym for the Korean People’s Army.

The existence of the bases -- which presumably would have to be declared and then dismantled under the U.S. goal of North Korean “denuclearization” -- suggests that Pyongyang’s previous efforts to dismantle known missile launch sites or nuclear facilities had little impact on its nuclear program.

The report comes as talks between the US and North Korea hit another snag last week, with a New York meeting between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the top negotiator from Pyongyang canceled at the last minute. President Donald Trump -- who’s cited North Korea’s yearlong freeze on nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches as signs of progress -- chalked up the change to a scheduling conflict, adding, “We think it’s going fine, we’re in no rush.”

Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that Trump was “getting played by Kim Jong Un.”

“We cannot have another summit with North Korea -- not with President Trump, not with the secretary of state -- unless and until the Kim regime takes concrete, tangible actions to halt and roll back its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” Markey said in a statement Monday.

The CSIS report was “nothing new” to American and South Korean intelligence officials, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters Tuesday, adding that describing North Korea’s missile activities as deceptive risked hindering diplomacy. The spokesman, Kim Eui-keum, said that Pyongyang had never agreed to shut down its short-range missile bases.

While the administration seeks to continue its “maximum pressure” campaign against Kim’s regime, momentum is building to ease international sanctions put in place last year, a move the US is struggling to resist. On Thursday, Russia called a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to take up its request for humanitarian exemptions to international sanctions on Pyongyang. The U.S. said it would vet Russia’s list, but administration officials have previously said Moscow is already violating the restrictions.

The facilities identified in the new report are located in strategic locations that would put missiles in range of South Korea and Japan, according to the report. Some are likely to house missiles that could reach the continental US when they become deployed. For decades, the bases have been camouflaged to prevent destruction from preemptive strikes and during military operations.

The report singled out a base known as Sakkanmol, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the demilitarized zone and one of the closest to South Korea. The base, located in mountainous terrain, contains a unit equipped with short-range ballistic missiles, the report said, and could house medium-range ones. As of this month, “the base is active and being reasonably well-maintained by North Korean standards” with minor infrastructure changes.

Macron rebukes nationalism at World War I event

MacronPARIS, Nov 11: Bells tolled across France and Europe on Sunday as President Donald Trump and other global leaders gathered to honor the dead of World War I and heed its harsh lessons to prevent conflicts.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has criticized Trump's "America First" foreign policy, decried excessive "nationalism" at the root of World War I and successive conflicts.

"Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism," Macron told a gathering of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying, ‘Our interest first, who cares about the others?’ "

Hosting an event to mark the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I, Macron told fellow leaders they have a "huge responsibility" to defeat modern forces that threaten a "legacy of peace" from the two world wars of the past century.

"I know there are old demons coming back to the surface," the French president said. "They are ready to wreak chaos and death."

Macron did not refer specifically to Trump, who occasionally frowned during the speech.

Trump did not respond to Macron publicly. During a speech later Sunday at a World War I-era cemetery, Trump praised the French leader for hosting the event he called "very beautiful" and "well done."

In defending "America First," Trump has often said the United States needs to address its own needs. During a meeting with Macron on Saturday, Trump said other countries need to share the burdens of mutual defense and free trade: "We want to help Europe, but it has to be fair."

Before the ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, the bells at Notre Dame and other cathedrals in Paris and across the continent rang at the exact time the armistice took effect: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 100 years ago.

The event itself ran a little late as Macron and other leaders marched up the Champs-Elysees toward the event site.

Trump arrived separately, not without incident: A topless woman ran toward the presidential motorcade but was quickly caught by police. She had the words "fake peacemakers" written on her body.

Anti-Trump demonstrators were arrested throughout the day.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump went to the event separately "due to security protocols."

Holding umbrellas, the president and first lady Melania Trump greeted Macron and other guests, including Putin.

The Russian president gave Trump a thumbs up and patted him on the upper arm.

During the ceremony, a military band played "La Marseillaise"; a choir of veterans later sang the French national anthem a capella. Yo-Yo Ma, seated near the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the arc, performed cello solos. The French air force staged a flyover.

Other countries held similar World War I commemorations, from Australia and New Zealand to England and India.

India among world leaders expected to push for China-backed trade deal excluding US

SINGAPORE, Nov 11: World leaders will push for the rapid completion of a massive, China-backed trade deal that excludes the US at a summit this week, in a rebuke to rising protectionism and Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

China, Japan, India and other Asia-Pacific countries could announce a broad agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which covers half the world’s population, on the sidelines of the annual gathering.

Not only is the US absent from the deal, but Trump is skipping the summit in Singapore, highlighting how far he has pulled back from efforts to shape global trade rules and raising further questions about Washington’s commitment to Asia.

Trump launched his unilateralist trade policy with a bang shortly after coming to office by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal spearheaded by predecessor Barack Obama that aimed to bind fast-growing Asian powers into an American-backed order to counter China.

His approach has left the floor open for Beijing to promote a rival pact it favours, the 16-member RCEP, a free trade deal which also aims to cut tariffs and integrate markets, but gives weaker protection in areas including employment and the environment.

The pact championed by Obama has been kept alive even without the US, and is due to go into force this year, but the Beijing-backed pact has now overtaken it as the world’s biggest.

Announcing in Singapore that talks for the deal -- which formally began in 2012 -- are mostly concluded would be “important as a symbol of Asia’s commitment to trade at a time of rising global tensions”, Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre, said.

She said negotiations in some areas were likely to continue into next year, however, while a diplomat attending the summit, speaking anonymously, said “substantial progress” had been made but there were still sticking points.

The gathering of 20 world leaders comes against a backdrop of a months-long trade dispute between China and the United States after Trump imposed tariffs on most Chinese imports this summer, and Beijing retaliated with its own levies.

The standoff is having an impact far beyond the US and China, and leaders at the four days of meetings that begin Monday will be keen to voice their grievances to Vice President Mike Pence, attending in Trump’s place, and Premier Li Keqiang.

Trump’s absence from the Singapore gathering and a subsequent meeting of world leaders in Papua New Guinea is even more notable given Obama, who launched a so-called “pivot to Asia” to direct more US economic and military resources to the region, was a regular participant.

Washington, however, argues that it remains committed to Asia, pointing to regular visits by top officials.

“We are fully engaged,” insisted Patrick Murphy, one of the State Department’s most senior Asia diplomats. “That is very sustained and has been enhanced under the current administration.”

Myanmar’s embattled leader Aung San Suu Kyi is attending the meetings, and will deliver a keynote address at a business forum Monday.

She may face criticism over a military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya that saw hundreds of thousands flee to Bangladesh last year, and has sparked rare criticism of Myanmar from within regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Also on the agenda will be North Korea’s nuclear programme. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a vaguely worded agreement on denuclearisation at a historic summit in June, but progress has been slow since.

Pence will also keep on pressure on Beijing over its growing aggression in the South China Sea. China claims almost all the strategically vital waters, a source of friction with Southeast Asian states that have overlapping claims as well as the US, the traditionally dominant military power in the region.

Other leaders attending include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But much of the focus will be on the RCEP as leaders seek to send a message in support of free trade. The deal groups the 10 ASEAN members plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

World leaders “should present a united front advancing trade liberalisation in (the Asia-Pacific) despite global headwinds to trade from the rising tide of global protectionism,” said Rajiv Biswas, chief regional economist at IHS Markit.


Sri Lanka Parliament dissolved; snap elections on Jan 5

COLOMBO, Nov 9: Sri Lanka will hold snap election on January 5, President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday.

Sirisena has dissolved the parliament in a gamble that a new election will get backing for his preferred candidate as prime minister over an ousted premier who has refused to give up, said a minister.

Sirisena signed a decree dismissing the island’s 225-member assembly just hours after his party admitted it did not have enough votes to get support for former president Mahinda Rajapakse against rival claimant Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The two have been battling for the prime minister’s post for two weeks as international concern grows over the mounting turmoil.

The minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the official notification would take effect from midnight Friday. Before signing the order, Sirisena inducted more ministers into the cabinet headed by Rajapakse.

“The election is likely to be held in early January,” the minister said. Normally an election should not be held until 2020.

Sirisena sparked the crisis on October 26 by naming Rajapakse, the country’s authoritarian president from 2005 until 2015, as prime minister after sacking Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe has since refused to leave the premier’s official residence while the president also suspended parliament to head off any revolt against his action.

In the latest twist in the crisis, Sirisena’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) said ahead of the president’s stunning announcement they were at least eight legislators short of getting a majority for Rajapakse in the assembly.

“At the moment we have 104 or 105 MPs,” UPFA spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters, adding that the Sirisena-Rajapakse group hoped to secure support from “crossover” legislators.

Sirisena had said on Monday that he had the support of 113 legislators when he sacked Wickremesinghe. But the admission of a lack of a majority had fuelled speculation that Sirisena may sack the legislature and go for a snap election.

The leftist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), which regards the sacking of Wickremesinghe as unconstitutional, accused Sirisena of trying to consolidate his power grab.

“Dissolving parliament at this time is illegal and goes against the constitution,” JVP general secretary Tilvin Silva told reporters.

India shares table with Taliban at Afghan peace conference

MOSCOW, Nov 9: India is participating in a Russia-sponsored peace conference with Taliban in a significant reassessment of its position on talks with the armed group that has waged an armed rebellion since 2001.

New Delhi has sent former Indian envoys to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan respectively, to attend the conference at the "non-official level".

"India supports all efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that will preserve unity and plurality, and bring security, stability and prosperity to the country," India's foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said.

"India's consistent policy has been that such efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled and with participation of the Government of Afghanistan," he said.

Moscow said it had invited representatives from the United States as well as Iran, China, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

A five-member Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of its political council in Qatar, is also attending the talks in Moscow.

The US has said it will send a representative from its embassy in Moscow to attend Friday's talks.

India's participation is a stark departure from its earlier position as it has never engaged in formal talks with the Taliban.

Foreign policy analyst Manoj Joshi, who represents the Observer Research Foundation, said the talks in Moscow come at a time when the Taliban have steadily fortified their control in the Afghan countryside.

"Essentially, India has bowed to the inevitable since the US, Russia, China and even the Afghan government have all indicated one way or the other that they are ready to talk with the Taliban," Joshi told Al Jazeera.

"New Delhi is confident that the host Russians would not do anything which would be against India's interests. Also, in participating in these talks, India takes the view that since the Afghan government, through the High Peace Council, is present, there should be no problem," he added.

The High Peace Council (HPC) is a government body responsible for reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

The Russian diplomatic efforts come weeks after newly appointed US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, held talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

He will visit Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar from November 8 to 20 in an effort to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.

"There has been a shift in US policy - earlier, even though the previous administration spoke about a negotiated settlement, there was no concrete direction," Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Al Jazeera.

"For the first time now, the US is talking directly to the Taliban, which is also acceptable to the Taliban, as this was their demand from the outset. There has been some movement.

"There is an element of seriousness from all sides."

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has previously proposed talks with the Taliban, saying it could be recognised as a political party if it accepted a ceasefire and accepted the country's constitution.

The Taliban, which has been fighting the US-led forces since being thrown out of power in 2001, has generally refused to negotiate with the Afghan government.

"Although the Afghan government is preparing to negotiate, many people are now blaming the government, particularly President Ghani," said Hekmatullah Azamy, acting head of Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul.

"They argue that successful peace talks mean a new interim administration which will be unacceptable to President Ghani," Azamy told Al Jazeera.

In the meeting on Friday, members of the HPC said they are ready for talks with the Taliban without any preconditions.

"The future of Taliban is a matter of serious concern for the group - both at the leadership level as well as for its rank and file," Azamy said.

"Taliban often questions whether they are ready to become a 100 percent political group and whether they can survive mainstream politics.

"Moreover, would the rank and file follow the leaders or will they join groups like Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group)."

Taliban officials have set the withdrawal of all foreign forces, release of prisoners and the lifting of a ban on travel as preconditions for any peace talks.

India had earlier refused to support a 2007 initiative of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai to engage the "good Taliban" in the peace process.

"Some make a distinction between 'good Taliban' and 'bad Taliban' - I don't, because I've seen the Taliban, they have only one cult - the cult of violence," then foreign minister of India Pranab Mukherjee had said.

The Taliban has inflicted a heavy toll on Afghan security forces in renewed attacks in recent weeks. At least 20 army soldiers were killed at a border outpost in western Afghanistan on Tuesday.

More than 17 years after the US-led forces invaded the country and removed the Taliban, the war is intensifying. In recent months, violence has continued with mounting casualties on both sides.

There have been several attempts in recent years to broker a settlement between the western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban without much success.

"India's representatives are attending the talks in Moscow as part of efforts to bring peace and stability to the region. It's not switching tack but evolving assessment of ground realities," said a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker in New Delhi on condition of anonymity.

"All efforts towards making peace, whether the US-led talks or Russia-led talks, will help. We will be there to observe," he added.

According to Azamy, India is one of the important stakeholders enjoying friendly ties with Kabul. He says it is vital for New Delhi to be a part of peace talks, especially with the Taliban involved.

"Without India's involvement, the outcome of peace talks could upset them or make them feel insecure. They want to be engaged and aware of the developments," he said.

India has forged a close partnership with Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. It has engaged in infrastructure and welfare projects in the war-torn country worth millions of dollars earning goodwill from Afghans.

It has also provided training to Afghan military personnel as well as donating military hardware as part of its policy to deepen military ties.

"By attending the Taliban talks, India can get a voice in the outcome of the peace process, where it has none at present. It will try to coordinate with the Afghan government which it supports strongly," analyst Joshi told Al Jazeera.

"Simultaneously, the process enables it to build ties with the Taliban, even if somewhat late in the day. India cannot ignore the fact that ground realities ensure that the Taliban will be in the Afghan governing structure in some form or the other."

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