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Maintaining peace with India a diplomatic priority, says China amid Ladakh border tension

BEIJING, Aug 11: Maintaining peace along the disputed boundary and deepening strategic trust with India is one of China’s diplomatic priorities, the Chinese foreign ministry has said, adding that Beijing will try to expand “shared interests” with neighbours in the future.

Responding to a query about China’s diplomatic priorities as the Covid-19 pandemic impacts the world and international diplomacy, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian briefly outlined Beijing’s plans for way ahead in bilateral ties with the US, Russia, EU, Japan, and India.

“For the China-India relationship, the two sides should jointly safeguard peace and security in the border areas and maintain a steady and sound development of bilateral ties”, Zhao said.

“We will continue to deepen strategic mutual trust and expand shared interests with our neighbours and other developing countries”, he said in a statement published on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website on Monday night.

Zhao was responding to a question from the official Xinhua news agency on China’s current diplomatic work and its diplomatic priorities looking ahead.

The Chinese official did not make any reference to the ongoing tension between India and China along the line of actual control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.

The two countries have held several rounds of diplomatic and military talks to de-escalate, but the process is yet to be completed.

A new statement from the Chinese foreign ministry issued Monday indicated that the process of disengagement was not complete; the statement, however, did not share details of the situation on the ground.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the “…the frontline forces of China and India have been in close communication on controlling the situation.”

“At present, the two sides have disengaged in most of the border areas and will continue to coordinate and consult through military and diplomatic channels to further ease the tension and maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas,” the statement in Mandarin said.

On July 30, India had rejected China’s contention that disengagement has been completed at most locations along their disputed border, and called on Beijing to work sincerely for complete de-escalation and full restoration of peace along the LAC.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had acknowledged there has been “some progress” towards disengagement and de-escalation along the LAC though the process is far from complete.

“There has been some progress made towards this objective, but the disengagement process has as yet not been completed,” Srivastava said during the weekly virtual media briefing.

Srivastava was reacting to China’s position, which had said earlier that frontline troops had “completed disengagement in most locations and the situation on the ground is easing”.

On the overall international situation in diplomacy, Zhao said: “Covid-19 has engulfed and impacted the whole world since its outbreak early this year”.

“We have actively planned and developed our relations with other major countries, responded rationally to the unreasonable pressure the US has piled on China, made new progress in advancing China-Russia relations under the strategic guidance of the two heads of state, and sustained cooperation as the main tone of China-EU relations”, he said.

“We will continue to improve relations with neighboring countries, strengthen solidarity and cooperation with other developing countries, advocate the building of a community of common health for mankind, firmly uphold China’s sovereignty and security interests, and endeavor to fulfill the purpose of diplomacy for the people,” Zhao said.

US Health Secy Alex Azar meets President Tsai; Reaffirms Support to Taiwan

TAIPEI, Aug 10: Alex Azar, the United States Health and Human Services secretary, met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen Monday, the highest-level meeting between Washington and the self-ruled island in decades.

The visit has been condemned by Beijing, which regards Taiwan as Chinese territory, and comes amid an all-time low in US-China relations.

Azar arrived in Taiwan Sunday, where he and his team were given coronavirus tests and were seen wearing face masks. The group was met by members of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the director general of the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy.

Speaking Monday, Azar said his trip "demonstrates the robust US-Taiwan partnership on global health and health security, one of many aspects of our comprehensive friendship."

"We consider Taiwan to be a vital partner, a democratic success story, and a force for good in the world," he added.

"There are three overarching themes for this trip. The first is to recognize Taiwan as an open and democratic society, executing a highly successful and transparent COVID-19 response. The second is to reaffirm Taiwan as a long partner and friend of the United States, and to highlight our history of broad collaboration on health and public health. The third is to note that Taiwan deserves to be recognized as a global health leader with an excellent track record of contributing to international health."

Speaking alongside Azar, Tsai thanked US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Azar "for their continued recognition of the Taiwan model's contribution to global anti-pandemic efforts, as well as their strong support for Taiwan's international participation."

Taiwan has been widely hailed for its effective response to the coronavirus, with 480 cases and seven deaths from a population of 23 million people. That success served to highlight Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO), where China has blocked its democratic neighbor from taking an observer seat.

Tsai described that development as "highly regrettable" Monday.

Though the Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, Beijing considers the island to be a sovereign part of China.

"China firmly opposes any official interactions between the US and Taiwan. This position is consistent and clear. China has made stern representations with the US side both in Beijing and in Washington," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.

"I want to stress that the one-China principle is universally recognized by the international community. Any attempt to ignore, deny or challenge that principle is doomed to fail."

Following the 1949 conclusion of the Chinese civil war, when the defeated nationalist government retreated to Taiwan, the Republic of China -- as the island is officially known -- continued to maintain diplomatic relations and a United Nations seat, meaning there were effectively two Chinas competing for recognition and alliances.

As many countries opened relations with the People's Republic of China, they cut off ties with Taiwan, which lost its UN seat in 1971.

Today, few countries have diplomatic relations with the island, instead recognizing Beijing as the legitimate "one-China" government. However many countries, including the US, do not acknowledge Chinese claims to sovereignty over the island of Taiwan.

In recent years, as Taiwan moved further from China's orbit, electing Tsai's pro-independence Democratic People's Party, calls have grown in some quarters for countries to do more to support the island in the face of Chinese pressure, both military and diplomatic.

The coronavirus crisis, and Taiwan's successful response, has bolstered Taipei's standing globally, with dozens of countries supporting a motion at a recent WHO meeting -- eventually dropped due to time constraints -- to readmit Taiwan as an observer.

With tensions growing between Washington and Beijing, the US appears to be willing to engage with Taiwan far more than in the past, including through arms sales and visits like Azar's.

Speaking Monday, Azar said his visit was "consistent with the United States' long standing 'one-China policy' and past engagement with Taiwan."

Azar’s trip coincided with a visit by former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to pay his respects to the late President Lee Teng-hui, who led Taiwan from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s and reshaped the island’s relationship with China.

In a meeting with Tsai on Sunday that could further worsen Japan-China ties, Mori conveyed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s condolences while the Taiwanese president said she hoped the two sides can work together to combat the virus. The group included Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, who is also a lawmaker in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Lebanese PM steps down in wake of Beirut explosion, protests

BEIRUT, Aug 10: Lebanon’s prime minister says he is stepping down from his job in the wake of the Beirut port explosion last week that triggered public fury and mass protests.

In a brief televised speech, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Monday that he is taking “a step back” so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”

He said: “I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” repeating the last phrase three times.

A brief while earlier, Diab’s Cabinet resigned. The developments follow a weekend of anti-government protests in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port that caused widespread destruction, killed at least 160 people and injured about 6,000 others.

Diab blamed corrupt politicians who preceded him for the “earthquake” that has hit Lebanon.

“They (political class) should have been ashamed of themselves because their corruption is what has led to this disaster that had been hidden for seven years,” he added.

India-China need to find new equilibrium to resolve differences: Jaishankar

NEW DELHI, Aug 8: India and China can overcome their differences in the long-term if they reach “some kind of equilibrium” but achieving this is one of the big challenges faced by the country, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Saturday.

Jaishankar made the remarks while participating in an interactive session organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) as part of its “India@75 Summit - Mission 2022” initiative. The event looks ahead at India in its 75th year of independence in 2022 and seeks to bring together stakeholders such as industry and government to work on a vision.

Replying to a question on whether India and China, which are currently engaged in a tense border standoff, could be friends in the coming decades, Jaishankar said the two countries are neighbours and demographically unique as they are the only ones with populations of more than one billion.

China is the world’s second largest economy and India is set to become the third largest, and the period of their difficulties and the period of their “re-emergence in a very strong way in international politics” were not far apart, he said.

“We are seeing the parallel but differential rise of the two countries... To my mind, what it does is it puts a huge premium on reaching some kind of equilibrium or understanding between the two [in the interests of both countries]. How to do that is one of the big challenges that we face,” Jaishankar said.

The border standoff, which emerged in the open in May, has taken India-China relations to a new low. Both countries have mobilised tens of thousands of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), especially in Ladakh sector, after a brual clash on June 15 caused the death of 20 Indian soldiers and unspecified Chinese casualties.

Efforts to disengage and de-escalate the tensions have run into problems as the Chinese side hasn’t pulled back its troops are several key friction points on the LAC, such as Pangong Lake and Depsang.

Jaishankar said he believes the world “has a lot riding on” India and China reaching equilibrium, given the size and impact of both countries. “It is not an easy question to answer, there are problems [that are] well laid out. Certainly, it’s something which I feel is very central to our foreign policy calculations,” he said.

He said a good foreign policy is one that addresses national and economic security and advances the country’s goals and aspirations in a competitive environment. Such a policy depends on skill and agility to build “capabilities strongly, deeply [and] much faster”, he added.

In this regard, Jaishankar held up China as a “remarkable example of our lifetime” and pointed out that India too is doing its bit by weighing in on big issues such as climate change and shaping big debates on matters such as terrorism.

Jaishankar also said India’s approach was based more on issues as the country is now dealing with a “much more loose architecture” with more poles and less rules, where overlapping interests are a key factor in working with other nations.

“The country which is able to navigate best by finding overlapping interests and working with most countries is going to be very successful in diplomacy,” he said, adding that this would mean a country has to be less dogmatic and less dependent on global chains and global sources while striving for strategic autonomy.

Could Europe’s Last Dictatorship Be on Its Way Out?

Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko faces a real challenge in this weekend’s election

By Daniel Twining and Scott Mastic

For 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a Stalin-like grip on power in Belarus: jailing political opponents, eliminating free media and civil society, and terrorizing critics. Yet with a presidential election just around the corner on August 9, it is increasingly clear that the Belarusian people are no longer afraid, and that it is Lukashenko who fears his own people. The end of the last dictatorship in Europe at the hands of a public ready to move toward the democratic West would have enormous strategic consequences for the United States—and Russia.

Could the time for democratic reform in Belarus finally have arrived? A recent protest in Minsk—which drew 60,000 citizens—gives reason to hope that Lukashenko’s time may be up. The definitive answer may come with Sunday’s elections—if Lukashenko allows them to be credibly conducted. If the results are rejected and democratic opposition silenced, it is crucial that the United States and its European partners insist upon the Belarusian people’s right to self-determination.

Several recent developments have converged to make political change in Belarus conceivable. The government has disastrously managed the COVID-19 pandemic, imposing added strains on an economy already in free fall. The one-two punch of a Russian cutoff in oil supplies and the dramatic collapse in global oil prices has caused the economy to sharply contract. According to World Bank forecasts, Belarus’s economy is anticipated to shrink by at least 4 percent in 2020—the largest decline in 25 years.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko has continued jailing political activists and journalists, declaring that he will not allow a “Maidan” to take place in Belarus. The reference to the historic demonstrations in Ukraine that ousted autocrat Victor Yanukovych in 2014 shows Lukashenko sees the threat to his own power posed by the mobilization of the citizens he has repressed for so long.

Despite the dangers, an energized opposition coalition has united around the goal of political change. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former language teacher, has emerged from political obscurity to become the democratic movement’s presidential candidate. She joined the race after her husband, prominent blogger Siarhei Tikhonovskii, was arrested shortly after announcing his own presidential campaign. Tikhanovskaya has attracted the support of candidates who were denied a place on the ballot and jointly formed the United Campaign—a rarity in Belarusian opposition politics, where infighting has long stymied progress and allowed the regime to divide and weaken its opponents.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign for change is resonating with the Belarusian people, carried through social media and massive public rallies. If she can turn out those voters—and if they can express their will without interference from the regime—she could either win the election outright or force a runoff. Either scenario would constitute a stinging rejection of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.

How likely is it that Lukashenko would countenance a defeat at the ballot box? Unfortunately, we can expect him to resort to falsifying results during early voting and on Election Day—and popular protests could be met with a harsh response if earlier arrests and televised riot police drills are any indication.

It is vital for the United States and Europe to stand behind the Belarusian people as they assert their democratic rights. Given the cautious interest in a new economic and diplomatic relationship expressed by Western countries as Belarus’s relationship with Russia has shifted, the allies have both an interest in a democratic outcome and an important source of leverage over Lukashenko. To this end, NATO and EU nations must send a simple, united message to Lukashenko: The West expects a credible election process that reflects the will of voters.

Unfortunately, U.S. official support for political change in Belarus has been mixed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the regime to conduct clean elections. Peaceful political change at the ballot box would be a setback to the Kremlin’s efforts to build a shadow empire in former Soviet states and could enable greater Belarus-NATO cooperation, advancing the historic American goal of a Europe whole and free.

But other American officials believe continued engagement with Lukashenko’s repressive regime following a flawed election is the key to drawing Belarus out of Russia’s orbit. They worry that alienating Lukashenko would only push him further into the arms of the Kremlin—even though Russia-Belarus tensions are at historic highs given Moscow’s predatory designs on its neighbor.

The wiser American course would be to recognize that a democratic, reforming Belarus would be a better partner and surer source of European security. Democratic institutions would protect Belarus’s sovereignty more than corrupt, closed-door dealings between Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.

Belarus’s political future is in the hands of its citizens, not any foreign power. For the first time in decades, the Belarusian people may be on the cusp of finally breaking free from the bonds of Soviet-style dictatorship. The United States should stand with them.

@ Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute, which supports democracy around the world. Scott Mastic is vice president of programs at IRI.

In A First, US Health Secretary Alex Azar To Visit Taiwan

By Deepak Arora

WASHINGTON, Aug 5: In the coming days, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar will lead a delegation to Taiwan. This marks the first visit to Taiwan by an HHS Secretary, the first Cabinet member to visit in six years, and the highest level visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since 1979.

“Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it,” said Secretary Alex Azar.

“I look forward to conveying President Trump’s support for Taiwan’s global health leadership and underscoring our shared belief that free and democratic societies are the best model for protecting and promoting health. This trip represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan, especially as the United States and other countries work to strengthen and diversify our sources for crucial medical products.”

Secretary Azar’s historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan’s role in the international community is critical, as demonstrated by its remarkable success battling COVID-19 as a free and transparent democratic society.

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, and this visit is part of America’s policy of sending high-level U.S. officials to Taiwan to reaffirm the U.S.-Taiwan friendship, pursue shared interests, and celebrate the shared values that bond the United States and Taiwan to the international family of democracies.

In contrast to authoritarian systems, U.S. and Taiwan societies and economies are uniquely equipped to drive global progress in areas such as medicine and science to help the world tackle emerging threats. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of joint U.S.-Taiwan efforts to confront global challenges for the good of the world.

On behalf of President Trump, Secretary Azar will meet with senior Taiwan counterparts, COVID-19 responders and experts, and other Taiwan partners to discuss the COVID-19 response, global health, the U.S.-Taiwan partnership, and Taiwan’s role as a reliable global supplier of medical equipment and critical technology.

The Secretary will also give a major speech while in Taiwan to public health graduate students and alumni of the U.S. CDC training program, where he will highlight Taiwan’s constructive role in the international community, especially in global public health.

The Secretary will be joined by Ambassador (ret) James F. Moriarty, Chairman of the Board of the American Institute in Taiwan; Dr. Mitchell Wolfe, Chief Medical Officer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Brian Harrison, HHS Chief of Staff; Garrett Grigsby, Director of the HHS Office of Global Affairs; and other members of the Administration.

Additional information and details regarding the delegation’s meetings and site visits will be forthcoming in news releases and social media posts.

HHS and the Taiwan authorities have been closely coordinating health and safety protocols for the delegation’s visit.

Over 100 Killed, 4,000 injured in Beirut blasts

BEIRUT, Aug 5: Lebanese rescue workers dug through the mangled wreckage of buildings on Wednesday looking for survivors after a massive warehouse explosion sent a devastating blast wave across Beirut, killing at least 100 people and injuring nearly 4,000.

Officials said the toll was expected to rise after Tuesday’s blast at port warehouses that stored highly explosive material.

The blast was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus infections.

It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and rattled windows on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, about 100 miles (160 km) away.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures. He called it “unacceptable”.

An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on negligence. Ordinary Lebanese blamed politicians who have overseen decades of state corruption and bad governance that has plunged Lebanon into financial crisis.

“It’s like a war zone. I’m speechless,” Beirut’s mayor, Jamal Itani, said while inspecting damage he estimated ran into billions of dollars. “This is a catastrophe for Beirut and Lebanon.”

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettani, said at least 100 people had been killed. “We are still sweeping the area. There could still be victims. I hope not,” he said.

The intensity of the blast threw victims into the sea and rescue teams were trying to recover bodies. Many of those killed were port and custom employees and people working in the area or driving through during the Tuesday afternoon rush hour.

The Red Cross was coordinating with the Health Ministry to set up morgues because hospitals were overwhelmed, Kettani said.

Facades of central Beirut buildings were ripped off, furniture was sucked into streets and roads were strewn with glass and debris. Cars near the port were flipped over.

“This is the killer blow for Beirut, we are a disaster zone. My building shuddered, I thought it was an earthquake,” said Bilal, a man in his 60s, in the downtown area.

Like others, he blamed the political elite. “We already have a financial economic crisis, people are hungry and, these thieves and looters, will they compensate for the losses? Who will compensate for those who lost their loved ones,” he said.

Offers of international support poured in. Gulf Arab states, who in the past were major financial supporters of Lebanon but recently stepped back because of what they say is Iranian meddling, sent planes with medical equipment and other supplies. Iran offered food and a field hospital, ISNA news agency said.

The United States, Britain, France and other Western nations, which have been demanding political change in Lebanon, also offered help. The Netherlands said it was sending doctors, nurses and specialised search and rescue teams.

“This explosion seals the collapse of Lebanon. I really blame the ruling class,” said Hassan Zaiter, 32, a manager at the heavily damaged Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.

For many it was a dreadful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut, much of which had been rebuilt. Post-war reconstruction and political corruption mired Lebanon in huge debts.

“With this blast they took us back to the years of war ... Our leaders are in a coma,” said Ali Abdulwahed, 46, a manager at Café de l’Etoile, a restaurant next to parliament.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised accountability, saying: “Those responsible will pay the price”.

Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze at the port that set off the blast. A security source and media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a warehouse.

The port district was left a tangled wreck, disabling the nation’s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than 6 million people. Lebanon has already been struggling to house and feed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.

Lebanon’s main grain silo at the port was destroyed, leaving the nation with less than a month’s wheat reserves.

The U.S. embassy in Beirut, which moved to another part of the city after a huge bomb attack struck its originally waterfront embassy in 1983, warned residents about reports of toxic gases released by the port blast.

The explosion came three days before a U.N.-backed court is due to deliver a verdict in the trial of four suspects from the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah over a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others.

Hariri was killed by a huge truck bomb on another part of the Beirut waterfront, about 2 km (about one mile) from the port.

India calls Pak’s new ‘political map’ as ‘Political absurdity’

NEW DELHI, Aug 4: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday unveiled a new “political map of Pakistan” that counts Jammu and Kashmir and Junagadh in Gujarat as its territories. “This is the most historic day in Pakistan’s history,” Khan said at a news conference after getting cabinet approval for the map.

India’s foreign ministry dissed Imran Khan’s Pakistan for its obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism.

“This is an exercise in political absurdity, laying untenable claims to territories in the Indian State of Gujarat and our Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and of Ladakh. These ridiculous assertions have neither legal validity nor international credibility,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said in a brief statement.

“In fact, this new effort only confirms reality of Pakistan’s obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism,” Srivastava said, referring to the ‘so-called political map’ released by Imran Khan.

An Indian official had earlier described Islamabad’s effort to publish the document as a “cartographic hallucination”.

Imran Khan’s move comes a day ahead of the first anniversary of the Indian government tabling in parliament the legislation to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and splitting the erstwhile state into two centrally-administered territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Imran Khan’s government has already worked out a long list of programmes to commemorate the first anniversary, including requests to its partners such as China and Turkey to issue statements, or tweets that criticise India.

Over the last one year, Pakistan has made several attempts to raise the change in Jammu and Kashmir’s status from a state to a union territory at several international fora but hasn’t been able to get much traction. Khan’s government, nevertheless, counts its effort as a huge success. Imran Khan counted it as his government’s biggest success.

A Pakistan watcher in New Delhi said Imran Khan’s decision to issue the map reflected a desperation at some level to show his constituency back home that he was making progress. It also suits Imran Khan’s ‘iron brother’ Xi Jinping’s China who feels that India is getting aggressive and the rise of India needs to be monitored and checked, he said.

The new map also comes at a time the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is coming under increasing pressure.

There are reports that Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups in Pakistan have announced they are forming an alliance to attack Chinese interests. On July 25, Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar, or BRAS, a consortium of four Baloch separatist organizations, announced in a media release an alliance with the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army, or SRA, a little known separatist group operating in southeastern Sindh province. Balochistan is another province in the southwest. This development could increase security costs for Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan.

At his news briefing on Tuesday, Khan said the newly-launched map is backed by all political parties of the country which he said support the principled stance of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. “This map also opposes the Indian government’s illegal act of August 5 last year,” he added.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi described the map as an “unprecedented step”.

“For the first time in history, our government has openly presented its stance before the world,” he said.

In the same vein, Qureshi informed that the Kashmir Highway in Islamabad is being named Srinagar Highway. Solidarity walks, photo exhibitions and seminars will be arranged with coronavirus related SOPs in consideration to raise voices against Indian atrocities in Jammu and Kashmir, said Qureshi.

Many killed as two blasts rock Beirut

BEIRUT, Aug 4: Two powerful explosions that rocked the port of Beirut on Tuesday left “people dead and injured”, the Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

Georges Kettaneh, the president of the Lebanese Red Cross, referred to “hundreds of wounded” in a statement on Lebanese LBC television, adding: “We are overwhelmed by phone calls.”

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hasan Diab has declared Wednesday a day of mourning, and President Michel Aoun called for “urgent” defence council talks.

China moves PLA battalion across India’s Lipulekh Pass in Uttrakhand

NEW DELHI, Aug 1: China has mobilised a battalion strength of People’s Liberation Army soldiers near Uttarakhand’s Lipulekh Pass, one of the locations along the Line of Actual Control that have witnessed movement of Chinese troops over the last few weeks outside of the Ladakh sector.

India and China have been engaged in a standoff in East Ladakh beginning early May that flared up on June 15, leading to the bloodiest clash between soldiers from ṭwo sides in 45 years. Three weeks later, both sides agreed to start the disengagement and de-escalation of troops at the standoff points after a conversation between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

There has been thinning of troops at the standoff points but the disengagement is still work in progress.

Simultaneously, Indian military officers in Ladakh noticed a huge effort by Chinese troops to bolster its strength in the depth areas, and give infrastructure projects on its side a hard push. Chinese troops have augmented its presence on its side of the LAC elsewhere too.

“There has been accretion of PLA troops across the LAC at Lipulekh Pass, parts of North Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh,” a top military commander said.

Lipulekh Pass, which falls on the Mansarovar Yatra route, has been in the headlines for the last few months after Nepal objected to a 80-km road built by India to the Himalayan pass. The Lipulekh Pass is also used for annual barter trade during June-October between tribal populations living on either side of the Indo-China LAC.

Kathmandu escalated tensions with India this year after it changed its political map to count the Kalapani area including Lipulekh - which lies close to the tri-junction of India-China-Nepal - as its own.

At Lipulekh Pass, PLA has moved a battalion - approximately a 1,000 soldiers - at some distance from the border.

“It is a signal that the Chinese troops are prepared,” a second army officer said. He added that India has matched the strength of the PLA troops and is keeping a close watch on Nepal in context of its recent border claims.

“The situation on the Line of Actual Control remains dynamic with the PLA trying to emphasise its presence beyond Ladakh by building infrastructure on their side of the LAC,” the top military commander quoted above said.

In Ladakh and elsewhere, the troop movements and the mistrust has led the army to prepare to station soldiers in the icy heights of Ladakh through the winter irrespective of how the disengagement and de-escalation efforts pan out.

The government has already sounded out its embassies in US, Russia and Europe to locate manufacturers of high-altitude clothing and snow tent manufacturers for emergency purchases. If it still falls short, the plan B is to divert stocks from locations such as Thoise, the base station for soldiers deployed in Siachen Glacier.

“It looks unlikely that we would be able to take our eyes off the border,” said an army commander. Underscoring that this could be the only way for now to make Indian territory off-limits for an expansionist China and hold peace on the border.

“After the PLA aggression, we don’t trust the Chinese and fear that they will come back again north of Pangong Tso as summer arrives in 2021,” said a military commander.

Although the PLA has disengaged from patrolling points 14 (Galwan), 15-16 (Hot Springs), a smattering of adversary troops are still on forward location at patrolling point 17 A (Gogra) and withdrawal from all contested finger features is a distance away at the Pangong Tso.

Australian envoy to India publicly reminds Chinese envoy of South China Sea award

NEW DELHI, Aug 1: In a public spat on social media, Australian envoy to India Barry O’Farrell publicly reminded the Chinese envoy to India Sun Weidong of the 2016 South China sea award by Permanent Court of Arbitration that was rejected by Beijing.

The case between Philippines v. china was ruled in favour of the Philippines with the tribunal ruling that China has "no historical rights" in the south China sea based on the "nine-dash line" map.

The Australian envoy Barry O’Farrell Tweeted, "Thank you @China_Amb_India . I would hope then you follow the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award which is final and binding under international law, and also generally refrain from actions that unilaterally alter the status quo."

The tweet by Envoy Barry was in response to Chinese envoy Sun Weidong tweeting, "Noted remarks by Australian HC to India on #SouthChinaSea disregarding facts. #China's territorial sovereignty & maritime rights&interests are in conformity w/ int'l law incl UNCLOS. It's clear who safeguard peace&stability & who destablize&provoke escalation in the region."

The Australian envoy on Thursday had said, "Australia remains deeply concerned by actions in the South China Sea that are destabilising and could provoke escalation."

The Tweet by Australian envoy got lot of traction on Twitter and was retweeted over 2000 times while Chinese envoy's tweet was retweeted just around 100 times.

The Chinese envoy had again responded to Australian envoy's tweet saying, "So-called arbitral tribunal of #SouthChinaSea violated principle of state consent. The award is illegal,null&void&has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it. We hope those non-claimant countries could contribute to regional peace&stability rather than contrary."

On 23 July, Australia lodged a note with the UN Secretary-General refuting China’s unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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