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Trump approves legislation backing Hong Kong protesters

WASHINGTON, Nov 28: US President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law congressional legislation backing protesters in Hong Kong despite angry objections from Beijing, with which he is seeking a deal to end a damaging trade war.

The legislation, approved unanimously by the US Senate and by all but one lawmaker in the House of Representatives last week, requires the State Department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favourable US trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial centre. The law also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.

Congress passed a second bill, which Trump also signed, banning the export to the Hong Kong police of crowd-control munitions, such as teargas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong. They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all,” Trump said in a statement.

At the heart of matter is Beijing’s promise to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years when it regained sovereignty over the city in 1997, a pledge that has formed the basis of the territory’s special status under US law. Protesters say freedoms have been steadily eroded.

Trump had been vague about whether he would sign or veto the legislation, while trying to strike a deal with China on trade that he has made a top priority ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.

After Congress passed the bill, Trump’s aides debated whether the president’s endorsement could undermine efforts to reach an interim trade deal with China, and most of them ultimately recommended the signing to show support for the protesters, a person familiar with the matter said.

The decision was also influenced by the overwhelming majorities in the Senate and House in favour of the legislation, which was widely seen as making the bills veto-proof, as well as the landslide election victory in Hong Kong earlier this week of critics of Chinese rule, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If Trump had opted to use his veto, it could have been overridden by two-thirds votes in both the Senate and the House. The legislation would have automatically become law on Dec. 3 if Trump had opted to do nothing.

China has denounced the legislation as gross interference in its affairs and a violation of international law.

After the Senate passed the legislation, Beijing vowed counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio applauded Trump’s decision.

“The US now has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” Rubio said in a statement.

Last week, Trump boasted that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers, while adding that he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that doing so would have “a tremendous negative impact” on trade talks.

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting Hong Kong freedoms when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump again referred to “riots” last week, but has also called on China to handle the issue humanely.

Many see the US legislation as symbolic, but the bills’ provisions have the potential, if implemented, to upend relations between the United States and Hong Kong and change the territory’s status to that of any other Chinese city.

Analysts say any move to end Hong Kong’s special treatment could prove self-defeating for the United States, which has benefited from the business-friendly conditions in the territory. If Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese port, companies that rely on the territory’s role as a middleman or for trans-shipping would likely take their business elsewhere.

That said, the bills contain strong waivers that would allow the president to block their provisions on national-security and national-interest grounds.

According to the State Department, 85,000 US citizens lived in Hong Kong in 2018 and more than 1,300 US companies operate there, including nearly every major US financial firm.

The territory is a major destination for US legal and accounting services. In 2018 the largest US bilateral trade-in-goods surplus was with Hong Kong at $31.1 billion.

Trade between Hong Kong and the United States was estimated to be worth $67.3 billion in 2018, with the United States running a $33.8 billion surplus - its biggest with any country or territory, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative.

Bloomberg enters 2020 presidential race

WASHINGTON, Nov 24: Micheal Bloomberg, the eighth richest American, became on Sunday the 18th candidate running for the Democratic presidential ticket to take on Donald Trump in 2020.

“We cannot afford four more years of President Trump’s reckless and unethical actions,” Bloomberg wrote in an announcement on his campaign website. “He represents an existential threat to our country and our values. If he wins another term in office, we may never recover from the damage.”

Bloomberg joins a large field of candidates that started with more than 20. It shrank somewhat as candidates dropped out, failing to keep up with the rest in raising money or in polls. But the numbers rose in recent days with former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and, now, Bloomberg pumping in.

Bloomberg had been toying with running for the ticket earlier, but had strayed away. But as questions continued to be raised about the ability of those in the fray to take on Trump, he changed his mind.

Bloomberg has planned a week-long ad blitz worth $33 million to start making up for the lost time, starting Monday. That is a record for the amount of money ever spent by a presidential candidate in seven days.

China's Belt and Road Initiative Will Take Toll On Pak Economy: US

WASHINGTON, Nov 21: The United States on Thursday warned Pakistan that it faced long-term economic damage with little return if China keeps pursuing its giant infrastructure push.

The top US diplomat for South Asia said the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor -- heralded as a game-changer by both Asian countries -- would profit only Beijing and said that the United States offered a better model.

"It's clear, or it needs to be clear, that CPEC is not about aid," said Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for South Asia.

She noted that the multibillion-dollar initiative was driven by non-concessionary loans, with Chinese companies sending their own labor and material.

"CPEC relies primarily on Chinese workers and supplies, even amid rising unemployment in Pakistan," Wells said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The corridor "is going to take a growing toll on the Pakistan economy, especially when the bulk of payments start to come due in the next four to six years," she said.

"Even if loan payments are deferred, they are going to continue to hang over Pakistan's economic development potential, hamstringing Prime Minister (Imran) Khan's reform agenda," she said.

The United States has gone on the offensive against China's Belt and Road Initiative, a signature project of President Xi Jinping which aims to build ports, highways and railways around the world.

But Wells' speech was unusually specific in warning of risks to Pakistan, a historic ally of the United States which has had a turbulent relationship with Washington in recent years over Islamabad's shady ties with Islamist militants.

While acknowledging that the United States could not come to Pakistan with offers from state-run companies, Wells said private US investment, coupled with US grants, would improve the troubled economy's fundamentals.

"There is a different model," she said. "Worldwide we see that US companies bring more than just capital; they bring values, processes and expertise that build the capacities of local economies."

She pointed to interest in Pakistan by US companies including Uber, Exxon Mobil, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, with the soft-drink makers together investing $1.3 billion in the country.

China's main promises in Pakistan include the development of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea into a world-class port.

Beijing hopes to link Gwadar to the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, giving the world's second largest economy more access to the oil-rich Middle East and reducing reliance on the dispute-ridden South China Sea.

Hong Kong Rights Bill Clears US Congress, Heads To Trump

WASHINGTON, Nov 20: US lawmakers Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation that supports human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and also backs the territory's anti-China protesters, sending the measure opposed by Beijing to President Donald Trump.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed the House of Representatives by 417 to 1, one day after the Senate unanimously passed the measure, provoking an outcry from Beijing.

The bill requires the US president to annually review the favorable trade status that Washington grants to Hong Kong, and threatens to revoke the coveted status that the semi-autonomous Chinese territory enjoys with the United States if its freedoms are quashed.

The measure now heads to Trump. He has not decisively said whether he will sign it, although the passage by a strong veto-proof majority may affect his calculus on the bill.

The House, by 417 votes to 0, also approved Senate-cleared legislation that would ban sales of tear gas, rubber bullets and other equipment used by Hong Kong security forces.

The bills set up a potential conflict between the two economic superpowers that could jeopardize a major trade deal which has been under negotiation for months.

Beijing expressed anger earlier Wednesday after the Senate's unanimous vote, warning of "strong countermeasures" if the bill becomes law, and summoning acting US charge d'affaires William Klein to lodge a protest.

Michael McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced China's "authoritarian brutality" on display in Hong Kong as he spoke directly to residents of the territory from the House floor.

"America stands with you and America will always support you," McCaul said.

The votes marked an unusually strong show of bipartisanship in divided Washington.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the Senate bill, applauded Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for swiftly bringing it to a vote in her chamber.

"As the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong government officials continue to violate the basic rights of the Hong Kong people and erode Hong Kong's autonomy, the United States must make clear that we continue to stand with Hong Kongers fighting for their long-cherished freedoms," Rubio said.

The rights bill passed as dozens of pro-democracy protesters stood firm inside a besieged Hong Kong university, where a four-day standoff against police has caught the world's attention.

The city has suffered nearly six months of increasingly savage anti-China protests and unrest that began over a now-shelved bill to allow extraditions to China, which revived fears that Beijing was slicing into the city's freedoms.

US government clears sale of $1 billion worth of naval guns to India

WASHINGTON, Nov 20: The United States on Wednesday cleared the sale of 13 MK 45 anti-surface and anti-air naval gun systems, along with ammunition and related add-ons, to India for an estimated cost of $1.02 billion.

“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of a strategic regional partner,” the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a pat of the US department of defense, said in a statement on Wednesday.

US congress was notified of the proposed sale on Tuesday.

“The proposed sale will improve India’s capability to meet current and future threats from enemy weapon systems,” the DSCA said further in the statement.

The DSCA states that the MK-45 Gun System will provide the capability to conduct anti­-surface warfare and anti-air defense missions while enhancing interoperability with US and other allied forces. “India will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense,” the statement read.

The gun systems are made by BAE Systems Land. No delivery dates have been made available yet.

The gun systems are currently being used by the US navy and the navies of South Korea, Japan and Denmark, according to BAE website, which added that gun’s range more than 20 nautical miles (36 km).

India has stepped up defense purchases from the United States in recent years as part of a growing defense relationship that includes greater interoperability and joint exercises — the first tri-services exercises are currently under way in India.

From zero in 2008, India-US defense trade went up to $15 billion in 2018, facilitated by the signing of key foundational agreements to enhance interoperability and changes in the US export regime, upgrading India to the status of NATO allies for the sale of sensitive defense equipment.

Trump says has not agreed to roll back tariffs on China

WASHINGTON, Nov 8: President Donald Trump on Friday said he has not agreed to rollbacks of US tariffs sought by China, sparking fresh doubts about when the world's two largest economies may end a 16-month trade war that has slowed global growth.

Officials from both countries on Thursday had said China and the United States have agreed to roll back tariffs on each others' goods in a "phase one" trade deal. But the idea of tariff rollbacks met with stiff opposition within the Trump administration, it was reported later on Thursday.

Those divisions were on full display on Friday, when Trump - who has repeatedly described himself as "Tariff Man" - told reporters at the White House that he had not agreed to reduce tariffs already put in place.

"China would like to get somewhat of a rollback, not a complete rollback, 'cause they know I won't do it," Trump said. "I haven't agreed to anything."

He said China wanted to make a deal more than he did, adding that the U.S. tariffs were generating "billions of dollars" for U.S. coffers. "I'm very happy right now. We're taking in billions of dollars," he said.

U.S. stocks dipped after Trump's comments, and the dollar fell against the yen.

Trump also said the trade deal with China, if completed, would be signed in the United States. "Assuming we'd get it... it could be Iowa or farm country or some place like that. It will be in our country," he said.

The farm state of Iowa has been hammered by the tariff war, and has hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in the past.

Experts inside and outside the U.S. government warn the "phase one" trade pact could still fall apart. U.S. officials said a lot of work remained to be done when Trump announced the outlines of an interim deal last month, and Beijing has since pushed back on U.S. demands for big agricultural purchases, among other issues.

Trump has used tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods as his primary weapon in the protracted trade war. The prospect of lifting them, even in phases, has drawn fierce opposition from advisers in and outside of the White House who remain wary of giving up a key aspect of U.S. leverage.

China in May scuttled a previous trade deal that U.S. officials said was 90% completed.

If an interim deal is finished and signed, it is widely expected to include a U.S. pledge to scrap tariffs scheduled for Dec. 15 on about $156 billion worth of Chinese imports, including cell phones, laptop computers and toys.

But China was also seeking cancellation of other U.S. tariffs put in place since January 2018. Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng on Thursday said both countries must simultaneously cancel some tariffs on each other's goods to reach the phase one pact.

Key Trump ally loses poll, witness affirms Ukraine quid pro quo

WASHINGTON, Nov 6: US Republicans lost a key gubernatorial race and conceded a set of state legislatures in state elections that were also seen as the first test of President Donald Trump’s mounting troubles stemming from the impeachment inquiry, which has not been going too well for him.

A key witness in the ongoing inquiry changed his stand on Tuesday and told Congressional investigators that he had asked Ukrainian officials that they had to give President Trump what he wanted, a public announcement of investigation of corruption, to unblock almost $400 million in military aid it was supposed to get.

But first, the elections. Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, lost to Democrat Andy Beshear in an upset defeat largely due to his own unpopularity. But President Trump, who had put his full weight behind Bevin and held an election rally for him on Monday, will end up shouldering some of the blame, especially from critics.

Republicans also conceded the assembly and senate in Virginia for the first time in a quarter of a century. Democrats are now in charge of all the major statewide offices in Virginia, a state that was once considered Republican but has turned into a swing state with a sharp rise in Democratic voters.

These reverses for the Republican party came a year after it lost control of the US House of Representatives to Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections. Republicans are seen to be losing support in cities and in the suburbs largely on account of the divisive brand of politics popularised by Trump.

There had been no reactions from Trump himself till late in the night. His 2020 campaign claimed credit for the other victories in Kentucky and said the “President just about dragged Governor Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected in what turned into a very close race at the end”.

Earlier in the day, another Trump-loyalist handed the president a fresh set of troubles. US ambassador to EU Gordon Sondland told impeachment investigators that he had indeed conveyed to an Ukrainian official that there were conditions that had to be met to get the security aid, laying out, in effect, a quid pro quo that the president and his allies have denied.

“I said that resumption of the US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said. He is a wealthy hotelier from Oregon, who donated generously to Trump’s campaign and was given the prestigious ambassadorship as a reward.

The Trump administration is alleged to have pushed Ukraine to order an investigation against former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden about latter’s association with a Ukrainian company.

Sondland did not, however, connect the quid pro quo to the president. The White House did point it out in a reaction. “He did not know, (and still does not know) when, why or by whom the aid was suspended,” a spokesperson said, adding, “He also said he presumed there was a link to the aid—but cannot identify any solid source for that assumption”.

 

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