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Blinken says China threatens NATO security, calls for joint approach to counter Beijing

BRUSSELS, March 24: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday issued a strong rebuke to China for its sweeping use of coercive measures and called on NATO allies to work with America to mount a pushback on Beijing.

"The United States won't force our allies into an us or them choice with China. There's no question that Beijing's coercive behaviour threatens our collective security and prosperity and that it is actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share," CNBC quoted Blinken, during an address at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, as saying.

He was delivering remarks from Brussels, Belgium after holding consultations with NATO allies.

Blinken called out China's militarization of the South China Sea, use of predatory economics, intellectual property theft and human rights abuses.

Blinken's speech comes after an increase in tensions between the US, European Union and China in recent weeks.

Blinken also called on the Chinese government to follow through on its commitments on human rights as well as on other issues of concern. China has failed to uphold these commitments in the past, he said.

"We are looking very much forward actually having close consultations between the United States and the EU on China," Blinken added.

The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom joined the European Union (EU) on Monday to take what they described as "coordinated action" against China to send "a clear message about the human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang".

The sanctions blacklisted former and current officials in the Xinjiang region--Zhu Hailun, Wang Junzheng, Wang Mingshan and Chen Mingguo--for alleged abuses, which have sparked international outrage.

The coordinated move also targeted the state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

The sanctions agreed on Monday mark the EU's first punitive measures on Beijing since it imposed an arms embargo after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

In retaliation to the bloc's sanctions, China has decided to introduce sanctions against 10 European Union officials and four European organizations after accusing them of spreading lies and false information about the Xinjiang region.

"China decided to sanction 10 people and four organizations who seriously harmed the country's sovereignty and interests by spreading lies and false information with evil intent," the ministry said in a statement as quoted by Sputnik.

The dispute has seen a flurry of activity in diplomatic circles, with China and European nations summoning each other's ambassadors to answer for the move and responses to it, according to the South China Morning Post.

On Tuesday, China's ambassador to Belgium became the latest diplomat to join the dispute.

According to a statement on the embassy's website, ambassador Cao Zhongming told senior Belgian officials that the EU had "imposed sanctions on China based on Xinjiang-related lies and false information, deliberately provoked confrontation, and grossly interfered in China's internal affairs".

Meanwhile, Italy's foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had summoned China's ambassador to Rome Li Junhua to appear on Wednesday.

That came after Chinese foreign vice-minister Qin Gang summoned the EU's ambassador to China Nicolas Chapuis on Monday and British ambassador Caroline Wilson on Tuesday.

Senate confirms Dr Vivek Murthy as US Surgeon General

WASHINGTON, March 24: Indian-American physician Vivek Murthy has been confirmed by the Senate as President Joe Biden's surgeon general, a role in which his top priority would be responding to the coronavirus pandemic that has severely hit the country.

Dr Murthy, 43, would occupy the position of America’s Surgeon General for the second time. In 2011, president Barack Obama tapped him to serve on the advisory group on prevention, health promotion, and integrative and public health.

“I'm deeply grateful to be confirmed by the Senate to serve once again as your Surgeon General. We've endured great hardship as a nation over the past year, and I look forward to working with you to help our nation heal and create a better future for our children,” Murthy said on Tuesday soon after the Senate confirmed his nomination by 57-43 votes.

In 2013, Obama nominated Dr. Murthy to be the surgeon general. He was the youngest ever to hold the office at the age of 37. However, he had to abruptly leave the position during the Trump administration.

As US Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy will advise President Biden on the coronavirus pandemic and will be the federal government’s leading voice on public health.

Seven senators from the opposition Republican Party voted in support of Dr Murthy. He was an adviser to the Biden campaign and transition.

Senator Joe Manchin said that during his previous tenure as Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy worked to create a culture of public health promotion grounded in nutrition, physical activity and emotional well-being to help prevent conditions like obesity and diabetes.

Dr. Murthy also released a report outlining plans to reduce opioid prescriptions and expand access to treatment for those suffering from a substance use disorder, he said. He understands the issues facing this nation including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the drug epidemic and protecting rural healthcare.

COVID-19 has taken the lives of several members of Murthy's extended family. During his confirmation hearing in February, he said that seven of his family members in India and America have died due to COVID-19.

“Dr. Murthy has confirmed his commitment to remaining non-partisan as Surgeon General and reaffirmed his belief that the vast majority of gun-owning Americans are responsible and follow the law. For these reasons, I believe Dr. Murthy is qualified to be Surgeon General and I look forward to working with him to address the numerous issues facing our nation,” Manchin said.

Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr, a Republican, said that Americans need to be able to trust the messages delivered by the Surgeon General are fact-based and bias free.

“Unfortunately, I am still deeply concerned about Dr. Murthy’s ability to separate his political convictions from the public health decisions he will once again have to make in this role. For this reason, I voted against his confirmation,” the Republican Senator said.

Senator Tammy Baldwin who voted in favour of Dr Murthy said that the new Surgeon General has committed his life's work to public health, serving as America's Doctor before, and he is the leader we need in this role to help us get past the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Senator Jacky Rosen said that Dr. Murthy has the deep experience and knowledge “we desperately need in the Surgeon General’s office as we continue working to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.” Murthy was a top health adviser to the Biden campaign. He was part of Biden's public health advisory committee as the pandemic first took hold in the US and served as a co-chair of Biden's COVID-19 advisory board during the transition.

Murthy was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire to immigrants from Karnataka. When he was a three-year-old, the family relocated to Miami.

Dr. Murthy has co-founded Doctors for America, which has more than 18,000 physician and medical-student members and focuses on affordable health care.

The US has the highest coronavirus case tally in the world at 29,920,561 and the highest death toll at 543,793.

Discussed Human Rights Issues With Indian Ministers: US Secretary Of Defence

NEW DELHI, March 20: US Secretary of Defence General Lloyd Austin on Saturday said he had a conversation with Indian ministers about the human rights of minorities in the country as it was important for partners to have "those kinds of discussions".

Asked at a news conference in Delhi if he had spoken with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about "violations of human rights especially against Muslim minorities in the northeast", General Austin said, "I did not have an opportunity to talk with him about that. I did have a conversation with other members of the cabinet on this issue."

"We have to remember that India is our partner, a partner whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly, we feel comfortable doing that. And you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and make progress," he added.

Earlier, responding to a question about whether he shared concerns flagged by Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about "the deteriorating situation of democracy in India", General Austin said human rights and rule of law was important to the US.

"You've heard President [Joe] Biden say that human rights and rule of law are important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values. As a democracy that's pretty important to us. India is a democratic country and you treasure your values as well. There are a number of things that we can and will work on together," he said.

General Austin is making the first visit by a top member of US President Joe Biden's administration to India as part of efforts to forge an alliance of countries seeking to push back against China's assertiveness in the region. He visited Japan and South Korea before arriving here.

He met Modi on his arrival in New Delhi on Friday and held talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. On Saturday, he met Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. He leaves on Sunday.

"India, in particular, is an increasingly important partner among today's rapidly shifting international dynamics," General Austin said after meeting Singh.

Ahead of his visit, he was asked to raise concerns about democracy in the country with Indian officials by the chief of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In a letter to him, Senator Robert Menendez pointed out that while the US and India's partnership is "critical to meet the challenges of the 21st Century", the partnership "must rest on adherence to democratic values". The Indian government, he added, "has been trending away from those values".

"The Indian government's ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India," he wrote.

"Moreover, in recent years, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship Amendment Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents have resulted in the U.S. human rights group Freedom House stripping India of its 'Free' status in its yearly global survey," the US Senator said.

US-Indian relations have historically been prickly but China's growing aggression in the region pushed them closer together under Modi and former US President Donald Trump. After US remarks on the farmers' protests, India had cited the January 6 Capitol Hill violence.

General Austin said he and his Indian counterpart had discussed India's planned purchase of Russia's S400 air defence system, adding that Washington had asked all its partners to stay away from Russian equipment to avoid US sanctions.

There has been no delivery of S400 systems to India and so the possibility of sanctions was not discussed, Austin told reporters in New Delhi on Saturday.

Modi meets US defence secretary, calls bilateral ties ‘force for global good’

NEW DELHI, March 19: US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed bilateral, regional and global issues on Friday, reflecting efforts by the two sides to bolster cooperation as the Biden administration moves to counter an increasingly aggressive China.

Austin flew into India on the final leg of a three-nation tour that has already taken him to Japan and North Korea, He is the first senior leader of the new US administration to make an in-person visit to the country. After meeting Modi, Austin also held talks with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval.

He arrived in New Delhi hours after a meeting between the foreign ministers and NSAs of the US and China in Alaska got off to a bumpy start, with testy exchanges between the two sides in full view of the media. US secretary of state Antony Blinken alluded to China’s aggressive actions when he said a world in which “might makes right” would be “far more violent and unstable”.

“India and [the] US are committed to our strategic partnership that is a force for global good,” Modi tweeted after his meeting with Austin. He added that he had conveyed his best wishes to US President Joe Biden.

The discussions between Modi and Austin covered bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava tweeted. He described the India-US relationship as a “strategic partnership of global significance”.

People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that Modi outlined to Austin his vision for the strategic partnership between the two countries and emphasised the key role played by defence cooperation in bilateral ties.

Austin reiterated the US administration’s continued commitment to strengthening defence ties and expressed a desire to enhance the strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, the people said.

In a tweet posted shortly after his arrival, Austin said, “The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defense partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region.”

Defence minister Rajnath Singh, who will hold talks with Austin on Saturday, welcomed his US counterpart in a tweet, “Your visit to India is definitely going to further deepen the cooperation and partnership between India and the United States. Looking forward to our meeting tomorrow.”

Austin was received at Palam airport by senior Indian military officials and American diplomats. He is also the first US leader to visit India after the first leaders’ summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad on March 12, when the four countries committed themselves to working for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The people cited above said measures to boost the India-US strategic partnership, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the India-China standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the situation in Afghanistan and the sales of US weapons systems are expected to figure in the talks between the two sides on Saturday.

Among the defence deals expected to be discussed is India’s plan to acquire 30 armed drones at an estimated cost of more than $3 billion, the people said.

However, ahead of Austin’s visit, Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to the defence secretary and urged him to take up with Indian leaders the issue of India acquiring the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, as well as democracy and human rights issues.

The US has imposed sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for purchasing the S-400 system. India inked a deal with Russia in 2018 to buy five S-400 air systems and deliveries are expected to begin this year.

Bilateral defence ties were boosted after the US-designated India a “major defence partner” in 2016, and the two sides have signed what are known as “foundational” defence and security agreements, including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

Biden's 'pay the price' threat to Putin prompts diplomatic crisis as Russia recalls US ambassador

WASHINGTON, March 18: Russia called its US ambassador back to Moscow for consultations on Wednesday after Joe Biden described Vladimir Putin as a "killer" who would "pay a price" for election meddling, prompting the first major diplomatic crisis for the new American president.

In an interview with ABC News, Biden was asked about a US intelligence report that the Russian leader tried to harm his candidacy in the November 2020 election and promote that of Donald Trump.

"He will pay a price," the 78-year-old Biden said.

Asked if he thought Putin, who has been accused of ordering the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and other rivals, is a "killer," Biden said: "I do."

The comments were aired as the US Commerce Department announced it was toughening export restrictions imposed on Russia as punishment for Navalny's poisoning.

Russia responded by summoning its envoy home, but stressed that it wanted to prevent an "irreversible deterioration" in relations.

"The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, has been invited to come to Moscow for consultations conducted with the aim of analyzing what should be done and where to go in the context of ties with the United States," the Russian foreign ministry said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told RIA Novosti that "responsibility for further deterioration of Russian-American ties fully rests with the United States."

In Washington, the State Department noted the Russian move and said the United States will "remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses."

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked by reporters whether the president considers Putin literally or just metaphorically a killer.

"He does not hold back on his concerns about what we see as malign and problematic actions," Psaki said, citing election interference, Navalny's poisoning, cyberattacks and bounties on US troops in Afghanistan.

"He's not going to hold back in his direct communications, nor is he going to hold back publicly," she said. "We are not going to look the other way as we saw a little bit over the last four years."

"From his first phone call with President Putin, President Biden has been clear that the United States will also respond to a number of destabilizing actions," she said.

Asked about that phone call by ABC News, Biden said he had a "long talk" with Putin after taking office in January.

"The conversation started off, I said, 'I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared'," Biden said.

Biden's assessment that Putin is a "killer" marked a stark contrast with Trump's steadfast refusal to say anything negative about the Russian president.

In a 2017 interview with Fox News, Trump was asked about Putin being a "killer." "There are a lot of killers," he replied. "You think our country's so innocent?"

Despite his thoughts about the Russian leader, Biden said "there are places where it's in our mutual interest to work together."

"That's why I renewed the START agreement with him," he said of the nuclear treaty. "That occurred while he's doing this, but that's overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity, that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange."

Biden said he had learned from dealing with "an awful lot" of leaders during a political career spanning almost five decades -- including eight years as vice president -- that the most important thing was to "just know the other guy."

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, denounced Biden for agreeing with the description of Putin as a "killer."

"Biden insulted the citizens of our country," Volodin said. "Attacks on (Putin) are attacks on our country."

The Kremlin on Wednesday also dismissed the US determination that Russia had targeted election infrastructure during the 2020 presidential election.

"It is absolutely groundless and unsubstantiated," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, and an "excuse" to impose new sanctions.

According to US intelligence, Putin and other senior officials "were aware of and probably directed" Russia's influence operation to sway the vote in Trump's favor.

It concluded, however, that the election results were not compromised.

Russia faced allegations of US election meddling in 2016 for launching a social media campaign to boost Trump's candidacy and discredit his opponent Hillary Clinton.

After Biden's victory over Trump, Putin was among the last world leaders to congratulate the newly elected Democratic president.

Tensions between the former Cold War rivals have soared in recent months over hacking allegations and US demands that Russia free Navalny.

The Commerce Department said the new sanctions prevent export to Russia of more items controlled for national security reasons, including technology and software.

"The Department of Commerce is committed to preventing Russia from accessing sensitive US technologies that might be diverted to its malign chemical weapons activities," it said.

Navalny returned to Russia in January after being treated for the poisoning in Germany, and is serving a two-and-a-half year jail term in a penal colony outside Moscow.

The latest sanctions add to US penalties imposed on Moscow since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

US sanctions 24 officials over Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Shot Dead At Three US Spas, Suspect Arrested

WASHINGTON, March 17: Eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, were shot dead in a string of attacks on Atlanta-area day spas on Tuesday, and a man suspected of carrying out all of the shootings was arrested hours later in southern Georgia, police said.

Although authorities declined to offer a possible motive for the violence, the attacks prompted the New York Police Department's counter-terrorism unit to announce the deployment of additional patrols in Asian communities there as a precaution.

The bloodshed in Georgia began about 5 p.m. local time when four people were killed and another was wounded in a shooting at Young's Asian Massage in Cherokee County, about 40 miles north of Atlanta, said Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department.

Two women of Asian descent were among the dead there, along with a white woman and a white man, Baker said, adding that the surviving victim was a Hispanic man.

In Atlanta, the state capital, police officers responding to a call of a "robbery in progress" shortly before 6 p.m. arrived at the Gold Spa beauty salon and found three women shot to death, Police Chief Rodney Bryant told reporters.

While investigating the initial shooting report, the officers were called to a separate aroma-therapy spa across the street where a fourth woman was found dead of a gunshot wound, Bryant said. All four victims slain in Atlanta were of Asian descent.

Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock in Cherokee County, was taken into custody at about 8:30 p.m. in Crisp County, about 150 miles (240 km) south of Atlanta. A photo of Long, who is white, was released by authorities.

Baker saide that investigators were "very confident" that the same suspect was the gunman in all three shootings. A separate statement from the Atlanta Police Department said the suspect was connected to all the attacks by video evidence from the crime scenes.

Investigators were still working "to confirm with certainty" that the shootings in Atlanta and Cherokee County were related.

Long was spotted in southern Georgia, far from the crime scenes, after police in Cherokee County issued a bulletin providing a description and license plates of the vehicle involved in the attacks, Baker said.

He was arrested without incident after a highway pursuit by Georgia state police and Crisp County Sheriff's deputies, who used a tactical driving maneuver to stop the suspect's vehicle, sheriff's officials said later.

Authorities said that a motive for the rampage was not immediately clear, and that it was not determined whether the victims were targeted because of their race or ethnicity.

But the NYPD's counter-terrorism branch said on Twitter late Tuesday that although there was no known connection to New York City, the department "will be deploying assets to our great Asian communities across the city out of an abundance of caution."

The violence in Georgia unfolded days after U.S. President Joe Biden used a nationally televised speech to condemn a recent surge in hate crimes and discrimination against Asian-Americans. Civil rights groups have suggested that former President Donald Trump contributed to the trend by repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as the "China virus" because it first emerged there.

A spokesman for the Atlanta field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said the agency was assisting police in Cherokee County and Atlanta.

Atlanta police said they were stepping up patrols around businesses similar to those attacked on Tuesday evening.

Working with allies critical to push back Chinese aggression: US

WASHINGTON, March 15 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called international alliances "force multipliers" for Washington adding that working with allies is "critical" to push back against China's aggression.

Blinken and Austin writing in The Washington Post on Sunday said that they wanted "to lay out why alliances are vital to our national security and how they deliver for the American people."

Citing China's example, the two secretaries said that some countries are seeking to challenge the international order and slammed Beijing for being "all too willing to use coercion to get its way."

"Not all countries share this vision. Some seek to challenge the international order -- that is, the rules, values and institutions that reduce conflict and make cooperation possible among nations. As countries in the region and beyond know, China, in particular, is all too willing to use coercion to get its way. Here again, we see how working with our allies is critical," the Secretaries of State and Defense wrote.

The two secretaries said that the US along with its allies would hold China accountable for its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

"Our combined power makes us stronger when we must push back against China's aggression and threats. Together, we will hold China accountable when it abuses human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, systematically erodes autonomy in Hong Kong, undercuts democracy in Taiwan or asserts maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law. If we don't act decisively and lead, Beijing will," they wrote.

"That will be our message in Asia this week and throughout the world in the weeks and months ahead," they concluded.

China has been rebuked globally for cracking down on Uyghur Muslims by sending them to mass detention camps, interfering in their religious activities and sending members of the community to undergo some form of forcible re-education or indoctrination.

Beijing, on the other hand, has vehemently denied that it is engaged in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang while reports from journalists, NGOs and former detainees have surfaced, highlighting the Chinese Communist Party's brutal crackdown on the ethnic community.

Meanwhile, China imposed the draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong in July, last year, which criminalises secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces and carries with it strict prison terms. Since its implementation, several pro-democracy lawmakers have been arrested.

The two secretaries further wrote, "From his first day on the job, President Biden has emphasized America's reengagement with the world, because it's critical for us to meet the global challenges of our time. The United States is now making a big push to revitalize our ties with friends and partners -- both in one-to-one relationships and in multilateral institutions -- and to recommit to our shared goals, values and responsibilities."

The article comes as the first overseas Cabinet-level visits are scheduled for this week to Japan and South Korea.

"Our alliances are what our military calls "force multipliers." We're able to achieve far more with them than we could without them. No country on Earth has a network of alliances and partnerships like ours. It would be a huge strategic error to neglect these relationships," Blinken and Austin wrote.

"It's not only our one-to-one ties that are valuable. We're also focused on revitalizing the relationships between and among our allies. As the president has said, the world is at an inflection point. A fundamental debate is underway about the future -- and whether democracy or autocracy offers the best path forward. It's up to us and other democracies to come together and show the world that we can deliver -- for our people and for each other," they added.

The two secretaries in their opinion article further wrote that the alliances with Japan and South Korea contribute to the US's and the world's "security and prosperity," including when it comes to determining the best response to threats from North Korea, global security issues, climate change, cybersecurity and health security.

"As President Biden has said, the United States will lead with diplomacy, because it's the most effective way to meet the challenges we face today, few of which can be solved by us acting alone," Blinken and Austin stated.

"At the same time, we will maintain the world's most powerful armed forces, because that's a core source of our national -- and collective -- strength. And we will work hard to renew our alliances and ensure they're fit for purpose to address the threats and opportunities of our time," they said.

Austin will be visiting three nations - India, Japan and South Korea in the Indo-Pacific region to discuss the strengthening of existing partnerships and alliances there, read the US Department of Defense release.

In both Japan and Korea, the Secretary of Defence will be accompanied by Blinken during meetings with government officials.

US City To Pay $27 Million Settlement To George Floyd's Family

WASHINGTON, March 13: The family of George Floyd, the Black man who died while being arrested by a white police officer in Minneapolis, has reached a $27 million "wrongful death" settlement with the Minnesota city, lawyers for the family announced Friday.

The settlement is the "largest pre-trial settlement in a civil rights wrongful death case in US history," the lawyers said in a statement.

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial facing murder and manslaughter charges in connection with Floyd's May 25, 2020 death, which was captured on video by bystanders and seen around the globe.

Three other police officers also face charges.

"George Floyd's horrific death, witnessed by millions of people around the world, unleashed a deep longing and undeniable demand for justice and change," said Ben Crump, a Floyd family lawyer.

"That the largest pre-trial settlement in a wrongful death case ever would be for the life of a Black man sends a powerful message that Black lives do matter and police brutality against people of color must end," Crump said.

The settlement results from a federal lawsuit the Floyd family filed in July against the city of Minneapolis.

Floyd's brother Rodney said the agreement is "a necessary step for all of us to begin to get some closure."

"George's legacy for those who loved him will always be his spirit of optimism that things can get better, and we hope this agreement does just that," he said.

US Offers Temporary Refuge To Myanmar Nationals After Military Coup

WASHINGTON, March 13: The US government said Friday that Myanmar citizens stranded by the violence following the country's military coup would be able to remain inside the United States under "temporary protected status."

"Due to the military coup and security forces' brutal violence against civilians, the people of Burma (Myanmar) are suffering a complex and deteriorating humanitarian crisis in many parts of the country," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

"After a thorough review of this dire situation, I have designated Burma for temporary protected status so that Burmese nationals and habitual residents may remain temporarily in the United States."

Congress OKs $1.9T virus relief bill in win for Biden, Dems

WASHINGTON, March 11: A Congress riven along party lines approved the landmark $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Wednesday, as President Joe Biden and Democrats claimed a major triumph on legislation marshaling the government’s spending might against twin pandemic and economic crises that have upended a nation.

The House gave final congressional approval to the sweeping package by a near party line 220-211 vote precisely seven weeks after Biden entered the White House and four days after the Senate passed the bill.

Republicans in both chambers opposed the legislation unanimously, characterizing it as bloated, crammed with liberal policies and heedless of signs the crises are easing.

“Help is here,” Biden tweeted moments after the roll call, which ended with applause from Democratic lawmakers. Biden said he'd sign the measure Friday.

Most noticeable to many Americans are provisions providing up to $1,400 direct payments this year to most people and extending $300 weekly emergency unemployment benefits into early September. But the legislation goes far beyond that.

The measure addresses Democrats’ campaign promises and Biden’s top initial priority of easing a one-two punch that first hit the country a year ago. Since then, many Americans have been relegated to hermit-like lifestyles in their homes to avoid a disease that’s killed over 525,000 people — about the population of Wichita, Kansas — and plunged the economy to its deepest depths since the Great Depression.

“Today we have a decision to make of tremendous consequence,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “a decision that will make a difference for millions of Americans, saving lives and livelihoods.”

For Biden and Democrats, the bill is essentially a canvas on which they’ve painted their core beliefs — that government programs can be a benefit, not a bane, to millions of people and that spending huge sums on such efforts can be a cure, not a curse. The measure so closely tracks Democrats’ priorities that several rank it with the top achievements of their careers, and despite their slender congressional majorities there was never real suspense over its fate.

They were also empowered by three dynamics: their unfettered control of the White House and Congress, polls showing robust support for Biden’s approach and a moment when most voters care little that the national debt is soaring toward a stratospheric $22 trillion. Neither party seems much troubled by surging red ink, either, except when the other is using it to finance its priorities, be they Democratic spending or GOP tax cuts.

Republicans noted that they’ve overwhelmingly supported five previous relief bills that Congress has approved since the pandemic struck a year ago, when divided government under then-President Donald Trump forced the parties to negotiate. They said this one solely reflected Democratic goals by setting aside money for family planning programs and federal workers who take leave to cope with COVID-19 and failing to require that shuttered schools accepting aid reopen their doors.

China hasn’t withdrawn from several LAC positions, says top US commander

WASHINGTON, March 10: China still hasn’t withdrawn from “several forward positions” it seized during clashes with Indian forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a top US military commander told lawmakers at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.

Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who commands the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command, also told lawmakers that the US had helped India over its border conflict by providing information, cold-weather clothing and other equipment.

“The PLA has not yet withdrawn from several forward positions it seized following the initial clash, and the consequent escalation of tensions between the PRC and India has resulted in casualties on both sides,” Davidson said in prepared remarks at a Senate hearing on the US Indo-Pacific Command.

The Chinese and Indian armed forces completed the withdrawal of their respective troops from parts of the disputed border in Ladakh - around Pangong Tso - in late February after protracted negotiations.

The US commander described Chinese aggression on the LAC as a manifestation of Beijing’s “expansionary territorial ambitions”.

He added that the “large-scale mobilisation - which is particularly notable considering the elevation, terrain, and distance involved - has stoked regional concerns that the PRC will increasingly use force to achieve desired outcomes”.

Davidson held China responsible for starting the border clashes. “The standoff was predicated by clashes over construction activities near the disputed border. PLA ground manoeuvre and support elements subsequently forward-deployed roughly 50,000 soldiers along the LAC, leading to a counter-deployment by the Indian Army,” he said.

Davidson went on to say that the border conflict with China has “opened their (India’s) eyes to what cooperative effort with others might mean for their own defensive needs”.

“I think you’ll see India in the very near term, you know, remain committed to their nonaligned approach, but I think they will deepen their engagement with the Quad, and I think that’s a key strategic opportunity for us, Australia and Japan,” the US admiral added.

Davidson spoke at length about US military ties with India. The current relationship “presents a historic opportunity to deepen ties and solidify what I consider the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’,” he said, using a phrase popularised by former US president Barack Obama for the bilateral relationship.

He went on to recount the three foundational agreements signed by the two countries in recent years: increasing military cooperation; growing defence purchases by India from the US; and joint exercises.

He concluded that the US “defines the security relationship with India as a strategic imperative”.

Biden hails 'giant step' as Senate passes $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill'

WASHINGTON, March 7: Joe Biden hailed “one more giant step forward on delivering on that promise that help is on the way”, after Democrats took a critical step towards a first major legislative victory since assuming control of Congress and the White House, with a party-line vote in the Senate to approve a $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill.

After a marathon voting session through the night on Friday and into Saturday afternoon, Democrats overcame unified Republican opposition to approve the sweeping stimulus package. The final tally was 50-49, with one Republican senator absent.

One of the largest emergency aid packages in US history now returns to the House for final approval before being signed into law by Biden. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has said she expects to approve the measure before 14 March, when tens of millions of Americans risk losing unemployment benefits if no action is taken.

The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, said the Senate version of the American Rescue Plan would be considered “on Tuesday … so that we can send this bill to President Biden for his signature early next week”.

Biden and Democrats will look to move on to other priorities, including voting rights reform and an ambitious infrastructure package.

The bill aimed at combating the Covid-19 pandemic and reviving the US economy will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans; extend federal unemployment benefits; rush money to state, local and tribal governments; and allot significant funding to vaccine distribution and testing.

Republicans attacked the bill as a “liberal wishlist” mismatched with an improving economic and public health outlook as more are vaccinated and infections plateau.

“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, on Friday, citing a jobs report that showed 379,000 jobs added in February. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”

But Democrats and the White House were quick to push back, pointing to more than 9 million Americans out of work and millions more struggling to pay for rent and food.

On Saturday, with Vice-President Kamala Harris looking on, Biden spoke to reporters at the White House.

“I want to thank all of the senators who worked so hard to do the right thing for the American people during this crisis and voting to pass the American rescue plan,” he said. “It obviously wasn’t easy, wasn’t always pretty, but it was so desperately needed. Urgently needed.”

Biden looks forward to engaging with QUAD leaders

WASHINGTON, March 5: The leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad are set to hold their first summit in a virtual format this month, with the US administration taking the initiative to set up the meeting, people familiar with developments said on Friday.

Confirmation about the meeting came from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who told a news conference he had discussed the matter with US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in recent conversations.

“So, I am looking forward to that first gathering of the Quad leaders. It will be the first ever such gathering,” he said in response to a question from a reporter on whether he had received an invitation for the meeting.

Quad comprises Japan, India, Australia and the United States. The four countries had in 2017 given shape to the long-pending proposal of setting up the 'Quad' or the Quadrilateral coalition to counter China's aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region.

“President Biden has had warm and productive early conversations with his counterparts in Australia, India, and Japan, and looks forward to engaging even more directly with our partners in the Indo-Pacific as soon as possible,” according to a senior administration official.

In less than 50 days after being sworn in as the President of the United States, Biden and his administration, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan have had unprecedented engagement with their counterparts from Quad countries, the official said.

Quad leaders were among the top 10 phone calls of Biden with world leaders. He spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on January 27, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia on February 3 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 8. Indo-Pacific region figured prominently in each of these phone calls.

There was no official word from the US or Indian side on the development regarding the virtual summit to be held this month.

The US had also taken the lead in organising the third meeting of the foreign ministers of the Quad on February 18, against the backdrop of continuing concerns over China’s actions across the region. That meeting had reiterated the group’s commitment to a rules-based world order underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Morrison told the news conference that the Quad Summit was one of the first things he and Biden had discussed when they spoke on phone on February 3. The Quad, he added, was central to ongoing arrangements between Australia and the US.

“The Quad is very central to the US and our thinking about the region and looking at the Indo-Pacific also through the prism of our Asean partners and their vision of the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Biden and US secretary of state Antony Blinken had made clear that their re-engagement in multilateral organisations is “key to building stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific”, Morrison said. “We share that view, we encourage that view, and we strongly welcome that view,” he added.

Morrison said the four Quad leaders are looking forward to the first virtual summit and follow-up face-to-face meetings.

“This will become a feature of Indo-Pacific engagement but it’s not going to be a big bureaucracy with a big secretariat and those sort of things. It will be four leaders, four countries working together constructively for the peace, prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific, which is good for everyone in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“It’s particularly good for our Asean friends [and] those throughout the southwest Pacific to ensure that they can continue with their own sovereignty and their own certainty for their own futures,” he added.

The move to hold the first Quad Summit fits in with the Biden administration’s position that China is its biggest security challenge and competitor on the global stage.

While the former Trump administration had talked of formalising and expanding the Quad, questions have been raised on whether the Biden administration will adopt a more cautious approach to the group as a counter-balance to China.

Chinese officials have likened the Quad to a “mini NATO” and said its activities are aimed at targeting third parties, a charge rejected by the four members of the group.

Biden congratulates team NASA, says Indian Americans are 'taking over the country'

WASHINGTON, March 5: President Joe Biden on Thursday congratulated the NASA team responsible for the success of the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars earlier this month. He lauded the team at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)/California Institute of Technology, including Dr Swati Mohan, the Indian-American aerospace engineer, who was one of the many people who spearheaded the development and the landing system for the rover.

Biden while speaking to Dr Mohan in a video conference call said that the India-Americans are "taking over the country". Mohan thanked Biden for interacting with them, but the President said he was honored to interact with the team.

"This is an incredible honor. Indian -- of descent -- Americans are taking over the country. You (Mohan), my Vice President (Kamala Harris), my speechwriter (Vinay Reddy) I tell you what. But thank you. You guys are incredible," Biden told Dr Mohan.

Dr Mohan, who skilfully landed the spacecraft, works at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She is one of the many Indian women scientists, engineers and missile developers, who are leaving a trail for future generations.

Over the course of about 10 minutes, Biden poured on the kudos and cast the landing as an important bright spot that has come at a rough time for the nation.

"What you did, you restored a dose of confidence in the American people. They were beginning to wonder about us. They were beginning to wonder are we still the country we always believed we were. You guys did it."

"We can land a rover on Mars, we can beat a pandemic and with science, hope and vision, there's not a damn thing we can't do as a country," he added.

During the interaction, the President also spoke with Michael Watkins, Jet Propulsion Laboratory director and lauded the NASA team for doing an "incredible job."

"It's so much bigger than landing Perseverance on Mars," Biden told members of the NASA team. "It's about the American spirit. And you brought it back."

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover got its first high-definition look around its new home in Jezero Crater on February 21, after rotating its mast, or "head," 360 degrees, allowing the rover's Mastcam-Z instrument to capture its first panorama after touching down on the Red Planet on February 18.

According to a release by NASA, it was the rover's second panorama ever, as the rover's Navigation Cameras, or Navcams, also located on the mast, captured a 360-degree view on February 20.

Trump, Returning To Political Stage, Teases Possible 2024 Run

ORLANDO, March 1: Donald Trump told conservatives Sunday he was considering running for president again in 2024, as he reasserted dominance over the Republican Party and warned of a "struggle" for America's very survival.

Echoing the grievance politics of his 2016 campaign and the harsh rhetoric of his one-term presidency, the 74-year-old fired up an enthusiastic crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

In a keynote speech -- his first since leaving the White House on January 20 -- he repeated his false claims that he won the election instead of President Joe Biden, and hammered establishment Republicans who voted against him in the latest impeachment drama.

But while he teased his future plans, he left the crowd guessing about whether he will challenge Biden in a rematch.

"With your help we will take back the House, we will win the Senate, and then a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House -- and I wonder who that will be?" Trump said to a raucous cheer.

"Who knows?" he boomed about his potential plans. "I may even decide to beat them for a third time, OK?"

Banned from Twitter and other social media, Trump has maintained a low post-presidential profile at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

At CPAC, he walked on stage to revel in a lengthy standing ovation by cheering loyalists, the vast majority maskless despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Like he did so often during his two campaigns, he painted a pitched battle against as Democrats' "socialist" agenda to remake the nation.

"We're in a struggle for the survival of America as we know it," Trump said. "This is a terrible, terrible, painful struggle."

But he said the "incredible" populist movement that propelled him to victory four plus years ago is just beginning, "and in the end, we will win."

Trump also put to rest the rumors that he might take his base of support to create a new political party.

"I am not starting a new party," Trump said. "We have the Republican Party. It's going to unite and be stronger than ever before."

Trump as expected took swipes at Biden, saying the Democrat just concluded a "disastrous" first month in office.

In his rambling 90-minute speech he attacked immigrants, slammed "cancel culture," criticized Biden policies on climate change and energy, and repeated his false claims that "illegal" actions by Democrats had cost him the election.

But he also took aim at Republicans he feels betrayed him -- a strong signal that he will seek to help oust them in upcoming elections.

He called out by name the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him in the House of Representatives, and the seven Republicans who voted unsuccessfully to convict him in the Senate.





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