Tag Archives: South Korea

Global Developments and Analysis: Weekly Monitor, 15 November – 21 November 2021

Economic
U.S. asks Japan, China, others to consider tapping oil reserves -sources

The Biden administration has asked some of the world’s largest oil consuming nations – including China, India and Japan – to consider releasing crude stockpiles in a coordinated effort to lower global energy prices, according to several people familiar with the matter. The unusual request comes as U.S. President Joe Biden fends off political pressure over rising pump prices and other consumer costs driven by a rebound in economic activity from lows plumbed early in the coronavirus pandemic. It also reflects U.S. frustration with members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies who have rebuffed repeated requests from Washington to speed up their production increases. In Asia, where China said it is working on a crude release, oil prices extended declines prompted by the U.S. request, after settling on Nov 17 further below seven-year highs struck in early October. Biden and top aides have discussed the possibility of a coordinated release of stockpiled oil with close allies including Japan, South Korea and India, as well as with China, over the past several weeks, the sources said. The US and allies have coordinated strategic petroleum reserve releases before, for example in 2011 during a war in OPEC member Libya. Click here to read…

China overtakes US in global wealth race

China has overtaken the US as the nation which has amassed the biggest net worth as global wealth surges, a fresh report by McKinsey & Co suggests. China’s wealth skyrocketed over the past two decades, the consulting company said according to Bloomberg, explaining that its net worth increased by a whopping 17 times from $7 trillion in 2000 to $120 trillion in 2020. The nation accounted for about one third of the global net worth increase over that period. The US saw its wealth double over the same time period. Washington had to give way to Beijing on the list of top 10 wealthiest nations since its net worth only amounted to $90 trillion in 2020, McKinsey says. In both countries, more than two thirds of the amassed wealth sits in the pockets of the richest 10% of households, the report said, adding that this share has been increasing. In total, global wealth reached $514 trillion in 2020, up from $156 trillion in 2000. Some 68% of this wealth is stored in real estate, McKinsey said, adding that its fast growth surpassed the increase of the world’s GDP over the same period. The global wealth increase has been prompted by ballooning property prices, the company said. Click here to read…

US-China phase-one trade deal gets a reality check after nearly two years

As the two-year deadline for the phase-one trade deal between the world’s two largest economies is approaching, all eyes are on the next step. Signed in January 2020, the deal was considered a ceasefire agreement between China and the United States following a two-year trade war that originated from a Section 301 investigation by the US in 2018. A direct result of the phase-one trade deal has been the suspension of more tariffs on both sides. The US suspended a planned increase in tariffs on about US$162 billion on Chinese goods and lowered an existing duty on imports worth US$110 billion. China has also announced rounds of tariff exclusions that exempt American products such as pork, soybeans, liquefied natural gas and medical disinfectants. But not long after the agreement was signed, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and reshaped the momentum of the global economy. China has fallen behind in some of the commitments it made in the agreement, sparking speculation on fresh trade tensions between the world’s largest two economies. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai told reporters earlier this month that the Biden administration is “getting traction” with China and intends to hold China accountable to the two-year phase-one trade deal while exploring all weaknesses in China’s performance, according to Reuters. Click here to read…

Taiwanese giant slapped with fines over mainland regulatory violations, Xinhua says

Mainland subsidiaries of a major Taiwanese industrial group have been punished for a range of regulatory and legal violations, including environmental protection rules, state media reported. The action against Far Eastern Group comes amid rising cross-strait tensions, as Beijing vows to resolutely crack down on the pro-independence camp in Taiwan while the self-ruled island fosters closer ties with the US and European Union. The Taipei-based conglomerate is a major donor to the island’s election campaigns, according to Taiwanese media reports. Far Eastern-invested polyester and textile, and cement companies in Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hubei and Sichuan were penalised over violations related to environmental protection, land use, employee occupational health, production safety and fire protection, taxation and product quality, Xinhua reported on Nov 22. The punishments ranged from fines, orders to pay tax arrears or rectify the issues concerned within a set time frame, to warnings that idle construction land would be taken back by the state. The companies involved had admitted the charges, and investigations were still in progress, Xinhua said. This comes about two weeks after Beijing threatened to slap criminal charges on and ban those seen to be part of the “diehard” Taiwanese pro-independence force. Click here to read…

U.S. won’t join CPTPP but will seek new framework: Raimondo

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Nov 16 that her country looks to form an economic framework that goes beyond the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. America envisions an economic framework that “could be even more robust in some ways than the traditional free trade agreement,” Raimondo said in a television interview during her trip to Tokyo. While reiterating the Biden administration’s position that the original Pacific trade agreement “is not something that America would be part of at this time,” she said the U.S. is open to a cooperative framework with Japan and other friendly nations that oversees a wide range of areas, including digital technology and supply chains. President Joe Biden unveiled plans for an Indo-Pacific economic framework at the East Asia Summit, held virtually in late October. “We look forward to signing an agreement with the economies in the region which is a robust economic framework,” Raimondo said. During the interview, which aired on TV Tokyo’s “World Business Satellite” show, Raimondo said Japan and the U.S. share many areas of mutual interest and advantage. The two sides agreed during her trip to establish the Japan-U. S. Commercial and Industrial Partnership. Click here to read…

All-Turkic corridor heralds rise of new Eurasian political bloc

When the leaders of six Turkic states convened in Istanbul last week for a summit of the Turkic Council, they were adamant to seize the golden opportunity in front of them. Azerbaijan’s decisive victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war had created a new reality on the ground. Through a transit corridor awarded to Azerbaijan as part of the ceasefire settlement, regional powerhouse Turkey would potentially regain direct access to its fellow Turkic states in Central Asia. It hinted at the possibility of elevating an ethnic bloc into a political force, one that could even disrupt the regional power balance between heavyweights Russia and China. The leaders were keen to leverage their advantageous geography to carve out a new role for the Turkic world. .Since the 1990s, Ankara’s access to the rest of the Turkic world was blocked by Armenia, prompting Turkey and Azerbaijan to use a route through Georgia to bypass Armenia in the South Caucasus. A new corridor via Nakhichevan will be 300 km shorter and run through lowland topography compared with the Georgia route. Turkey intends for its “Middle Corridor,” the Trans-Caspian East-West corridor that spans from China to Europe, to be the artery that binds the Turkic world. Click here to read…

In major shift, Japan looking to accept more foreigners indefinitely

In a major shift for a country long closed to immigrants, Japan is looking to allow foreigners in certain blue-collar jobs to stay indefinitely starting as early as the 2022 fiscal year, a justice ministry official said on Nov 18. Under a law that took effect in 2019, a category of “specified skilled workers” in 14 sectors such as farming, construction and sanitation have been allowed to stay for up to five years, but without their family members. The government had been looking to ease those restrictions, which had been cited by companies as among reasons that they were hesitant to hire such help. If the revision takes effect, such workers–many from Vietnam and China–would be allowed to renew their visas indefinitely and bring their families with them, as the other category of more skilled foreigners are allowed to do now. Immigration has long been taboo in Japan as many prize ethnic homogeneity, but pressure has mounted to open up its borders due to an acute labor shortage given its dwindling and aging population. The 2019 law was meant to attract some 345,000 “specified skilled workers” over five years, but the intake has hovered at around 3,000 per month before the COVID-19 pandemic sealed the borders, according to government data. Click here to read…

Japan to subsidize company-backed university courses

Japan next year will start subsidizing companies and schools working together to set up educational programs, Nikkei has learned. Japan lags behind the U.S. and Europe in research and education programs backed by private sector funding, which often helps in growth areas such as decarbonization. Tokyo is now focusing on batteries, materials and semiconductors — fields that lead to corporate research and development and improvement of competitiveness. Companies cover the costs of research and professor salaries and share research and course themes with educational institutions. The Japanese government will pay up to 30 million yen, or up to half the cost for a course that is jointly developed by companies and universities or technical colleges. Companies may set up a joint course, or a course that would help with human resources development for the company. The expense is expected to be included in the fiscal 2021 supplementary budget. The total amount is to be discussed later. The government would initially support over 10 new courses, calling for proposals as early as the beginning of 2022. Japan’s trade ministry this year will work with the education ministry to set up a team on human resource development to discuss further plans.Click here to read…

Satellite Industry Grows as Investors Bet Billions on Space-Derived Data

Dozens of companies are dotting the skies with satellites, part of a growing bet that buyers on Earth will pay billions of dollars for a more granular view of the planet. Not all of the companies are likely to make it, according to industry observers. Space-data companies, which use satellites to snap photos of Earth, track radio signals and use radar to peer through clouds, raised $5.2 billion last year, up from $1.4 billion in 2015, according to data from PitchBook. Through Nov. 10, companies had raised another $4.5 billion. Buyers of the companies’ products have included defense and other government agencies that tap the information to track troop movements and military projects. Remote-sensing companies are increasingly targeting commercial clients: Agriculture firm Corteva Inc. sells satellite-data applications that allow farmers to boost crop yields and ranchers to manage pastureland, executives said. Space-data companies also have said they see opportunities to sell information to buyers such as insurers, which could use it to assess disaster risks for properties, and energy companies, which could use the data to monitor pipelines. Other clients could include governments and businesses looking to monitor pollution and track environmental commitments. Click here to read…

Strategic
U.S. needs allies to host missiles to deter China: panel

With China building up its military, the U.S. should engage with Japan and other Indo-Pacific partners on deploying intermediate-range missiles in the region to deter a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, an influential bipartisan advisory body said in a report published Nov 17. In its 2021 report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission expressed strong concern over a potential invasion of Taiwan by the mainland. The commission, comprised of former senior government officials, compiles an annual report with input from U.S.-China experts that is watched closely by the government and Congress. People’s Liberation Army “leaders now likely assess they have, or will soon have, the initial capability needed to conduct a high-risk invasion of Taiwan if ordered to do so by Chinese Communist Party leaders,” the report said. The report also discussed the possibility of a preemptive Chinese attack on American forces in Japan to delay the U.S. response to a Taiwan Strait crisis. The Chinese military “has demonstrated the precision strike capability and missile inventory it would need to strike nearly every U.S. ship in port; more than 200 grounded U.S. aircraft; and all major fixed headquarters, logistics facilities, and runways in U.S. airbases” in Japan, the commission said. Click here to read…

Chinese hypersonic test included pathbreaking 2nd missile launch: Reports

China’s test of a globe-circling hypersonic weapon in July included the unprecedented launch of a separate missile from the ultra-high-speed vehicle, according to the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. The test showed China’s development of its strategic, nuclear-capable weapons as more advanced than any had thought, surprising Pentagon officials, the two newspapers said. Neither the United States nor Russia has demonstrated the same ability, which requires launching a missile from a parent vehicle travelling five times the speed of sound. The Jul 27 Chinese hypersonic test alone had already stunned Western officials. In it, a launch vehicle, a long-range missile, carried the guided hypersonic warhead around the world and then released it toward a test target inside China. The hypersonic, which unlike ballistic missiles can be steered, missed the target by more than 32 kilometres, which the number two general in the Pentagon, General John Hyten, said last week was “close enough” for an initial test. But more surprising was that the hypersonic, while flying from the south toward China, released a separate missile which rocketed away, falling harmlessly into the South China Sea.Click here to read…

Plans for Putin-Biden meeting revealed in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin could meet his American counterpart Joe Biden before the end of this year, a top official in Moscow has revealed. It would be a second face-to-face encounter between the two leaders in 2021. Work is already underway on organising the event, Moscow’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told national TV on Nov 21. The senior diplomat said Washington had recently made some assertions relevant to Russia, including those related to the situation in Ukraine and Moscow feels the need to “explain in detail what is really happening and how,” he added. “Thorough preparation is needed for this meeting to take place, and that is what we’re doing,” the deputy minister said. Earlier this week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also referred to the possibility of Putin meeting Biden in the near future. However, he said that no specific timelines had been agreed yet. Washington has not mentioned any timeline for the meeting in its recent comments. On Nov 18, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Biden talking to Putin “at a certain moment in future,” but said she had no announcement to make about contact between the two leaders. Click here to read…

Kremlin says it is alarmed by U.S.-backed armament push for Ukraine

The Kremlin said on Nov 22 it was alarmed by a U.S.-backed push to supply Ukraine with sophisticated weapons but said U.S. media outlets that have suggested Russia is poised to attack Ukraine are being used in a disinformation campaign. The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence told the Military Times outlet this weekend that Russia had more than 92,000 troops massed around Ukraine’s borders and was preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February. Kyrylo Budanov said such an attack would probably involve air strikes, artillery and armoured attacks followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupol, and a smaller incursion through Belarus. Similar warnings, often sourced to unnamed people familiar with the matter, have appeared in some U.S. media and the United States, NATO and Ukraine have raised concerns about Russian troops movements near Ukraine in recent weeks. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea of a possible Russian attack and said that Moscow itself was being targeted in a disinformation campaign. Click here to read…

China’s Communist Party targets big risks in countdown to congress

The Communist Party pledged to double down on controlling risks across the board in the countdown to a major party meeting next year that is set to mark the start of President Xi Jinping’s third term as party leader. “[We] must insist on making political security the top priority and coordinate to step up security work in key disciplines including political security, economic security, social security [and] technology security,” the Politburo said in a statement after a meeting on Nov 18. “[We] must firmly uphold regime security, institutional security and ideological security, and strictly defend ourselves against all sorts of infiltration and subversive acts.” The 25 members of the party’s inner circle – led by Xi – also pledged to be on guard for systemic financial risks and to ensure industry was more resilient. The Politburo, which meets about once a month, also passed the “National Security Strategy (2021-2025)” but offered no details on the document. An apparently similar document called the National Security Strategic Outline was passed during a Politburo meeting in 2015. Selection for the 2,300 members to attend the congress started on Nov 18 and will continue until June. Nov 18’s meeting generated a long list of risks that officials should pay close attention to, including food security, infrastructure and social stability. Click here to read…

Biden and Xi agree to begin discussion on strategic stability

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed at a virtual meeting to look into the possibility of arms control talks, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Nov 16. Biden and Xi agreed to “look to begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability,” Sullivan said in a reference to U.S. concerns about China’s nuclear and missile buildup. “You will see at multiple levels an intensification of the engagement to ensure that there are guardrails around this competition so that it doesn’t veer off into conflict,” Sullivan said in a Brookings Institution webinar. Sullivan did not elaborate on what form the discussions on strategic stability could take, but went on to say: “That is not the same as what we have in the Russian context with the formal strategic stability dialogue. That is far more mature, has a much deeper history to it. There’s less maturity to that in the U.S.-China relationship, but the two leaders did discuss these issues and it is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward.” Washington has repeatedly urged China to join it and Russia in a new arms control treaty. Click here to read…

Xi says China ready to sign ASEAN’s nuclear arms-free zone treaty

Chinese leader Xi Jinping said Nov 22 that Beijing was ready to sign a Southeast Asia nuclear weapon-free treaty, in an apparent response to the new AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. A protocol for the Bangkok Treaty was issued for five nations that had nuclear weapons at the time — China, Russia, France, the U.K. and the U.S., according to the United Nations. China would be the first of the five parties to sign if it follows through on Xi’s words. Even so, a Pentagon report earlier this month said that China is on track to quintuple its nuclear arsenal by 2030 to at least 1,000 warheads. Beijing’s decision was likely made with AUKUS in mind, as the trilateral agreement allows Australia to receive nuclear propulsion technology to power a new fleet of submarines. Xi’s comments will ratchet up the pressure on Australia, a nation with which China has an increasing antagonistic relationship. Nuclear submarines do not fall under the definition of a nuclear weapon as set out in the Bangkok Treaty — “nuclear weapon” means any explosive device capable of releasing nuclear energy in an uncontrolled manner, according to the treaty. Click here to read…

China coast guard uses water cannons against Philippine boats

Chinese coast guard ships blocked and used water cannons on two Philippine supply boats heading to a disputed shoal occupied by Filipino marines in the South China Sea, provoking an angry protest to China and a warning from the Philippine government that its vessels are covered under a mutual defense treaty with the United States, Manila’s top diplomat said Nov 18. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said no one was hurt in the incident in the disputed waters on Nov 16, but the two supply ships had to abort their mission to provide food supplies to Filipino forces occupying the Second Thomas Shoal, which lies off western Palawan province in the Philippines’ internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. Locsin said in a tweet that the three Chinese coast guard ships’ actions were illegal and he urged them ”to take heed and back off.” The Philippine government has conveyed to China ”our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident,” Locsin said, adding that ”this failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship between the Philippines and China” that President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have worked hard to nurture. There was no immediate comment from Chinese officials in Manila or Beijing. Click here to read…

Hayashi invited to visit China, says nothing decided yet

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, asked him to visit China, a country increasingly under global scrutiny over its human rights record. “Nothing has been decided at this point,” Hayashi said about the invitation on a TV program aired by Fuji Television Network Inc. on Nov. 21. Hayashi said Wang extended the invitation during their Nov. 18 phone talks, in which Hayashi expressed Japan’s concerns over China’s maritime advances. Although Hayashi declined to comment on whether he will accept the invitation, he said that he and Wang confirmed that the two countries will work together to build “constructive and stable Japan-China relations” since next year will mark the 50th anniversary of normalized bilateral ties. U.S. President Joe Biden recently said he is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February over China’s human rights violations. Hayashi said Japan will decide its course of action over the matter on its own. Click here to read…

China warned Japan may intervene militarily if it invades Taiwan

China has been warned to stay alert to the possibility Japan will intervene militarily in the event of an attack on Taiwan. A research paper said recent gestures of support for the island indicate that Japan and the United States have been discussing the scenario and are making plans to deter Beijing from using force to take the island. “Japan has not only released signals through official and individual levels, but also tried to carry out practical response actions through the Japan-US alliance or partially acted alone under the existing legal framework,” said the paper published last week in the journal Asia-Pacific Security and Maritime Affairs. Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has never renounced the use of force to reunite it with the mainland, but Japan would regard this as a significant threat to its national security and the regional political order. The paper, written by Wu Huaizhong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that in recent years the Japanese government had hardened its stance. “It is hard to imagine that in the short and mid-term future Japan will actively seek to be involved in an uncontrollable disastrous war regardless of the cost,” the article said, adding that it is more likely to consider providing logistical support to allies rather than becoming directly involved in combat. “The question is not ‘whether’ Japan would intervene, but just ‘how’ to intervene,” it added. Click here to read…

ISIS-K’s Afghan play worries Kabul, Beijing and Islamabad

The growing strength of ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s regional affiliate in Afghanistan, has unsettled both the new Taliban regime in Kabul and neighboring countries, including China, Pakistan and Iran. Leveraging the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, ISIS-K has positioned itself as Afghanistan’s last jihadi movement. It has been recruiting from within the Taliban as well as among transnational and ethnic separatist movements in the region. It has also drawn from Afghanistan’s former military ranks. “So far, the ISIS-K leadership is satisfied with its multipronged strategy and progress in Afghanistan,” an ISIS-K leader in Nangarhar Province told Nikkei Asia. “ISIS-K’s local successes in Afghanistan have helped attract rebels of various ethnicities in the region and gain international attention,” the leader said in a rare comment to the press. The militant group generally bans members from speaking to news organizations. ISIS-K’s expanded area of operations in Afghanistan has increased the risk of infiltration. Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, issued a letter on Nov. 4 ordering his provincial commanders to check into the backgrounds of all their fighters. “Akhundzada has also asked Taliban commanders to socialize with the fighters on the streets as part of the Taliban’s counter strategy to stop defections,” said Jan, a Taliban commander in Kabul, who asked not to be fully identified. Click here to read…

Afghan Evacuees, Scattered Around the World, Could Wait Years for Chance to Reach U.S.

Thousands of Afghans who were evacuated from Kabul after the Taliban seized power in August could be stranded in other countries for years because of backlogs in the U.S. refugee system, according to officials and the groups that helped them escape. From interpreters to policewomen to judges, many say they were promised—in recruitment pitches for the military and other venues—a chance to come to the U.S. in return for promoting American goals during the 20-year war. As the U.S. ramped up evacuation efforts from Kabul in August, American overseas military bases quickly became overcrowded as some 70,000 Afghans entered the pipeline to U.S. military installations either abroad or in the U.S. To ease crowding, the Biden administration called on other countries to let Afghans travel through their nations while waiting for visas. Many governments across Africa, Europe and South America agreed to open their doors on a temporary basis to Afghans evacuated by private groups, such as those composed of veterans or nonprofit organizations. One of the largest groups of evacuees outside of the U.S. military system is spread across Albania, Georgia and North Macedonia. Click here to read…

Yemen’s Battleground Shifts in Favor of Iran-Backed Houthis

Houthi fighters allied with Iran have gained important new ground in the yearslong war in Yemen, as Saudi Arabia is struggling to defend a strategic, oil-rich city and U.S. efforts to broker peace stagnate. Without coordinating with United Nations peacekeepers in the area, Yemeni forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates abruptly withdrew last week from key positions near the western port city of Hodeidah. At the same time, Saudi Arabia vowed to send more forces to defend Marib, the center of an energy hub near the Saudi border where the Houthis have been methodically gaining new ground for months. The surprising shifts in the front lines of a seven-year war have allowed the Houthis to reopen the road from Hodeidah to the capital, Sana’a, where the group recently stormed a largely abandoned U.S. Embassy complex and took Yemeni employees captive. The battleground realignment is another strategic twist for the Saudis, who initially believed in 2015 that, with American backing, they would need just a few weeks to defeat the Houthi movement, a Shiite offshoot group in Yemen aligned with Iran that had taken over Yemen’s capital. People familiar with the matter said Saudi Arabia has launched an internal reassessment of its strategy in Yemen that should be completed later this month. Click here to read…

Blinken Says U.S. Will Treat African Nations as Equal Partners

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. would treat African countries as equals rather than “subjects of geopolitics” in a speech meant to set out the Biden administration’s policy toward the continent. Mr. Blinken told an audience of young Africans and dignitaries at the Economic Community of West African States that the continent was critical to solving many of today’s key global challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, economic recovery and democratic and human rights. He called on African governments, regional and continental organizations, and the public to play a greater role in addressing those challenges. “Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners—or worse—rather than equal ones,” Mr. Blinken said. “Too often, we ask our partners to help uphold and defend an international system that they don’t feel fully reflects their needs and aspirations. And we’re sensitive to centuries of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation have left painful legacies that endure today.” While avoiding any direct mention of China or Russia, Mr. Blinken’s speech sought to differentiate the administration’s approach to Africa from that of its rivals, which the U.S. has accused of using investments on the continent to further their own political aims. Click here to read…

US defence chief pledges to counter Iran during Bahrain visit

The United States’s top defence official has pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as negotiations remain stalled over Tehran’s tattered atomic deal with world powers, in comments that appeared aimed at reassuring the US’s Gulf Arab allies. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s comments in Bahrain at the annual Manama Dialogue on Nov 20 come as the Biden administration tries to revive the nuclear deal, which limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. His remarks also come after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, raising concerns among Gulf countries about Washington’s commitment to the region as US defence officials say they want to pivot forces to counter perceived challenges from China and Russia. “The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And we remain committed to a diplomatic outcome of the nuclear issue,” Austin told an event put on by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all of the options necessary to keep the United States secure.” The Pentagon chief said that the US would be coming to the indirect negotiations on reviving the deal on November 29 in good faith. Click here to read…

1 out of 3 young people undecided about South Korea presidential candidates

With less than four months left ahead of the next presidential election in March, young voters in their 20s and 30s have risen as swing voters who could play a decisive role in selecting the winner. In recent opinion polls, many in this age group have said they support neither of the candidates of the country’s two major parties ― Yoon Seok-youl of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). According to a survey of 1,004 adults conducted together by four local pollsters ― Embrain Public, Kstat Research, Korea Research International and Hankook Research ― from Nov. 15 to 17, support for both Yoon and Lee were notably lower among the younger voters than among those in other age groups. 37 percent of the youngest age group and 27 percent of people in their 30s either said they have no favored candidate or didn’t answer. Political watchers say the lower support rates of the candidates from the two major parties among voters in their 20s and 30s show the young generation’s disappointment with established politicians and their so-called “vested rights,” especially as both Lee and Yoon are involved in corruption scandals. Click here to read…

Sudan’s reinstated PM Hamdok promises a path to democracy

Newly reinstated Sudanese Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok has pledged to introduce a “technocratic government” made up of qualified professionals who will lead the country on a path to democracy nearly a month after a military coup. In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Hamdok – who was deposed by the military on October 25 but reinstated as interim premier after signing a deal on Nov 21 with Sudan’s top general to restore the transition to civilian rule – said the new government will be independent. Hamdok had been under house arrest by the military for weeks. The military also dissolved his cabinet and arrested a number of civilians who had held top positions under a power-sharing deal agreed after the popular overthrow of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The 14-point deal between Hamdok and the military, signed in the presidential palace in Khartoum on Sunday, also provides for the release of all political prisoners detained during the coup and stipulates that a 2019 constitutional declaration be the basis for a political transition, according to details read out on state television. The coup has drawn international criticism. Sudanese people have been taking to the streets en masse since the military takeover, which upended the country’s fragile transition to democracy. Click here to read…

US issues religious freedom ‘concern’ list, removes Nigeria

The United States has removed Nigeria from a list of “countries of particular concern” regarding religious freedom, a day before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives there as part of an African tour, while issuing designations for 10 other countries. Blinken announced the designations as part of the US State Department’s annual review of religious freedom rights violations in countries worldwide, which is based on assessments made by the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “Each year the Secretary of State has the responsibility to identify governments and non-state actors, who, because of their religious freedom violations, merit designation under the International Religious Freedom Act,” Blinken said in a statement on Nov 17. “I am designating Burma [Myanmar], the People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, the DPRK [North Korea], Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern [CPC] for having engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom’.” The designations do not necessarily come with specific or binding sanctions or other US actions, although US law states that the government must “take targeted responses to violations of religious freedom”. Click here to read…

Thousands protest in Iran’s Isfahan to demand revival of river

Thousands of protesters have gathered in Isfahan in central Iran to demand the revival of a major river that has dried up. Footage broadcast by state television and dozens of videos circulating on social media on Nov 19 showed a sea of farmers and other people standing on a huge barren strip of dirt where the major Zayandeh Rud River used to flow, near the iconic Khaju Bridge in Isfahan province. The river’s dryness is thought to directly affect the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers in the province, state TV said, in addition to adversely affecting the environment. The key river has faced water shortages and droughts for years, and farmers have intermittently protested the lack of attention given to the issue. But officials have yet to find a sustainable solution to the problem. Former administrations had promised to come up with solutions, and the country’s Supreme Council of Water approved a nine-point plan involving reviving a major wetland that it said was a sustainable solution eight years ago, but it was never fully implemented. Farmers have been protesting at the site for more than a week, but Nov 19’s demonstration attracted the largest number of people and drew the attention of the government. Droughts have dogged Iran for decades but have intensified over the past decade. Most Iranian provinces currently face some level of drought. Click here to read…

Poland says Belarus border crisis may be prelude to “something worse”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned on Nov 21 that the migrant crisis on the Belarus border may be a prelude to “something much worse”, and Poland’s border guard said Belarusian forces were still ferrying migrants to the frontier. The European Union accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into EU and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, in response to European sanctions. Minsk, which denies fomenting the crisis, cleared a migrant camp near the border on Nov 18 and started to repatriate some people to Iraq, while Poland and Lithuania reported lower numbers of attempts to cross their borders in recent days. But Morawiecki warned the crisis was far from over as he toured Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia on Sunday to discuss the situation. A poll published by Poland’s Rzeczpospolita daily on Nov 21 said 55% of Poles are worried the crisis on the border could escalate into an armed conflict. Click here to read…

Medical
Coronavirus: former heads of pandemic review panel warn ‘the world is losing time’

Governments are not moving fast enough to end the pandemic or to prevent another one, warned the former heads of an independent body tasked with grading the world on its response to Covid-19. “Waves of disease and death continue – as people in the northern hemisphere move indoors, fatigue with restrictions sets in, vaccine coverage and other countermeasures remain uneven, and people in the poorest countries have almost no access to vaccines,” wrote former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a report released on Nov 22. “The world is losing time,” they said. Their warning comes ahead of a special session of the World Health Organization’s governing body next week where health ministers from around the globe will discuss whether to develop a new treaty or other reforms on how the world prepares for and responds to pandemics. It also comes six months after the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response – a body set up by the WHO director general and chaired by Clark and Sirleaf – outlined urgent reforms and findings based on nine months of research into how the Covid-19 outbreak first identified in China became a crippling pandemic. Click here to read…

Pfizer co-developer says Covid vaccination will be annual

People around the world will need to get a jab against Covid-19 once a year, at least when it comes to the Pfizer vaccine, BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin said in an interview on Nov 21, as he praised the quality of its booster shot. In an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper on Nov 21, Sahin said he considers the vaccine, co-developed by his company, to be “very effective.” A “very high” level of protection against severe illness lasts for up to nine months, the BioNTech CEO maintained. He said this level starts decreasing “from the fourth month,” however. To maintain the protection, Sahin strongly pushed for booster shots, arguing that they would not just restore levels of antibodies but would potentially help “to break … chains of infection.” He also encouraged doctors to be “as pragmatic as possible” when it comes to greenlighting vaccination and “not to send people home unvaccinated even though they could be vaccinated without any problems.” In the future, people might need to get booster shots once a year, the BioNTech CEO believes. He said that he expects protection from a booster shot to “last longer” than the initial immunity one acquires after getting two doses of the vaccine. Sahin’s interview comes days after it was revealed that Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna are making a combined profit of $65,000 every minute – all thanks to their Covid-19 jabs. Click here to read…

South Korean schools resume full in-person classes

For the first time since South Korea began battling its coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, all schools across the country resumed full-time in-person classes on Nov 22. As the first country outside China to face a major outbreak of the virus, South Korea’s schools have seen various stages of shutdowns, remote learning, and hybrid arrangements. Widespread testing, intensive contact tracing and tracking apps have enabled South Korea to limit the spread of the virus without the extensive lockdowns seen in other countries, but previous efforts at fully opening schools have been hampered by new waves of infections. The fully reopened schools come as part of South Korea’s “living with COVID-19” plan, adopted after it reached its vaccination goals last month. Overall 78.8 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, though that number drops to 12.8 per cent for those ages 12 to 17. “It is true that many concerns remain,” South Korean education minister Yoo Eun-hye said during a visit to an elementary school in Seoul on Monday. Even as it eased social distancing amid high vaccination rates, the country has battled some of the highest daily case numbers yet, including a record number of severe cases. Click here to read…