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Australian Charged Over Parcels Sent to Diplomatic Offices 

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 08:49
Australian police said Thursday that they had arrested a 48-year-old man for sending as many as 38 suspicious packages to diplomatic embassies and consulates across the country.    More than a dozen foreign offices received suspicious packages on Wednesday, including the U.S. and British missions in Melbourne.    The man was charged with sending dangerous articles through a postal service, and the maximum penalty for the offense is 10 years in prison, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said in a statement.    There was no ongoing threat to the general public, the AFP said.    Police have so far recovered 29 of the 38 parcels but have yet to determine the composition of the material in them.    Australian media reported on Wednesday the parcels appeared to contain plastic bags of concrete and asbestos, with "asbestos" written on at least one of the bags.    The Age newspaper reported that one firefighter was seen outside the South Korean consulate carrying a large plastic bag with the word "asbestos" written on it.    Other missions in Melbourne reported by media to have received suspicious packages included those representing Greece, Italy, Spain, Thailand, India, Japan, Pakistan, Egypt, Denmark and Switzerland.     Reuters could not confirm the reports.    Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said it had sent an email to all diplomatic missions in Canberra earlier this week after three offices in the capital and Sydney received suspicious packages.    It subsequently sent similar advice to missions around Australia.    "The note advised missions to handle mail in accordance with their own government's protocols and instructions," a DFAT spokesman said. 

US Upbeat After 3 Days of Trade Talks in Beijing

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 07:45
Three days of trade talks in Beijing between the United States and China ended Wednesday with the White House expressing optimism. "We expect something will come out of this," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told the Fox Business Network. "We are moving towards a more balanced and reciprocal trade agreement with China." But Sanders said no one knows yet what that agreement will look like or when it will be ready. The U.S. Trade Representative's office gave no details on the talks in Beijing other than saying they are "focused on China's pledge to purchase a substantial amount of agricultural, energy, manufactured goods, and other products and services from the United States." But it also said any deal with China must be followed up with ongoing verification and enforcement. There was no comment from Beijing on the talks, which were supposed to last just two days, but were extended for a third day after progress was apparently being made. These were the first direct talks between U.S. and Chinese officials since Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping met in December in Argentina and agreed to a 90-day truce in their trade war. Both sides imposed heavy tariffs on each others’ exports last year after Trump complained about China's theft of U.S. technology and pressure on U.S. companies doing business there to hand over such information. The U.S. has also long complained about China's government subsidies that make Chinese products cheaper than U.S. goods on the world market. China says it is trying to protect its own economic interests and has accused the U.S. of violating international trading rules. Asian stocks surged at the conclusion of the trade negotiations. Hong Kong was up 2.1 percent and Tokyo up more than 1 percent. But U.S. indexes posted modest gains.

Japan's Abe to Meet UK PM May as Brexit Crunch Approaches

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 07:15
Japan's Shinzo Abe is likely to urge British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday to do everything she can to avoid a disorderly Brexit that some of Japan's leading companies have warned could be a disaster. Japanese firms have spent more than 46 billion pounds  ($59 billion) in Britain, encouraged by successive British governments since Margaret Thatcher promising them a business-friendly base from which to trade across Europe. Future unsure The future of Brexit remains deeply uncertain — with options ranging from a disorderly exit from the EU to another membership referendum — because British lawmakers are expected on Jan. 15 to vote down the deal May struck with the EU in November. Abe welcomed the deal in November and investors fear that if it is defeated then the world's fifth largest economy would be plunged into a chaotic no-deal Brexit that would severely disrupt supply chains. Abe and May will discuss the economic opportunities that exist for both nations as the U.K. leaves the European Union, Downing Street said ahead of the meeting. 'Natural partners' "The U.K. and Japan are natural partners," May said. "As the U.K. prepares to leave the EU, we raise our horizons towards the rest of the world. Our relationship with Japan is stronger than ever, and this visit will enhance cooperation in a wide range of areas." For Abe, however, Britain's trading relationship with Europe after Brexit will be high on the agenda. He told reporters before his departure to Europe that he would convey Japan's position on Brexit to May, reports said. When the two met at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires in December, Abe asked for May's support to avoid a "no deal" and to ensure transparency, predictability and legal stability in the process. Japanese carmakers Nissan, Toyota and Honda build roughly half of Britain's nearly 1.7 million cars and have warned about the loss of any free and unfettered trade with the European Union after Brexit. Blunt warning The country's ambassador to Britain, Koji Tsuruoka, issued a blunt warning about Brexit in February when he said Japanese companies would have to leave Britain if trade barriers made them unprofitable. "If there is no profitability of continuing operations in the U.K. — not Japanese only — then no private company can continue operations," he said. "So it is as simple as that."      

With Farms Atop Malls, Singapore Gets Serious About Food Security 

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 05:11
Visitors to Singapore's Orchard Road, the city's main shopping belt, will find fancy malls, trendy department stores, abundant food courts — and a small farm.    Comcrop's 600-square-meter (6,450-square-foot) farm on the roof of one of the malls uses vertical racks and hydroponics to grow leafy greens and herbs such as basil and peppermint that it sells to nearby bars, restaurants and stores.    The farm's small size belies its big ambition: to help improve the city's food security.    Comcrop's Allan Lim, who set up the rooftop farm five years ago, recently opened a 4,000-square-meter farm with a greenhouse on the edge of the city.    He believes high-tech urban farms are the way ahead for the city, where more land cannot be cultivated.    "Agriculture is not seen as a key sector in Singapore. But we import most of our food, so we are very vulnerable to sudden disruptions in supply," Lim said.    "Land, natural resources and low-cost labor used to be the predominant way that countries achieved food security. But we can use technology to solve any deficiencies," he said.    Singapore last year topped the Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) Global Food Security Index of 113 countries for the first time, scoring high on measures such as affordability, availability and safety.    Yet, as the country imports more than 90 percent of its food, its food security is susceptible to climate change and natural resource risks, the EIU noted.    With 5.6 million people in an area three-fifths the size of New York City — and with the population estimated to grow to 6.9 million by 2030 — land is at a premium in Singapore.    The country has long reclaimed land from the sea, and plans to move more of its transport, utilities and storage underground to free up space for housing, offices and greenery.    It has also cleared dozens of cemeteries for homes and highways.   Agriculture makes up only about 1 percent of its land area, so better use of space is key, said Samina Raja, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo in New York.    "Urban agriculture is increasingly being recognized as a legitimate land use in cities," she said. "It offers a multitude of benefits, from increased food security and improved nutrition to greening of spaces. But food is seldom a part of urban planning."    Supply shocks Countries across the world are battling the worsening impacts of climate change, water scarcity and population growth to find better ways to feed their people.    Scientists are working on innovations — from gene editing of crops and lab-grown meat to robots and drones — to fundamentally change how food is grown, distributed and eaten.    With more than two-thirds of the world's population forecast to live in cities by 2050, urban agriculture is critical, a study published last year stated.    Urban agriculture currently produces as much as 180 million metric tons of food a year — up to 10 percent of the global output of pulses and vegetables, the study noted.    Additional benefits, such as reduction of the urban heat-island effect, avoided stormwater runoff, nitrogen fixation and energy savings could be worth $160 billion annually, it said.    Countries including China, India, Brazil and Indonesia could benefit significantly from urban agriculture, it said.    "Urban agriculture should not be expected to eliminate food insecurity, but that should not be the only metric," said study co-author Matei Georgescu, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University.    "It can build social cohesion among residents, improve economic prospects for growers, and have nutritional benefits. In addition, greening cities can help to transition away from traditional concrete jungles," he said.    Singapore was once an agrarian economy that produced nearly all its own food. There were pig farms and durian orchards, and vegetable gardens and chickens in the kampongs, or villages.    But in its push for rapid economic growth after independence in 1965, industrialization took precedence, and most farms were phased out, said Kenny Eng, president of the Kranji Countryside Association, which represents local farmers.   The global food crisis of 2007-08, when prices spiked, causing widespread economic instability and social unrest, may have led the government to rethink its food security strategy to guard against such shocks, Eng said.    "In an age of climate uncertainty and rapid urbanization, there are merits to protecting indigenous agriculture and farmers' livelihoods," he said.    Local production is a core component of the food security road map, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) of Singapore, a state agency that helps farmers upgrade with technical know-how, research and overseas study tours.    Given its land constraints, AVA has also been looking to unlock more spaces, including underutilized or alternative spaces, and harness technological innovations to "grow more with less," a spokeswoman said by email.    Intrinsic value A visit to the Kranji countryside, just a 45-minute drive from the city's bustling downtown, and where dozens of farms are located, offers a view of the old and the new.    Livestock farms and organic vegetable plots sit alongside vertical farms and climate-controlled greenhouses.    Yet many longtime farmers are fearful of the future, as the government pushes for upgrades and plans to relocate more than 60 farms by 2021 to return land to the military.    Many farms might be forced to shut down, said Chelsea Wan, a second-generation farmer who runs Jurong Frog Farm.    "It's getting tougher because leases are shorter, it's harder to hire workers, and it's expensive to invest in new technologies," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.    "We support the government's effort to increase productivity through technology, but we feel sidelined," she said.    Wan is a member of the Kranji Countryside Association, which has tried to spur local interest in farming by welcoming farmers' markets, study tours, homestays and weddings.    Small peri-urban farms at the edge of the city, like those in Kranji, are not just necessary for food security, Eng said.    "The countryside is an inalienable part of our heritage and nation-building, and the farms have an intrinsic value for education, conservation, the community and tourism," he said.    At the rooftop farm on Orchard Road, Lim looks on as brisk, elderly Singaporeans, whom he has hired to get around the worker shortage, harvest, sort and pack the day's output.    "It's not a competition between urban farms and landed farms; it's a question of relevance," he said. "You have to ask: What works best in a city like Singapore?" 

South Korean Court Seizes Assets of Japanese Company Over Forced Labor

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 21:31
A South Korean court has seized the local assets of a Japanese company in order to compensate four South Koreans who were forced into labor during Japan's brutal colonial rule of the peninsula between 1910 and 1945. A district court in the southeastern city of Pohang on Wednesday approved a request by the plaintiffs to freeze more than 80,000 shares of a joint venture between Japan's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and South Korean steelmaker POSCO. South Korea's Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in last October ordering Nippon Steel to pay nearly $90,000 to each of the four plaintiffs. But Nippon refused to comply, citing a 1965 treaty that formally normalized bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo. The treaty included $800 million in reparations paid by Japan in the form of economic aid and loans. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the treaty does not prevent individuals from seeking compensation from Japanese companies involved in the forced labor practices of the time. Japan's Foreign Ministry summoned South Korean envoy Lee Su-hoon to lodge a formal protest over Wednesday's ruling. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters the decision was "extremely regrettable," and that Tokyo will seek formal talks with Seoul over the matter. South Korea's Supreme Court issued a similar ruling last November against Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Japan has warned that it could appeal the matter to an international court.Japan's 35-year colonial occupation has left a bitter legacy among South Koreans, with hundreds of thousands subjected to numerous atrocities, including the so-called "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery in Japanese military brothels.  

US-China Trade Talks End Amid Optimism

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 20:32
Talks between China and the United States to resolve the ongoing trade war between the global economic giants ended Wednesday in an atmosphere of optimism. Although neither side offered details of the meeting, one U.S. negotiator sounded a note of optimism to reporters after the talks broke up. Ted McKinney, the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, said the negotiations "went just fine," and that they "had been a good one for us." McKinney's sentiment echoed that of President Donald Trump, who tweeted early Tuesday that the talks "are going very well!" The working-level talks opened Monday and were supposed to end the following day, but were extended an extra day, a sign that the two sides had made progress in resolving tariff disputes that have roiled world markets. Asian markets closed on a high note Wednesday on the expectation the two sides will reach an agreement. The trade talks are the result of an agreement last month between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the tit-for-tat tariff conflict between the two countries for 90 days starting on New Year's Day. The talks are occurring as China's economic growth rate — 6.5 percent in the July-to-September period — fell to its lowest point in a decade. There are concerns the U.S. growth rate, 3.4 percent in the third quarter, is also slowing even as the country's unemployment rate remains nearly at a five-decade low. The United States has long complained about access to the vast Chinese market and Beijing's demands U.S. companies reveal their technology advances. If no deal is reached by March 2, U.S. tariffs on $200 billion Chinese goods will rise from 10 percent to 25 percent.  

British Base in Southeast Asia Would Antagonize China

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 20:15
A British amphibious warfare ship passed through the South China Sea in August and China, Asia’s strongest military power with a claim to almost the whole waterway, expelled it. Now the European country with a once powerful colonial foothold in Asia wants to set up a new base in the region, according to news reports citing the British defense secretary. A British base in Southeast Asia, where four countries dispute China’s maritime claims, would give ships quicker access to any further missions like the one August 31. More likely, Asian political experts say, it will let the U.K. challenge China’s influence — and get challenged back — in the resource-rich sea by helping British ships join allied American vessels for periodic naval exercises. Britain alone lacks the money and must mind relations with former colonies in Southeast Asia, they say. “They would have to team up with the U.S., otherwise it doesn’t make sense,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “They would join the U.S. in their so-called freedom of navigation operations.” Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told the British news outlet The Telegraph in December that his country was looking for a new base in Southeast Asia. Newcomer to wider maritime conflict Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest China’s maritime sovereignty claims but have gone on the back foot since 2010 as Beijing uses technological and economic advantages to expand at sea. It has landfilled a series of tiny islets, some for military use. China claims about 90 percent of the sea that extends from Hong Kong to Borneo, spanning 3.5 million square kilometers. China and rival claimants in Asia value the sea for its fisheries and fuel reserves. The UK government does not have a claim. Washington regularly sends naval ships into the sea to pressure China. It calls the missions “freedom of navigation operations.” Earlier this month a U.S. warship passed through waters off the sea’s Paracel Islands, which China controls despite a competing claim from Vietnam. Japan and Australia have sent their own ships to keep China in check, though less often. The UK would anger China if it fell into that line, scholars say. “China would of course object heavily, but I think for the rest of Southeast Asian countries it’s not something new,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. In September, Beijing treated the single ship, the British navy’s HMS Albion, as an intrusion into Chinese territory. The vessel “entered China’s territorial sea without the Chinese government's approval,” Chinese state-controlled media outlet Gbtimes.com reported, citing Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. The UK probably lacks funds for a major South China Sea initiative, Oh said. “I think we have to be very realistic about this,” he said. “Even the UK’s naval fleet is not like during the British empire.” Britain may be planning the base to expand into Asia strategically and economically “as an independent actor” after leaving the European Union, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. In 2016, Thayer noted, British Prime Minister Theresa May and the former foreign secretary began to “float the idea of a Global Britain in the post-Brexit era.” Southeast Asian reactions Southeast Asian countries might struggle to accept a British base. The UK has sighted Singapore and Brunei as candidates for a base, The Telegraph says. Southeast Asian leaders would worry that allowing a base hearkens back to colonialism or other foreign domination, scholars say. Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore are former British colonies in Southeast Asia. “There is always a domestic element to it for the host country,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Basically it would impinge upon perceptions of sovereignty, for example, and the fact that people will start to question the government whether it will allow in foreign presence to sort of subvert our foreign policy,” he said. Countries such as Brunei must also mind their own growing, economically vital ties with China before entering a military deal opposed by Beijing, he added. The UK now maintains a logistics facility at the Sembawang Naval Base in Singapore. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen indicated support Saturday for British presence near the South China Sea. Taiwan claims the whole sea but holds just two of its hundreds of disputed islets. It has its own territorial issues with China and Tsai has asked other countries to help resist Beijing. “We respect any country to exercise its rights of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and we are open-minded about these issues as long as it helps to maintain peace in this region,” she told reporters on Saturday.

Kim Jong Un Leaves Beijing after Brief Visit

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 17:47
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is headed back home after a two-day visit to China and talks with President Xi Jinping. Kim's special train departed Beijing Wednesday afternoon and headed towards the northeast border, where it will enter North Korea early Thursday morning.  The visit was Kim Jong Un's fourth to North Korea's primary diplomatic and economic ally since last year, and raises speculation that Kim was coordinating with China ahead of a possible second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. South Korea's Yonhap news agency says Kim spent his final day in Beijing visiting a pharmaceutical factory in an economic zone outside of Beijing, then had lunch with President Xi before departing. Kim and Xi held talks Tuesday -- believed to be Kim's birthday -- shortly after the North Korean leader arrived in Beijing. He later attended a dinner with Xi and his wife at the Great Hall of the People. Kim was accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju. Neither side has provided details on the talks, nor of Kim's schedule during his visit. Kim and President Trump signed a vague agreement during their historic summit in Singapore last June that calls on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. But further negotiations have stalled over the North’s demand for front-loaded sanctions relief tied to small progress, and its opposition to the Trump administration’s call for complete denuclearization prior to granting any concessions. During his annual New Year’s Day address last week, Kim said it was his “firm will” that North Korea will no longer produce or test nuclear weapons. He also said he would be willing to hold another face-to-face meeting with Trump, but warned his country may have to take another path unless Washington takes "corresponding measures." North Korea is also demanding that the United States and South Korea first issue a peace declaration to formally end hostilities and replace the armistice that has been in effect since the Korean War ended in 1953. Critics worry a peace declaration could undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. 

Enforced Patriotism Tests Hong Kong Opposition

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 17:05
The Hong Kong legislature is expected to soon debate a bill that calls for stiff punishments for anyone who fails to stand or “display any behavior that is disrespectful” to the Chinese national anthem. But the legislation isn’t bringing out the patriot in everyone. “It’s a total subversion of our legal concept since it violates the right to keep silent,” said Hong Kong lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dik, pointing to the passage on a photocopied sheet that he highlighted in green. “Not only can’t you deliberately insult the national anthem, even if you do nothing, it’s an offense. It’s the new political logic of active patriotism.” After a massive pro-democracy protest in 2014 fanned a small, but determined independence movement, China has sought to reverse a years’ long trend of youth who identify as Hong Kongers, not Chinese citizens.  President Xi Jinping and several top officials have rolled out various measures that seem created to remind Hong Kong that it is an inalienable part of China. Xi has stated repeatedly that advocating independence — in Tibet, in Hong Kong or Taiwan — is subversive and will not be allowed. “Since 2003, patriotism has been raised again and again as a pretext by Beijing trying to stifle dissenting voices and control the power game,” said Sing Ming, associate professor of political science at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology. “Those terms of patriotism, ‘love Hong Kong, love the country,’ those are not empty…We are worried when they are raised now, particularly when President Xi said Beijing should control everything in Hong Kong. We are very apprehensive of politics that they will use as a criteria for patriotism.”  Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, has continuously brushed aside concerns about requests for loyalty, especially in a city filled with residents from around the world. “Of course, in Hong Kong we do expect, whether you are a scientist or researcher, or government official like myself, to love our country and love Hong Kong,” she told reporters in May. The city’s education officials have continuously crafted policies to urge students to love the country. The effort a few years back, a proposed schools curriculum written to foster positive feelings about the nation, drew more than 100,000 outraged protesters to the streets in 2012, as they decried the content as brainwashing. The city government shelved the lessons, but residents say the curriculum is quietly taught in pro-Beijing schools. The Hong Kong government did not respond to VOA’s request for comment on this story.  In May, Xi offered Hong Kong’s scientists and technology researchers access to government grants for the first time since Britain relinquished the territory to Beijing, 21 years ago. The funds would strengthen the city’s research sector as officials rebrand Hong Kong as a technology and science hub.  The invitation, however, came with a prerequisite: Successful applicants had to “love the country and Hong Kong,” as state media outlet Xinhua termed it. ​It sounded similar to a request the government made in 2014 that city judges love China. The proposal agitated the bar and was rejected as improper; several judges are foreign nationals who have long worked in the city to deepen the professional standards of the bench. Benson Wong, an assistant professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University, said research proposals had been rejected because they were deemed offensive to the party. One of his projects sought to assess the impact of mainland study tours — another tool to build bonds with the nation — on Hong Kong students. His proposal, he said, was criticized as “too hostile” to China. Lawmakers have not escaped new patriotic standards. Six legislators were ejected by the courts, starting in 2016, after each was accused of improper oath-taking. Since then, several democracy advocates have been blocked from seeking office, deemed unlikely to uphold the Basic Law, the city’s constitution. None has succeeded in overturning those decisions. Chu’s patriotism was tested this fall. The 41-year-old journalist has served in LegCo since 2016, winning a record number of votes as he vowed to clear out corruption in the territory’s rural areas. There, researchers say, land bequeathed by the government to indigenous residents has been illegally sold or stolen. Frightened local residents feel pressured to stay silent. Last year, Chu decided that the best way to curb the property grabs, and ensure more land for public use, would be to serve on a rural village board. But Hong Kong has started barring politicians who have voiced support for independence from running for elected office.  In December, a government officer barred Chu, a sitting lawmaker, from running for his village board. Chu’s support for Hong Kong’s self-determination, the official wrote, was akin to advocating independence, because Chu did not adamantly reject such a stance.  Chu has said continuously he does not advocate independence, but that Hong Kongers must be allowed to advocate for independence peacefully. For now, Chu remains a sitting legislator, but he senses that time has now been shortened. As the government limits more opposition actions, and labels more activists as subversives, Chu acknowledged in an interview that it’s unlikely he’ll be allowed to seek re-election in 2020. He says there’s little he can accomplish in the legislative council now, since no one in the pro-Beijing majority would support any of his initiatives. 

UN Refugee Agency Refers Runaway Saudi Woman to Australia for Resettlement

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 16:23
The United Nations refugee agency has determined that an 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled to Thailand is a refugee, and has asked Australia to grant her residence. Australia's Department of Homeland Security said it will consider the request made by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. Al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok last Saturday on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family, claiming they would kill her if she were sent back. After she was initially denied entry into Thailand, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and posted pictures and texts of herself on Twitter, drawing global attention to her plight. The attention prompted Thai immigration authorities to reverse their earlier decision to send her back to Saudi Arabia. Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn says Al-Qunun's father and brother arrived in Bangkok Tuesday, but she refused to meet with them.  Surachate discussed al-Qunun's case Tuesday with Abdealelah Alsheaiby, the charge d'affaires of Saudi's embassy in Bangkok. Video footage released by the Thai immigration office shows Alsheaiby complaining that it would have been better if Bangkok had seized al-Qunun's smartphone instead of her passport -- a remark which drew angry protests on social media. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has come under heavy scrutiny since the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year at its consulate in Turkey. The ultra-conservative kingdom has strict restrictions on women, including a requirement that they must have the permission of male family members to travel.

Police, Media: Suspicious Packages Sent to Up to 14 Diplomatic Missions in Australia

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 13:09
Police in Australia said on Wednesday they are investigating several suspicious packages sent to embassies and consulates, which media reports and other officials said included the U.S. and British missions, in the cities of Melbourne and Canberra. There were no immediate reports of any harm to staff. "The packages are being examined by attending emergency services," the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said in a short statement without providing further details. "The circumstances surrounding the incidents are being investigated," the statement said. Police did not identify any of the embassies or consulates involved, although the Australian newspaper reported that missions affected included the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Germany, Greece, Spain, Seychelles, Switzerland, Croatia and Egypt. Officials at the U.S. and British consulates separately confirmed suspicious packages had been received. "We handled the package according to our standard procedures and in close coordination with local authorities ... who are investigating the incident," a spokesman for the U.S. Consulate said. Australian media reported earlier that packages were sent to at least nine international missions in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, including the British, German, Swiss and Indian embassies. Images taken by 9News showed firefighters and paramedics attending the Indian and U.S. missions in Melbourne.

Vietnam Says Facebook Violated Controversial Cybersecurity Law

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:15
Facebook has violated Vietnam's new cybersecurity law by allowing users to post anti-government comments on the platform, state media said on Wednesday, days after the controversial legislation took effect in the communist-ruled country. Despite economic reforms and increasing openness to social change, Vietnam's Communist Party retains tight media censorship and does not tolerate dissent. "Facebook had reportedly not responded to a request to remove fan pages provoking activities against the state," the official Vietnam News Agency said, citing the Ministry of Information and Communication. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment. The ministry said Facebook also allowed personal accounts to upload posts containing "slanderous" content, anti-government sentiment and defamation of individuals and organizations, the agency added. "This content had been found to seriously violate Vietnam's Law on cybersecurity" and government regulations on the management, provision and use of internet services, it quoted the ministry as saying. Global technology companies and rights groups have earlier said the cybersecurity law, which took effect on Jan. 1 and includes requirements for technology firms to set up local offices and store data locally, could undermine development and stifle innovation in Vietnam. Company officials have privately expressed concerns that the new law could make it easier for the authorities to seize customer data and expose local employees to arrest. Facebook had refused to provide information on "fraudulent accounts" to Vietnamese security agencies, the agency said in Wednesday's report. The information ministry is also considering taxing Facebook for advertising revenue from the platform. The report cited a market research company as saying $235 million was spent on advertising on Facebook in Vietnam in 2018, but that Facebook was ignoring its tax obligations there. In November, Vietnam said it wanted half of social media users on domestic social networks by 2020 and plans to prevent "toxic information" on Facebook and Google.

How Forgotten Local Plants Could Ease Malnutrition in East Timor

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:10
The Australian owners of a restaurant in East Timor are hoping to use their passion for the local cuisine to combat malnutrition in the tiny Southeast Asian nation. East Timor has Asia's worst rates of child malnutrition, with more than 50 percent of children suffering from stunting - a condition that permanently affects their mental and physical development - according to the United Nations. But this is not primarily due to a shortage of food - instead, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF blames a lack of education and knowledge about local foods. Development worker turned restaurateur Mark Notaras said traditional dishes like batar da'an - a kind of corn stew served at his Agora Food Studio restaurant in the capital Dili - were looked down on as "poor people's food." "If you came to visit Timor, you could eat at 150 restaurants and never find it on a menu," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Notaras and his wife, Alva Lim, launched the non-profit Timor-Leste Food Innovators Exchange (TLFIX) last year to educate people across the country about cooking with healthy and local ingredients. They hope to persuade them to supplement diets of white rice and instant noodles - which provide cheap calories but little nutrition - with the indigenous plants that grow there. "We encourage people to eat a wider array of foods they already have around them in order to improve their nutrition," said Notaras. UNICEF already trains mothers in East Timor to provide more nutritious meals, showing them how to incorporate locally grown carrots and leafy greens into the rice that children are traditionally fed. Lim and Notaras take a more innovative approach. "We use food storytelling and food innovation to promote better livelihoods, including through nutrition," said Notaras. In doing so, they are joining a worldwide movement to return to local produce as populations have shifted away from traditional diets to increasingly consume imported foods that tend to be cheaper but less nutritious. Organizations like the Rome-based non-profit Bioversity International are trying to reverse that trend by promoting indigenous crops, such as "Mayan spinach" in Central America. That requires governments to introduce policies that encourage local crops rather than imports, and individual behaviors may need to change too, said Ronnie Vernooy of Bioversity International. "People may need to invest more time in going to the local market rather than just the supermarket," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by Skype from the Netherlands. But it may not be that simple. Rice grown in East Timor can cost three times as much as the low-quality varieties imported from Vietnam, said Notaras, and changing attitudes and market dynamics could take decades. Lim said she hoped the people of East Timor could push back against the processed food that has flooded the Philippines, where her family originates, and where "the same few bottled and packet sauces" have become ubiquitous. "There is a lot of diversity in this region and I will be incredibly sad if it disappears," she said.

China Gives Long-awaited GM Crop Approvals Amid US Trade Talks

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 11:20
China approved five genetically modified (GM) crops for import on Tuesday, the first in about 18 months in a move that could boost its overseas grains purchases and ease pressure from the United States to open its markets to more farm goods. The United States is the world's biggest producer of GM crops, while China is the top importer of GM soybeans and canola. U.S. farmers and global seed companies have long complained about Beijing's slow and unpredictable process for approving GM crops for import, stoking trade tensions between the world's two largest economies. The approvals, announced on the agriculture ministry's website, were granted while a U.S. trade delegation is meeting with its counterparts in the Chinese capital this week. "It's a goodwill gesture towards the resolution of the trade issue," said a China representative of a U.S. agricultural industry association. "It's been in the system for a long time but they chose today to release this good news," he added, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. The approved products included DowDuPont Inc.'s DP4114 Qrome corn and DAS-44406-6 soybean, known as Enlist E3, as well as the SYHT0H2 soybean developed by Bayer CropScience and Syngenta but now held by German chemical company BASF. The other two newly approved products - BASF's RF3 canola and Bayer-owned Monsanto's glyphosate-tolerant MON 88302 canola - had been waiting six years for permission. The approvals came as farmers in North America were deciding which seeds to plant this spring. China before the trade war bought some 60 percent of U.S. soybeans and U.S. farmers do not widely plant varieties it has not approved. The newly approved canola will allow farmers in Canada to boost production, according to Jim Everson, president of industry group the Canola Council. "The industry expects growers will produce $400 million more canola every year using the same amount of land - a step-change for canola productivity," Everson said in a statement. Five other products known to be seeking approvals were not given the green light, including two GM alfalfa products developed by Monsanto and two DowDuPont soybean traits. Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture unit of DowDuPont, said, "We are happy to see the regulatory approval of our seed traits progressing in China." Bayer said in a statement it welcomed the news but noted "many of these products were stuck in China's regulatory process for many years and others were not granted approvals, underscoring the need for continued improvement in China's regulatory processes." Chinese officials met their U.S. counterparts in Beijing on Monday for the first face-to-face talks since U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in December to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has roiled global markets. China had not approved any GM crops for import since July 2017, when it cleared two products following high-level talks with Washington. It also approved two products in June 2017. China's scientific advisory board on GM crops met in June but did not give the go-ahead for imports of any products. "China's approval of the new GMO products is paving the way for China to import large volumes of U.S. soybeans in the future. It is a positive signal," said Li Qiang, chief analyst with Shanghai JC Intelligence Co. Ltd. The truce in the Sino-U.S. trade war prompted a resumption of U.S. soybean purchases. Buying had slumped after China imposed a 25 percent import duty on U.S. shipments of oilseed on July 6 in response to U.S. tariffs. Only a Fraction China does not allow the planting of genetically modified food crops, but imports of GM crops such as soybeans and corn for animal feed are fine. The country, the world's biggest soybean consumer, has so far purchased only about 5 million tons of the 2018 U.S. soy harvest, a fraction of its typical purchases. The United States has demanded that China change its GM crop import application process to make it more transparent, timely and based on scientific methods. The latest approvals should not be taken as a sign that China is conceding to those demands, said a China-based industry source, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. "It's another piece of evidence that China's approval process is not entirely scientific but political," said the source, who also believed the approvals were timed for the trade visit. The ministry also announced on Tuesday the extension of import approvals for 26 other GM crops by a further three years.

Activists Warn of Gaps as EU Lifts Ban Threat on Thai Fishing Industry

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 04:43
Labor rights campaigners warned against complacency as the European Union on Tuesday withdrew its threat to ban Thai fishing imports into the bloc, saying that the country has made progress in tackling illegal and unregulated fishing. The EU's so-called "yellow card" on Thai fishing exports has been in place since April 2015 as a warning that the country was not sufficiently addressing the issues. "Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing damages global fish stocks, but it also hurts the people living from the sea, especially those already vulnerable to poverty," Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for environment and fisheries said. "Today's decision reverses the first step of a process that could have led to a complete import ban of marine fisheries products into the EU," he said in a statement. Thailand has amended its fisheries legal framework in line with international law, and improved its monitoring and surveillance systems, including remote monitoring of fishing activities and more robust inspections at port, the EU said. The country's multibillion-dollar seafood industry has also come under scrutiny for slavery, trafficking and violence on fishing boats and at onshore processing facilities. After the EU threatened to ban fish exports, and the U.S. State Department said it was failing to tackle human trafficking, the Southeast Asian country toughened up its laws and increased fines for violations. Thailand has introduced modern technologies — from satellites to optical scanning and electronic payment services — to crack down on abuses. But the International Labor Organization said in March that fishermen remained at risk of forced labor, and the wages of some continued to be withheld. The EU on Tuesday said it recognized efforts by Thailand to tackle human trafficking and to improve labor conditions in the fishing sector. Thailand voted in December to ratify ILO convention 188 — which sets standards of decent work in the fishing industry — becoming the first Asian country to do so. But important gaps remain, said Steve Trent, executive director at advocacy group Environmental Justice Foundation. "We still have concerns about the workers. We need to see that the reforms are durable," he said. Thailand is yet to ratify two other ILO conventions on the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining, both of which are essential to protect workers, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. This is particularly important in the fishing and seafood processing industries, as most of their estimated 600,000 workers are migrant workers. "There is a risk that with the lifting of the yellow card, complacency will set in. We need to see a culture of compliance, and more being done to protect vulnerable workers in the industry," Trent said.

Vietnam Start-up Bamboo Airways Secures License after Delayed Launch

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 04:03
Vietnam's start-up Bamboo Airways has secured a license from the local authorities, the company said, opening the way for its maiden flight in January after a string of delays. Bamboo, owned by hotel and leisure firm FLC Group will operate 37 routes connecting major cities and tourist destinations in Vietnam to "reduce pressure on aviation infrastructure," the airline said in a statement. "In 2019, Bamboo Airways will also launch international air flights to Asian countries, starting with Japan, Korea and Singapore," it said, adding that it also intended to operate flights to Europe, without elaborating. Vietnam's fifth airline signed a provisional deal in July to buy 20 Boeing 787-9 wide-body jets worth $5.6 billion at list prices, and a memorandum of understanding in March with Airbus for up to 24 A320neo narrow-bodied aircraft. Vietnam, one of Asia's fastest growing economies, has recorded double-digit expansion in domestic and inbound passenger numbers. The government aims to spur on tourism with visa exemptions and by promoting investment in the industry. The granting of an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) from the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam marks the end of a series of stalled launches for Bamboo. Bamboo Chairman Trinh Van Quyet, also head of FLC, told Reuters in November he aimed to launch the first domestic flight in December after a delay from October. But that date was pushed back due a further delay in the issuing an AOC. The airline said in December it planned its first flight in mid-January. Tuesday's statement did not mention a more specific date.

20 Children Injured in Attack on Beijing School

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 22:24
Twenty Chinese children were injured after a hammer wielding maintenance worker attacked them inside their primary school in Beijing Tuesday. Officials in the city’s Xicheng district say the 49-year old  male suspect, surnamed Jai,  was apprehended at the scene. In a statement, officials say Jai performed maintenance work at the school and that his contract was set to expire.  The statement said the assailant attacked the students out of anger that his contract had not been renewed. Officials say the wounded students were taken to a hospital for treatment. Three of the children suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries. Authorities say Tuesday’s attack was the latest in a series of frightening incidents at schools across China in recent years. Nine middle-school students in northern China were killed last April by a knife-wielding man who claimed he had been bullied when he attended the school. At least 12 schoolchildren were stabbed and wounded in an attack on their school in southern China in January 2017.

Saudi Teen Safe in Thailand, For Now

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 20:47
A Saudi Arabian teenager who was detained in Bangkok after fleeing a family she claims will kill her has not been deported as first feared. Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Al-Qunun will instead have a chance to make her asylum case to the United Nations refugee agency. Qunun first gained international attention when she barricaded herself in a hotel at Suvarnabhumi airport after reportedly arriving in Thailand enroute to seek asylum in Australia. But she has said Saudi officials tried to trick her and surrounded the hotel room she had barricaded herself in, planning to force her back home, where she believes her family would try to kill her. "Please I need u all. I'm shouting out for help of humanity," she tweeted. "I'm not leaving my room until I see UNHCR. I want asylum," she added in a video uploaded to twitter. She has also said she had a valid visa to enter Australia - where there is mounting pressure on the government to grant her asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Thailand office said its staff were granted access late on Monday to speak with Al-Qunun, who had refused to board a flight back to Kuwait - where she feared she would be apprehended by Saudi authorities. "We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. Al-qunun against her will and are extending protection for her," UNHCR Thailand country representative Giuseppe de Vicentiis was quoted as saying in a statement released on Tuesday morning. "It could take several days to process the case and determine the next steps," he said in the statement. The Associated Press quotes Thai Immigration Police chief Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn as saying, "We will not send anyone to die. We will not do that. We will adhere to human rights under the rule of law." Activists say Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive countries to women in the world and forbids females from obtaining a passport, traveling abroad or marrying without a male guardian's permission. In 2017, another Saudi Arabian woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, who also tried to claim asylum in Australia via Kuwait, was apprehended in the Manila airport and sent back after begging for help through a stranger's twitter account because she believed her family would kill her. She has not been heard from since. A number of female activists who fought for the right to drive have been arrested and disappeared and the country has been condemned across the world over the gruesome murder late last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Turkey. The Saudi Arabian embassy in Bangkok has denied it impounded her passport or has the authority to detain her in Thailand, but claimed she was legally required to be deported. "She does not have a return reservation or a tourist program, which requires deportation by the Thai authorities," it said. Al-Qunun's supporters believe her visa to Australia may have been cancelled as she reportedly found she was unable to log into her Australian government immigration profile. "We haven't heard from the Australian government yet about this, but if confirmed that would be quite shameful of the Australian government to cancel her visa knowing the threats that await her in Saudi Arabia," said Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hamid. "Her time in Thailand is uncertain and while it's positive that she has access to UNHCR and her case is being reviewed, we know that the Thai authorities have kept other individuals and those who've sought asylum in reprimand, in detention, waiting for long periods of time to be granted asylum," she said. The Australian Government says it is monitoring the case closely."The claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning. The Australian Embassy in Thailand has made representations to both the Thai Government and the Bangkok office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to seek assurances that Ms Al-Qunun can access the UNHCR's refugee status determination process in Thailand," said a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She has also reportedly appealed for asylum from several European countries and Canada. Rangsiya Ratanachai contributed to this report.

Giving Up Gas: China's Shenzhen Switches to Electric Taxis

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 13:00
One of China's major cities has reached an environmental milestone: an almost entirely electric-powered taxi fleet. The high-tech hub of Shenzhen in southern China announced at the start of this year that 99 percent of the 21,689 taxis operating in the city were electric. Last year, it still had 7,500 gasoline-powered taxis on the roads. A few can still be found, but electric ones far outnumber them. The metropolis of 12.5 million is the second to achieve this feat in China and the largest. The northern China city of Taiyuan, with a population of 4.3 million, has had only electric taxis since 2016. Shenzhen "has taken the lead among major Chinese cities,'' said Cui Dongshu, the secretary-general of the China Passenger Car Association. Shenzhen's bus fleet has been all-electric since 2017. It's one of 13 pilot cities promoting alternative-energy public transport to cut smog and develop the alternative energy industry, the Shenzhen Municipality Transport Committee said.  Beijing and other Chinese cities are served by legions of electric scooters, bicycles and three-wheeled delivery vehicles that help reduce emissions - and sometimes startle pedestrians with their near-silent operation.  Shenzhen's 20,000-plus electric taxis will reduce carbon emissions by about 850,000 tons a year, the city's transport committee said. However, the all-electric initiative doesn't include Uber-like ride-hailing and ride-sharing services, which are popular in China. Providing places to recharge taxis has been a big hurdle since Shenzhen rolled out its first 100 electric cabs in 2010. Cui praised the city for its network of about 20,000 public charging stations, which he said should be enough to meet most of the demand. The electric taxis are equipped with an on-board terminal that tells drivers where taxis are in short supply, such as the airport, train station or other locations. It also clearly displays the fare and the taxi's route, which the Shenzhen transport committee said would help prevent drivers from overcharging or taking a roundabout route. Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, is home to Huawei Technologies and a host of other Chinese technology companies.

US Expresses Optimism About Trade Talks with China

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:15
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said there is "a very good chance" that the United States and China will reach a trade agreement.  Ross told CNBC he is hopeful such a deal would address “all the key issues.” Working-level trade talks between the United States and China began Monday in Beijing with negotiators for the world's two biggest economies trying to resolve tariff disputes that have roiled world markets in recent weeks. In a sign the meeting was off to a good start, China’s economic czar, Vice Premier Liu He, dropped by the talks on Monday to encourage the negotiators. While Chinese officials expressed optimism at the start of the two-day talks, Beijing at the same time complained about the sighting of the U.S.S. McCampbell, a warship, in what it said were Chinese waters near disputed islands in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China had made "stern complaints" with the United States about the sighting of the destroyer, but the trade talks went ahead as scheduled. There was no immediate U.S. response to the Chinese complaint. Few details have emerged from the trade talks, which are scheduled to run through Tuesday. ​The trade talks are the result of an agreement last month between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the tit-for-tat tariff conflict between the two countries for 90 days starting on New Year's Day.  Trump said last week, "I think we'll have a deal with China."  Lu said the two countries have agreed to hold "positive and constructive" discussions. "From the beginning we have believed that China U.S. trade friction is not a positive situation for either country or the world economy," Lu said. "China has the good faith, on the basis of mutual respect and equality, to resolve the bilateral trade frictions." ​The talks are occurring as Chinese growth — 6.5 percent in the July-to-September period — fell to its lowest point in a decade. There are concerns that U.S. growth, 3.4 percent in the third quarter, is also slowing even as the country's unemployment rate remains nearly at a five-decade low. Even so, Lu said, "China's development has ample tenacity and huge potential. We have firm confidence in the strong long-term fundamentals of the Chinese economy." The United States has long complained about access to the vast Chinese market and Beijing's demands U.S. companies reveal their technology advances.

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