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China Says US Envoys Due in Beijing for Talks on Trade Fight

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 21:11
American envoys are due in Beijing for talks Monday in a tariff battle over Chinese technology ambitions that threatens to hobble global economic growth. The two days of meetings are aimed at carrying out the Dec. 1 truce by Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping that postponed additional tariff hikes, the Ministry of Commerce announced Friday. It said the American delegation will be led by a deputy U.S. trade representative, Jeffrey D. Gerrish, but gave no other details of the agenda or participants. The American Embassy in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to a request for confirmation and additional details. The talks are going ahead despite tension over the arrest of a Chinese tech executive in Canada on U.S. charges related to possible violations of trade sanctions on Iran. The two governments express interest in a settlement but give no indication their stances have shifted. They hope to have “positive and constructive discussions,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang. The clash reflects American anxiety about China’s emergence as a competitor in telecoms, solar power and other technologies and complaints by Washington, Europe and other trading partners that Beijing’s tactics violate its market-opening obligations. Trump wants Beijing to roll back initiatives including “Made in China 2025,” which calls for state-led creation of champions in robotics, artificial intelligence and other fields. American officials worry those might erode U.S. industrial leadership. China’s leaders have offered to narrow its politically sensitive trade surplus with the United States by purchasing more soybeans, natural gas and other American exports. But they reject pressure to scrap technology initiatives they see as a path to prosperity and global influence. Both governments face economic pressure to reach a settlement. Chinese economic growth fell to a post-global crisis of 6.5 percent in the quarter ending in September. Auto sales tumbled 16 percent in November over a year earlier and weak real estate sales are forcing developers to cut prices. Third-quarter U.S. growth was 3.4 percent and unemployment is at a five-decade low. But surveys show consumer confidence is weakening due to concern growth will moderate this year. Beijing has tried in vain to recruit France, Germany, South Korea and other governments as allies against Trump. They criticize his tactics but echo U.S. complaints about Chinese industrial policy and market barriers. The European Union filed its own challenged in the World Trade Organization in June against Chinese regulations the 28-nation trade bloc said hamper the ability of foreign companies to protect and profit from their own technology. Washington has imposed punitive tariffs of up to 25 percent on $250 billion of Chinese goods. Beijing responded by imposing penalties on $110 billion of American goods, slowing down customs clearance for U.S. companies and suspending issuance of licenses in finance and other industries. Trump and Xi agreed to a 90-day postponement of more tariff hikes due to take effect Jan. 1. But economists say that is too little time to resolve the sprawling disputes that bedevil U.S.-Chinese relations. The decision to hold this week’s talks at a deputy minister level reflects the need to work out technical details before higher-level officials make “hard political decisions on major issues,” said Tu Xinquan, director of the China Institute for World Trade Organization Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. The dispute has rattled companies and financial markets that worry it will drag on global economic growth that is showing signs of declining. For their part, Chinese officials are unhappy with U.S. curbs on exports of “dual use” technology with possible military applications. They complain China’s companies are treated unfairly in national security reviews of proposed corporate acquisitions, though almost all deals are approved unchanged. Chinese exports to the United States held up through late 2018 despite Trump’s tariff hikes. But that was due partly to exporters rushing to beat new duties — a trend that is fading. Some manufacturers that serve the United States have shifted production to other countries. The investment bank UBS said Friday that 37 percent of 200 manufacturers surveyed said they have shifted out of China over the past 12 months. It said the threat of U.S. tariff hikes was the “dominating factor” for nearly half, while others moved due to higher costs or tighter environmental regulation. Another 33 percent of companies said they plan to move out of China in the next six to 12 months, according to the UBS report. Despite the December truce, “most firms expect trade war to escalate,” the report said.  

First Tropical Storm in Decades Lashes Thailand

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 18:01
Thailand’s first tropical storm in three decades killed one person Friday as it arrived on the south coast, knocking down trees and blowing off roofs in its path, but was losing speed, officials said, while warning against the risk of flash floods. Accompanying winds churned up high waves and gusts in the Gulf of Thailand as tropical storm Pabuk made landfall in the Pak Phanang district of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, where trees crashed down on houses to cause widespread damage. Disaster mitigation officials said the person killed was among the crew of a fishing boat that capsized in strong winds near the coast of nearby Pattani province. Another of the crew was missing, but four others were safe. Weather officials warned of torrential downpours and strong winds in 15 provinces in the Thai south, home to one of the world’s largest natural rubber plantations and several islands thronged by tourists. But by Friday afternoon, the storm was slowing and was heading for the province of Surat Thani, the Thai Meteorological Department said in a statement. “It is expected to downgrade to be a tropical depression,” it added. “People should beware of the severe conditions that cause forest runoffs and flash floods.” The conditions are expected to persist into Saturday. With airports and ferry services shut, people were advised to stay indoors until the storm passed. The National Disaster Warning Center also sounded alarms around tourist beach destinations, such as Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, urging people to leave high-risk areas for higher ground. During the past few days, 6,176 people have been evacuated to shelters from Nakhon Si Thammarat as well as the provinces of Pattani, Songkhla and Yala, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation has said. The Nakhon Si Thammarat airport said it had closed, and the Surat Thani airport will also close from Friday afternoon to Saturday, canceling flights by Nok Airlines, Lion Air and Thai Smile, a subsidiary of national carrier Thai Airways. Earlier, Bangkok Airways said it had canceled all flights to and from the holiday destination of Koh Samui, where ferry services have also been suspended. National energy company PTT Exploration and Production said it had suspended operations at Bongkot and Erawan, two of the country’s biggest gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand.

Chinese Rover Making Tracks on Dark Side of the Moon

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 17:02
The Chinese Jade Rabbit 2 rover is making tracks on the soft, snowlike surface of the far side of the moon. The rover drove off its lander’s ramp and onto the lunar surface late Thursday, about 12 hours after the Chang’e-4 spacecraft made the first-ever landing on the moon’s far side. China’s space agency posted a photo online, showing tracks the rover left as it departed from the spacecraft. “It’s a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation,’’ Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the Lunar Exploration Project, said on state broadcaster CCTV, adapting American astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong’s famous message “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” when he stepped onto the lunar surface July 20, 1969. “This giant leap is a decisive move for our exploration of space and the conquering of the universe,” Wu Weiren said. First to the far side The Jade Rabbit 2 rover has six individually powered wheels, so it can continue to operate even if one wheel fails. It can climb a 20-degree hill or an obstacle up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) tall. Its maximum speed is 200 meters per hour. The United States, the former Soviet Union and more recently China have sent spacecraft to the near side of the moon, but the latest Chinese landing is the first on the far side. The probe will conduct astronomical studies and surveys of the surface’s mineral composition and radiation tests of the surrounding environment. Satellite for communication Shortly after landing, the Chang’e-4 sent a photo of the lunar surface to the Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) satellite, which was launched last May in the first phase of the historic mission. The Queqiao satellite is deployed about 455,000 kilometers from Earth, where it will relay communications between ground controllers and the Chang’e-4. This is China’s second probe to make a soft-landing on the moon, following 2013’s Jade Rabbit lunar rover mission. Beijing plans to launch a third lunar rover, the Chang’e-5, later this year, which is expected to collect samples from the moon’s surface and bring them back to Earth. The unmanned lunar missions are part of China’s ambitions to join the United States and Russia as a major space power. Its plans include establishing a permanent manned space station, a manned lunar landing, and eventually probes to Mars.

Reform in Malaysia Still Beholden to Racial Politics

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 16:40
Since Malaysia’s election of a new party for the first time in more than six decades in May, the new government has delivered on a number of once unthinkably progressive reforms, including abolishing the nation’s sedition law and the death penalty. But the country’s antiquated system of racial privileges and the politics that protect them has become an intractable obstruction to more fundamental promised reforms. The privileges and preferences for Bhumiputras (the majority Malay population and other indigenous peoples) over other minority ethnic groups, such as Chinese and Indians, affects everything from education to attaining government positions to buying a house. Corruption, complacency and economic stagnation are widely identified consequences of the policy both Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have expressed a desire to reform. Yet an eruption late last year of opposition stoked ethno-nationalistic anger at the suggestion Malaysia might ratify an anti-discrimination treaty has revealed how perilous any attempt at reform by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government can be. Rethink reform “I think what the government needs to do is rethink about all its reform, not necessarily abandoning them but they must be able to find ways to articulate them from a pro-Malay perspective,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute. “For the moment I think the government would avoid doing anything that rocks the boat for they fear that this would only strengthen the hand of the opposition,” he said. The opposition — the shattered remains of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — has latched onto the race issue after its shocking defeat exposed an absence of defining values outside incumbency. UMNO’s political frailty has been on stark display recently by a string of defections that has whittled away at the party’s slim haul of 54 seats won in May’s electoral trouncing. But, by teaming up with PAS, the country’s largest Islamic party, they were able to exert some influence in December, mobilizing an estimated 50,000 supporters to a nationalist rally. The demonstration went ahead even though Mahathir had already reversed an earlier decision to sign the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the focus of their outrage. UMNO was able to exploit the perception that ICERD could invalidate the privileges enshrined to Malays in the 1957 constitution and expanded into a National Economic Policy that was implemented in reaction to 1969 Malay race riots against the Chinese. As an affirmative action policy, many observers have argued since that the policy did not conflict with ICERD, provided it was indeed correcting economic imbalances on racial lines or otherwise. “To have the constitutional provision and the NEP strictly as affirmative action, the Malay underclass would stand to gain because the policy would have to be specifically targeted to benefit them,” Chin Huat said. “But the upper class cronies, those well connected Malays, would stand to lose because they may not be qualified to enjoy the privileges,” he said. Senior PH figures such as Anwar Ibrahim and Rafizi Ramli have called for the policies to be reformed so that they focus on solving inequality rather than just ineffectively targeting race. Policy holds back reforms Ironically, even longtime champions of Malay nationalism such as Mahathir have argued that the policy can actually hurt the very people it’s supposed to help. “We can pray, we can perform prayers, but if there’s no effort, our skills can deteriorate. If we don’t walk, our muscles will get weaker with time. It’s the same as our brain, if we don’t use it, it’ll get weak too,” Mahathir said during a speech in September, according to the Straits Times. Australian National University economics scholar Stewart Nixon argued the policies were also one of the key factors holding back Malaysia’s national economy in a November op-ed for the Australian Financial Review responding to Mahathir’s midterm review reforms. “There was much hope that Mahathir’s more representative government would bring an end to the country’s long-running and ill-targeted affirmative action program. Yet the review simply reaffirms the government’s commitment to continuing it,” Nixon wrote. “Outdated and divisive policies serve to perpetuate negative perceptions of the majority Malays, deter investment and encourage the brain drain (exodus of highly educated and skilled people) of discriminated-against minorities.” UMNO MPs contacted by VOA declined to comment for this article. James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, told VOA that with the Herculean task of tackling endemic corruption in Malaysia’s private and public sectors, he didn’t expect the affirmative action policy to become a focus anytime soon. “The reasons why they do not want to touch it is because they worry if they try to reform the racial preference system they’ll lose the next general election, which is a much bigger danger,” he said. “You have to remember their first priority is to get re-elected because they know to reform Malaysia it will take many years so they need to be in there for the long haul.” In that case, Mahathir’s government is left in a tight spot trying to reform endemic corruption while tiptoeing around one of the key drivers of the problem in the first place.

Global Stocks Continue Fall on US-China Trade War

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 16:04
Asian markets Friday continued the global sell-off triggered by Apple’s warning of lower revenues and futures indicators predict a sharply lower opening for U.S. markets. The Tokyo market dropped 3 percent in morning trading, and markets in Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul and Taipei were also down. Stock markets across the globe dropped Thursday after tech giant Apple said sales of its devices had fallen sharply in China last month, perhaps signaling a broader slowing in the world economy. Apple has blamed U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade dispute with China for its shrinking outlook, but the U.S. leader tweeted his defense Thursday, claiming, “The United States Treasury has taken in MANY billions of dollars from the Tariffs we are charging China and other countries that have not treated us fairly. In the meantime we are doing well in various Trade Negotiations currently going on. At some point this had to be done!” US-China trade talks On Friday China’s government said a U.S. trade delegation will visit Beijing next week for two days of talks on carrying out an agreement reached by Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to postpone new tariff hikes. On Dec. 1 the two leaders agreed to complete talks about technology, intellectual property and cyber theft issues within 90 days, and hold off on new tariffs in the meantime. U.S. officials have said that if the talks fail to produce a satisfactory agreement Washington will increase tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent. Apple chief executive Tim Cook blamed the company’s sales shortfall on the trade battle President Donald Trump is waging against China. “While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China,” Cook wrote. Not just Apple Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said the contentious U.S.-China relations will force other U.S. companies to cut their sales estimates in China. “It’s not going to be just Apple,” Hassett told CNN. “There are a heck of a lot of U.S. companies that have sales in China that are going to be watching their earnings being downgraded next year until we get a deal with China.” He said slowing consumer demand in China gives Trump an edge in ongoing trade negotiations. “That puts a lot of pressure on China to make a deal,” he said. “If we have a successful negotiation with China then Apple’s sales and everybody else’s sales will recover.” The U.S. economy remains strong, with the country’s 3.7 percent jobless rate at a nearly five-decade low. But economists say the U.S. economy could be slowing and uncertainty in global economic fortunes has led to volatile daily swings in stock indexes in recent weeks. In 2018, U.S. stock indexes suffered their worst year in a decade, with most of the losses recorded in December. The Dow was off 5.6 percent for the year, with the broader Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks down 6.2 percent.

Huawei Punishes Workers for iPhone Tweet Blunder

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 15:22
China’s Huawei Technologies has punished two employees for New Year’s greetings sent on the smartphone maker’s official Twitter account using an iPhone, an internal memo showed. Huawei, whose P-series handsets compete with Apple’s iPhone, on New Year’s Day wished followers a “Happy #2019” in a tweet marked sent “via Twitter for iPhone.” The tweet was quickly removed but screenshots of the blunder spread across social media. “The traitor has revealed himself,” quipped one user on microblog Weibo, in a comment ‘liked’ more than 600 times. Brand damaged In an internal Huawei memo dated Jan. 3 seen by Reuters, corporate senior vice president and director of the board Chen Lifang said, “the incident caused damage to the Huawei brand.” The mistake occurred when outsourced social media handler Sapient experienced “VPN problems” with a desktop computer so used an iPhone with a roaming SIM card in order to send the message on time at midnight, Huawei said in the memo. Twitter, like several foreign services such as those from Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc, is blocked in China, where the internet is heavily censored. To gain access, users need a virtual private network (VPN) connection. Huawei, which overtook Apple as the world’s second-largest smartphone vendor by volume in January-September, declined to comment on internal issues when contacted by Reuters. Sapient did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent via the contact form on its website. Calls to its Beijing office went unanswered. Employees demoted, pay cut Huawei in the memo said the blunder showed procedural incompliance and management oversight. It said it had demoted two employees responsible by one rank and reduced their monthly salaries by 5,000 yuan ($728.27). The pay rank of one of the employees, Huawei’s digital marketing director, will also be frozen for 12 months, it said. It is not the first time use of the Apple product has given cause for embarrassment. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of nationalistic tabloid Global Times, was mocked online last year after he used his iPhone when expressing support for Huawei and domestic peer ZTE Corp . He later said his actions were not hypocritical as foreign brands should not be discriminated against.

Philippines Digs Out From Deadly, Freakish Tropical Storm

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 14:22
A poor region of the Philippines is struggling to recover from an odd New Year’s weekend tropical storm that killed at least 85 people and caused extensive damage. Tropical storm Usman flooded villages and set off landslides after reaching the archipelago’s Pacific Ocean coasts Dec. 29. According to Philippine Red Cross estimates, more than 128,000 people were affected by flooding and about 15,000 people still need aid. The Philippines suffered a number of typhoons earlier in the year but was caught off guard because weather maps tracked Usman as a tropical depression rather than a full-blown typhoon. It also weakened after initial landfall. But its heavy rainfall lingered over the peninsula southeast of Manila long enough to cause slides and flooding. “You never, never sleep well when there’s an unusual rain now, and climate change is proving itself, so we won’t take it for granted,” said Richard Gordon, a senator and chairman of the Philippine Red Cross. About one-third of those killed were drowned, Gordon said. Landslides buried the houses of some victims, Gordon added.  “Government should start building houses in safe areas,” he said. ​Relief work bares extent of losses The Philippine Red Cross is working with government agencies on searches, rescues and first aid, the agency said in an activity summary Monday. It has already helped about 28,000 people find temporary shelters and allowed some to return home. People affected by floods or landslides most urgently need drinking water, of which the Red Cross has brought in six tankers, as well as food and basics such as toothbrushes, Gordon said. He described the regions hit as poor and noted that some families might have lacked “creature comforts” even before the storm. About 300 families were living in 24 evacuation shelters as of late Thursday. Relief work, initially slow because volunteers were hard to find on a rainy New Year’s Eve and the hardest-hit areas were at least two hours from the nearest major city, is now exposing “extensive” infrastructure damage, Gordon said. On Wednesday and Thursday, Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo met the families of people who died in the province of Camarines Sur. Robredo’s office said in a statement it had given cash aid to 16 families Wednesday and to relatives of 12 other deceased people a day later plus 800 “relief packs.” ​Freakish late-year storm Typhoons and tropical storms regularly hit the Philippines, but their season normally tapers off in November. One of the country’s worst, Typhoon Haiyan, killed more than 6,000 in November 2013. The country’s most powerful storm of 2018 killed 81 people in the rugged mountains north of Manila in September. That storm, called Mankhut, also raised questions about the extent of home construction in storm-prone zones. “I think there was a miscalculation on the damage,” Gordon said in a statement Thursday on the latest storm. “Usman was not as strong, but it brought a lot of rains. It is important that we become a little bit more aggressive and make sure that we respect any kind of tropical depression.” But the hardest-hit areas normally get their most rainfall around December, said Jim Andrews, meteorologist with the AccuWeather.com forecasting service in the United States. Tropical storms can easily form in East Asia even after November, he noted, and another one is pressing toward southern Thailand now. Seasonally cold air from the north made Usman look weak on radar maps, said David Michael Padua, senior typhoon specialist with the Manila-based forecasting service Weather Philippines Foundation. “The system was being blown down by the strong surge of the northeast monsoon,” Padua said in an online broadcast Dec. 30. “These are cold dry airs, which weaken the system, especially in cold months, like in December.” ​Longer-term damage Usman will probably set back farming, add to inflation and slow economic activity for a month before reconstruction gets underway, said Rahul Bajoria,a regional economist with Barclays in Singapore. Bridges will need repairs, Gordon said, and cropland is ruined. Crop damage is estimated at $3.7 million, domestic media reports say. But given the frequency of severe storms at other times of year, agencies in the Philippines know how to recover quickly, Bajoria said. “It’s been a bad year for disasters this year for the Philippines, especially in the last three, four months, so it will have some temporary negative impact I think on activity,” he said. “Broadly I think the country is quite prone to getting hit by natural disasters, so it typically does not tend to have a huge negative impact.”

Heat Wave Wilts Australia’s Southeast

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:40
A heat wave sweeping Australia engulfed the densely populated southeast Friday, boosting temperature records, spurring fire bans and arousing concern about the health of contestants in this month’s tennis Open. A week after Australia’s hottest town, in its northwest, recorded its hottest day, sweltering temperatures arrived on the other side of the continent, pushing the southeastern city of Melbourne to a near-record 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 F). Regions to the north were expected to be hotter and windy, prompting a fire ban across the second most populous state of Victoria. Nine years earlier, Australia’s deadliest bushfires killed 180 people near cities forecast to experience temperatures of 46 C (115 F) Friday. “The conditions are there that if a fire was to start, it could be quite difficult to contain,” said Tom Delamotte, a Bureau of Meteorology forecaster. Forecasters expected temperatures to cool later, but the heat was likely to return soon after, Delamotte added, days ahead of the Jan. 14 start of the Australian Open in Melbourne. Tennis Australia, the sport’s governing body, says it has upgraded temperature testing at the Melbourne Park sports center and introduced a 10-minute break for the men’s singles. It has also adopted a five-step “heat stress scale” that lets referees suspend play under extreme conditions. In Hobart, capital of the nearby island state of Tasmania, which is usually the country’s coolest, the mercury rose as high as 40 C (104 F), two degrees from a January record. Pictures on social media showed a striking dark-orange sky over Hobart as a bushfire swept the wilderness nearby. Campers were evacuated from the affected area, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. said, though no injuries were reported. The Tasmanian Fire Service was not immediately available for comment. The city council of Shepparton, north of Melbourne, sent lifeguards to ask holidaymakers to avoid the direct sun at the city pool during January record temperatures of 45 C (113 F). “Everyone knows it’s hot, but sometimes we forget the obvious things,” said Mayor Kim O’Keeffe.

Canada Says 13 Citizens Detained in China Since Huawei CFO Arrest 

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 10:01
Canada said Thursday that 13 of its citizens have been detained in China since Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested last month in Vancouver at the request of the United States.  "At least" eight of those 13 have since been released, a Canadian government statement said, without disclosing what charges, if any, have been brought. Prior to Thursday's statement, detention of only three Canadian citizens had been publicly disclosed. Diplomatic tensions between Canada and China have escalated since Meng's arrest on Dec. 1.  The Canadian government has said several times it sees no explicit link between the arrest of Meng, the daughter of Huawei's founder, and the detentions of Canadian citizens. But Beijing-based Western diplomats and former Canadian diplomats have said they believe the detentions were a "tit-for-tat" reprisal by China.  Meng, sought by the U.S. over alleged violations of U.S. trade sanctions on Iran, was released on C$10 million ($7.4 million) bail on Dec. 11 and is now living in one of her two multimillion-dollar Vancouver homes as she fights extradition to the United States.  The 46-year-old executive must wear an ankle monitor and stay at home from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.  The 13 Canadians detained include Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor and Sarah McIver, a Canadian government official who declined to be identified said Thursday.  McIver, a teacher, has since been released and returned to Canada. Kovrig and Spavor remain in custody. Canadian consular officials saw them once each in mid-December.  Overall, there are about 200 Canadians who have been detained in China for a variety of alleged infractions who continue to face legal proceedings. "This number has remained relatively stable," the official said.  In comparison, there are almost 900 Canadians in a similar situation in the United States, the official added. 

Thailand's Rebel Female Buddhist Monks Defy Tradition 

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 08:37
Boodsabann Chanthawong recently joined a growing number of women defying generations of Thai Buddhist tradition by becoming ordained as  novice monks at an unrecognized all-female monastery outside Bangkok.  Leading a procession of 21 other women — from teenagers to senior citizens — to a chapel in the Songdhammakalyani monastery in Nakhon Pathom province, Boodsabann teared up as she prepared to exchange her white garments for the distinctive saffron robes otherwise seen almost exclusively on male monks.  "I'm going to overcome this obstacle and become ordained like I've always wanted," the 49-year-old businesswoman said before the ceremony on Dec. 5, where she would have her head shaved. She stayed for nine days at the temple. Officially, only men can become monks and novices in Thailand under a Buddhist order that since 1928 has forbidden the ordination of women. The country does not recognize female monks or novices.  ​Becoming nuns One option for devout Thai women is to become white-clad Buddhist nuns, who follow a less strict religious regimen than monks and are often relegated to housekeeping tasks in temples.  In recent years, more Thai Buddhist women seeking to become full-fledged "bhikkunis," or female monks, have been defying the tradition by pursuing the other option: getting ordained overseas, usually in Sri Lanka or India.  Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the 74-year-old abbess of the Songdhammakalyani monastery, flew to Sri Lanka to be ordained in  2001 as Thailand's first female monk.  Since then, she has helped women like Boodsabann join the Buddhist order as novices at the monastery's ordination ceremonies every April and December.  "It's been 90 years and the social context has changed, but they still don't accept us," Dhammananda told Reuters in an interview at the temple's library, where an entire shelf is dedicated to books about women's rights and role in religion.  "It's a shame that women aren't allowed to make decisions for their own lives. You have to rebel against injustice because this is not right," she added.  No ordination of monks While Dhammananda's monastery ordains female novices, it cannot do the same for those seeking to become female monks.  Such a ceremony would require not only 10 female monks but also 10 male monks, who are forbidden under Thailand's 1928 order to participate in it.  ​There are about 270 female monks across Thailand and they were all ordained abroad, Dhammananda said, adding that her monastery houses seven of them. In contrast, Thailand has more than 250,000 male monks.  Efforts in the past by advocates to undo the 1928 order have been futile. It has been officially upheld during meetings of the Sangha Supreme Council, the council of top monks, in 2002 and most recently in 2014.  The government says this is not gender discrimination but a matter of long-held tradition, and women are free to travel abroad to be ordained, just not in their own country.  "Women can't be ordained here, but no one stops them from doing that overseas. They just can't be ordained by Thai monks, that's all," said Narong Songarom, spokesman of the National Office of Buddhism. 

Global Stocks Fall After Apple Trims Sales Forecast

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 03:23
Stock markets around the globe dropped Thursday after tech giant Apple said that sales of its devices had fallen sharply in China last month, perhaps signaling a broader slowing in the world economy. The widely watched Dow Jones industrial average of 30 prominent U.S. stocks plunged 2.8 percent — more than 660 points — by the close of trading, after stock indexes in Europe and Asia closed with smaller losses. Apple's stock was down nearly 9 percent. The stock declines came after Apple announced late Wednesday that its holiday sales were lower than it had expected, especially in China, the world's second-biggest economy after the United States. In addition, a key gauge of U.S. manufacturing unexpectedly hit a two-year low in December, indicating weak demand and exports. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook blamed the company's sales shortfall on the trade battle President Donald Trump is waging against China.  "While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in greater China," Cook wrote. "In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad."  ​More to come Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said the contentious U.S.-China relations would force other U.S. companies to cut their sales estimates in China.  "It's not going to be just Apple," Hassett told CNN. "There are a heck of a lot of U.S. companies that have sales in China that are going to be watching their earnings being downgraded next year until we get a deal with China." He said slowing consumer demand in China would give Trump an edge in trade negotiations.    "That puts a lot of pressure on China to make a deal," he said. "If we have a successful negotiation with China, then Apple's sales and everybody else's sales will recover." The U.S. economy remains strong, with the country's 3.7 percent jobless rate at a nearly five-decade low. But economists say the U.S. economy could be slowing, and uncertainty in global economic fortunes has led to volatile daily swings in stock indexes in recent weeks. In 2018, U.S. stock indexes suffered their worst year in a decade, with most of the losses recorded in December. The Dow was off 5.6 percent for the year, with the broader Standard & Poor's index of 500 stocks down 6.2 percent.

US Urges Increased Caution for Americans Traveling to China

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 03:04
The U.S. State Department has updated its travel advisory on China, calling on Americans to exercise "increased caution" in the country due to "arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual U.S.-Chinese nationals." The advisory says Chinese authorities have asserted broad authority to prohibit U.S. citizens from leaving China by implementing "exit bans," sometimes keeping U.S. citizens in China for years.  The warning says China uses exit bans "coercively" to compel U.S. citizens to participate in Chinese government investigations, to lure individuals back to China from abroad, and to aid authorities in resolving civil disputes in favor of Chinese parties. Level 2 warning The Level 2 warning says in most cases, U.S. citizens only become aware of the exit ban when they attempt to depart China. It adds U.S. citizens under exit bans have been harassed and threatened. China does not recognize dual nationality and the State Department warns U.S.-Chinese citizens and U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage may be subject to additional scrutiny and harassment, and China may prevent the U.S. embassy from providing consular services. The travel advisory says extra measures, such as security checks and increased levels of police presence, are common in the Xinjiang Uighur and Tibet Autonomous Regions, where authorities may impose curfews and travel restrictions on short notice. Advisory issued for Myanmar The update calling for increased caution comes after China detained two Canadian citizens last month on suspicion of endangering state security.  Those arrests followed Canada's arrest of high-ranking Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States.  China has demanded Canada free Meng, who is fighting extradition to the United States. Last week, the State Department also issued a Level 2 advisory for Myanmar, calling on travelers to exercise increased caution "due to areas of civil unrest and armed conflict."   Level 1 travel advisories call on American travelers to "exercise normal precautions."  Level 3 travel warnings call on Americans to reconsider travel, and Level 4 warnings strongly advise: "Do not travel."

India Deports 2nd Group of Rohingya Muslims

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 22:42
India deported a second small group of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday as part of what it said was an ongoing crackdown on illegal immigrants. A police official in India's northeastern Assam state, Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, said a family of five Rohingya was handed over to Myanmar authorities at a border crossing in Manipur state. A group of seven Rohingya was the first to be deported in October. India's Hindu nationalist government considers some Rohingya a security risk and has ordered tens of thousands of those who live in small settlements to be repatriated. A brutal Myanmar military campaign has forced some 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017. About 40,000 other Rohingya have taken refuge in India. A United Nations report published in August accused the Myanmar military of committing mass killings and rapes with "genocidal intent" in 2017. Myanmar has denied the accusations, maintaining the military responded to Muslim militant attacks on security positions.  

China Meets Growing Demand for Armed Drones in Middle East

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 20:20
China is meeting a growing demand for armed drones in the Middle East, adding new military capabilities to an already tense security situation, according to a new report from the London-based Royal United Services Institute. Report author Justin Bronk says Beijing asks few questions when selling the technology overseas. “Because the United States in particular has refused — apart from the cases of the U.K. and France — to export armed models of its iconic Predator and Reaper series of armed drones, China has sort of stepped in to fill that gap. And while its offerings such as the Wing Loong series or CH-4 are less technologically capable than their American counterparts, they’re available pretty much to any state that wants to buy,” Bronk told VOA. The report says the Chinese-made drones are far less advanced than U.S.-built UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), which have been used in several arenas across the Middle East region. However, the Chinese drones are far cheaper and easier to access. Meanwhile, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are developing their own armed drone programs, while Iran is among the regional powers using the new technology to undertake missions that would otherwise be too risky using conventional manned jets, Bronk said. “In the case of Iran, the development of armed drones, mostly copied from old Israeli patterns, has allowed them to operate airstrike capabilities in Iraq and in Syria, despite the fact that its conventional air force is far too obsolescent and far too limited and too precious to be risked in skies controlled largely by potentially hostile powers like the United States and Israel.” U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to relax export bans on American armed drone systems, but it is not clear when that might happen. The report’s authors say such a policy would likely have a big impact on the use of the technology across the Middle East region.

China Meets Growing Demand for Armed Drones in Mideast

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 20:15
China is meeting a growing demand for armed drones in the Middle East, adding new military capabilities to an already tense security situation, according to a new report from the London-based Royal United Services Institute. Iran is among the regional players using the new technology to undertake missions that would otherwise be too risky, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

N. Korean Diplomat Hiding, S. Korea Spy Agency Tells Lawmakers

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 16:30
North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, went into hiding with his wife in November, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul Thursday. A high-profile defection by one of North Korea’s elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a player in international geopolitics. South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) shared the information during a closed-door briefing. Kim did not say whether the spy agency revealed any information about Jo’s current whereabouts or whether the diplomat had plans to defect to South Korea. Kim said the NIS said it has not been contacted by Jo. Hiding since early November The NIS earlier said it couldn’t confirm a South Korean media report that Jo was under the protection of the Italian government as he seeks asylum in a Western nation. Kim said the NIS official said Jo and his wife left the official residence in early November, weeks before his term was to end in late November. Jo had been North Korea’s acting ambassador to Rome after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in September 2017 to protest a North Korean nuclear test. North Korea has not commented on Jo’s status. Defections sensitive North Korea, which touts itself in its propaganda as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government. The last senior North Korean diplomat known to have defected is Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, who defected to South Korea in 2016. North Korea described Thae as “human scum” and claimed he was trying to escape punishment for serious crimes.

Chinese Craft First to Land on Moon’s Far Side

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 15:53
A Chinese spacecraft Thursday made the first-ever landing on the far side of the moon in the latest achievement for the country’s growing space program. The relatively unexplored far side of the moon faces away from Earth and is also known as the dark side. A photo taken by the lunar explorer Chang’e 4 at 11:40 a.m. and published online by the official Xinhua News Agency shows a small crater and a barren surface that appears to be illuminated by a light from the probe. Chang’e 4 touched down on the surface at 10:26 a.m., the China National Space Administration said. The landing was announced by state broadcaster China Central Television at the top of its noon news broadcast. Growing ambitions in space The landing highlights China’s growing ambitions as a space power. In 2013, Chang’e 3, the predecessor craft to the current mission, made the first moon landing since the then-Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. The United States is the only other country that has carried out moon landings. The work of Chang’e 4, which is carrying a rover, includes carrying out astronomical observations and probing the structure and mineral composition of the terrain. “The far side of the moon is a rare quiet place that is free from interference of radio signals from Earth,” mission spokesman Yu Guobin said, according to Xinhua. “This probe can fill the gap of low-frequency observation in radio astronomy and will provide important information for studying the origin of stars and nebula evolution.” Communicating One challenge of operating on the far side of the moon is communicating with Earth. China launched a relay satellite in May so that Chang’e 4 can send back information. China plans to send its Chang’e 5 probe to the moon next year and have it return to Earth with samples, the first time that will have been done since the Soviet mission in 1976. A Long March 3B rocket carrying Chang’e 4 blasted off Dec. 8 from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southern China. Chang’e is the name of a Chinese goddess who, according to legend, has lived on the moon for millennia.

Some S. Koreans Eager to Welcome Kim Jong Un to Seoul

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 15:34
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un highlighted peace and prosperity in his annual New Year’s address, and while he did not make the much-anticipated trip to Seoul in 2018, some local residents are hopeful the visit could still come soon and promote greater ties between the two nations. Kim Soo-keun, a member of the “Welcoming Committee of the Great Man” group, told VOA that members of the government and South Korean citizens should work together to promote better ties and unification. “We have witnessed the warmest welcome in Pyongyang and we should do the same to the visitors from the north,” Kim Soo-geun said. Speaking during his New Year’s Day address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said, “North and South should not pass up the favorable atmosphere of today when all the nationals’ interest in and aspiration for reunification are growing unprecedentedly, but actively try to find a peaceful reunification plan based on nationwide agreement and direct sincere efforts to this end.” In a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in before 2018’s end, Kim “expressed a strong determination to visit Seoul,” Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, told reporters. Kim also conveyed to Moon “an intention to meet with Moon frequently in 2019” to pursue peace and “solve the issue of denuclearizing the peninsula together,” spokesman Kim said. ​Multiple groups seek to welcome Kim In addition to the “Welcoming Committee of the Great Man” group, two other organizations have been active in the Seoul area, promoting a warm reception for the North Korean leader. While the “Seoul Citizen Welcome Committee” and “Baekdu Guard” initially held a number of events and rallies throughout the city, both have scaled back their activities. On its Facebook and web page, the “Seoul Citizen Welcome Committee” encourages residents to fill out postcards to Kim Jong Un. According to a counter on its homepage, they’ve collected just more than 6,000 in a city of millions. As the likelihood of Kim’s visit to Seoul abated in late 2018, the “Baekdu Guard” group closed its website, although the organization continues to maintain its Facebook page. Both the “Seoul Citizen Welcome Committee” and “Baekdu Guard” groups declined to speak with VOA about their activities and goals; however, “Welcoming Committee of the Great Man” said they formed in November to counter “groups that are against the unification, such as far-right conservatives.” “Welcoming Committee of the Great Man’s” group Kim Soo-keun tells VOA his organization has six core members that aim to provide Kim Jong Un a welcome in Seoul reciprocal to the one Pyongyang gave Moon in September. A recent Realmeter poll found 61.3 percent of those surveyed would welcome Kim if he comes to the South, noting it would likely contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula. The survey results indicated 31.3 percent of those questioned opposed the visit. ​National Security Law controversy Since 1948, South Korea’s National Security Law has been in place “to suppress anti-State acts that endanger national security and to ensure the nation’s security, people’s life and freedom.” In practice, the act made communism illegal and recognized North Korea as a political entity. Organizations advocating the overthrow of the government also run afoul of the statute. Amnesty International has described the National Security Law as a tool to “ harass and arbitrarily prosecute individuals and civil society organizations who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, opinion and association” and to “remove people who are perceived to threaten established political views, to prevent people from taking part in discussions surrounding relations with North Korea.” Recently, several anti-North Korean groups filed complaints against pro-North Korea activists, including Kim Soo-keun, of breaching the National Security Law. Speaking to the Korea Times, Park Sang-hak, the founder of the Fighters for a Free North Korea, said, “I respect the pro-North organizations’ thoughts, but it should be expressed within the limits of the constitution.” Kim Soo-keun counters by saying, “Despite the opposition, if Kim [Jong Un] makes his visit, it means that the old ideologies such as anti-communism, or the National Security Law are not valid in [South] Korea.” If Kim Jong Un visits Seoul, Kim Soo-keun believes it can “resolve misunderstandings and prejudices” surrounding the Korean leader and people “will think it is not necessary to be hostile to the North, and we can step forward to peace and prosperity.” Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.

Lawyers Request Seizure of Japanese Assets for Korean Forced Labor

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:21
Lawyers for South Koreans forced into wartime labor have taken legal steps to seize the South Korean assets of a Japanese company they are trying to pressure into obeying a court ruling to provide them compensation. Lawyer Lim Jae-sung said Thursday the court in the city of Pohang could decide in two or three weeks whether to accept the request to seize the 2.34 million shares Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. holds in its joint venture with South Korean steelmaker POSCO, which are estimated to be worth around $9.7 million. Lim said Nippon Steel has been refusing to discuss compensation despite a ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court in October that the company should pay 100 million won ($88,000) each to four plaintiffs who worked at its steel mills during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The court made a similar ruling on Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in November, triggering a diplomatic spats between the countries. It’s unlikely the Japanese companies will follow the South Korean rulings. The Japanese government has expressed strong regret over the rulings and considers all wartime compensation issues settled by a treaty both countries signed in 1965. Lawyers for forced laborers for Nippon Steel had set a Dec. 24 deadline for the company to respond to their request to begin compensation discussions, but the steelmaker did not respond. Lim said the lawyers decided not to file for a court order that would force Nippon Steel to sell its shares in the South Korean joint venture because they still hope to “amicably” settle the matter through negotiations. Among the four plaintiffs in the Nippon Steel case, only 94-year-old Lee Chun-sik has survived the legal battle, which extended nearly 14 years. South Korea says Japan used about 220,000 wartime Korean forced laborers before the end of World War II.

Slowing Economies Could Prod US, China to Reach Deal

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 05:03
The Trump administration and China are facing growing pressure to blink in their six-month stare-down over trade because of jittery markets and portents of economic weakness.    The import taxes the two sides have imposed on hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of each other's goods — and the threat of more to come — have heightened anxiety on each side of the Pacific. The longer their trade war lasts, the longer companies and consumers will feel the pain of higher-priced imports and exports.      Their conflict is occurring against the backdrop of a slowdown in China and an expected U.S. slump that a prolonged trade war could worsen — a fear that's weighing on financial markets. Yet those very pressures, analysts say, give the two countries a stronger incentive to make peace.    "The U.S. and China now have a strong shared interest in striking a deal in order to halt the downward spiral in business and investor confidence, which have taken a beating in both their economies,'' said Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.    The economic threats, agreed Wang Yong, an international relations specialist at Peking University, "might be conducive to negotiations'' by nudging Beijing toward market-oriented changes long sought by the United States.    Still, it will hardly be easy to bridge the complex differences between the world's top two economies. They range from President Donald Trump's insistence that China buy more U.S. products to widespread assertions that Beijing steals trade secrets from foreign companies operating in China.   Negotiations between the two nations are expected to resume next week. Gao Feng, a spokesman for China's Commerce Ministry, said last week that the two sides have "made specific arrangements for face-to-face meetings'' and are talking by phone. Gao offered no details, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative declined to confirm the talks.    The world is watching anxiously. China and the United States are the "main engines of the world,'' noted Song Lifang, an economist at Renmin University in Beijing. That makes their dispute "a matter not only for the two countries but for the world.'' Globally significant The dispute is "a major factor'' in a slowdown in global growth, Song said, and a settlement would "help in arresting the decline of the economies of the two countries and of the world.''    Trump has long complained about America's gaping trade deficit with China: The gap between what Americans sold and what they bought from China in 2017 amounted to $336 billion and will likely be higher in 2018. But the dispute goes far deeper than lopsided exports and imports. It's fundamentally a high-stakes conflict over the economy of the future.      The U.S. accuses China of deploying predatory tactics in a drive to surpass America's technological supremacy. A report in March by the U.S. Trade Representative accused China of hacking into U.S. companies' computer networks to steal secrets and coercing American companies to hand over technology as the price of admission to the Chinese market.     To try to compel China to reform its ways, Washington has imposed tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports; Beijing has counterpunched by taxing $110 billion in U.S. goods. Trump had been set to raise the tariffs on most of the Chinese goods on Jan. 1. But he and President Xi Jinping agreed to a 90-day cease-fire to try to resolve their differences.    Since then, the case for peace has strengthened as economic risks in the U.S. and China have grown and financial markets have reeled. For 2018, the Dow Jones industrial average — America's highest-profile stock market benchmark — fell nearly 6 percent, its worst performance since 2008. China's Shanghai Composite Index sank nearly 25 percent.      On top of concerns about collateral damage from the U.S.-China trade war, investors in the U.S. markets are worrying about rising interest rates and a wobbly U.S. real estate market. Fears are growing that the second-longest economic expansion in U.S. history could slide to a halt next year or in 2020. Cutting a deal with Beijing could help at least reduce the threat.   China's economy has been decelerating since the government pulled back on bank lending a year ago to try to curb a run-up in debt. The International Monetary Fund estimates that China's economy grew about 6.6 percent in 2018, down from 6.9 percent in 2017. But heavy government spending masked weakness in private sector activity. In December, factory activity shrank for the first time in more than two years.    Auto sales in China plunged 16 percent in November from a year earlier. It was the fourth month of contraction, and it put annual sales in the world's biggest auto market on track to contract for the first time in three decades.    Despite its softening economy, China will most likely find it difficult to comply with U.S. demands to slow its economic ambitions. Those ambitions cut to the heart of China's drive to become the world's 21st-century economic superpower.  U.S. demands   "It is difficult to solve the trade dispute immediately because the U.S. demands are too high, especially demands for changes in China's economic and social systems, which are difficult for China to accept,'' said Song, the economist at Renmin University.    Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. trade negotiator, said the U.S. most likely can't realistically settle for anything less than an agreement by Beijing to reform how it does business.    "There are certainly compelling reasons for both sides to reach a deal and avoid further tariff increases,'' said Cutler, now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. "However, these reasons can only take you so far. ... Without a strong deal that addresses structural issues, it sets the administration up for critics to say,  'You took us into a trade war for this?' "

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