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Chinese Diplomat Uses Twitter to Counter Allegations of Xinjiang-Related Rights Abuses

A senior Chinese diplomat in Pakistan has taken to social media to reject as “baseless” Western allegations that China is committing massive human rights abuses in its neighboring northwestern Xinjiang border region.

Beijing is blamed by the U.S. and international rights defenders for reportedly running mass detention centers filled with ethnic Uighur and other Muslims to force them to denounce their religious beliefs.

In a series of tweets in the past few days, Deputy Chief of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad Lijian Zhao described the charges as “groundless.” Instead, he asserted the Chinese government “protects its citizens’ right to freedom and religious belief and people of all ethnic groups enjoy freedom of religious belief in accordance with law.”

Beijing maintains Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists, who plot attacks and fuel tension between the Uighur community and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

“Since the 1990s, thousands of terrorist incidents happened in Xinjiang. There is zero terrorist attack in 21 months,” Zhao tweeted Tuesday. He went on to insist that sustained Chinese efforts have led to “social stability and a sound momentum” of economic development in the region.

However, it was not possible to independently verify statistics Zhao shared on social media.

Discussions are under way within the U.S. government on possible economic penalties in response to reports of Chinese rights abuses in Xinjiang.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers recently wrote to the State Department asking for it to impose sanctions on Chinese officials allegedly overseeing the policies in Xinjiang.

Beijing sees the U.S. using Xinjiang-related issues as interference in China’s internal affairs.

Pakistan-based diplomat Zhao uses his Twitter account to disseminate information about progress on China-funded infrastructure projects under construction in Pakistan. He is regarded as a celebrity among Pakistanis because of his daily tweets on topics ranging from Pakistani economic to foreign policy issues.

Zhao swiftly responded to domestic and foreign critics of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor who, among other things, complain the project is burdening Islamabad with expensive Chinese debt. Both Pakistani and Chinese officials maintain CPEC has created more than 70,000 local jobs and contributed to Pakistan’s GDP growth stemming from Chinese grants, direct investment and concessional loans.

Beijing has already invested more than $19 billion in the past four years to help Islamabad build highways, energy plants and ports under the CPEC, that it declared flagship projects of President Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road Initiative.

The massive cooperation project will ultimately connect Xinjiang with the Chinese-built and operated southern Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, giving Beijing the shortest access to international markets.

The CPEC is expected to bring more than $62 billion in Chinese investment to Pakistan by 2030 to build, among other projects, special economic zones to help improve and expand manufacturing capacity to enable Islamabad to increase exports to bring much-needed foreign exchange to the cash-starved country.

Pakistani citizens and small traders who regularly travel by road to Xinjiang complain of relatively harsh treatment by Chinese border authorities on arrival. Uighur men and women also used to frequently travel to Pakistan in large numbers until recently. But the Uighur travelers to Pakistan have dramatically declined in recent years, allegedly due to an anti-Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang.

Local media reports say some Uighur women married Pakistanis during their prolonged stay in the country, but years later when they went back to Xinjiang to see their parents, Chinese officials allegedly detained them for interrogation and their Pakistani spouses complain they remain uninformed about the whereabouts of their wives. The Chinese government has not responded to complaints reported in Pakistani newspapers.

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Huawei Launches New flagship Phones in Bid to Keep No. 2 Spot

Huawei unveiled new flagship smartphones with novel smart camera and video features on Tuesday, as it seeks to sustain momentum among price-conscious consumers.

The Chinese company, which overtook Apple this year to become the No. 2 smartphone maker by units – behind South Korea’s Samsung (005930.KS) – introduced its Mate 20 phone series using Leica camera technology.

Huawei’s new premium phone line-up has four models available around the world, expect in the United States where sales are effectively banned over whispered national security concerns.

The new line-up includes the Mate 20, with list prices ranging from 799-849 euros ($925-$983), depending on memory configuration.

The fuller-featured Mate 20 Pro, is priced as low as 799 pounds at some UK retailers and list priced at 849 pounds or 1,049 euros across Europe. A comparable iPhone X Max from Apple costs 1,099 pounds in the UK.

The new phones include a new ultra-wide angle lens, as well as a 3x telephoto lens and a macro that shoots objects as close as 2.5 centimeters (1 inch).

Mate P20 models take advantage of artificial intelligence features built into Huawei’s own Kirin chipsets.

Features available to Mate 20 users include being able to isolate human subjects and desaturate the colors around them in order to highlight people against their backgrounds.

Huawei incorporates bigger light-sensing chips than rival phones to take better pictures in low-light conditions.

Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza said that in a highly commoditized smartphone market of look-alike phones, Huawei is managing to differentiate itself with camera and personalization features.

“With the Mate 20, Huawei is setting the bar for what users can expect from photography using a smartphone,” Cozza said.

The Chinese phone maker managed to surpass Apple to take the No. 2 spot in the second quarter, industry data shows, despite being effectively excluded from the U.S. market.

However, Apple commanded 43 percent of the premium market and a lion’s share of profits, CounterPoint Research estimated.

“Huawei is clearly ticking all the key boxes needed to displace rivals – and not just Android-powered rivals,” said Ben Wood, research chief of mobile industry consulting firm CCS Insight.

Wood said Huawei’s move to match Apple iPhone’s characteristic swipe gestures and face unlock features on its Mate 20 Pro could, in theory, make it easier for committed Apple buyers to switch, although he said that was unlikely near term.

“But it’s clear that Huawei has an eye on the future and is ready to take share from Apple if the time comes that a loyal iPhone owner decides to try something else,” he said.

The new premium phone line-up from the world’s biggest telecom equipment maker includes four models, the Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate 20 X, with a 7.2 inch display screen, and a Porsche Design limited edition phone.

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China Wants to Further Boost Ties in Central, East Europe

An official says China wants to further boost cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe where it is already financing infrastructure and other projects as part of a wider bid to increase global influence.

Transport Minister Li Xiaopeng spoke Tuesday at a meeting with officials from 16 countries from the region that focused on transport links.

The initiative is part of China’s wider “New Silk Road” plan to boost influence in Europe and elsewhere in the world through investments and closer economic relations.

Li said the “current international situation is pretty complex and the facts of uncertainty have increased.” He adds in comments translated by an official interpreter that China is “willing and prepared” to “further deepen our cooperation based on the complementary advantage.”

China’s investment efforts have sparked European Union concerns.

 

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Australian PM Considering Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is considering recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the country’s embassy there from Tel Aviv. 

Prime Minister Morrison told reporters Tuesday he was “open minded” about a suggestion made by Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel. U.S. President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December, breaking with a long-standing policy that Jerusalem’s status should be settled as part of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. Embassy officially opened in Jerusalem in May. 

Sharma, a member of Morrison’s ruling conservative Liberal Party, is running in a parliamentary by-election this Saturday in a district in Sydney with a Jewish population. If Sharma loses, the Liberals will lose its single-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

Penny Wong, a lawmaker with opposition Labor Party, accused the prime minister of putting politics ahead of Australia’s long-term national interest. 

Morrison’s decision is also being greeted negatively in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that an unnamed Indonesian official said Morrison’s announcement could jeopardize a landmark bilateral trade deal he and President Joko Widodo are scheduled to sign later this year. 

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, who was visiting Jakarta on a diplomatic mission Tuesday, warned that Morrison is “risking Australia’s trade and business relationship with the rest of the world,” particularly the Muslim world, as well as violating both international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Morrison insisted that his decision had nothing to do with either the Sydney by-election or from any pressure from the Trump administration, and said Australia would continue to support a two-state solution. He later told Parliament that he had briefed President Widodo during a phone call before his announcement.

“We will continue to work closely and cooperatively with our allies and our partners all around the world on these issues,” Morrison said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “very thankful” for his Australian counterpart’s decision in a post on Twitter Tuesday.

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Three-Way Talks Begin on Disarming Key Part of Korean Border

Negotiators from North and South Korea, along with the U.S.-led United Nations Command, are holding their first talks Tuesday on demilitarizing a section of the heavily fortified border that separates the rival Koreas.

The talks will take place in the so-called Joint Security Area, which the three sides have controlled since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953, leaving North and South Korea in a technical state of war.

During their third summit in Pyongyang last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in reached an agreement to disarm the JSA, including clearing mines buried within the small area, and removing guard posts, surveillance and other military equipment by the end of the year.

The Joint Security Area is the only spot within the Demilitarized Zone where troops from North and South Korea stand face-to-face. The area has long been used for diplomatic engagement. The JSA is also the scene of a bloody incident in 1976, when two U.S. Army officers were killed by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers.

During high-level talks Monday in the truce village of Panmunjom, the two Koreas agreed to begin a joint project to modernize and connect their rail and roadways before the end of the year. They also agreed to hold Red Cross talks related to families separated by the Korean War at the North’s Mount Kumgang Resort in November. 

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What Approach to Take on North Korean Sanctions?

The United States has called for the continued full enforcement of United Nations sanctions on North Korea after the two Koreas moved to establish rail and road links across their shared border and South Korean President Moon Jae-in continued to make the case for easing international sanctions against Pyongyang as it makes incremental progress toward denuclearization.

In a statement to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency Monday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said, “We expect all member states to fully implement U.N. sanctions, including sectoral goods banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, and expect all nations to take their responsibilities seriously to help end [North Korea’s] illegal nuclear and missile programs.”

Washington repeatedly has said that sanctions on North Korea will remain in place until Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The United Nations sanctions currently in place on Pyongyang are designed to sever the resources necessary to develop the North’s weapons programs and deplete its cash reserves.

But Moon told France’s Le Figaro newspaper before leaving for a European tour, that over the course of his conversations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the “meetings have convinced me that he has taken the strategic decision to abandon his nuclear weapons.” 

“With the denuclearization of North Korea, by agreeing to destroy their nuclear arsenal, they need to have the confidence that they have made the right choice,” said Moon.

Speaking alongside French President Emanuel Macron, Moon added on Monday, “I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process.”

​Sanctions to remain

Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill said that while the atmosphere on the peninsula has changed, that wasn’t necessarily facilitated by Pyongyang.

“I think people who call for a reevaluation of sanctions need to explain how North Korea has somehow changed with respect to denuclearization,” Hill said.

“I’d like to hear the argument that suggests that they’ve done something in denuclearization,” Hill added.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster recently said in Seoul, that “while we all hope that Chairman Kim Jong Un is undergoing a radical change of heart, we must remain alert.”

McMaster said the possibility remains that Kim intends to use his nuclear arsenal as a “‘treasured sword’ designed to pry apart the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, by making America think twice about ever coming to South Korea’s aid in time of war.”

He added that in Kim’s 2018 New Year’s Day address, the North Korean leader spoke of “reunification” at least ten times. “So we must consider that North Korea may intend to hold on to these weapons because they are instrumental to achieving that “final victory,” which North Korea propaganda clearly states is the reunification of North and South under the Kim regime,” McMaster cautioned.

The future

Bruce Cumings, an American scholar who has extensively studied North Korea and the Korean Peninsula said he doesn’t believe Kim’s move toward denuclearization is a ploy.

“I think it’s true that the basic character of the North Korean regime has not changed,” Cumings said; however, if the United States and South Korea aren’t threats, he thinks it’s possible that “North Korea will either give up its nuclear weapons and missiles, or they’ll be kept and under inspection or controlled in a way that means they really can’t use them.”

But the RAND Corporation’s Bruce Bennett says it’s important to consider what the international community can give North Korea in exchange for progress on denuclearization.

“The biggest mistake is sanctions relief. Sanctions are something that hold together as long as there are no holes in them,” said Bennett.

Bennett says the international community must be careful about next steps.

Although it’s likely that Kim will not accept to a limit on weapons productions, according to the Harvard Belfer Center’s Gary Samor.

“I think the only way to find out [if Kim is serious], is to offer him a fairly substantial benefit in return,” he opined, “And for me, that means sanction relief and South Korean economic cooperation.”

But Samor said it must be made clear, that economic assistance and cooperation can’t be put into motion, unless Pyongyang takes serious steps toward denuclearization.

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Caution, Cancellations, Protests as Concerns Grow on China’s Belt and Road

Concerns about debt diplomacy on China’s expansive infrastructure megaproject — the Belt and Road — have become an increasing source of debate from Asia to Africa and the Middle East. In recent weeks, more than $30 billion in projects have been scrapped and other loans and investments are under review.

 

Public opposition is also testing the resolve of ruling authorities from Hanoi to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, as concerns about Chinese investment build.

In late August, Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad canceled more than $20 billion in Belt and Road projects for railway and pipelines, and Pakistan lopped another $2 billion off plans for a railway following a decision late last year to cancel a $14 billion dam project, citing financial concerns. Nepal canceled its dam project last month and Sierra Leone announced last week that it was dropping an airport project over debt concerns.

 

In some countries such as Vietnam, it is just the idea of Chinese investment — against the backdrop of the Belt and Road — that has led to push back.

Following public protests, Vietnam recently decided to postpone plans for several special economic zones.

 

Several Belt and Road projects have seen setbacks in countries where debt concerns have coincided with political elections and a change of power — be it Pakistan, Malaysia or the Maldives, says economist Christopher Balding.

 

“The people in these countries are very worried about the level of debt that these countries are taking on in regard to China and I think that is very important to note,” Balding said. “It’s not just anti-China people that are driving this, but that there is a lot of concern on the ground in the countries about that.”

 

China says there are no political strings attached to its investments and loans. It also argues it is providing funding in places others will not. But Beijing’s takeover of a port in Sri Lanka last year and the sheer volume of Chinese investments along the Belt and Road project have done little to ease those concerns.

 

String of ports

 

Late last year, according to the New York Times, China agreed to forgive Sri Lanka’s debt in exchange for a 99-year lease of Hambanthota Port and 15,000 acres of surrounding land.

The government of Sri Lanka denies it divested land to a Chinese company, but the deal has convinced some that China is setting up debt traps to then take over the infrastructure that Chinese state-run companies build.

 

Hambanthota is one of 42 ports where China has participated in construction and operations, with more on the horizon.

In 2021, China will take over operation of one of Israel’s largest ports in Haifa. Beijing is also being eyed as a possible candidate for the development of Chabahar port in Iran, which is near the Iran-Pakistan border.

The port proposal remains in limbo, however, due to U.S. sanctions. And that’s not the only obstacle, according to David Kelly, research director at the Beijing-based group China Policy.

“It’s in the driest and most remote part of Iran,” Kelly said. “It looks like a real loser commercially, unless it handles a lot of oil.”

Analysts say the Middle East, with its oil money and deep pockets, is less at risk for debt traps.

 

However, the port that is most likely to follow in Sri Lanka’s footsteps is Djibouti, a strategically important country on the Horn of Africa, where China recently established its first overseas military base.

According to official figures, Djibouti’s debt is more than 88 percent of the GDP and China owns $1.4 billion of that. That kind of debt overhang could lead to the same type of concessionary agreements as in Sri Lanka, analysts note.

 

Debt traps

 

A report released earlier this year by Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development said 23 of the 68 countries where China is investing for Belt and Road projects are at high risk of debt distress. Another eight, including Djibouti, are vulnerable to debt distress linked to future projects.

 

China argues its investments are aimed at boosting trade and commerce and giving developing countries a leg up.

 

China Policy’s Kelly says places where the debt situation is more critical are countries such as land-locked and poverty-stricken Zambia. There, concerns are causing a very public push for the government to disclose the full burden of Chinese debt.

 

“The upset and upheaval in Zambia recently, where you’ve got African civil society coming out and making this case,” Kelly said, “That is always going to be more significant where you have the local people, making a local case.”

 

BRI indigestion

 

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, says cancellations and changes are what he calls Belt and Road indigestion.

Concerns about debt traps and debt diplomacy will not have an impact on China going forward, he says, but stops, starts and cancellations will continue.

 

Oh says China’s model of development — build infrastructure and the economy will grow — may have worked at home, but it doesn’t always fit along the Belt and Road.

 

“In many of these Belt and Road initiative countries, if you lay out the infrastructure, it doesn’t automatically mean that trade and investment will take place,” Oh said, “Some of these projects will have to be more attuned to the local requirements of particular countries.”

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World Oil Prices Help Vietnam Expand an Already Fast-Growing Economy

An increase in world oil prices is helping Vietnam earn money that will quicken its already fast economic growth and may help the country build new infrastructure. The only red light: higher fuel prices among Vietnam’s consumers.

Vietnam, though not a major oil-producing nation like much of the Middle East, has counted energy-related commodities as its fifth highest source of exports. The industry is largely state-owned, including energy supplier PetroVietnam, with $3.1 billion in annual sales. Much of Vietnam’s energy comes from under the seas off its east and south coasts.

If crude oil prices hold at an average $65 per barrel this year, above last year’s average of US$60, economic growth will exceed the 6.7 percent target set by the legislature, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s website said last week. 

“Vietnam has a huge level of natural gas reserves and a level of oil, so if the prices go up that would definitely be a boon for Vietnam,” said Ralf Matthaes, founder of the Infocus Mekong Research consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City.

“It would be another benefit for Vietnam, that look, Vietnam has more exports. It’s not just about coffee and rice,” he said.

World oil price hikes

The Vietnamese Ministry of Finance forecasts that total state revenue from crude oil exports will reach $3.13 billion in the first nine months of 2018, up 42.5% over the same period last year. The total for January through September would beat a full-year target.

The revenue increases for Vietnam reflect higher income from oil sales worldwide. World prices should reach $73 per barrel within the year and $74 next year, per estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Prices have gone up, the administration says, because of supply issues, including reports that U.S. sanctions on Iran will cut purchases.

“For the government and their state-owned enterprise PetroVietnam, it’s definitely good news,” said Frederick Burke, partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City. “They’ve been really strained by that sort of weakness in their budget portfolio.”

Vietnam exports oil largely to Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Those sales contribute to a $224 billion economy that has grown by around 6 percent every year since 2012. Much of the growth comes from foreign-invested factories that make items such as auto parts and consumer electronics.

Vietnam will export around 11.23 million tons of crude oil this year, the Communist Party says. 

What to do with the money

Oil revenue would give the government more funding for public infrastructure, Matthaes said. Vietnamese officials are building transport infrastructure so manufacturers can better move exports from factory floors to overseas markets. Ease of cargo shipping will help keep producers in Vietnam, which competes with China and much of Southeast Asia to win factory investment.

The government is spending now on expressways and urban mass transit to handle what the domestic news website VnExpress International calls “the country’s logistics shortcomings.” 

State-owned enterprises might eventually build more oil refineries, as well, Burke suggested. Despite export revenues, Vietnam is a net importer of refined oil products because onshore refineries cannot meet the demands of a 95 million population along with industry.

Vietnam imports about 70 percent of its fuel for actual usage, mostly from China, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. 

Officials want to build more refineries to ensure Vietnam always has a steady fuel supply, Burke said. But he said a global “overcapacity” of refineries has cast doubt on ideas about opening more refineries in the country.

Inflation threat

Reliance on imports will raise the price of what common Vietnamese people pay for fuel, a threat to inflation, analysts and domestic media predict. Gasoline prices will rise 5 to 15 percent and may increase inflation by up to 0.64 percent over the year, the Communist Party says.

Officials in Hanoi set an inflation target of 4 percent for this year, but as of June it had already gone higher. Low prices help foreign investors as well as the millions of common motor scooter riders who still live in poverty.

Common consumers “feel the heat,” said Trung Nguyen, director of the Center for International Studies at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “They are used to the oil price rise, so I think that they can still withstand it, but I don’t know how far they can.”