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Analysts Detail Changes Needed to Resolve Myanmar’s Rohingya Situation

A recent report issued by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights chronicles killings, gang rapes, beatings, disappearances, and other crimes and acts of cruelty against ethnic Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces.


Malaysian Prime Minister Rajib Nazak said, “Enough is enough,” and sent an aid flotilla to assist the Rohingya community, but the vessel was met by protests.


Pope Francis said, “They have been suffering for years, they have been tortured, killed simply because they wanted to live their culture and their Muslim faith.”


What, however, will it take to resolve the abuses outlined in the report?


Five analysts shared their opinions with VOA.


Jonah Blank, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation


“At the most basic level, the governments of both Myanmar and Bangladesh must grant access to international relief workers and journalists – by Myanmar to the Rohingya population in Rakhine State, and by Bangladesh to the refugees being housed in barely-inhabitable camps. At a deeper level, however, the greatest burden rests with Myanmar: to end the abuses documented by the U.N. and other observers; the government in Yangon must uphold the basic human rights and civil rights of its Rohingya citizens.”


Hunter Marston, Myanmar analyst


“First of all, it would take the establishment of genuine law and order on the ground in Rakhine State, where the abuses are taking place. Thus far, the Myanmar police force, which is loyal to the military by way of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has been unable to play the role of neutral arbiter. There have been frequent allegations of police non-intervention or active collusion in violence enacted upon the Rohingya. So it will take an active restructuring of the MPF (Myanmar Police Force) to find an effective solution, in addition to further training in peacekeeping, empathy, and religious tolerance, among other areas. Beyond that, the Myanmar government must allow more access to humanitarian aid groups and the media. Only the free flow of information, unhampered by security forces and the NLD (National League for Democracy party) government, can accurately report the facts on the ground, which will lead to effective policy making.”



Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative


“Bottom line, there is no way the situation of the Rohingya improves unless the political leadership in Myanmar, meaning especially Aung San Suu Kyi, chooses to really grapple with the issue, roll back state-sanctioned discriminatory policies and pressure the military to change its approach. The Rohingya have been systematically disenfranchised and demonized by successive governments since the 1960’s. Now even liberal members of society, including many senior officials within the NLD government, see them as not only not citizens, but undeserving of any basic human rights. Perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t agree with that sentiment, but she has also been unwilling to say a word in defense of the Rohingya. In effect, they are being sacrificed so she and her government can focus on the lot of ethnic Burmans and more powerful and more widely accepted ethnic minorities. As long as that’s the case, things cannot improve.”


Evan Rees, Stratfor Southeast Asia analyst


“The Rohingya problem is rooted in deep ethnic and religious issues. The Rohingya want recognition as an official ethnic minority and as citizens of Myanmar. Their ethnic neighbors – the Buddhist Rakhine – see this as a threat to their own status. At the same time, influential Buddhist populists with heavy influence in the rest of the country – and within the military – present Islam as a threat to the nation. That means that local ethnic minorities, Buddhist political activists and the military are all aligned against the Rohingya. The military’s solution to this issue is to crack down as it has done in other ethnic borderlands like Karen and Kachin State. Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent because she herself has little control over the military and risks popular backlash from Buddhist populists. Any resolution to the abuses in the Rohingya areas will require a resolution of Myanmar’s longstanding civilian-military divide and a political will to compromise on wide ethnic and religious divisions. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is still on the razor’s edge and, from this precarious position, has little chance of resolving these issues.”


Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director of Human Rights Watch


“The grievous rights abuses uncovered by OHCHR can only be adequately responded to by an independent, international investigation commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council when it meets next month. The Burma government had its chance and has only shown interest in whitewashing its security forces’ use of rape, extrajudicial executions, and arson to destroy entire Rohingya communities.”


Regional responses


In a closed door meeting of officials and international agencies in Dhaka, Bangladesh this week, the group said Myanmar’s government remains “in denial” about alleged atrocities carried out by its military against minority Rohingya Muslims. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights said Myanmar leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi was moved by its report; however, she doesn’t have constitutional control of the security forces.


On Thursday, however, Myanmar’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said authorities will conduct an investigation into alleged atrocities in the Rakhine State. The ministry’s director-general, Aye Aye Soe, told Radio Free Asia, “We’ll have to find out how truthful the allegations are.”


While visiting Singapore, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi said, “I would like to once again reiterate the importance for the government of Myanmar to take significant steps to create an enabling environment for peace and reconciliation to take place,” warning the crackdown could create instability in Southeast Asia.

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Quake Measuring 6.7 Hits Philippines

An earthquake measuring 6.7 struck near the island of Mindanao in the Philippines on Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

The quake occurred at a depth of 10 km about 13 km east of the city of Surigao, the USGS said. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on its website there was no tsunami threat from the earthquake.

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US, China military planes come inadvertently close over South China Sea

A U.S. Navy P-3 plane and a Chinese military aircraft came close to each other over the South China Sea in an incident the Navy believes was inadvertent, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft came within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of each other on Wednesday in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal, between the Philippines and the Chinese mainland.

The official added that such incidents involving Chinese and American aircraft are infrequent, with only two having taken place in 2016.

The U.S. aircraft was “on a routine mission operating in accordance with international law,” U.S. Pacific Command told Reuters in a statement.

“On Feb. 8, an interaction characterized by U.S. Pacific Command as ‘unsafe’ occurred in international air space above the South China Sea, between a Chinese KJ-200 aircraft and a U.S. Navy P-3C aircraft,” it said.

The KJ-200 is a propeller airborne early warning and control aircraft based originally on the old Soviet-designed An-12.

“The Department of Defense and U.S. Pacific Command are always concerned about unsafe interactions with Chinese military forces,” Pacific Command added. “We will address the issue in appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”

In Beijing, China’s defense ministry told state media the Chinese pilot responded with “legal and professional measures.”

“We hope the U.S. side keeps in mind the present condition of relations between the two countries and militaries, adopts practical measures, and eliminates the origin of air and sea mishaps between the two countries,” the Global Times cited an unnamed defense ministry official as saying.

Past controversies

Separately, China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement Friday that three ships had left port for drills taking in the South China Sea, eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.

China’s blockade of Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing spot, prompted the previous Philippine government to file a legal case in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, infuriating Beijing, which refused to take part.

While the court last year largely rejected China’s claims, new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has sought to mend ties with Beijing and the situation around the shoal has largely calmed down.

China is deeply suspicious of any U.S. military activity in the resource-rich South China Sea.

In December, a Chinese naval vessel picked up a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea near the Philippines, triggering a U.S. diplomatic protest. China later returned it.

The United States has previously criticized what it called China’s militarization of its maritime outposts in the South China Sea, and stressed the need for freedom of navigation with periodic air and naval patrols nearby, angering Beijing.

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11 Civilians Killed in Fighting in Southern Afghanistan

At least 11 members of a family were killed in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand when a bomb struck their house during clashes between U.S.-supported government forces and Taliban insurgents, local officials and relatives said Friday.

The incident occurred in the conflict-hit district of Sangin, but it was not immediately clear which side was responsible.

A Taliban spokesman blamed overnight American military airstrikes and said at least 23 civilians were killed.  

U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland confirmed it had carried out airstrikes in Sangin since Thursday.

“We are aware of the allegations of the civilian casualties and take every allegation very seriously. We will work with our Afghan partners to review all related material,” he said. Cleveland denied insurgent claims that B-52 aircraft were involved in the strikes.

The Taliban launched a major coordinated offensive on Sangin nearly two weeks ago, overrunning a number of outposts and killing dozens of Afghan forces.

Helmand key for Taliban

The U.S. military has since carried out repeated airstrikes against Taliban positions in support of government troops, but insurgents continue to occupy areas around the district center and launch counterattacks despite official claims of evicting them.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, acknowledged on Thursday that intense fighting continues to rage in the area.

“Sadly, there has been some recent fighting in Sangin and we had another American Special Forces’ solider severely wounded in Sangin this morning,” Nicholson told a congressional hearing.

More than 80 percent of Helmand, a major poppy-producing province, is estimated to be controlled by the Taliban and supplies the insurgent group with approximately 60 percent of their funding.

General Nicholson said he hopes a planned deployment of about 300 U.S. Marines this spring will play a key role in helping government forces reverse insurgent gains in Helmand, the largest of all 34 Afghan provinces.

Civilians have borne the brunt of recent intensified and expanded fighting in Afghanistan.

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Immediacy Twitter Provides Overrated, Some Experts Say

Donald Trump was an avid Twitter user during his campaign for the U.S. presidency, and in his nearly three weeks in office, he hasn’t stopped. While most of Trump’s 24.4 million followers like the immediacy the commander in chief’s tweets provide, others are more critical.

“I don’t think there’s any connection between immediacy and sincerity. I think immediacy is overrated. It may be times when it’s absolutely necessary, but most of what President Trump tweets should be delayed and should be given more thought,” Theodore Glasser, professor of communication at Stanford University, told VOA.

“Do I love the different tweets that Trump has been putting out … absolutely not,” said Scott Goodstein, founder and chief executive officer of Revolution Messaging, a digital communications strategy company.

But as someone who’s spent the past decade pioneering digital strategy and technology for political campaigns, Goodstein said, “I love that in America I get the ability to organize and do rapid response on platforms like Twitter … the ability for the American citizenry to ask questions, engage and be part of that conversation they weren’t part of prior to Twitter, and social media has, to me, made our country better.”

Trump explained his use of Twitter as “a way of bypassing [the] dishonest media.” He has labeled the media the “opposition party” and says he calls “his own shots largely based on an accumulation of data.”

In January, he tweeted 206 times and had about 25 million interactions — consisting of retweets, replies and likes — more than any other world leader, according to data pulled from CrowdTangle, which tracks how links are shared on social media platforms.

But he is not the first U.S. president who has tried to use the popular medium of the moment to bypass mainstream media.

Radio, TV

Franklin D. Roosevelt used “fireside chats” on radio “to talk directly to the country, and that was done periodically and it was very effective,” Glasser said. Roosevelt led the nation through the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II, and some say that by using his radio broadcasts, he was able to quell rumors and directly explain his policies.

President John F. Kennedy is considered to be one who mastered the television medium, while President Richard Nixon “went out of his way to avoid the press and didn’t have a good relationship with them,” Glasser said.

Barack Obama was the first American presidential candidate to organize on major platforms like Facebook and YouTube, along with more niche platforms like Black Planet, Asian Avenue and others, said Goodstein, who was in charge of that during Obama’s 2007 election campaign. The Obama White House used digital technology to its fullest later to disseminate information. Right now, @BarackObama has 84.4 million followers, third highest on a list kept by

The social media platform, created a little over a decade ago, had 317 million monthly active users as of the third quarter of 2016, according to statistics portal


In Brazil, ousted President Dilma Rousseff, who has 5.7 million followers, was a great example of someone “who used the tool [Twitter] during the election and then turned it off essentially and stopped listening when they started governing; that was a huge mistake,” said Goodstein, who also worked in that country.

He said Rousseff had the ability to build a giant Twitter following during her first election, and he criticized her for “not engaging in her base voters and her general electorate … around issues of people protesting building around the Olympics when it was first announced. She had the ability to go over the media, talk directly to her citizenry. Unfortunately, she did not, and you saw these protests grow bigger and bigger.”

Rousseff has vowed to appeal what she called a “parliamentary coup,” and some of her supporters continue to call her Brazil’s only legitimate president, as shown in a recent picture posted on her Twitter page.


The feud between Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Trump continued when the U.S. president reaffirmed his campaign promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and that if Mexico wasn’t going to pay for the wall, Pena Nieto should cancel a scheduled visit in Washington a week after Trump was inaugurated.

In Mexico, after congratulating Trump and tweeting that his country would work with the U.S. to strengthen their relationship, Pena Nieto took to the same medium to inform his 6.21 million followers, and the White House shortly afterward, that he would not attend the meeting with Trump.


While some leaders have been using the medium for years and have followings in the millions, others are just starting. Newly elected Gambian President Adama Barrow announced to his 11,000 followers that he was back after going into exile in neighboring Senegal, fearing his life was in danger. Barrow defeated President Yahya Jammeh in December’s elections, but the veteran leader of 22 years did not want to cede power.

Since joining Twitter in December, Barrow has sent 62 tweets, mostly about the postelection crisis, his return home and cabinet announcements.


Since June 2016, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has tweeted only 23 times, including one retweet to his 1.59 million followers. Mostly in English and sometimes in Kinyarwanda, the posts varied but included a congratulatory message to the Cleveland Cavaliers on their National Basketball Association title last year. He revealed that as a supporter of Cleveland’s opponent, the Golden State Warriors, he was outnumbered in his house by Cavs fans.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined Twitter in 2009 and today has 27 million followers of his personal page and 16 million of the PM office’s page. He sent 233 tweets in January. Although not all tweets generate responses, he had about 2.8 million interactions.

The subjects of his tweets in English and Hindi have varied; he has asked for people’s thoughts about his new personal app, shared pictures of rallies he’s attended in Ghaziabad, and discussed such issues as demonetization, sanitation coverage in rural areas and defense of the sanctity of institutions above politics. He’s one of a few leaders who reply to their followers.  


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s English-language page shows he sent about 15 tweets in January, and subjects included a conversation with Trump and a videoconference in which he was briefed on tests of a new jet fighter.

All the tweets have links to the official Kremlin website for longer articles. He has 489,000 followers on the page’s English version and 3.59 million on the official Kremlin page, which tweets in Russian.

Twitter’s problems

Whether one’s followers are in the millions or hundreds, people don’t always engage with every tweet. Goodstein said there are also problems Twitter needs to address, including spam, robot tweets and idle accounts. But he also said the Twittersphere is engaged enough that those who tweet authentically will be able to draw others into conversations.

The biggest mistake that politicians make on Twitter is that they want to use it as “a one-way communication and forget the word ‘social,’ ” Goodstein said. The medium is not meant to be used as a public relations device to send out old-fashioned press releases, he said.

Glasser said Twitter has a place in the political landscape but cautioned that it’s dangerous to use in matters of diplomacy. For example, he said, “it’s not a useful tool for announcing policy. One hundred forty characters doesn’t provide enough room for context, nuance and sophistication that public diplomacy requires.”

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US-Japan Leaders’ Diplomacy Will Swing to Golf

An Oval Office meeting, a White House lunch and a golf outing in Florida are intended to reassure Japan’s leader the Trump administration stands with its ally “shoulder to shoulder 100 percent,” a senior U.S. administration official said Thursday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived Thursday evening in Washington, a day before he becomes the second foreign leader to officially meet with President Donald Trump.

Abe, eager to get off on a good footing with then president-elect Trump, flew to New York City to meet him in November, shortly after the businessman’s surprise election victory.

Due to deeply intertwined military and trade ties, Japan has no choice but to pursue a good rapport with whomever is president of the United States, according to senior government officials in Tokyo.

But the Japanese have been deeply unsettled by Trump’s previous rhetoric and its impact on East Asia.

Mattis visits Japan

During the campaign, the Republican candidate called for America’s allies to pay more of the share for hosting U.S. bases, and commented that perhaps it would not be so bad for Japan to have its own nuclear deterrent.

A visit to Japan by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week was meant to drive home the message that the United States, which protects the island nation with its nuclear arsenal and the 54,000 troops stationed there, will still have Tokyo’s back.

“You’re going to hear similar messages from the president,” a senior administration official said in response to a VOA News question during a telephone background briefing for reporters.  And the president’s words and actions, he added, “will go a long way to dispelling any doubts that may still remain” in the region about the U.S. commitment to its defense alliances with Japan and South Korea.

The Trump-Abe meeting Friday will cover a wide range of other issues, especially trade.

Japan to announce investment package

Abe is being accompanied by what Japanese officials tell VOA is a delegation unprecedented in size and scope.

Trump, who as president has relished a series of high-profile job creation announcements alongside corporate leaders, is expected to stand next to Abe at a news conference Friday for a similar announcement.

Abe is set to reveal a $150 billion five-part investment package in U.S. infrastructure touted to eventually create 700,000 jobs.


This comes after the Japanese viewed the Trump administration’s abandonment of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership as a severe setback for international trade growth.  


Abe expended significant political capital, especially with the influential agricultural sector, to bring his country into the landmark trade pact.

Trump “believes that bilateral agreements are really the way to go for the United States,” the senior U.S. official said, explaining the president believes he can find terms more favorable for the United States in such an agreement rather than in a multilateral agreement where “you’re held to the standard of the weakest link.”

Talks move to golf course

The United States and Japan together represent about 30 percent of global economic output.

Pursuit of a possible new, direct trade compact between the two countries is also expected to be discussed when the two leaders golf together Saturday at the president’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

The invitation, the first offered a foreign leader to a property owned by the Trump family, has raised questions about a possible conflict of interest.

“The visit to Mar-a-Lago is a personal gift,” from the president to the prime minister, the senior administration official told reporters.


A White House spokesperson emphasized that Abe and his delegation will not actually stay at the historic estate purchased by Trump in 1985.

After becoming president, Trump signed documents to step aside from leadership roles in his companies, turning over control to his sons.  But questions persist about the interpretation of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits a president benefiting from foreign leaders.

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Top US General: Afghanistan War Still a ‘Stalemate’

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson told the Armed Services Committee he believes the U.S.-backed Afghan forces are “in a stalemate” in the 15 year-old war.  He said to break that stalemate he needs “a few thousand” more soldiers to accompany the 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Nicholson faced questions Thursday from senators about the Trump administration’s plans for handling the long-running war in Afghanistan.

WATCH: Nicholson on Afghanistan

Nicholson said offensive capability is key to breaking the stalemate and while the additional U.S. troops would be involved in train, advice and assist missions, the Afghan Special Forces and Air force would be “vital” to success.

According to Nicholson, the Afghan forces operated independently 80 percent of the time last year, though they faced a higher number of casualties than in years past.

More than 6,700 Afghan soldiers were killed last year through November 12, according to a quarterly report published last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  That is more than the 6,600 soldiers killed in all of 2015.

Nicholson said he is “very concerned about the level of losses.”  And while he said current recruiting levels allow the Afghan forces to replace soldiers who are killed, the military is not able to operate at its peak capability.

The report also noted the Afghan government is steadily losing control of areas within the country.  According to the report, the government lost control of about 15 percent of the country’s districts between November 2015 and November 2016.

Nicholson said 20 of 98 designated terrorist groups operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, giving it the highest concentration of terror groups anywhere in the world.

Senator John McCain suggested that Russia is “playing a significant” role in Afghanistan and Nicholson agreed, saying that Russian meddling this year “has become more difficult.”

Nicholson said Russia has tried to publicly legitimize the Taliban by saying the extremist group is helping in the fight against IS, but he called this idea a “false narrative.”

According to Nicholson, Afghan security forces have eliminated about half of the IS group’s fighters and reduced the territory they hold by two-thirds.

Nicholson said he feared this public support could allow Taliban power to spill out of Afghanistan and into other countries as the group continues to gain territory.

In December, Nicholson said the Taliban controls about 10 percent of the population, while the Afghan government controls about two-thirds.  The rest are contested.


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Pakistan: India’s Alleged ‘Secret Nuclear City’ Threatens Regional Peace

Pakistan is warning rival India’s rapid expansion of its nuclear weaponry and construction of a “secret nuclear city” to produce a thermonuclear arsenal pose a direct threat to Islamabad and the region at large.

“[India] has a stockpile of fissile material for producing the nuclear weapons outside the IAEA safeguards.  It is also building a secret nuclear city in south India,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said Thursday at a weekly news conference.

He referred to a report by Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine, in which New Delhi was accused of building the nuclear facility in Karnataka.

India promptly rejected Pakistan’s allegations as unfounded, saying New Delhi has always been in compliance with its international obligations.

“These are completely baseless allegations.  The so-called secret nuclear city is a figment of Pakistan’s imagination,” said Vikas Swarup, Indian ministry of external affairs spokesman.

The magazine reported the project is expected to be completed this year and would be “the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic research laboratories, and weapons-and aircraft-testing facilities.”

“With conventional weapons balance already disturbed, India’s nuclear weapons build-up has dangerous proportions to tip the strategic balance and endanger the peace of the region and beyond,” asserted Zakaria.

Pakistan is also accused of possessing the world’s fastest growing nuclear weapons program and has recently tested ballistic missiles, including one capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads to as far as 2,000 kilometers.

Tensions have heightened between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region, preventing the rival nations from resuming their wide-ranging peace dialogue to normalize bilateral ties.

The South Asia rival nations have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir and engaged in a limited conflict in 1999 over the divided Himalayan region.

New Delhi and Islamabad accuse each other of sponsoring terrorist activities on their respective soils, the main cause of latest tensions between the two.

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China to Start Fingerprinting Foreign Visitors

Millions of foreigners visiting China each year will now have their fingerprints collected.

The country’s Ministry of Public Security said in a statement Thursday that it will begin taking visitors’ fingerprints as they enter and exit the country. The requirement will apply to most people between the ages of 14 and 70.

The policy will go into effect starting in Shenzhen, the southern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities counted more than 76 million entries and exits by foreigners last year. The visitors were primarily from South Korea, Japan, the United States and Russia.

The ministry said the new requirement is “an important measure to strengthen entry and exit management” that matches policies in other countries.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has fingerprinted most foreign visitors since 2004.

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Iranian Refugees Find Community in a Jakarta Church

In a non-descript reception room within a mall in Kelapa Gading, a North Jakarta neighborhood largely populated by Chinese Indonesians, a congregation gathers to worship.  The sermon:  “Love your God and love your neighbor.”  The preacher: an evangelical Protestant refugee who fled Iran six years ago to avoid state persecution.

Welcome to the Persian Refugee Service, an evangelical Christian church by and largely for Iranian refugees in Jakarta.

Mohamed Rasool Bagherian, the preacher, left Iran with his family because they were Christian, but a number of the congregation actually converted to Christianity during their years-long purgatory in Indonesia, where refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to work or go to school. A few of the regular attendees aren’t even Christians, just refugees who enjoy the company of fellow Iranians and a hot meal.

Why Iranians become Christians

Against all odds, Christianity has exploded in popularity in Iran in recent years, even though apostasy, or leaving the Islamic faith, is punishable by death in the theocratic state. Beyond Armenian and Assyrian ethnic Christians, who have lived in Iran for centuries, there are growing numbers of Shia Muslims who convert to evangelical Christianity. 

Watchdog groups estimate that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 Christians in Iran, from a population of 75 million. Evangelical Christianity proliferates in private “house churches,” since preachers can be arrested.  

Bagherian and his wife converted to Christianity in 2005. It was discouraged, but not dangerous, to become Christian in Tehran, where they lived at the time, he said. He himself maintained a house church for several years.

“But then [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmedinajad started to ramp up the pressure against Christians, shortly after his election. I was arrested twice, in 2007 and 2010, and after that, we were basically forced to leave the country,” he told VOA News. “We had a young child and feared for his life.”

Their son, Ahura, is now eight years old and has only known life in Indonesia. 

A community church

If Jakarta is an unnatural environment for this family, it doesn’t show at their church. Bagherian is a charismatic preacher who slips between Farsi and English, punctuating his 90-minute sermon with droll PowerPoint slides. He speaks from a clear Lucite altar flanked by artificial purple flowers and electric candles. 

The service starts with a long musical segment where everyone sings along to English and Farsi praise rock. Then, on a recent Sunday, Bagherian expounded on the parable of the alabaster jar, in which a poor woman anoints the feet of Jesus with her most expensive perfume. 

“If you do something for God, it cannot have a price,” Bagherian told the assembled crowd of about 30. I asked him later if he viewed his family’s laborious transit for religious freedom through that lens. “Well,” he said, “that’s one way to look at it.”

The Persian Refugee Service gets its meeting room from Abbalove Ministries, a 2,000-person Chinese Indonesian church that convenes in an adjacent hall, also on Sunday afternoons. Abbalove also provides boxed lunches and other services for the small congregation.

“Abbalove members are a great blessing,” said Bagherian. “They even help my family rent a guesthouse in Kelapa Gading while we wait for updates on our refugee status.”

The Bagherians used to worship in an Anglican church in Jakarta, but three years ago, their Australian pastor, Jeff Hammond, suggested they start a standalone Farsi service for the sizable refugee community. 

“My daughter and I found this community when we came to Jakarta and we felt like we saw the light,” said one middle-aged Iranian woman who was baptized last year in Jakarta. “You can’t understand how terrible sharia was for us. Especially how it oppressed women. No, I haven’t looked back after converting.”

Tough cases for resettlement

Unlike Afghan refugees, who constitute about half of all refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, Iranian refugees make up only three percent, and tend to be educated, white-collar professionals who bristled under their home country’s theocracy. 

That makes it difficult for them to even obtain refugee cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), let alone advance in its waitlists. Whereas Afghan Hazara refugees have a broadly recognized claim to deadly persecution, Iran has a stable, albeit authoritarian, government. 

That moves Iranians lower in priority for resettlement. And in fact, every year a small number of Iranian refugees, frustrated by the rejection of their refugee or asylum claims, opt for something called “voluntary repatriation” in which they turn themselves over to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which books them a free flight back to Iran.

Nearly every refugee at the Sunday service expressed despair that President Donald Trump’s recent travel ban, which includes Iran, and his suspension of refugee resettlement would eliminate the United States as a possible end destination for their journey.

Still, for each of the refugees who attended the service, it was no light decision to flee their home. 

“I was arrested for playing music,” said Reza, a young man who now plays the keyboard at the Sunday service. “Can you imagine? Music is haram in my country. I went to jail for that. I had to leave.” 

Abbalove is not the only social institution that serves Iranian refugees. The nondenominational Jakarta International Christian Fellowship also includes several refugees, and it has a dedicated Farsi service. Twelve Iranian children attend Roshan Learning Center, a school for refugees and asylum seekers in South Jakarta, and two young adults are teachers there.

Even if Indonesia is just a point of transit, many Iranians said they felt immensely relieved to be there.

“Here it’s also an Islamic nation, but it’s democratic,” said Arash Ehteshamfar, who left Iran in 2011 to avoid religious persecution. “It’s like night and day. And of course, we have this church… this is our home in this country.”

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Japan’s Abe to Bring Offer of Jobs, Investment to Trump

President Donald Trump’s salvos on trade and currency are rattling Japan Inc., but many here hope Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can sell him a “win-win” package of job creation and investment when they meet this week, averting a return of the Japan-bashing of the 1980s.


Abe moved early to build a personal rapport with Trump, meeting him in New York shortly after he was elected. With Japan’s largest export market at stake, its businesses need him to keep at it.


Japan’s status as the cornerstone U.S. ally in the Pacific was reassuringly reaffirmed in a recent visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Tokyo has reiterated its commitment to spending more on its own security and buying more military aircraft and other equipment from the U.S.


That won’t directly affect trade figures, however, which are measured by the private sector. 

Trade surplus and TPP

Japan logged the second largest trade surplus with the U.S. last year, at $68.9 billion. That’s way below China’s, at $347 billion, and on a par with the surpluses run by Germany and Mexico.


Still, there’s plenty to worry about. 


After taking office, Trump pulled the plug on U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then a dozen, now 11-member trade pact the Obama administration promoted as a way to expand U.S. exports and influence in the Pacific Rim and counter China’s growing economic sway.


Trump has criticized Toyota Motor Corp. for planning to build an assembly plant in Mexico, complained Japanese don’t buy enough U.S.-made cars, and accused Japan of engineering its monetary policies to help Japanese exporters. 


Abe won’t bring any business leaders along on his trip, which begins Thursday. But following the lead of Softbank tycoon Masayoshi Son, who met with Trump in November and promised 50,000 jobs and $50 billion in new investments, officials say they are hammering out a job-creation package of infrastructure investments to propose during Abe’s visit.

More energy imports


According to various versions of the proposal reported in Japanese newspapers, key areas of investment may include building high-speed trains, joint development of robotics, artificial intelligence and space technologies and ramping up imports of U.S. natural gas in Japan and elsewhere in Asia by building more liquefied natural gas facilities on this side of the Pacific. 


Resource-poor Japan imports almost all its energy needs since most of its nuclear reactors were shut down after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. But price and currency trends can blunt any impact on the trade balance: In 2016, Japan’s imports of liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, from the U.S. jumped nearly 44 percent by volume, but the value of those imports fell slightly. 


Japanese businesses have in general been supportive of so-called “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s attempts to keep Japan’s growth going. And they are applauding his effort to woo Trump. 


Abe’s pro-active approach makes sense, says Willian Saito, an entrepreneur, educator and adviser to the Japanese government. 


If the U.S. wants Japanese bullet-train technology, or if Japan wants to diversify its energy portfolio, “it’s a win-win,” Saito said. 

“I see all change as an opportunity. You can definitely make the best of it,” he said. “If we have an economic-centric plan here, this is in the interest of both leaders.” 


Japan jobs in US

Trump’s policies also could herald new opportunities for Japan to invest in the U.S., analysts say. 


The U.S. is already the top destination for Japan’s direct foreign investment, totaling $460 billion last year, more than in Europe at $398 billion, or all of Asia at $376 billion, according to Hiromichi Shirakawa, an analyst at Credit Suisse. 


Having seen Japanese-made vehicles smashed in earlier spells of Japan-bashing trade friction, Toyota and other manufacturers shifted much of their production to the U.S.


Toyota President Akio Toyoda and other business leaders have stoutly defended their role in providing U.S. jobs and investment. 


Toyota has invested $22 billion in the U.S. in the last 60 years, and plans another $10 billion in investments in the next five years. 


“We are already producing extremely large number of cars in the U.S.We are one of the American manufacturers, aren’t we? I hope President Trump understands that,’’ Toyoda recently told reporters. 


Japanese companies employ 383,000 Americans in manufacturing jobs, the most among all foreign-owned companies, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Including auto parts, dealerships and factories, the Japanese auto industry provided more than 1.5 million jobs in 2015, figures from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association show.


Currency issues

Trump’s assertion that Tokyo is deliberately seeking to devalue its currency to aid exporters like Toyota is another big worry. Finance Minister Taro Aso, who will visit Washington with Abe, insists the central bank’s lavish monetary easing is aimed only at rekindling inflation, even though it has also coincided with a weakening of the yen against the dollar in the past five years. 


Currency rates are critical for Japanese manufacturers and other businesses that earn a large share of their revenue overseas: Every 1 yen rise against the dollar erases about 40 billion yen (about $3.6 million) in Toyota’s operating profits. 


Rising U.S. interest rates are already pushing the dollar higher against the yen. And if the economy continues to strengthen under Trump, rising consumer spending is likely to increase imports from Japan, worsening the trade imbalance. 


Golf game a must-lose for Abe

Apart from his package of proposals for creating jobs and promoting cooperation and investment, Abe has said that in lieu of the region-wide TPP, Japan may strike a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. 


Koya Miyamae, a senior economist with SMBC Nikko Securities, says such a deal could be tougher than the TPP for Japan, resulting in tariffs for its exports or other regulations. 


The joke these days in Tokyo is that Abe should make sure to lose when the two leaders play golf this weekend at Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Florida. 


“Japan is in serious trouble,” said Miyamae, adding with a laugh: “Japanese custom says that the host must always lose in ‘settai’ or entertainment, golf. But in this case, Abe is doing the courting. So he has to lose.” 

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Trump Breaks Ice With China’s Xi in Letter Seeking ‘Constructive Ties’

President Donald Trump has broken the ice with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a letter that said he looked forward to working with him to develop constructive relations, although the pair haven’t spoken directly since Trump took office.

The letter thanked Xi for his congratulatory note on Trump’s inauguration and wished the Chinese people a prosperous Lunar New Year of the Rooster, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday.

“President Trump stated that he looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China,” it said.

China’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on Thursday.

Trump and Xi have yet to speak directly since Trump took office on Jan. 20, although they did talk soon after Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing say China has been nervous about Xi being left humiliated in the event a call with Trump goes wrong and the details are leaked to the U.S. media.

Last week, U.S. ties with staunch ally Australia became strained after the Washington Post published details about an acrimonious phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“That is the last thing China wants,” a source familiar with China’s thinking on relations with the United States told Reuters. “It would be incredibly embarrassing for President Xi and for Chinese people, who value the concept of face.”

A senior non-U.S. Western diplomat said China was likely to be in no rush to set up such a call.

“These things need to happen in a very controlled environment for China, and China can’t guarantee that with the unpredictable Trump,” the diplomat said.

“Trump also seems too distracted with other issues at the moment to give too much attention to China.”

Taiwan, yuan in focus

There are a number of contentious areas where China fears Trump could go off script, the diplomat said, pointing in particular to the issue of self-ruled Taiwan, as well as trade.

Trump upset China in December by taking a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. China considers Taiwan a wayward province with no right to formal diplomatic relations with any other country.

Trump has also threatened to slap tariffs on Chinese imports, accusing Beijing of devaluing its yuan currency and stealing U.S. jobs.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea. The White House also vowed to defend “international territories” in the strategic waterway.

China has repeatedly said it has smooth contacts with the Trump team. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said last week the two countries were remaining “in close touch”.

That contact has been led by China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who outranks the foreign minister.

Yang told Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, last week that China hopes it can work with the United States to manage and control disputes and sensitive problems.

The source familiar with China’s thinking said Trump’s administration was “very clear” about China’s position on Taiwan. Trump has yet to mention Taiwan since he took office.

Chinese state media has wondered whether Trump has a China policy at all.

On Thursday, the widely read Global Times tabloid, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, noted that Trump had not immediately confronted China as had been expected because he had realized upsetting Beijing would backfire badly.

“He has probably realized that real tough action against China would result in a complex chain reaction, even beyond his control,” the paper said in an editorial. Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s elite Renmin University, said the letter suggested the new U.S. administration wanted to signal the importance it attached to the U.S.-China relationship without risking being confronted on specific issues.

“Trump has sent many messages that makes the world confused, like on the South China Sea and ‘One China’ policy, so if he makes a phone call President Xi will ask ‘what do you mean?’,” Wang said. “He wants to avoid this so he just sends a letter for the first step.”

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Australia: US Stops Screening Refugees on Nauru, Will Return

U.S. officials have stopped screening refugees for potential resettlement in the United States but will return to the Pacific atoll of Nauru to continue working toward a deal that President Donald Trump has condemned as “dumb,” an Australian minister said Thursday.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton would not say when U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials would return to Nauru to conduct what Trump describes as “extreme vetting.”

Trump made enhanced screening a condition for agreeing to honor an Obama administration deal to accept up to 1,250 refugees refused entry into Australia. Australia pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep more than 2,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, in conditions condemned by rights groups.

The process of “extreme vetting” has yet to be explained.

US leaves under a cloud

U.S. officials were sent to Nauru within days of the deal’s announcement in November after the U.S. presidential election. But they left this week with arrangements under a cloud.

“I don’t have any comment to make in relation to when U.S. officials will be on Nauru next,” Dutton told reporters. “There have been officials there who have left … in the last couple of days and we would expect other officials to be there in due course.”

“But there is a lot of work being done at an officials level with people from my department and the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State in the U.S., but it’s not something that I have anything to comment on,” he said.

1,600 refugees

Australia has determined that there are 1,600 genuine refugees among 2,077 asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea and Nauru. There could also be refugees among the 370 asylum seekers who came to Australia for medical treatment then took court action to prevent their return to the island camps.

About 1,240 asylum seekers live in the camps while the rest of those on the island live in communities outside the fences.

Dutton could not say whether the 1,600 refugees would pass the new U.S. vetting regime.

“It’s an issue for the United States under the agreement as to who they take and the way in which they conduct their vetting, so I don’t have any comment in relation to the U.S. process,’’ Dutton said.

“Our desire is to get people off Nauru and Manus as quickly as possible,’’ he added, referring to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Most vulnerable given priority

As of last week, Nauru held 1,132 asylum seekers including women and children. The Manus facility houses only men.

Australia has said the “most vulnerable” refugees on Nauru would be given priority for U.S. resettlement.

After committing to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he would honor the agreement, Trump tweeted that it was a “dumb deal.”

Asked last week whether the deal would continue, Trump said: “We’ll see what happens.”

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Toxic Smog in Mongolia’s Capital Worsens Amid Harsh Winter

On most winter mornings, Setevdorj Myagmartsogt wakes up to a cloud of toxic smog blanketing his neighborhood in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, where the air quality is among the worst in the world.

The city’s air, which is at times far worse than Beijing’s infamous smog, has become more polluted because of smoke from thousands of chimneys burning coal, wood and even trash, as poor residents try to stay warm during brutal winters.

“Because of the air pollution, our health is getting worse,” Myagmartsogt told Reuters. “When my two youngest kids go to kindergarten, they get ill every week and they have to stay away. … It’s because of the air pollution.”

The capital’s total emissions of harmful breathable particles known as PM2.5 surged to as high of 855 micrograms per cubic meter late last month. In comparison, Beijing’s air on the same day measured 70 micrograms.

The acceptable standard, according to the World Health Organization, is 20 to 25 micrograms. The reading in Ulaanbaatar has been known to hit 1,000 micrograms.

About 80 percent of the city’s smog comes from poor “ger” districts, a sprawl of traditional tents that have sprung up on the edge of the city, said Tsogtbaatar Byamba, director of Mongolia’s Institute of Public Health.

Many residents are former herders who migrated to the city after their livestock was wiped out by recent extremely harsh winters, which have become more common, partly because of climate change.

As temperatures plunge to as low as minus 40 Celsius, ger residents with no access to the state heating grid burn whatever they can to keep warm.

To combat this, the government last month bolstered restrictions on migrants to the capital, allowing only those in need of long-term help and people who own homes until the end of the year.

But the pollution persists.

Hundreds of residents gathered recently in the city’s Chinggis Square to protest against the government’s inability to tackle the smog. Demonstration organizers collected more than 7,000 signatures.

“The air pollution has had real consequences in my life,” said protester Otgontuya Baldandorj. “I was pregnant three times, but I lost all of them. With my fourth child, I had to go to the countryside to get fresh air to give birth.”

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Abductees Remain Casualties of Nuclear Stand-off with North Korea

Human rights and abductee advocacy groups say time is running out for many desperate and frustrated South Korean families seeking to resolve the fate of loved ones abducted by North Korea.

These abduction cases remain unresolved, as escalating inter-Korean tensions over the North’s nuclear program have blocked any cooperation on humanitarian issues.

South Korean groups representing the abductee families appealed this week to the media in Seoul to keep the issue alive. They complain that their own government has forsaken them to prioritize either engaging or pressuring the North to halt its nuclear program.

“It hurts my heart that there is nothing we can do,” said Lee Mi-il.

Lee’s father, a factory owner in Seoul, was taken by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. She was 18 months old at the time and is now in her late sixties. Lee has spent her life trying to bring her father and other abductees home as president of the Korean War Abductees’ Family Union.

Cold war casualties

After the end of fighting, North Korea returned most prisoners-of-war, but reportedly forced thousands of South Korean citizens to remain, to help rebuild national industries, schools and other basic state functions. And in the decades after, thousands more were believed to abducted by North Korea.  Most of them were fishermen, who were purportedly taken to gain intelligence or serve some propaganda purpose in the ongoing inter-Korean cold war.

Some were detained for political reasons or because their backgrounds were suspect. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, approximately 30 South Korea soldiers fighting with U.S. troops were captured by North Vietnamese forces, and later sent to North Korea, according to the group The Family Union of the Vietnam War POW and Abductee.

In 1969, Hwang In-cheol’s father was among the 47 passengers and crew aboard a Korea Air (KAL) airliner that was hijacked into North Korea. Most were released under intense international pressure, but 11 of them, including Hwang’s father, who was a journalist and outspoken critic of the then Kim Il Sung regime, were not allowed to return nor permitted to communicate with their families.

“If your family member was abducted and you could not find out the status of the family member, and could not find a solution to resolve the problem, or didn’t know about the pain your family member was having, can you imagine how painful this situation would be?” asked Hwang.

For almost two decades, Hwang has advocated for the return of his father and other abductees as a representative of the KAL Abductees’ Repatriation Committee.

Today over 500 Korean victims are still being held in the North, and of that number 300 are more than 70 years old, according to the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), an advocacy group that has worked closely on this issue with victims’ families and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID.)

Families of abductees forsaken

In the wake of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test last year, the Seoul government suspended all remaining cooperative programs, including inter-Korean family reunions, and cut all lines of communication with Pyongyang.

The abductee families say South Korea is treating them as inconvenient casualties of the division of Korea, and is unwilling to negotiate for their release. But their anguish propels them forward, and they refuse to stop trying to find out what happened to their loved ones, to bring them home alive or have their remains sent to family burial sites.

Choi Sung-yong presumes his father, who was abducted in the 1950s, is now dead. He leads the Representative of the Abductee’s Family Union.  While Choi understands South Korea’s national security concerns, he said the government could at least privately share with families whatever information it has on the abductees.

“The National Intelligence Service should find out how the abductee is doing and for example, who the abductee got married to, and when he or she died,” said Choi.

Letter to President Trump

Lee Jae-ho has been waiting for 60 years to find out what happened to his father, who he said was abducted during the Korean War. He even wrote a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump to intercede on his behalf, as his father was a patriot that helped the Americans during the war.

“I would like to ask if the U.S. can try to confirm the status of abductees and the repatriation of corpses. There is no way to find this out in South Korea. I have seen in reports in the U.S. media that corpses of U.S. soldiers were repatriated from North Korea,” he said.

It is unlikely President Trump will take up the issue. But Lee said he is so frustrated with South Korea’s unwillingness or inability to help, he does not know where else to turn.

When contacted through the United Nations, North Korea has been uncooperative and has denied charges of forced disappearances and abductions, saying people are not being forced to stay in the country against their will.

North Korea also stands accused of abducting a number of foreign nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, and admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens who were reportedly used to train spies.

An agreement between Japan and North Korea to ease some sanctions in exchange for an investigation into the status of abduction victims fell apart in the last year over Pyongyang’s lack of cooperation and its continued testing of nuclear weapons.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report.

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Islamic State Kills 6 ICRC Employees in Afghanistan

Authorities in northern Afghanistan say Islamic State terrorists have killed at least six local employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Jowzjan province government spokesman Reza Ghafoori told VOA Wednesday’s attack occurred in the Qushtipa district and the assailants also took away two ICRC workers.  He said the ICRC staff were bringing animal food to farmer families in the district when IS militants ambushed their convoy.

An ICRC statement said the charity is, “Shocked and devastated,” and confirmed that six ICRC staff were killed and two are missing in Jowzjan province.

The Taliban has denied involvement in the incident, saying attacking ICRC is a crime. “We will find and punish the offenders,” a spokesman added.

IS has also claimed responsibly for Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Kabul and identified the bomber as Tajik.  The attack killed at least 22 people and wounded 40 others in Kabul.

Most of the victims Tuesday were employees of the Afghan Supreme Court.  Female judges and prosecutors were among those killed and wounded.  

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, Wednesday condemned the suicide attack outside the court building as “nothing short of an atrocity” and called for those responsible must be brought to justice.

“Since the beginning of 2015 alone, UNAMA has documented 74 attacks targeting judges, prosecutors and judicial staff, which have resulted in 89 dead and 214 injured,” according the mission’s statement issued in Kabul.

IS has been trying to establish a foothold in Afghanistan and has stepped attacks around the country, mainly targeting the Shi’ite Muslim minority community.

The number of civilian casualties caused by IS terrorists in Afghanistan increased nearly 10 times in 2016 compared to the previous year, according to a UNAMA report released earlier this week. It said that more than 200 people were killed and 700 wounded in comparison to 39 deaths and 43 injured in 2015.

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AIIB Helps Silk Road Plan, But May Fail to Protect China Against Trump

Multilateral banks based in China have defied critics over the past year with strong performances that include financing projects across a dozen countries. 

The new banks, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB), have given added political legitimacy to China, and helped to push forward Beijing’s geopolitical interests by extending $3 billion for projects under its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program, analysts said.

But questions are being asked about whether these banks can help China in its battle against adverse actions threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump.  

AIIB’s head Jin Liqun recently reminded Washington that that door remains open for it to join the bank. The Obama administration had decided against joining the AIIB even after 56 countries, including U.S. allies like Canada, Britain and Australia, became members.  

“AIIB is an institution that will help China get support from other countries in any direct confrontation with Trump,” Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics told VOA. “Setting up AIIB and showing that Beijing intends to play by the established rules has helped China, when Trump increasingly seems to be going rogue on not just America’s traditional role, but also many of the international rules it help set up.” 

But the advantage will mostly be in diplomatic and political terms, he said, adding the AIIB will not provide China any particular economic advantage in a bilateral confrontation with Trump.  

“China has gained in terms of soft power because it could bring several European powers on the table through AIIB.  At present, alot of European countries are concerned about what they see in the U.S. This might increase potential cooperation between China and the European countries,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist for Capital Economics.  

AIIB’s latest decision to lend $600 million for the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP), which will connect Azerbaijan to Europe fits snuggly into China’s plans to connect with Europe through Central Asia. Most of the other projects funded by the Beijing based bank support OBOR projects. They include the Dushanbe-Uzbekistan Border Road in Tajikistan, $100 million for National Motorway M-4 in Pakistan, $300 million for a hydropower project in Pakistan, and $301 million for Duqm Port in Oman. 

US membership

In a recent interview, AIIB chief Jin predicted that the U.S. under Trump would reject the decision of the Obama administration and choose to join the bank. 

“I was told that many in his (Trump’s) team have an opinion that Obama was not right not to join the AIIB, especially after Canada joined, which was a very loud endorsement of the bank. So we can’t rule out the new government in the U.S. endorsing the AIIB or indicating interest to join as member,” he told the Chinese media. 

He also complained that AIIB faced initiatial resistance from the U.S. “At the formation of the AIIB, the U.S., the base of the Bretton Wood Institutes that manage the world economy including the World Bank and the IMF, saw the new body as a threat to its dominance and importance in the world economic order,” he said.  

The Trump administration has not yet commented on the AIIB and analysts are skeptical that Trump will let the U.S. join and give the Beijing-based institution some added credibility.  

“Under no circumstances will Trump agree to join AIIB. Jin obviously knows that and cleverly created a headline again highlighting how it is now the U.S. that is isolating itself from the rest of the world,” Kirkegaard said. 

Lourdes S. Casanova, academic director of the Emerging Markets Institute at Cornell University, also thinks the U.S. will stay out of it.  

“I don’t believe the new administration one will join because, so far, they want to retreat back home and focus on investments in infrastructure at home.You also need the political will and on that front, President Trump has been more confrontational with Mexico and also with China, as well as critical of multilateral organizations, which makes us believe that he has no intention to join AIIB,” she said.   

What next? 

AIIB may seem to have turned up a stellar performance lending $1.7 billion to nine different projects in just more than one year. But it has been taking advantage of projects that had been carefully studied and vetted by entrenched players like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The real challenge comes now,  when many of the bankable projects have been covered, and the AIIB will have to start doing its own due diligence, analysts said.  

“The AIIB will find it very difficult to scale up its operations. There are significant political risks in many of the infrastructure projects,” Evans-Pritchard said. “A lot of projects don’t make commercial sense. There is the risk of running protests in several countries where projects have been planned. There is a protest against an industrial zone in Sri Lanka, which is part of OBOR program,” he said. 

Several members in AIIB, particularly those from Europe, do not share China’s geopolitical ambitions, which may come in the way of approving projects along the OBOR route, he said. Besides, there is the risk of the next round of elections installing protectionist governments in Europe, which may be less enthusiastic about funding projects in Asia and elsewhere, Evans-Pritchard said.

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Boom in Tourists Helping Stabilize China-Vietnam Relations

China has emerged as the top single-country source of tourism for Vietnam over the past year, a status that could help broader relations hurt by a maritime dispute and historical distrust. 

The number of Chinese tourists to the neighboring Southeast Asian country reached 250,000 in January, leading other countries with about a quarter of the month’s total. The headcount from China marks a 68 percent increase over January 2016, according to Vietnamese government figures cited by the state media. 

Chinese tourists have reshaped the economies of Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past decade, bringing those places closer to Beijing after periods of troubled relations. 

“There are some underlying tensions over the East Sea or the South China Sea, but nevertheless Vietnam is a place the Chinese feel comfortable going,” said Frederick Burke, partner in the multinational law firm Baker & McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City. “It’s accessible. It’s nearby. It’s culturally similar but it’s different so it’s interesting. It’s not expensive and they do cater to the Chinese.” 

Overcoming tensions 

The upswing in Chinese arrivals caught Vietnam’s attention last year as about 2.2 million reached the country from January through October. Their numbers fell in 2014 after Beijing let a state oil firm position a rig in the disputed South China Sea, touching off deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.  

Beijing and Hanoi bitterly dispute sovereignty over much of the sea, including two chains of tiny islets. 

But a sustained influx of tourism could ease people-to-people relations affected by centuries of political rivalry and a border war in 1979 as well as the maritime dispute, analysts say. 

The rise in tourism was a bright spot in Sino-Vietnamese business ties toward the end of 2016, said Hoang Viet Phuong, head of institutional research and an investment advisor at SSI Securities Services in Hanoi. 

“There is a desire to move away from being a manufacturing hub,” said Louie Nguyen, editor and founder of the news website VietnamAdvisors. “You can see that in the increase in the startup initiatives in terms of tech startups. Even in the film business, the latest King Kong was made in Vietnam. So there (are) various initiatives to move away from manufacturing. Tourism is one of them.” 

China is now Vietnam’s top source of tourism, according to the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency. Although the Southeast Asian country depends largely on export manufacturing, one in eight jobs is in hospitality, Burke said. Tourism accounted for 6.6 percent of the GDP last year. 

Initial boost 

A land border crossing and short flights from southern Chinese cities gave tourism an initial boost.  

The Vietnamese border province of Quang Ninh, a popular holiday-making spot, was set in January to let Chinese group tourists stay three days visa free. Chinese are partial to coastal scenery, shopping and buffet meals, according to local media. 

“We’ve gone to Thailand and Maldives over the past two years, and then we saw some introductory material and thought (Vietnam) would be a bit better, more elemental,” said Ma Wensheng, 48, a Beijing tourist who just spent three days in South Vietnam with family.  

He said that while he encountered no anti-Chinese sentiment, not all was perfect. 

“The disadvantage is perhaps that tourist development lacks that of Thailand and the Maldives,” Ma said. “Some of the tourist infrastructure isn’t quite as friendly and in some places it’s incomplete. Its advantage is that prices are lower there compared to in the Maldives and so on.” 

The number of Chinese tour groups to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have largely held steady since those three countries became the first overseas markets in 2003. But the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 in March 2014 hurt arrivals to Malaysia and Singapore had reported a drop of 24 percent between 2013 and 2014 before it sought to make permits easier for family travel.  

Thailand has not seen any long-term decline in arrivals from China, where the number of outbound tourists grew by 20 percent in 2015. 

Hong Kong and Taiwan 

Large numbers of Chinese travelers have shaped other parts of Asia, as well. For example, arrivals from China brought a boom to the service sector in Hong Kong after a relaxation of rules in 2003. Hong Kong received 45.8 million mainland Chinese visitors in 2015. 

Since 2008, Chinese travelers have lifted the service sector in parts of Taiwan near tourist attractions. Their headcount peaked at nearly 3.5 million in 2015. 

China does not appear to be pushing tourism in Vietnam for strategic gain, Burke said, but eventually it could ask Chinese travel agencies to scale back if relations sour. 

Taiwanese officials have reported declines of 30 to 40 percent in group travel from China since the May inauguration of a president who opposes Beijing’s goal of unifying the two sides politically. The decline has hurt hotels and tour bus operators. 

Visits from mainland China to Hong Kong dropped 3 percent in 2015, the year after the anti-Beijing Umbrella Movement protests. 

Vietnam understands the risk of a pullback, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank.  

“Beijing has been known to limit outbound tourism as a political tool, but the Vietnamese government understands that such risks are only a small part of its economic relations with China and broader diplomatic and political interests,” he said.

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‘Weak’ Taliban Leadership May Present Opportunity for Peace

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose to a new high in 2016 amid the ongoing Taliban insurgency, with 3,500 killed and close to 8,000 wounded, the United Nations reported Monday. But a new analysis suggests the Taliban is deeply divided, presenting an opportunity for “insurgent peace-making.”

A study based on dozens of interviews with Taliban insiders suggests exploiting fractures within the group’s rank and file.

There were “senior commanders who were, in a sense, using suicide attacks to build up their reputation,” said professor Theo Farrell of the Royal United Services Institute, a co-author of the report. “So there are large parts of the Taliban that are fully committed to the fight, but there is a potential here, nonetheless, to de-escalate the conflict.”

That potential, according to Farrell, lies in the weakness of the Taliban’s leadership.

The new leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is widely seen as “weak and divisive leader,” Farrell said. “Many of our interviewees referred to him simply as a symbolic leader. The real power in the Taliban lies elsewhere. And so, therefore, there is a view among the rank and file that, effectively, the movement has become leaderless.”

Informal peace talks have taken place between the government and the Taliban leadership. However, senior Taliban commanders have demanded that the 13,000 NATO-led foreign troops in Afghanistan withdraw before formal talks begin.

Speaking in December, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the continuing bloodshed on Pakistan’s failure to take on militant groups in its territory; Islamabad denies the charge.

“Some still provide sanctuary in support or tolerate these networks,” Ghani said. “As [Mullah Rahmatullah] Kakazada, one of the key figures in the Taliban movement, recently said, ‘If they did not have sanctuary in Pakistan, they would not last a month.'”

Farrell argues the senior Taliban leadership should be circumvented, enabling dissenting commanders to meet and forge a common purpose of ending the conflict.

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Russia to Host Wider Regional Conference on Afghanistan

Russia will host a regional conference on Afghanistan later this month to discuss efforts aimed at settling the protracted Afghan conflict and containing “spillover effects” of Islamic State terrorists trying to get a foothold in the war-ravaged nation.

Moscow organized a tripartite meeting on the subject late December where it only invited Pakistan and China.  The dialogue prompted strong reaction and protest from the Afghan government for being left out of it.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday Afghanistan now has been formally invited to another round due in mid-February where senior officials from China, Iran, India and Pakistan also will be in attendance.

Lavrov made the statement in Moscow after talks with visiting Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani, saying most of the countries already have confirmed their participation.  

IS emerged in Afghanistan about two years ago, and has been conducting extremist attacks in the country and in parts of Pakistan under its regional name of Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).  But the terrorist group has not been able so far to extend its activities beyond few districts in eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan.

The violent IS campaign has worried Pakistan, which shares a nearly 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Russia defends its active Afghan diplomacy, saying continued fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban would allow IS to extend its activities to northern Afghan regions in its bid to infiltrate bordering Central Asian republics, and ultimately undermine Moscow’s national security interests.

“Russia is much more concerned about the growth of IS in Afghanistan because they regard IS as a threat.  So, they don’t want this force [IS] to knock at the Central Asian and Caucasian doors,” said Pakistani prime minister’s foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz while speaking to VOA.

He added that Moscow apparently is trying to form a regional platform to prevent Afghan instability from spilling over into neighboring countries.

“So, they need a regional approach and a cooperative approach to make sure that this turmoil does not go in their sphere of influence so that is their main motivation and that is our priority also to make sure that terrorism does not spread from this area to other parts,” said Aziz.

Pakistani authorities maintain that IS militants operating in Afghan border regions have been behind recent deadly attacks in their country.

Advisor Aziz emphasized the need for seeking an urgent negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict by encouraging peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government.  He insisted that continuation of hostilities will only fuel instability in Afghanistan.

Speaking Tuesday in Moscow, Foreign Minister Lavrov also underscored Russia’s support for involving the Taliban in peace talks to end the Afghan war.

“We have confirmed our common stance that Taliban should be involved in a constructive dialogue in keeping with the criteria contained in the U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Russian media quoted Lavrov as saying.

The Taliban has shown no willingness to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government, and instead has expanded its insurgent activities across the country, capturing more territory and inflicting more casualties on Afghan security forces, as well as civilians.

The United Nations also has documented a sharp increase in IS attacks against civilians, particularly against the Shia Muslim religious minority in Afghanistan last year.

It noted in its annual report, issued Monday, the number of civilian casualties perpetrated by ISKP increased nearly 10 times in 2016 when 899 civilian casualties occurred, including 209 deaths. The figures stood at 82, including 39 deaths in 2015.

Russian officials maintain IS militants fleeing counter-terrorism operations in Syria and Iraq are seeking refuge in Afghanistan, and they are using the conflict-hit country to expand their extremist activities to neighboring countries.  China and Iran also have expressed similar concerns.