Category: Europe

news from Europe

Ex-President’s Brother Formally Launches Sri Lanka Leadership Bid

Former defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse formally launched his bid for Sri Lanka’s presidency Sunday, vowing to battle “extremist terrorism” in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide attacks.

The 70-year-old — and his ex-president brother, Mahinda — have been critical of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s handling of the bombings, which were blamed on a local Islamist jihadi group in the Buddhist-majority nation.

The attacks targeting three churches and three hotels claimed the lives of at least 258 people and left nearly 500 wounded. Since then, the country has been under a state of emergency.

Gotabhaya Rajapakse will stand for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) party, which was formed recently by his older brother, who ruled for a decade from 2005.

The SLPP is a breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is nominally led by current President Maithripala Sirisena.

Highlighting frequent schisms in the country’s politics, the SLFP in turn broke away from a coalition with premier Wickremesinghe’s right-wing United National Party (UNP) earlier this year.

“I will not allow extremist terrorism under my presidency,” Gotabhaya Rajapakse said at the launch of his campaign for presidential elections, which are due later this year.

He was in charge of the defense ministry as its top bureaucrat when security forces crushed Tamil rebels and ended a 37-year separatist war in May 2009.

The no-holds-barred military campaign also triggered allegations of grave human rights abuses, including the killing of up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.

Gothabhaya Rajapakse is currently on bail facing prosecution for allegedly siphoning off millions of rupees of state cash to build a monument for his parents when his brother was president.

He also faces a civil suit in the United States for allegedly causing the death of a prominent anti-establishment newspaper editor in Sri Lanka in January 2009.

Wickremesinghe has indicated he too wants to run for president, but his party is yet to nominate an official candidate amid major internal clashes over his leadership.

Incumbent Sirisena also plans to run again.

 

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Norway Downplays Maduro’s Skipping of Talks With Opposition

The chief facilitator of negotiations between Venezuela’s socialist administration and opposition has downplayed the decision by President Nicolas Maduro to skip a scheduled round of talks.

Dag Nylander of Norway’s Foreign Affairs Ministry told The Associated Press on Thursday he’s in contact with both sides about finding a date for talks to resume.

Maduro on Wednesday night said he had decided not to send envoys to the Caribbean island of Barbados, where talks were to resume Thursday. That was to protest the Trump administration’s decision to freeze the Venezuelan government’s assets in the U.S. and threaten to retaliate against foreign companies that continue to do business with his government.

Maduro’s government also said it would review the mechanism of the talks to ensure it contributes to an efficient solution to the problems Venezuelans face.

“Norway is facilitating the negotiation process at the request of the principal political actors in Venezuela and schedules all meetings based on the availability of the parties. Accordingly we are in touch with them regarding the next meetings,” said Nylander, the head of the peace and reconciliation office at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

He added:  “The facilitation continues under the principle that the parties would like it to, and that there are realistic prospects of a negotiated solution that can benefit the Venezuelan people.”

In announcing the sweeping move, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the dialogue between the government and opposition was being used by Maduro to buy time.

“We will not fall for these old tricks of a tired dictator,” Bolton declared Tuesday at a meeting in Peru of more than 50 governments aligned against Maduro. “No more time for tap, tap, tapping. Now is the time for action.”

But some believe Bolton’s admonishments might end of strengthening the negotiations, which have been taking place since May.

The United Nations reiterated Thursday U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ “strong support” for Norway’s mediation effort.

“Our position is unchanged — that only a settlement through negotiations will solve this ongoing situation,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric.  

Meanwhile, the U.N.’s top human rights official criticized the U.S.’ response as overhanded and bound to intensify suffering in a country already racked by six-digit hyperinflation, food shortages and an economic recession worse than the U.S. Great Depression.

Michelle Bachelet, who sharply criticized Maduro’s human rights record following a visit to the country in June, said that provision in the new sanctions allowing for the shipment of food and medicine are unlikely to suffice.

“They are still likely to significantly exacerbate the crisis for millions of ordinary Venezuelans, especially as there will certainly be over-compliance by financial institutions around the world that have commercial relations with the governments of the US and Venezuela,” she said.

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Lebanese Daily Publishes Blank Edition to Protest Crisis

Lebanon’s only English-language daily protested the country’s deteriorating economic and political conditions by publishing a blank edition Thursday, calling it an “alarm bell.” 
 
Each page of The Daily Star’s Thursday edition bore a single phrase referring to one of the country’s problems, including government deadlock, rising public debt, increasing sectarian rhetoric and unemployment. The back page had a photo of a cedar tree, a national symbol, with a caption reading: “Wake up before it’s too late!”

“We are sounding the alarm bell over the many challenges the country is facing,” the paper’s editor-in-chief Nadim Ladki told The Associated Press. “It’s a call on everyone — politicians, activists, ordinary people — to pull together in the same direction to resolve the crises and challenges.”

Lebanon has been in the grip of an economic crisis for months, and the government has not met since a June 30 shooting in a mountain village that escalated tensions between the Christian and Druze communities.

A man looks through a copy of the Lebanese local English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 8, 2019.

Rival groups in the Cabinet have been divided on how to proceed with the investigation of the shooting, which left two people dead.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement Wednesday saying it supports a fair and transparent investigation into the shooting in the village of Qabr Shamoun.  
 
“Any attempt to use the tragic June 30 event in Qabr Shamoun to advance political objectives should be rejected,” the embassy said in an apparent reference to the militant Hezbollah group and its allies, who are seen as pressuring Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Hezbollah on Thursday blasted the U.S. Embassy statement, calling it “a blatant and gross intervention in Lebanese internal affairs” and adding that it aims to “deepen divisions” within Lebanon. The group called the crisis a “local political issue” that the Lebanese judiciary is dealing with.

Lebanon’s government is the product of a power-sharing agreement that ended the devastating 1975-1990 civil war and which divides powers among various religious sects. The political scene is split between a pro-Western coalition, which includes Jumblatt and his followers, and a bloc dominated by Hezbollah that is aligned with Syria and Iran.

The political infighting has made it impossible to maintain the country’s crumbling infrastructure or provide adequate public services. The national debt is hovering around $85 billion, or 150 percent of gross domestic product.

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Migration, Corruption Hover over Guatemala Presidential Vote

Most people in Guatemalan farming towns like San Martin Jilotepeque have a relative or two living in the United States, giving them sympathy for the plight of migrants. But they now find themselves fearing an influx of Salvadoran or Honduran migrants after their government signed a “third safe country” agreement with Washington.

Such migration fears, poverty and corruption provide the backdrop to Guatemala’s presidential runoff vote Sunday, which is generating little enthusiasm among a population embittered after witnessing a succession of presidents accused of graft and other crimes, and the expulsion of a U.N. commission that was fighting the impunity.

“I no longer believe them,” grumbled Efrain Morales, 49, as he listened to final campaign pitches from the two candidates: former first lady Sandra Torres and Alejandro Giammattei, the top vote-getters in the first round election June 16.

Recent polls show the conservative Giammattei with a modest lead in a race between two unpopular candidates. Giammattei received only 14 percent support while the center-left Torres received about 26 percent in a first round of voting with 19 candidates. Election authorities had barred some of the more popular candidates from running.

“In my town people are migrating. The young people are leaving at 15, 16 years old. Even if you try here, it’s impossible, there’s no work,” said Morales, an illiterate farmer, describing a situation in which there is so little hope in poor and isolated towns that the only logical decision is to migrate.

What is unique about this election is that migration to Guatemala itself has also become an issue. President Jimmy Morales on July 6 signed a pact with the U.S. that would require migrants, who are largely Salvadorans and Hondurans, to request asylum in Guatemala if they cross through the country — as they must if travelling land routes — before reaching the U.S. border.

While the government suggests the asylum seekers could find temporary agricultural work in Guatemala, it is hard to see why they would want such low-paid jobs.

But still the fear of other migrants persists.

Hector Hernandez, the mayor of San Martin Jilotepeque, recently spoke to the residents of the township’s dozen or so hamlets over a loudspeaker, telling them not to rent rooms to foreigners.

“I don’t want any of you letting unknown people in, renting them rooms or houses, renting is forbidden,” Hernandez said. “They want to come here to live, there are a lot of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans; they are all over the place.”

Hernandez argued the foreigners don’t come to escape poverty, but rather to rob and extort money. Then he made a dark reference to the area’s history of brutal mob justice.

“Here in San Martin, any outsider who comes here to rob, he will be burned,” Hernandez said.

It is hard to see why such an impoverished community would attract thieves. Efrain Morales admitted he has never seen a Salvadoran or Nicaraguan around these parts.

To other townsfolk, it is migration from their own country that is the issue.

But despite the importance of migration to the lives of San Martin Jilotepeque residents and the unpopularity of Morales’ deal with Washington, Torres and Giammattei have barely mentioned the issue.

Congresswoman Madeleine Figueroa, of Torres’ National Union of Hope party, says the town will get a new road if Torres is elected.

But Maria Morales, no relation to Efrain, has a hard time paying attention to the campaign promise. She’s far more concerned about her daughter Flory Chapin and her granddaughter Hilda, 2.

Chapin, a single mother, left her two other children with Morales before heading north because she couldn’t make ends meet in Guatemala.

“She called me last Monday, she said, `Mom, today is the day. I’m still on the Mexican side, but I am going to cross [the border] and turn myself in to Immigration,”’ Morales said. “Since then, I haven’t heard anything.”

San Martin Jilotepeque, like other towns in Guatemala, depends to a large extent on remittances, the money sent home by migrants living in the United States.  

Two other town residents left for the U.S. with their children, and within two weeks they were in the U.S. That motivated Flory Chapin to try, her mother said.

“When my daughter saw that they got there, she left to try.” Now, Morales has nothing but doubts. “I’m worried, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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Body of Missing UK Astrophysicist Found on Greek Island

Greek search crews have found the body of a British scientist who went missing while on holiday on the Aegean island of Ikaria in a ravine near where she had been staying, authorities said Wednesday.
 
Police said the body of Cyprus-based astrophysicist Natalie Christopher, 34, was found in a 20-meter (65-foot) deep ravine. Christopher had been reported missing on Monday by her Cypriot partner with whom she was vacationing after she went for a morning run.
 
The cause of death was not immediately clear and authorities planned an autopsy.
 
Police, firefighters, volunteers and the coast guard had been scouring the area where Christopher had been staying during her vacation, which has paths along ravines and steep seaside cliffs. A specialized police unit with geolocation equipment was sent to the island to help in the search.
 
Cypriot authorities said they were in close contact with Greek search crews and the woman’s family.
 
“I express the sincere condolences of the Cypriot state and of myself to the family and friends of Natalie Christopher,” Cypriot Justice and Public Order Minister George Savvides said after being informed that the body had been identified.

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‘Extinction Rebellion’ Dubbed Cult, But Supporters Say Radical Change Needed

They are seen as the shock troops of a burgeoning direct-action environmental movement. Earlier this year, members of Extinction Rebellion brought the center of London and some other major British towns to a standstill by barricading bridges, standing on top of trains, and blocking major thoroughfares and crossroads. 

Extinction Rebellion (XR), a campaign of civil disobedience born in Britain and aiming to address a worldwide climate crisis, has been endorsed by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the teenage poster child of environmentalism. XR has pledged to cause more disruption, arguing that governments are not doing enough to stop the “climate emergency.” 

The group, which is spawning similar campaigns in the United States and Australia, says climate activists have no choice but to take matters into their own hands. It demands that governments prevent further biodiversity loss and commit to producing net-zero greenhouse gases by 2025. Otherwise, XR says, there will be a mass extinction of life forms on the planet within the lifetimes of the demonstrators themselves.

The group’s next target is next month’s star-studded London Fashion Week. Activists have promised to shut down the five-day runway event in a bid to raise awareness of the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry.

FILE – Extinction Rebellion climate activists raise a mast on their boat during a protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Britain, July 15, 2019.

“We need to change our culture around consumption,” said climate activist Bel Jacobs. “People have no idea how environmentally destructive fashion is.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from making textiles was estimated at 1.2 billion tons of CO2-equivalent in 2015, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British environmental charity.

‘Cultish nature’

XR’s actions have been applauded by many environmentalists, who say the only way to make governments, people and corporations sit up and take climate action is to shock them into it. But the radical philosophy underpinning the group, which includes wanting to set up citizens’ assemblies that could overrule parliament, is drawing increasing criticism from foes, who compare the group to a millenarian sect. 

“The cultish nature of XR’s activities is a little spooky,” said Austin Williams, director of the Future Cities Project, a group that focuses on urban planning and futurist technological solutions.

Sympathizers acknowledge that XR hasn’t helped itself with some of the remarks made by its leaders. Co-founder Gail Bradbrook said her realization that humanity was on the brink of extinction came from taking huge doses of psychedelic drugs, which “rewired” her brain and gave her the “codes of social change.”

Roger Hallam, another co-founder, has said, “We are going to force the governments to act. And if they don’t, we will bring them down and create a democracy fit for purpose. And yes, some may die in the process.”

FILE – Police remove a climate change demonstrator during a march supported by Extinction Rebellion in London, Britain. May 24, 2019.

Hallam is not a scientist but has a track record as a political activist, and holds a Ph.D. on “digitally enhanced political resistance and empowerment strategies.”

BirthStrikers

Several leading XR adherents have announced they’ve decided not to procreate in response to the coming “climate breakdown and civilization collapse,” arguing the world is too horrible a place to bring children into it. 

The BirthStrikers, as they are nicknamed, received some endorsement earlier this year from U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said the climate emergency “does lead young people to have a legitimate question — ‘Is it OK still to have children?'”

XR critics have compared the BirthStrikers to the Cathars, a medieval religious sect that encouraged celibacy and discouraged marriage on the grounds that every person born was just another poor soul trapped by the devil in a body.

Defections

XR has also seen defections. Sherrie Yeomans, coordinator of XR blockades in the English city of Bristol, left the group, saying, “I can no longer surround myself with the toxic, manipulative Extinction Rebellion cult.”

Johan Norberg, a Swedish author, historian and XR critic, worries that the group is fueling anxiety while not being practical about the possible solutions to global warming. 

“I guess it depends on your definition of cult,” he said. “But I think it is a growing, but very radical, sentiment that I fear plays a part in giving people anxiety about their life choices, and also leads us to thinking about these things in the wrong way,” he told VOA. 

On the BirthStrikers he said: “The bizarre thing is that they just think of another human being as a burden, a mouth to feed. But they also come along with a brain to think, and hands to work. I don’t know what scientific insight and which technology will save us from not just global warming but also the many other problems that will affect us — the next pandemic, natural disaster and so on — but I know that the chance that we’ll find it is greater if we have more people alive, who live longer lives than ever, get a longer education than ever, and are more free to make use of the accumulated knowledge and technology of mankind to take on those problems.”

FILE – Protesters from the group Extinction Rebellion walk to Hyde Park in London, April 25, 2019.

Norberg points to a future of “electric cars and, soon, planes,” and biofuels made from algae and extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. He worries about the economic consequences if the abrupt zero-growth goals of XR were adopted. 

“It would result in a reversal of the amazing economic development that has resulted in the fastest reduction of poverty in history. A lack of growth and international trade would result in human tragedies on a massive scale,” he said.

XR response

XR’s co-founders say Norberg’s formula won’t halt climate change and stop extinction. They defended themselves against critics’ cult charges, arguing recently in an article in a British newspaper, “We’ve made many mistakes, but now is the time for collective action, not recriminations.”  

“Extinction Rebellion is humbly following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” Hallam said. “After covering basic material needs, human beings are not made happier through consuming more stuff.”

Bradbrook told reporters in London, “We oppose a system that generates huge wealth through astonishing innovation but is fatally unable to distribute fairly and provide universal access to its spoils. … We need a ‘revolution’ in consciousness to overturn the system.” 

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Orthodox Church Files New Suit in Jerusalem Property Battle

The Greek Orthodox Church says it has filed a new lawsuit against a Jewish settler group in a bid to overturn an Israeli Supreme Court decision upholding the sale of three properties in predominantly Palestinian parts of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Patriarchate claimed in a statement Monday that it had “clear proof” of corruption in the long-disputed 2004 sale of Old City properties, including two Palestinian-run hotels.

In June, the court ruled in favor of the Israeli organization, which seeks to increase the Jewish presence in Palestinian areas of the contested holy city.

Most Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem are Palestinian, and the sale of the properties to Israelis sparked outrage.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, and Palestinians seek it as capital of a future state.

 

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Orthodox Church Files New Suit in Jerusalem Property Battle

The Greek Orthodox Church says it has filed a new lawsuit against a Jewish settler group in a bid to overturn an Israeli Supreme Court decision upholding the sale of three properties in predominantly Palestinian parts of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Patriarchate claimed in a statement Monday that it had “clear proof” of corruption in the long-disputed 2004 sale of Old City properties, including two Palestinian-run hotels.

In June, the court ruled in favor of the Israeli organization, which seeks to increase the Jewish presence in Palestinian areas of the contested holy city.

Most Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem are Palestinian, and the sale of the properties to Israelis sparked outrage.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, and Palestinians seek it as capital of a future state.

 

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New US Defense Chief Slams China on 1st Asian Visit

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has slammed China’s “destabilizing” actions in the Indo-Pacific region during his first trip to the region.

Speaking to reporters in Sydney with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their Australian counterparts, Esper said the United States is “firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behavior, destabilizing behavior from China.”

Esper and Pompeo pointed to Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea and accused it of promoting the state-sponsored theft of other nation’s intellectual property, and “predatory economics.”

The last was an apparent reference to so-called “debt traps” like a 2017 arrangement that gave China control of a port in Sri Lanka. After failing to keep up with its debt payments to China, Sri Lanka handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese government for 99 years.

China has arguably undertaken the largest transfer of intellectual property in human history, according to Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Bowman told VOA that intellectual property stolen by Beijing has been used to modernize Chinese weapons which, in the event of a future military conflict, would be used to kill Americans and their allies.

“The United States will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others,” Esper said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, listens as Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne makes a point during a press conference following annual bilateral talks in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 4, 2019.

Pompeo said Sunday the United States was not asking nations to “choose” between the U.S. and China.

However, allies in the region have grown increasingly worried amid increasing economic and military tensions between China and the United States.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne praised the strong “mateship” between the United States and Australia, but added that China is also a vitally important partner for her country.

“It’s in no one’s interest for the Indo-Pacific to become more competitive or adversarial in character,” she said.

Southeast Asian nations grappled with the prospect of choosing sides in June during the annual Shangri-la Dialogue defense forum in Singapore. The question loomed so large that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of smaller countries being “forced” to take sides.

 

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New US Defense Chief Slams China on 1st Asian Visit

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has slammed China’s “destabilizing” actions in the Indo-Pacific region during his first trip to the region.

Speaking to reporters in Sydney with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their Australian counterparts, Esper said the United States is “firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behavior, destabilizing behavior from China.”

Esper and Pompeo pointed to Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea and accused it of promoting the state-sponsored theft of other nation’s intellectual property, and “predatory economics.”

The last was an apparent reference to so-called “debt traps” like a 2017 arrangement that gave China control of a port in Sri Lanka. After failing to keep up with its debt payments to China, Sri Lanka handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese government for 99 years.

China has arguably undertaken the largest transfer of intellectual property in human history, according to Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Bowman told VOA that intellectual property stolen by Beijing has been used to modernize Chinese weapons which, in the event of a future military conflict, would be used to kill Americans and their allies.

“The United States will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others,” Esper said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, listens as Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne makes a point during a press conference following annual bilateral talks in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 4, 2019.

Pompeo said Sunday the United States was not asking nations to “choose” between the U.S. and China.

However, allies in the region have grown increasingly worried amid increasing economic and military tensions between China and the United States.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne praised the strong “mateship” between the United States and Australia, but added that China is also a vitally important partner for her country.

“It’s in no one’s interest for the Indo-Pacific to become more competitive or adversarial in character,” she said.

Southeast Asian nations grappled with the prospect of choosing sides in June during the annual Shangri-la Dialogue defense forum in Singapore. The question loomed so large that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of smaller countries being “forced” to take sides.

 

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New US Defense Chief Slams China on 1st Asian Visit

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has slammed China’s “destabilizing” actions in the Indo-Pacific region during his first trip to the region.

Speaking to reporters in Sydney with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their Australian counterparts, Esper said the United States is “firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behavior, destabilizing behavior from China.”

Esper and Pompeo pointed to Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea and accused it of promoting the state-sponsored theft of other nation’s intellectual property, and “predatory economics.”

The last was an apparent reference to so-called “debt traps” like a 2017 arrangement that gave China control of a port in Sri Lanka. After failing to keep up with its debt payments to China, Sri Lanka handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese government for 99 years.

China has arguably undertaken the largest transfer of intellectual property in human history, according to Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Bowman told VOA that intellectual property stolen by Beijing has been used to modernize Chinese weapons which, in the event of a future military conflict, would be used to kill Americans and their allies.

“The United States will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others,” Esper said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, listens as Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne makes a point during a press conference following annual bilateral talks in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 4, 2019.

Pompeo said Sunday the United States was not asking nations to “choose” between the U.S. and China.

However, allies in the region have grown increasingly worried amid increasing economic and military tensions between China and the United States.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne praised the strong “mateship” between the United States and Australia, but added that China is also a vitally important partner for her country.

“It’s in no one’s interest for the Indo-Pacific to become more competitive or adversarial in character,” she said.

Southeast Asian nations grappled with the prospect of choosing sides in June during the annual Shangri-la Dialogue defense forum in Singapore. The question loomed so large that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of smaller countries being “forced” to take sides.

 

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