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US Allies Tighten Alliance to Contain China’s Maritime Expansion

Australia’s recent shift to a more combative stance against China will tighten political and military coordination among U.S.-allied nations that want to check Beijing’s maritime expansion, analysts said this week.Canberra broke its neutral stance toward China with harsh pledges and comments in May, June and July due to a series of problems with the communist government, despite brisk trade ties. In particular, Australia openly backed the United States last month by sending the United Nations a letter that described Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the contested South China Sea as illegal.Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in a speech Wednesday that his country would work more closely with India, Japan and the United States – an ally already so close that a Chinese newspaper in May quoted a netizen calling Canberra a “dog” of Washington.Those four countries belong to a group dubbed the Quad, which formed in 2007 to discuss security issues in Asia, including China’s activities. Specialists predict more from the Quad, this time galvanized by Australia, even though the United States normally leads.“It appears at least from the Australian end that Australia is sort of trying to take a significant directive role rather than a follower role,” said Stuart Orr, professor of management at Deakin University in Australia.’Concrete action’On Wednesday, Morrison, addressing an Indo-Pacific security forum, noted the June Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India. The partnership calls for meetings at least once every two years between defense ministers. Morrison added Wednesday that Australia reached a memorandum of cooperation in July to work with Japan on space cooperation and said Australia planned to take “concrete action to support our Pacific and Southeast Asian friends and family.” Japan and India have their own bitter territorial issues with China.The U.S. and Australian governments have cooperated for decades on resisting foreign governments that Washington dislikes. Now the U.S. side is embroiled in a trade dispute with China. Both Western countries resent China for suspected technology-related crimes and want the Asian country investigated as the source of the coronavirus.Australia proposed in May a formal inquiry into the Chinese origins of the pandemic and a month later Morrison said his country had been the target of a “state-based” cyber-attack. Beijing called the June remark a smear.Compared to other countries worried about Beijing, “I think Washington and Canberra are on the same page of the book about the problems with China,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.“I think that they have a much stronger sense of unity about confronting China in a smart way,” he said.None of the Quad countries claims the South China Sea, but all of them see it as a pivot point for Chinese expansion past its land borders and recall Beijing as a Cold War foe.Fish, energy reserves, shipping lanesChina vies for sovereignty over the contested sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All five rival claimants have weaker militaries and less infrastructure on the sea’s hundreds of tiny islets than does China. Claimants prize the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea for fish, energy reserves and shipping lanes.Officials in Beijing cite historical usage records to defend their claim over about 90 percent of the sea.“China would at least have to be wary and at the same time it would have to be more concerned about Australia and the U.S. leading or sort of spearheading what they would likely see as rather unwelcome prospects of greater external interest and perceived meddling in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.India may hope to build up the Quad amid its military standoff with China near a disputed land border, London media organization India Inc. suggested in a commentary after Morrison met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.Australia’s leadership role in the Quad could mean more joint naval exercises that anger China, scholars believe.Japan and Australia joined the USS Ronald Reagan and a strike group last month for joint exercises southeast of China.U.S.-Australia military exercises will gain speed, especially if they involve Japan, India, and traditional pro-U.S. European allies such as France and the United Kingdom, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.’Moral standpoint’Southeast Asian states, despite overlapping South China Sea claims with Beijing, have shown less enthusiasm than have Quad countries toward Australia’s new assertiveness. Some, such as Brunei and the Philippines, receive aid and investment from China. Their negotiating bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hopes for an eventual maritime code of conduct with Beijing.However, they welcome the Quad’s activities from a “moral standpoint,” Koh said.Australia and Vietnam, the most outspoken maritime claimant, issued a joint statement last year to express “serious concerns about developments in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and militarization of disputed features,” a likely reference to Chinese activity.Expect Australia eventually to step up engagement with Vietnam, Thayer said.

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Turkey Considers Leaving European Domestic Violence Pact

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said it will decide by next week whether to leave a European treaty to protect women against domestic violence, a move that has angered many Turkish women, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s daughter.Turkey was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2012, followed by 33 other European nations.It is called the first binding agreement that declares violence against women a human rights violation and “creates a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women,” including protecting victims and prosecuting violent suspects.But Turkey’s conservative government says it wants to withdraw from the pact because opponents say it undermines Turkish families and so-called traditional values that already protect women from violence.A 2016 U.N. report said that 38 percent of Turkish women had experienced “physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence.”  And, according to an authoritative Istanbul-based advocacy group, We Will Stop Femicide, the number of women murdered, usually by their partners, has been increasing, with 121 women murdered in 2011 and in 2018, 440, according to an NPR report.The possible withdrawal is pitting Erdogan’s son and daughter against each other.“It is our religion which determines our fundamental values, our view of the family,” the Turkish Youth Foundation said. Erdogan’s son, Bilal Erdogan, is a member of the foundation’s board.But Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan is the deputy head of Turkey’s Women and Democracy Association.“We can no longer talk about ‘family’ … in a relationship where one side is oppressed and subject to violence,” the association said. “Marital rape is not normal in a healthy relationship. Bullying is in opposition to human dignity and Islamic value judgments.”The deputy chairman of the AKP, Numan Kurtulmus, said Turkey’s LGBTQ community has “taken refuge” behind the convention to push for equal treatment.Those who support Turkey remaining in the agreement said dropping out would be contrary to European values and be considered a step back from Turkey’s long campaign to join the European Union.  

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NBA Team Owners Commit $300 Million to Black Empowerment

NBA team owners will contribute $300 million over the next decade to establish a charitable foundation dedicated to economic empowerment in the Black community, the league announced Wednesday.The NBA Foundation, launched in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), will see all 30 club owners contribute a collective $30 million annually for 10 years in initial funding to support racial equality and social justice.”The creation of this foundation is an important step in developing more opportunities for the Black community,” NBPA president Chris Paul said. “I’m proud of our league and our players for their commitment to this long-term fight for equality and justice, and I know we will continue to find ways to keep pushing for meaningful institutional change.”The move follows worldwide protests after the death George Floyd last May while in police custody.NBA players are wearing messages of support for cultural issues on jerseys as they finish their season while “Black Lives Matter” is written upon all courts where games are played.The foundation mission will be to drive economic empowerment for Black communities through employment and career advancement, boosting access and backing for high school, college-aged and career-ready Black men and women.It will also assist national and local organizations that provide skills training, mentorship, coaching and personal development in NBA communities across the United States and Canada.Part of the foundation’s mission regarding employment will be on obtaining a first job, securing employment after high school or college and career advancement once employed.”All NBA team governors recognize our unique position to effect change and we are committed to supporting and empowering young Black men and women in each of our team markets as well as communities across the US and Canada,” said NBA board of governors chairman Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of the ownership group for the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors.Four NBA club owners, three players and executives from the NBPA and a member of the league office will serve on the foundation board of directors.”We’re dedicated to using the collective resources of the 30 teams, the players and the league to drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.”We believe that through focused programs in our team markets and nationally, together with clear and specific performance measures, we can advance our shared goals of creating substantial economic mobility within the Black community.” 

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Daily Testing for COVID-19 Dropping in US, AP Reports

Daily testing for the coronavirus in the United States is falling, even while the death toll rises, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.The number of tests has dropped nearly 4 percent over the past two weeks, AP reported.Experts said demand has overburdened laboratories that carry out the highly accurate molecular tests that detect the genetic code of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.These tests can give results in as little as two days.The experts are calling for a different test that people can do themselves and get results in just minutes, but the scientists say those tests are not as reliable. They include a do-it-yourself test where a patient would spit on a special piece of paper that changes color if the results is positive.But federal regulators say such tests could be highly unreliable.“I don’t think that would do a service to the American public of having something that is wrong seven out of 10 times,” Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Brett Giroir said. “I think that could be catastrophic.”Meanwhile, Russian authorities said Wednesday they are expanding their express COVID-19 testing to Moscow’s two other major airports after carrying out the tests at Sheremetyevo, Russia’s busiest airport.Authorities said the tests can yield results in just an hour.Facebook on Wednesday took down a post by President Donald Trump because it said the post spread misinformation about the coronavirus.“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19, which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” a Facebook spokesman said.The post included a link to a Fox News video where Trump says children are “virtually immune” to the virus.This is the first time one of the president’s COVID-related posts has been deleted from Facebook. Twitter also has demanded the White House remove the video from its account.Studies show that while children are less likely to become infected with the coronavirus and their symptoms tend to be milder, they are not immune and can still spread the virus to others.Gambia has imposed a three-week overnight curfew after the number of COVID-19 cases jumped 60 percent in just one week.Gambia is mainland Africa’s smallest nation and has also had the lowest number of coronavirus deaths – 16.Gambian officials said people had become lax about social distancing and other preventive measures.Four government ministers and the vice president are among those who have tested positive in recent weeks.The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government must take steps to stop the coronavirus from spreading to the Indigenous population.The justices gave authorities 30 days to come up with a plan that includes keeping outsiders from protected Indigenous communities.Indigenous groups demanded more protection, saying the coronavirus could wipe out some tribes and accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of not taking the outbreak seriously.The family of Chief Aritana Yawalapiti, one of Brazil’s most influential Indigenous leaders and leader of the people of Upper Xingu in central Brazil, died Wednesday of COVID-19.  

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US Report Exposes Official Communications, Proxies in Russian Disinformation

Russia is continuing to create and amplify false narratives in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, with the goal of undermining democratic values and the credibility of the United States and its allies, a government report said.The report from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) exposed Russia’s tactics of spreading disinformation through official government communications, state-funded global messaging, cultivation of proxy sources, weaponization of social media and cyber-enabled disinformation.“Beijing has also taken a page from Russia’s playbook, leveraging conspiracy websites and proxy channels to push disinformation and propaganda, with the goal of undermining democratic norms,” Lea Gabrielle, special envoy and coordinator of the GEC, said during a phone briefing.“The threat of both China and Russia disinformation is real,” she added.This came as the U.S. is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of any person who works with or for a foreign government for the purpose of interfering with U.S. elections through certain illegal cyber activities.“The U.S. government will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections,” Gabrielle told VOA. “The GEC works with our partners worldwide who share information on election interference and the tactics that they’ve seen used by Russia and others.”Seven Kremlin-aligned disinformation proxy sites and organizations, including the Strategic Culture Foundation website and the Katehon think tank, were also profiled in GEC’s report. Those proxies amplified narratives critical of the U.S. while embracing Russian positions, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak.The report said Russia’s general aims are “questioning the value of democratic institutions” and “weakening the international credibility and international cohesion of the United States and its allies and partners.”But a counterdisinformation community made up of governments, civil society, academia, the press, the private sector and citizens is pushing back, the State Department said.Senior Russian officials and pro-Russian media have sought to capitalize on the fear and confusion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic by actively promulgating conspiracy theories, the report said.

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US Action Against IS Financier Shows Jihadists’ Cash Flow Continues from Turkey

The U.S. designation last week of a new Turkey-based member of the notorious Rawi Network for allegedly facilitating money transfers to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria has raised fresh concerns among observers that jihadists continue to use Turkey to fund their activities in Syria.The Rawi Network, founded by an Iraqi family, has been known to the U.S. government for decades. In the 1990s, it was accused of using informal payment systems to help Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq evade international sanctions by buying and selling oil without reliance on formal banking systems.The Rawis returned to the spotlight in November 2019 when the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks with reporters about the coronavirus relief package negotiations, at the White House, July 23, 2020, in Washington.Last Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called for vigilance among U.S. allies.“Together with our CIFG partners, we must remain vigilant to ensure that the global remnants of this terrorist group do not regain a foothold,” Mnuchin said.Hawala money transferThe recent U.S. designation also targets 30-year-old Faruq Hamud, who allegedly used a hawala money transfer business in Syria’s al-Hol refugee camp to fund jihadists. Al-Hol is under the control of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the country’s northeast.Similar to the U.S.-based Western Union financial services company, hawala is a popular informal remittance method used within and among cash-based countries throughout the Middle East. It depends on a network of connected agents who can ensure thousands of dollars travel beyond borders in minutes.SDF did not respond to VOA’s questions on whether it was aware of Hamud’s alleged illicit activities in the camp in Syria’s Hasakah province near the Iraqi border.An effective U.S. ground partner against IS in Syria, SDF has repeatedly complained that it does not have adequate resources to maintain proper security of the camp, calling on governments to take back their citizens among the camp’s 11,000 family members of foreign jihadist fighters.A general view of al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, northeastern Syria, April 1, 2019.Camp smugglingThe al-Hol camp also accommodates nearly 60,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria and some refugees from Iraq. Camp authorities say they have physically separated IS family members from the rest of the camp’s residents.There are at least two hawala offices that openly conduct business in the non-IS section of the camp, but money often gets smuggled from those offices to IS family members as well, according Thomas McClure, a Syria-based researcher with Rojava Information Center.“The foreign women aren’t allowed to receive money,” McClure said, “but when they want to receive money, the Syrian and Iraqi people get it from the hawala offices in the Souq [a market in the camp] and give it to them for a cut for smuggling them.”Some of the IS families reportedly receive outside donations that amount to more than $3,000 a month, while an average family in the camp spends one-tenth of that amount, according to a report published by North Press Agency, a local news site.Hawala also provides a useful means of sending humanitarian support to IDPs and refugees, say some analysts. While banning them outright is not advised, experts say the business can be regulated in a way that prevents IS access to outside donations.“The hawala money transfer system is crucial to remain open for the women to be able to purchase what they need for their families,” Anne Speckhard, director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), who has visited the al-Hol camp for research, told VOA.“But it should be regulated so large sums are not transferred,” she added. “Likewise, large sums make it very possible to bribe those receiving the money and those who would smuggle the women out.”

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Pompeo Announces Tour of Europe Next Week

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he would visit Poland and three other European countries next week, as the United States announced plans to reposition troops outside of Germany. During this tour, which will begin Aug. 11, the U.S. top diplomat will also visit the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Austria. “It will be a very important and productive trip,” he said, announcing the tour during a press conference. Polish President Andrzej Duda, a populist conservative, was narrowly reelected to a new five-year term last month after a highly polarizing campaign in which he was notably received into the White House by Donald Trump. FILE – Poland’s President Andrzej Duda listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, June 24, 2020.The American president, who has a terrible relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has decided to withdraw thousands of American soldiers from Germany to reposition some of them in Poland. The Pentagon announced last week that the United States would deploy 1,000 additional troops to Poland in rotations, thanks to an agreement reached with Warsaw on their status in the country. They will be added to the 4,500 American soldiers already deployed by rotations in the country. The tour should also be placed under the sign of China, as Pompeo, who seeks to reduce Beijing’s influence in the world, urges U.S. allies to avoid Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.  

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US Justice Department Asks Court to Block California Net Neutrality Law

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday asked a federal judge to block California’s net neutrality law, arguing that federal law preempts the state statute.In October, a U.S. appeals court largely upheld the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repeal of landmark U.S. net neutrality rules. In 2018, California agreed not to enforce its own state net neutrality law until a final court decision on the FCC repeal.The Trump FCC in 2017 voted 3-2 to toss out Obama-era rules prohibiting internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes. The California law would reinstate those prohibitions in the state.The U.S. government is seeking a preliminary injunction to block California from being able to enforce its law.The California attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the Justice Department’s filing “and look forward to defending California’s state net neutrality protections.”The 2017 FCC 3-2 vote was applauded by internet service providers (ISPs), as it gave them sweeping powers to recast how Americans use the internet, as long as they disclose changes. The new rules took effect in June 2018, but service providers have yet to change how users access the internet.The California law was applauded by large tech companies and consumer groups that had championed the level playing field of net neutrality.The appeals court, in its October decision, also ruled the FCC had overstepped its legal authority when it expressly declared states cannot pass their own net neutrality laws.The Justice Department said despite that ruling that it still believes California’s net neutrality law is preempted by federal law. A decision on the Justice Department action is not expected before mid-October, according to a court schedule. 

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