Divided APEC leaders battle for unity after US, China spat

From left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence pose for a group photo at APEC Haus in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. (AP)
Updated 18 November 2018
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Divided APEC leaders battle for unity after US, China spat

  • Speeches from Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Mike Pence appeared to represent competing bids for regional leadership
  • Some attendees voiced concern about the growing rivalry for influence in the region

PORT MORESBY: Leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific nations battled to paper over gaping differences Sunday after an unusually sharp exchange of words between the group’s two most powerful members, the United States and China.
With just hours of the two-day summit remaining, officials were still scrambling to forge enough of a consensus to issue a formal joint statement and were admitting privately that it might not be possible, amid yawning differences on trade policy.
The annual gathering has been overshadowed by speeches on Saturday from Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Mike Pence, which appeared to represent competing bids for regional leadership.
Pence warned smaller countries not to be seduced by China’s massive Belt-and-Road infrastructure program, which sees Beijing offer money to poorer countries for construction and development projects.
The “opaque” loans come with strings attached and build up “staggering debt,” Pence charged, mocking the initiative as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.”
He urged nations instead to stick with the United States, which doesn’t “drown our partners in a sea of debt” or “coerce, corrupt or compromise your independence.”
In a speech to business leaders just minutes before Pence, Xi insisted the initiative was not a “trap” and there was no “hidden agenda” — amid criticism that it amounts to “chequebook diplomacy” in the region.
Xi also lashed out at “America First” trade protectionism, saying it was a “short-sighted approach” that was “doomed to failure.”
The feisty barbs on a gleaming white cruise ship moored in Port Moresby set the scene for a potentially fiery meeting between Xi and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of this month.
But Xi and Pence, who both wore shiny, red shirts provided by the Pacific island did hold talks on Saturday night at the leaders’ gala dinner.
Pence told reporters on Sunday: “I spoke to President Xi twice during the course of this conference. We had a candid conversation.”
He told him that the US is interested in a better relationship with China “but there has to be change” in Beijing’s trade policies.
With fears that a trade war between the two rivals could cripple the Pacific Rim economy, some attendees voiced concern about the growing rivalry for influence in the region.
“Business leaders do not want to speak out, but behind the scenes here, they are talking over dinner saying ‘how has this happened’?” said Denis O’Brien, the billionaire chairman of Digicel.
“It’s a very forced situation, one country is trying to force all the other countries to change tariffs agreed over years,” O’Brien told AFP.
Trump — and Russian President Vladimir Putin — both decided to skip the gathering, leaving the spotlight on Xi who arrived two days early to open a Chinese-funded school and road in Papua New Guinea’s dirt-poor capital Port Moresby.
Xi has been the star of the show, front and center at official photos whereas Pence has kept a lower profile, only deciding at the last minute to stay overnight in Port Moresby — shelving original plans to fly in and out from Cairns in Australia.
As if to counter Chinese largesse, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan on Sunday announced a project to boost electricity capacity in Papua New Guinea.
The project aims to raise the percentage of the PNG population with access to electricity from 13 percent to 70 percent.
And as the US and China vie for influence in the region, the statement dangled the prospect of similar projects for countries that “support principles and values which help maintain and promote a free, open, prosperous and rules-based region.”
With the official business of the summit relatively low-key, much of the focus has been on the unlikely venue of Port Moresby, which is hosting its first international event of this scale.

There were reports of an incident where police were called when Chinese officials attempted to “barge” into the office of Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister, it emerged Sunday, as APEC summit tensions boiled over.
The Chinese delegates “tried to barge in” to Rimbink Pato’s Port Moresby office Saturday, in an eleventh-hour bid to influence a summit draft communique, but were denied entry, three sources with knowledge of the situation told AFP.
“Police were posted outside the minister’s office after they tried to barge in,” one source privy to summit negotiations told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The diplomatic incident came with tensions already high at a summit of Asian-Pacific leaders that has been overshadowed by a spat between the United States and China.
Pato had refused to meet with the delegates, according to a source, who said: “It’s not appropriate for the minister to negotiate solo with the Chinese. The Chinese negotiating officials know this.”
The minister himself sought to downplay the incident, telling AFP: “There wasn't an issue.”
Asked about the incident, Chinese foreign ministry official Zhang Xiaolong told reporters: “It’s not true. It’s simply not true.”
The city is on lockdown with hundreds of police and military patrolling the streets of the notoriously crime-ridden capital.
Warships are stationed just off the coast to provide security for the leaders, and delegates and media have been housed in enormous cruise ships due to a dearth of hotel rooms.


Germany in push to resurrect talks with Taliban

Updated 26 May 2019
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Germany in push to resurrect talks with Taliban

  • Only the Afghans ‘can decide upon the future of their country’

KABUL, BERLIN: Germany, a leading donor and member of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, has been talking with the Taliban and the Afghan government in an effort to restart peace talks to end 18 years of conflict, officials said.

While the Taliban have been talking with US officials since October about withdrawal of international troops, they have so far refused formal talks with the Western-backed government, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime.

Berlin’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Markus Potzel, has visited Kabul for talks with the Afghan government and met Taliban officials in Doha at least twice this month.

“The current chance for a process toward a more peaceful Afghanistan should not be missed. If the friends of Afghanistan — and Germany is one of them — together can help in this effort, then we should do it,” Potzel said.

“In the end, only the Afghans themselves, including the Taliban, can decide upon the future of their country.”

The chief US negotiator in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, in March said that a draft agreement had been reached on a withdrawal of US forces in exchange for a commitment by the Taliban to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda.

But there has been no agreement yet on a cease-fire or a start to talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, both seen as key conditions for a settlement.

An Afghan delegation had been due to meet Taliban officials in the Qatari capital Doha last month to build the basis for possible negotiations, but the meeting was canceled at the last minute after a dispute over the number of participants.

FASTFACT

 

● At least 3,804 Afghan civilians were killed in the war last year. ● 14,000 US troops are still stationed in Afghanistan.

“We realize that US-Taliban talks will gain momentum only if the insurgent leaders start engaging with the Afghan representatives,” a senior German official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said that Germany was one among several countries to have offered help to seek a peaceful resolution. 

The EU and Indonesia are among those to have offered help, another Taliban official said, declining to be named.

Discussions were held with Germany about an Afghan-Taliban meeting in Germany but no decision has been made, Shaheen told Reuters.

 

Captives subjected to abuse

Afghan captives held by the Taliban have been subjected to abuse, ill-treatment and actions that may amount to torture, the UN said on Sunday.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said it interviewed 13 detainees from a group of 53 recently rescued from the Taliban, mainly members of Afghan forces but also civilians and government officials captured by the insurgents.

The group was freed on April 25 when Afghan troops raided a Taliban-run detention facility in the Khas Uruzgan district in southern Uruzgan province.

Most of the captives were held since 2018, with three since 2016, the UNAMA statement said, adding they were kept in poor conditions and subjected to forced labor. It cites the detainees as saying that the Taliban killed some of their captives.

“I am gravely concerned about these serious allegations of ill-treatment, torture and unlawful killing of civilians and security personnel, as well as the deplorable conditions of detention,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the head of UNAMA.

The detainees were shackled while in captivity and almost all said they were beaten. The Taliban told them it was punishment for supporting the government, working with the Americans or fighting the insurgents.