ASEAN coronavirus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for ASEAN,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in his address to Southeast Asian summit attendees on June 26, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 26 June 2020

ASEAN coronavirus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit

  • ASEAN link up online due to regional travel restrictions and health risks
  • A high-priority project would be the establishment of an ASEAN COVID-19 response fund

HANOI: Southeast Asian leaders are holding an annual summit Friday by video to show unity and discuss a regional emergency fund to tame the immense crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. The long-divisive South China Sea conflicts are also in the spotlight.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations linked up online due to regional travel restrictions and health risks, which have delayed dozens of meetings and shut out the ceremonial spectacles, group handshakes and photo-ops that have been the trademark of the 10-nation bloc’s annual summits.
Vietnam, the current ASEAN chair, had planned face-to-face meetings, but most member states assessed it was still too risky for leaders to travel. Still, it organized a colorful opening ceremony with traditional songs and dance in Hanoi for about 200 Vietnamese officials and foreign diplomats. They showed up without masks and sat close to each other while the heads of state watched remotely on their screens.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for ASEAN,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said. He added that the contagion “is fanning the flame of dormant challenges within the scope of political, economic and social environment,” and helping escalate frictions among major powers.
Southeast Asian nations have been impacted by the pandemic differently, with hard-hit Indonesia grappling with more than 50,000 infections and more than 2,600 deaths, and the tiny socialist state of Laos reporting just 19 cases. The diverse region of 650 million people, however, has been an Asian COVID-19 hot spot, with a combined total of more than 138,000 confirmed cases that have well surpassed that of China, where the outbreak started.
The economic toll has been severe, with ASEAN’s leading economies, including Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, facing one of their most severe recessions in decades.
“We recognized the significant cost and unprecedented challenges to the region and the world caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic,” Vietnam says on behalf of ASEAN states in a draft communique to be issued after Friday’s summit.
“We noted with grave concern the human and socioeconomic costs caused by COVID-19 and remained committed to implementing targeted policies to instill confidence that ASEAN is at the forefront of this critical battle.”
A high-priority project would be the establishment of an ASEAN COVID-19 response fund, which could be used to help member states purchase medical supplies and protective suits. Thailand has pledged to contribute $100,000 and ASEAN partners, including China, Japan and South Korea, were expected to announce contributions after the terms of the fund were recently finalized, a senior Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press.
A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been proposed and the group will undertake a study to be financed by Japan on the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.
While the conservative bloc has tried to project unity, it has been riven by longstanding rivalries and disputes, particularly in the South China Sea that mainly involve four of its members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — pitted against China’s overlapping claims to one of the world’s busiest waterway. It’s also a crucial battleground for influence by Beijing and Washington.
The lingering disputes, along with the plight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who are languishing in crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, are among the thorniest issues on the ASEAN agenda.
“We underscored the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, which could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the draft ASEAN communique said.
China has come under fire for what rival claimants say are aggressive actions in the disputed waters while countries scrambled to deal with the viral outbreaks. Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a boat with eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines backed Vietnam and protested new territorial districts announced by China in large swatches of the sea.
Washington also lashed out at China, which denied accusations that it was exploiting the intense preoccupation with the pandemic to advance its territorial claims as “sheer nonsense.”


Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in US 2020 election, warn Intel officials

Updated 30 min 25 sec ago

Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in US 2020 election, warn Intel officials

  • Russia accused of acting against Biden, while China opposes Trump
  • Trump claims Iran is also helping ensure he does not win a second term

WASHINGTON: US intelligence officials believe that Russia is using a variety of measures to denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of the November election and that individuals linked to the Kremlin are boosting President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, the country’s counterintelligence chief said Friday in the most specific warning to date about the threat of foreign interference.
US officials also believe that China does not want Trump to win a second term and has accelerated its criticism of the White House, expanding its efforts to shape public policy in America and to pressure political figures seen as opposed to Beijing’s interests.
The statement from William Evanina is believed to be the most pointed declaration by the US intelligence community linking the Kremlin to efforts to get Trump reelected — a sensitive subject for a president who has rejected intelligence agency assessments that Russia tried to help him in 2016.
It also links Moscow’s disapproval of Biden to his role in shaping Obama administration policies supporting Ukraine, an important US ally, and opposing Russian leader Vladimir Putin. That assertion conflicts with the narrative advanced by Trump, who has made unsubstantiated claims that Biden’s actions in Ukraine were intended to help the business interests of his son, Hunter.
Evanina’s statement, three months before the election, comes amid criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats that the intelligence community has been withholding from the public specific intelligence information about the threat of foreign interference in American politics.
“The facts are chilling,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, wrote in an op-ed published Friday evening in The Washington Post. “I believe the American public needs and deserves to know them. The information should be declassified immediately.”
The latest intelligence assessment reflects concerns not only about Russia but China and Iran as well, warning that hostile foreign actors may seek to compromise election infrastructure, interfere with the voting process or call into question voting results. Despite those efforts, officials see it as unlikely that anyone could manipulate voting results in any meaningful way, Evanina said.
“Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer,” said Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence Security Center. “We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia and Iran.”
Concerns about election interference are especially acute following a wide-ranging effort by Russia to meddle in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf through both the hacking of Democratic emails and a covert social media campaign aimed at sowing discord among US voters. Trump has routinely resisted the idea that the Kremlin favored him in 2016, but the intelligence assessment released Friday indicates that unnamed Kremlin-linked actors are again working to boost his candidacy on social media and Russian television.
The White House responded to Friday’s news with a statement saying “the United States will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral processes and will respond to malicious foreign threats that target our democratic institutions.”
In a separate statement, the Trump campaign said it didn’t want or need foreign assistance and said China and Iran were opposed to Trump because “he has held them accountable after years of coddling by politicians like Joe Biden.”
Tony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign, responded Friday that Trump “has publicly and repeatedly invited, emboldened, and even tried to coerce foreign interference in American elections. ... Joe Biden, on the other hand, has led the fight against foreign interference for years.”
Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, said in a statement Friday that they were “pleased that Mr. Evanina heeded our call to make additional details public about Russia’s malign interference campaign.” But they also criticized him for naming Iran and China “as equal threats to our democratic elections.”
Democrats in Congress who have participated in recent classified briefings on the election interference threat have expressed alarm at what they have heard. They have urged the US intelligence community to make public some of their concerns, in part to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Obama administration officials were seen as slow and overly deliberate in their public discussion of active Russian measures in that year’s election.
When it comes to Russia this year, US intelligence officials assess that it is working to “denigrate” Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment” among his supporters, Evanina said. US officials believe that tracks Moscow’s criticism of Biden when he was vice president for his role in Ukraine policies and his support of opposition to Putin inside Russia.
The US statement called out by name Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker who has been active in leveling unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Biden and his son concerning Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That effort has included publicizing leaked phone calls.
Democrats, including members of the Senate intelligence panel, have voiced concerns that an ongoing Republican probe into Hunter Biden and his work in Ukraine would parallel Russian efforts and amplify Russian disinformation. That investigation is being led by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Though US officials allege that China has its own preference, the statement Friday did not directly accuse Beijing of election interference or taking action to prop up Biden.
Instead, the statement said, China views Trump as “unpredictable” and does not want to see him win reelection, Evanina said. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of the November election in an effort to shape US policy and pressure political figures it sees as against Beijing. The Trump administration’s relationship with China has taken a starkly more adversarial tone, including the closure last month of Beijing’s consulate in Houston and an executive order Thursday that banned dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat,
“Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston consulate and actions on other issues,” Evanina wrote.
On Iran, the assessment said Tehran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions as well as Trump and divide America before the election.
“Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content,” Evanina wrote. “Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s re-election would result in a continuation of US pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”
During a panel discussion later Friday at the DEF CON hacker convention, federal cybersecurity officials were asked which foreign threat they considered most serious. “I don’t think I would say one is scarier than the other per se. Certainly some of these adversaries are at little bit more experienced,” said the National Security Agency’s election lead, David Imbordino.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Cynthia Kaiser, the FBI’s deputy chief of analysis for national cyber threats. “If if you ask me what the biggest threat is, its the kind of constant drumbeat or influence campaigns that are going to make people feel like they are less confident in our (elections) system.”