MANILA: The Philippines reported 12,576 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, the country’s second-highest daily increase, as the Southeast Asian nation battles a renewed spike in cases.
The health ministry confirmed cases had increased to 784,043 while COVID-19 deaths rose by 103 to 13,423.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s office is to announce on Saturday quarantine restrictions for the capital region, the country’s coronavirus hotspot, for April.
Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance
Climate change is disrupting the environmental balance of the Arctic with potential global ramifications
Arctic states jostling for control of shipping lanes, natural resources and strategic advantage as polar ice retreats
Updated 7 min 29 sec ago
BERN, SWITZERLAND: America is back. That was the message Joe Biden wanted to drive home during his first foreign foray as US president — an eight-day Europe tour in June.
The soft-power offensive has been welcomed by America’s European allies after four years of turbulence in transatlantic ties. But it has also brought the West’s long-simmering rivalries with Russia and China to the surface — including the possibility of a nasty confrontation over the Arctic region.
The Arctic is a physical space where geopolitics meets climate change, and where competition over access to natural resources collides with contested commercial and military shipping routes. These are matters that will have serious ramifications well beyond the handful of nations that border the North Pole.
The poles are often described as the Earth’s thermostat, reacting to even the slightest changes in sea temperature. The Arctic has warmed at twice the pace of the rest of the globe and, according to NASA, its sea ice has declined by 13.1 percent during the past decade.
Melting sea ice is contributing to rising sea levels, causing Arctic coastlines to gradually vanish. The process is being accelerated by the thawing of permafrost, which releases long-trapped pockets of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
The rapid retreat of Arctic ice is opening up long-frozen sea lanes for the first time in millennia, exposing the region’s natural resources and shipping lanes to commercial and military exploitation.
According to Bloomberg, about 30 percent of undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of oil reserves are estimated to lie beneath the Arctic region. However, the race to claim these vast riches collides with the emerging global consensus of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The Arctic Council deliberated over these issues in late May when its members met in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The multilateral body of eight member states bordering the Arctic region and 13 observer nations was founded 25 years ago to address such issues as the rights of indigenous groups, climate change, oil and gas development, and shipping. Its mandate does not, however, extend to the realm of defense.
When Iceland passed the two-year rotating presidency of the organization to Russia last month, divergent views and geopolitical tensions came to the fore. The summit coincided with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The latter had stirred the pot by declaring “the Arctic is our land and our waters.”
The sentiment is understandable from Lavrov’s perspective, given that Russia extracts about 90 percent of its natural gas, 17 percent of its oil, and 90 percent of its nickel from the Arctic, which also contains the majority of its platinum and palladium reserves.
The Russian economy is highly dependent on mineral extraction. In 2019 the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment estimated that oil, gas, mining and raw materials amount to about 60 percent to Russia’s gross domestic product.
Moscow and Washington have differing visions on matters concerning the Arctic, among them the fine balance between energy production, natural-resource extraction and the quest to halt climate change.
At the start of his term, Biden suspended the oil-drilling rights north of the Arctic circle that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had granted. The Kremlin, however, intends to expand its drilling operations.
Novatek’s LNG (liquefied natural gas) project on the Arctic Yamal peninsula is producing at 114 percent of capacity on its four trains. In March the company approved external financing for the $11 billion Arctic LNG 2 project, which will start production in 2023. The project is expected to reach a production level of 20 million tons by 2026. Fundraising efforts will take place in Russia, China, Japan and Europe.
Energy is where China enters the fray. Saudi Arabia and Russia alternate as Beijing’s largest oil supplier. In 2020, China received 16.8 percent of its crude oil from the Kingdom and 15.3 percent from Russia.
Sea ice keeps polar regions cool, helps moderate global climate.
Ice surface reflects back into space 80% of the sunlight that hits it.
As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the dark ocean surface.
Temperatures rise as the ocean absorbs 90% of sunlight and heats up.
The poles are the regions of Earth most sensitive to climate change.
Owing to an especially cold winter, China’s pipeline imports of natural gas via Russia’s eastern (Siberian) route reached 28.8 million cubic meters a day in early 2021 — double the 2020 contract, according to S&P Global Platts. In 2020, Russia was the sixth-largest LNG supplier to China after Australia, Qatar, the US, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Argus.
China has become an important financier of major energy-infrastructure projects in Russia’s Arctic region and Siberia. One reason for this is that US sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 coincided with China’s growing thirst for energy and rising affluence.
However, some Russian experts are concerned about the growing dependence on Chinese money to fund the Arctic expansion, an undertaking of vital national importance to Moscow. Arctic Council members and observers are therefore watching the Sino-Russian relationship very closely.
The valuable resources beneath the seafloor are not the only prize at stake in this polar scramble. The Arctic shipping route, from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, stretches for 5,550 kilometers and constitutes the shortest possible route between Asia and Europe.
The Northern Sea Route used to be open to ships for only 80 days of the year, frozen over for the remaining 285. Now it allows passage for 120 to 150 days, courtesy of the melting ice caps. Researchers at Kyoto University expect this time window will widen to 225 days.
The Northern Sea Route shortens the passage from China to Europe by 10 to 12 days, compared with the sea journey via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Although the route is relatively shallow, limiting the size of vessels able to traverse it, control of it has obvious strategic and commercial benefits.
During his European tour, among engagements designed to shore up Western solidarity, Biden attended the UK-hosted G7 summit in Cornwall, met with NATO chiefs in Brussels and held his first tete-a-tete with his Russian counterpart in Geneva. Relations between Vladimir Putin-led Russia and the West are currently too frosty to patch up without addressing the many underlying differences.
Take Arctic freight traffic. Putin wants to expand its volume by 2.5 times to 80 million tons by 2024. This “Polar Silk Road” would have serious ramifications far beyond the Arctic circle, placing it in direct competition with the Suez Canal and major ports from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
There is also a defense dimension to the changing geography of the Arctic. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, famously called the Arctic a peaceful place. The great powers and their armed forces had little choice but to avoid creating conflict there, given the inhospitable climate and impassable sheets of ice.
Not so now. With sea lanes open much longer than ever before and competition over natural resources in full swing, the potential for a confrontation between the big powers, and their air and naval forces, is growing ever more likely.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, recently voiced such concerns over the mounting Russian and Chinese military presence in the region at the same time as US forces are shifting strategic emphasis toward the Arctic.
To sum up, climate change is upsetting both the environmental and strategic balance of the Arctic, with far-reaching ramifications for the hydrocarbon economy, maritime trade — and perhaps even peaceful coexistence.
• Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources
Taliban capture Afghanistan’s main Tajikistan border crossing
The taking of Shir Khan Bandar is the most significant gain for the Taliban since the US began the final stage of its troop withdrawal in May
The Pentagon said that it will complete its full withdrawal by Sept. 11, but the pace of the pullout could be slowed given the Taliban’s gains
Updated 22 June 2021
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan: The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan Tuesday, officials said, with security forces abandoning their posts and some fleeing across the frontier.
The taking of the far north Shir Khan Bandar, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Kunduz city, is the most significant gain for the Taliban since the US began the final stage of its troop withdrawal in May, with peace talks between the insurgents and Kabul deadlocked.
“Unfortunately this morning, and after an hour of fighting, the Taliban captured Shir Khan port and the town and all the border check posts with Tajikistan,” Kunduz provincial council member Khaliddin Hakmi told AFP.
Separately, an army officer said: “We were forced to leave all check posts... and some of our soldiers crossed the border into Tajikistan.
“By the morning, they (Taliban fighters) were everywhere; hundreds of them,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the insurgents had seized the border post, on the south bank of the Pyanj River.
“Our Mujahideen are in full control of Shir Khan Bandar and all the border crossings with Tajikistan in Kunduz,” he told AFP.
Since early May, the Taliban have launched major offensives targeting government forces across the rugged countryside, and claim to have seized at least 87 of the country’s 421 districts.
Many of their claims are disputed by the government, and independent verification is difficult — especially in areas that frequently change hands.
Shir Khan Bandar is marked by a 700-meter US-funded bridge that opened to great fanfare in 2007 with the aim of boosting trade between the Central Asian neighbors.
It is a sprawling dry port capable of handling up to 1,000 vehicles a day.
“There were 150 trucks loaded with goods in Shir Khan Bandar when it fell and we don’t know what’s happened to them,” said Massoud Wahdat, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial chamber of commerce and industries.
“It would be a huge financial loss.”
The capture of Shir Khan Bandar, a key trade route to Central Asia, was a “significant blow” to the government, said Afghan security analyst Atiqullah Amarkhail.
“The failure to effectively defend this important port may be indicative that the government is struggling to maintain the initiative on the battlegrounds,” he said.
Fierce fighting has raged across Kunduz province over the past few days, with the Taliban and Afghan forces engaged in battles Monday on the outskirts of Kunduz city itself.
The Taliban have briefly held the city twice before — in September 2015, and again a year later.
With a significant population of Pashtun, Kunduz had been a stronghold of the Taliban even before they seized power in the 1990s.
The city’s location makes it a key transit point for economic and trade exchanges with Tajikistan and beyond.
Analyst Amarkhail said recent losses, many without a fight, showed that there was “chaos and panic” among government forces.
But even when Afghan forces do take on the Taliban on the battleground they are suffering. Last week at least 20 members of the country’s top commando unit were killed in Dawlat Abad, also in the north.
The top UN official in Kabul warned the international community Tuesday about the Taliban’s gains in an address to the UN Security Council.
“Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” Deborah Lyons, head of United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, said.
Afghan government forces, however, said they would soon launch a massive offensive to retake lost territory.
“The central command is in full control and all security forces and the military resources have been mobilized against the enemy,” General Ajmal Shinwari, spokesman for the security forces, told reporters.
“You will soon witness our advances across the country.”
The Pentagon said on Monday that it will complete its full withdrawal by September 11, but the pace of the pullout could be slowed given the Taliban’s gains.
“We want to maintain the flexibility to do that,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
In October 2017 the government of Catalonia pushed through with a referendum on independence despite repeated warnings from the country’s highest courts
Updated 22 June 2021
BARCELONA: Spain’s government granted pardons on Tuesday to the nine imprisoned instigators of an illegal 2017 secession bid for Catalonia in a bold move to defuse the festering political crisis in the nation’s affluent northeastern corner.
The decision by the left-wing government, however, has angered many in Spain, even some of Catalonia’s most fervent separatists who say the pardons don’t go far enough.
Separatist sentiment skyrocketed in Catalonia over the past two decades, fueled by the global recession and an increasingly polarized political climate. Many Catalans, despite being comparatively wealthy and enjoying a large degree of self-rule, felt they paid too much in taxes and were ignored by central authorities.
In October 2017 the government of Catalonia pushed through with a referendum on independence despite repeated warnings from the country’s highest courts that a vote on national sovereignty by a region violated the Constitution.
Most unionist voters boycotted the vote, while 2 million of 5.3 million potential voters cast ballots for secession despite a violent police crackdown that injured hundreds.
The Catalan Parliament declared independence on Oct. 27, but it failed to garner any international support.
While the regional president at the time, Carles Puigdemont, and some associates fled the country, a dozen leaders of the secession bid were arrested. In 2019, Spain’s Supreme Court found the 12 guilty of a varying mix of crimes, including sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience.
Nine were given lengthy prison sentences, while three were fined and did not do jail time.
Former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras received the heaviest sentence of 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds.
Eight more, including former members of the Catalan Cabinet, Carme Forcadell, ex-speaker of the Catalan parliament, and Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, two leaders of separatist grassroots groups, received sentences ranging from nine to 12 years.
They are now expected to go free after having spent three-and-a-half years behind bars, although they will likely remain banned from holding public office for years.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has weathered harsh criticism in recent weeks while his government prepared the pardons, both from Spain’s conservatives and far-right parties, as well as a large sector of the public.
But the decision is widely backed in Catalonia, where even many unionists hope it can help mend bridges. Important business leaders and Catholic bishops have also voiced their support.
In two regional elections since the failed secession bid the separatists have maintained their hold on power as the political battle lines have become entrenched. Roughly half support parties in favor of secession; the other half vote for parties that want to remain in Spain.
Spain’s government hopes that the freeing of the separatists can convince those Catalans who only recently joined the separatist camp to consider coming back into the fold.
Sánchez will also likely need the votes of some Catalan separatists in the national Parliament in Madrid to keep his minority government afloat over the next two years.
While celebrating the liberty of their cohorts, the separatist movement is far from satisfied. Its politicians are pushing for not just being spared the punishment but a full amnesty for all of those in trouble for helping organize the 2017 breakaway attempt. That would clear up their criminal records and allow them to participate in politics.
They also don’t renounce their dream of founding a new state.
But the protest held on Tuesday when Sánchez visited Barcelona to announce that he would sign the pardons was very subdued. Compared to the tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent years, a few hundred turned out to jeer Sánchez.
The pardons come after Junqueras recently acknowledged for the first time that the 2017 referendum was not considered legitimate by a part of Catalonia’s society. That is in stark contrast to the position maintained by Puigdemont, who says that the referendum and independence declaration remain valid.
WHAT ABOUT PUIGDEMONT?
The act of grace by Spain does not include Puigdemont and the handful of other high-profile separatists who fled to Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland, where they have avoided Spain’s extradition requests.
The government has insisted that they must return home to face justice.
Puigdemont and two former Catalan Cabinet members won seats to the European Parliament in 2019. Their immunity as parliament members was stripped by the chamber, which would allow Spain to again pursue their extradition. But a European court temporarily restored their extraordinary legal coverage recently while it considers their appeal.
So Puigdemont’s future, as ever, is uncertain.
Six killed in clashes between Myanmar army and anti-junta militia
Fighting has flared across Myanmar since the February coup as people form ‘defense forces’ to battle a brutal military crackdown
Updated 22 June 2021
YANGON: Four protesters and at least two officers were killed as Myanmar soldiers battled an anti-junta civilian militia with small arms and grenades in the country’s second city Tuesday, authorities and military sources said.
Fighting has flared across Myanmar since the February coup as people form “defense forces” to battle a brutal military crackdown on dissent, but clashes have largely been restricted to rural areas.
Acting on a tip-off, security forces raided a house in Mandalay’s Chan Mya Tharsi township on Tuesday morning, the junta’s information team said in a statement, and were met with small arms fire and grenades.
Two officers were killed during the raid, military sources said, and at least ten were wounded.
Four “terrorists” were killed and eight arrested in possession of homemade mines, hand grenades and small arms, a junta spokesman said in a statement.
“We could hear artillery shooting even though our house is far from that place,” a Mandalay resident said.
Another four members of the self-defense group were killed when the car they were attempting to flee in crashed, the spokesman said, without providing details.
The United States’ embassy in Yangon said on Twitter it was “tracking reports of ongoing fighting in Mandalay... We are disturbed by the military escalation and urgently call for a cessation of violence.”
The mass uprising against the military putsch that toppled the government of Aung San Suu Kyi has been met with a brutal crackdown that has killed more than 870 civilians, according to a local monitoring group.
As well as the rise of local self-defense forces, analysts believe hundreds of anti-coup protesters from Myanmar’s towns and cities have trekked into insurgent-held areas to receive military training.
But part-time fighters know the odds are stacked against them in any confrontation with Myanmar’s military — one of Southeast Asia’s most battle-hardened and brutal.
Hong Kong court grants bail to activist charged under security law
Hong Kong court approves bail for 24 year-old pro-democracy activist who has been jailed for four months.
Updated 22 June 2021
HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s High Court on Tuesday approved bail for a pro-democracy activist who is among 47 charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under a sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on its freest city last year, the city’s public broadcaster RTHK reported.
Owen Chow, 24, who has been in jail for nearly four months, was ordered to pay HK$50,000 and follow a list of bail conditions, including not threatening national security, reporting to police every day and surrendering all travel documents, according to RTHK.
Chow was the 12th activist in the case who was given bail while awaiting trial.
Foreign diplomats and rights groups are closely watching proceedings as concerns rise over the vanishing space for dissent in the former British colony, which has taken a rapid authoritarian turn since the law was imposed in June 2020.
The case offers insight into how the security law drafted by Beijing clashes with Hong Kong’s common-law traditions and could see activists held in custody for months until their trial begins.
In contrast with past practice, the new law puts onus on defendants in the global financial hub to prove they will not pose a security threat if released on bail.
Wong and the other charged activists are accused of organizing and participating in an unofficial, non-binding primary poll in July 2020 that authorities said was part of a “vicious plot” to “overthrow” the government.