French senators meet with Taiwan’s Tsai amid China tensions

French senators meet with Taiwan’s Tsai amid China tensions
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, right, gestures as she meets Alain Richard, the head of the French Senate's Taiwan Friendship Group at the Presidential Office in Taipei. Taiwan, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 07 October 2021

French senators meet with Taiwan’s Tsai amid China tensions

French senators meet with Taiwan’s Tsai amid China tensions
  • China claims Taiwan as its own territory and opposes any international engagement with the island that suggest a separate status

TAIPEI, Taiwan: A group of French senators visiting Taiwan as part of a regular parliamentary exchange met with President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday morning during a trip that comes in a particularly tense moment between China and the self-ruled island.
Tsai spoke briefly before their meeting, giving France’s former defense minister, Alain Richard, the Order of Propitious Clouds, a distinction recognizing “his contributions to Taiwan-France relations.” She thanked him for leading an effort in the French Senate to pass a resolution in support of allowing Taiwan to participate in international organizations like the World Health Organization.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and opposes any international engagement with the island that suggest a separate status, such as WHO membership and meetings with foreign government officials. It tried to discourage the French senators’ visit, with its embassy in Paris saying ahead of the trip that it would undermine Chinese-French relations.
Richard along with the three other senators also plan to meet Taiwanese economic and health officials and the Mainland Affairs Council during their five-day stay. This is the third visit to Taiwan for Richard, after 2015 and 2018. He heads the Taiwan Friendship group in the French Senate.
The trip is a recurrent one that French lawmakers make as part of the Taiwan Friendship group, especially as new senators are elected every three years.
Tsai also met with former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was visiting the island to give a speech.
Abbott spoke in a private capacity, but said he advocates for Taiwan joining an 11-nation trade group that China has also applied to join.
“I can’t think of a stronger signal of democracies standing shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan than Taiwan’s accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he said Thursday. “And I do hope that your application will be welcomed by its existing members.”
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and China has increasingly mobilized military, diplomatic and economic pressure to undermine Tsai’s independence-leaning administration while threatening to bring the island under Chinese Communist Party control.
Taiwan’s defense minister described the current situation as the most severe in 40 years.
In its most recent display of sustained military harassment, China flew fighter jets 149 times toward Taiwan over four days from last Friday to Monday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Paris on Wednesday on an official visit, said the Chinese military flights toward Taiwan were “destabilizing.”
“We strongly urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure and coercion directed at Taiwan,” he said.
China has often pointed to US selling weapons to Taiwan and its ships navigating the Taiwan Strait as provocative actions.
“China feels necessary to react to the United States and allied forces when they conduct exercises in the area that China considers their sphere of influence,” said Alexander Huang, professor at Tamkang University.
The flights were in international airspace but prompted Taiwanese defense forces to scramble in response. Analysts say the flights display China’s increasing military advancement as the US and other rivals are pushing back against China’s assertions of territorial ambitions.
 


Venezuela President Maduro brands EU electoral observers ‘spies’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) applauding next to former Cuban President Raul Castro (L) during the inauguration ceremony of the Fidel Castro Ruz Center in Havana, on November 25, 2021. (AFP)
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) applauding next to former Cuban President Raul Castro (L) during the inauguration ceremony of the Fidel Castro Ruz Center in Havana, on November 25, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 24 sec ago

Venezuela President Maduro brands EU electoral observers ‘spies’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) applauding next to former Cuban President Raul Castro (L) during the inauguration ceremony of the Fidel Castro Ruz Center in Havana, on November 25, 2021. (AFP)

CARACAS: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday denounced members of the European Union’s (EU) electoral observation mission who monitored voting last weekend as “spies,” and accused them of looking to “stain” the regional elections on their preliminary report.
Local and regional elections enjoyed better conditions than during previous voting, the EU mission said on Tuesday, though they raised concerns about arbitrary bans on candidates for administrative reasons, delays in opening voting centers and “extended use of state resources in the campaign.”
“They looked to stain the electoral process (in a report) and they couldn’t. A delegation of spies — they weren’t observers — wandered freely around the country, spying on the country’s social, economic and political life,” Maduro said during a broadcast on state television.
The mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Voting last weekend was the first time in 15 years that the EU sent a mission to observe Venezuelan elections. The team included 1,000 observers who monitored voting in 22 out of 23 elections and the full report will be presented in two months.
In this election, opposition politicians contested votes for the first time since 2017. However, they were roundly beaten, picking up just three our of 23 governorships and 117 mayoral positions, with the ruling party winning 210 mayoral races.
Several mayoral races had yet to be called, and one governor’s office — in Barinas state, a Chavismo stronghold — has not been called either.
“The European Union couldn’t stain the electoral process, it was impeccable, beautiful,” Maduro said.
The President will hold meetings in “the coming hours” with opposition governors, he said, without giving further details. He also suggested the ruling Socialists could have lost in a few states and municipalities due to voters punishing the party at the polls.
While the ruling party picked up the most governorships, votes for the Socialists dwindled to fewer than 4 million, according to figures from the country’s electoral authority, down from the 5.9 million it won during regional elections in 2017. 


Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers
Updated 29 November 2021

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers
  • Thirteen cases found in Netherlands, couple arrested
  • S.African doctor says Omicron patients have 'very mild' symptoms

LONDON/AMSTERDAM: The Omicron coronavirus variant spread around the world on Sunday, with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it was not yet clear whether Omicron, first detected in Southern Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.
"Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection," WHO said.
It said understanding the level of severity of Omicron "will take days to several weeks".
The detection of Omicron triggered global alarm as governments around the world scrambled to impose new travel curbs and financial markets sold-off, fearing the variant could resist vaccinations and upend a nascent economic reopening after a two-year global pandemic.
In its statement, the WHO said it was working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19, including vaccines.
Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the developments.
Dutch health authorities said 13 cases of the variant were found among people on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday. Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on the flights and found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for Omicron.
"This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg," Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told reporters.
Dutch military police said they arrested a married couple who left a hotel where they were in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, and were attempting to flee the country.
Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" last week by the WHO that is potentially more contagious than previous variants, has now been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada and South Africa.
Many countries have imposed travel bans or curbs on Southern Africa to try to stem the spread. Financial markets dived on Friday, and oil prices tumbled.
A South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain said that symptoms of Omicron were so far mild and could be treated at home.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters that unlike with Delta, so far patients have not reported loss of smell or taste and there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new variant.
In the most far-reaching effort to keep the variant at bay, Israel announced late on Saturday it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective vaccines are against Omicron.
The top U.S. infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told President Joe Biden on Sunday it will take about two weeks to have more definitive information about the transmissibility and other characteristics of Omicron, the White House said in a statement, adding that Fauci believes existing vaccines "are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID".
Biden will give an update on the new variant and the U.S. response on Monday, the White House said.
In Britain, the government has announced measures including stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country and requiring mask wearing in some settings.
More countries announced new travel curbs on southern African nations on Sunday, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
South Africa has denounced the measures as unfair and potentially harmful to its economy, saying it is being punished for its scientific ability to identify coronavirus variants early.
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday that his government was considering imposing compulsory COVID-19 shots for people in certain places and activities, and he slammed rich Western countries for what he called their knee-jerk imposition of travel bans.
"The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant," Ramaphosa said. "The only thing (it) ... will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to ... the pandemic."
Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, with some reintroducing restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.
The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in poorer countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.


Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital
Updated 29 November 2021

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital
  • The country has one of the highest numbers of road traffic deaths in the world

DHAKA: Thousands of Bangladeshi students took to the streets of Dhaka on Sunday, blocking the capital city’s main intersections and paralyzing traffic to demand enforcement of road safety laws.

Bangladesh has one of the highest numbers of road traffic deaths in the world, according to World Health Organization estimates. 

Data from the Accident Research Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology shows that road accidents in the country claimed the lives of 3,558 people between January 2020 and June this year.

In 2018, young Bangladeshis protested across the country for over a week after two students were killed by a speeding bus. The protest prompted the government to enact a new road transportation law that increased the punishment for death due to negligent driving to five years.

But demonstrators said the 2018 law had not been implemented as the current road safety protests gained momentum last week, after a college student was killed by a garbage truck.

“How many more lives will be required to restore discipline in streets? We have given time to the authorities but nothing has been changed so we returned on streets again,” Jisan Ahmed, a college student, told Arab News while protesting in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka.

The protesting students are also demanding a discount on transit fares.

“We want a 50 percent discount on fare in public transports and the authorities have to fulfil the demand by Tuesday. We will stage protest in front of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority building if our demands are not met within 48 hours,” another student protester, Antor Hasan, said.

Nur Mohammad Mazumder, chairman of the authority, said more discussions were needed with transport operators to find a solution to student demands.

“Already we had two meetings where a number of issues were discussed,” he said, adding it may take “some time” to resolve the issues.

Bus owners said they feared facing losses if discounted fares were in place.

“We have to incur losses if the students are transported at 50 percent discounted rate,” Dhaka Road Transport Owners Association Secretary-General Enayet Ullah Khan said. “We will sit again tomorrow among ourselves to find a solution.”

According to the Passenger Welfare Association of Bangladesh, the fare issue was not a big problem.

“Operators actually don’t require any subsidies from the government in this regard,” the association’s secretary-general, Mozammel Hoque, said.

He expressed worry over the more significant issue that was deteriorating road safety.

“Many of the city buses don’t comply with the fitness parameters set by the authorities,” Hoque said, adding that the number of accidents had increased since the 2018 protests.

“In many cases we’re not witnessing the implementation of the law,” he told Arab News. “Things have taken a worse look as the number of road accidents have increased by around 10 percent.”


Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees

Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees
Updated 29 November 2021

Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees

Unable to return to China, thousands of Pakistani students fear losing degrees
  • About 28,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in Chinese educational institutions
  • China suspended the entry of foreigners in March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19

ISLAMABAD: More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Pakistani students say they fear losing their qualifications from Chinese universities as thousands remain stranded at home, unable to return to classes despite the government’s assurance of constant negotiations with Beijing.

About 28,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in Chinese educational institutions and most of them have been stuck in Pakistan since China suspended the entry of foreign nationals in late March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19.

For more than a year, the Pakistani government has been saying it remains in touch with Chinese authorities to help students return to their colleges and universities, but some of them are on the verge of losing hope.

“We are hopeless and fearful that our money, time, is wasted, and our future is at stake,” Aroosa Khan, a Karachi-based student who has completed two years of medicine in China, told Arab News on Saturday.

“We are around 7,000 medical students in China, out of which above 85 percent are now stuck in Pakistan due to the travel ban,” she said, expressing the concern that they would not be able to become good doctors if they could not practice at university hospitals and clinical labs.

As Pakistan does not recognize medical degrees obtained from online courses — provided by Chinese institutes to overseas students due to the travel ban — Khan is worried that years of study and thousands of dollars spent on education may be in vain.

“It is not our fault that we have been compelled to take virtual classes. The majority of these medical students are on self-financing where their families have spent around Rs5 million ($28,000),” she said. “They are under acute stress and have become patients of depression due to the uncertainty hovering over their future.”

The worries of medical students are shared by those enrolled in engineering courses.

Adam Ali, from Attock, who is pursuing a degree in artificial intelligence at a Chinese university, said that he had exhausted all avenues of help.

“We have met everyone in the Foreign Office, the foreign minister, the education minister and all other officials, but nothing happened despite tall claims. When we wrote to the Pakistani Embassy in China, they didn’t even respond to our emails,” he told Arab News.

“When this travel ban was imposed and we started online classes, at that time we were assured by our Foreign Office that we would be able to travel back to China through chartered flights for next semester by the end of July 2020. But nothing happened.”

Another engineering student, Jamal Nasir, from Sialkot, said that he had left his job to pursue a master’s degree on a Chinese university scholarship, but as online classes were introduced that facility was discontinued.

“I had a good job but left it to pursue my master’s on a scholarship, which included a monthly stipend. After resumption of online classes, they have stopped (the) stipend as well, which created a lot of financial issues,” he said. “Now neither I have a job nor (am I) completing my studies due to the travel ban.”

As students from some other countries, including South Korea, were allowed back to Chinese campuses in August 2020 as part of intergovernmental deals, Nasir asked why it was not possible for Pakistanis to follow suit.

“If they want, they can impose quarantine and other standard restrictions but at least allow professional degree students to take physical classes,” he said.

The Pakistani government says that it is trying to resolve the issue.

“The issue has been discussed at various levels with the Chinese authorities both in Beijing and Islamabad,” foreign office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar told Arab News.

“We are also exploring the possibility of addressing the issues of research, lab work, scholarship etc with the relevant Pakistani and Chinese authorities and institutions,” he said. “We are pursuing the matter and are continuously in touch with the Chinese side at all levels.”

The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad told Arab News it had “nothing to comment on the matter at this time.”

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Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants
Updated 28 November 2021

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

SILIAI, LITHUANIA: From her green-painted homestead near the Belarusian border, Lithuanian pensioner Jadvyga Mackevic remembers the day she saw three migrants coming out of the forest and being detained.
“I barely saw them through my window. The border patrol immediately caught them,” the 80-year-old recalled.
Officers have now placed razor wire along the bottom of her garden in the small village of Siliai in an area that is almost entirely surrounded by the border.
While much of the migrant crisis has been focused on Poland’s border with Belarus, fellow EU and NATO member Lithuania has also been faced with an unprecedented influx of migrants.
The area around Siliai, known as the Dieveniskes Loop because of the shape of the border, has seen large numbers of migrants trying to cross.
The EU blames Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko for orchestrating the migrant influx as retaliation against the sanctions the bloc imposed on his regime.
The crisis will be a key topic at a meeting this week of NATO foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in neighboring Latvia, which also shares a border with Belarus.
Lithuania, which has a population of 2.8 million, has taken in more than 4,000 people this year, the vast majority of them asylum seekers.
Numbers have fallen sharply since it passed a law allowing border guards to send the migrants back across the border.
But border guards say small groups of migrants still regularly try to cross different parts of the largely forested border between the two countries.
“It seems we won’t be able to return to normal life soon,” Rustamas Liubajevas, head of Lithuania’s border guards, told AFP.
The border guard chief said he “pities” migrants trying to cross the border, because they were “tricked” by the Belarusian regime into believing that entering the European Union would be easy.
But he said that Lithuania could not let people in because this would fulfil Lukashenko’s goal to “destabilize” the country.
The government’s tough line has strong support in Lithuania.
On a visit to a military base near the border this week, President Gitanas Nauseda told troops it was “not easy to fulfil your duty and reject civilians seeking a better life.”
“Nevertheless, you have a sacred duty to guard our border.”
But charities, which are banned from the immediate border area under state of emergency laws, said they are worried about the welfare of migrants still stranded in freezing temperatures.
Giedra Blazyte from Diversity Development, a non-governmental organization, said aid groups should be allowed to access the border to help border guards identify vulnerable people.
“The main task for border guards is to defend the state border and not to take care of people. We understand that and this is why we want to be present,” she told AFP.
Even after Lithuania saw its first snowfall this week, Liubajevas warned it was unlikely that migrants would stop trying to cross as might be expected.
“This is not organic migration. This is Lukashenko’s organized migration, so the weather won’t have any effect,” he said.
In the village of Krakunai, also in the Dieveniskes Loop, resident Josif, 56, voiced support for the government’s tough line on the border and said he did not want migrants.
“I don’t know how this will end. I hope they go back to their countries. No one wants them here,” he said.
“They are from a different country, they are different people, they live differently.”