Chinese forces exercise near Taiwan in response to US visit

Chinese forces exercise near Taiwan in response to US visit
During China’s National Day weekend in early October, China dispatched 149 military aircraft southwest of Taiwan in strike group formations, causing Taiwan to scramble aircraft and activate its air defense missile systems. (AFP)
Updated 10 November 2021

Chinese forces exercise near Taiwan in response to US visit

Chinese forces exercise near Taiwan in response to US visit
  • Drills in the area of the Taiwan Strait are a ‘necessary measure to safeguard national sovereignty’
  • The US has strong but informal relations with Taiwan, and tensions have been rising between the Washington and Beijing

BEIJING: Chinese military forces are holding exercises near Taiwan in response to a visit by a US congressional delegation to the island.
The drills in the area of the Taiwan Strait are a “necessary measure to safeguard national sovereignty,” China’s Defense Ministry said in the announcement Tuesday that gave no details on the timing, participants and location of the exercises.
It said the “joint war preparedness patrol” by the Eastern Theater Command was prompted by the “seriously incorrect words and actions of relevant countries over the issue of Taiwan” and the actions of those advocating the self-governing island’s independence.
The US has strong but informal relations with Taiwan, and tensions have been rising between the US and China over several issues including Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the coronavirus pandemic and trade. Details on the US delegation that reportedly arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday were not immediately available.
A Chinese Defense Ministry statement from an unidentified spokesperson strongly condemned the visit, saying “no one should underestimate the firm determination of the People’s Liberation Army to safeguard the Chinese people’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
China regards Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by military force if necessary. The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and, following a brief period of rapprochement, relations have grown increasingly tense under Taiwan’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen.
During China’s National Day weekend in early October, China dispatched 149 military aircraft southwest of Taiwan in strike group formations, causing Taiwan to scramble aircraft and activate its air defense missile systems. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said this week such tactics were aimed at wearing down the island’s defenses and degrading morale.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said congressional visits to Taiwan “are relatively common and in keeping with US obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act,” which obligates the US government to ensure Taiwan has the ability to defend itself and regard threats to the island as matters of “grave concern.”
The delegation arrived in Taipei on Tuesday evening aboard a C-40 Clipper jet, which departed soon afterward, according to Taiwan’s official Central News Agency. Kirby said traveling on a US military jet was customary for such delegations.
Details of the members of the delegation and how long they planned to stay on the island were not immediately available.
Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said ministry had worked with the American Institute in Taiwan, which is the de facto US Embassy, on arrangements for the visit but gave no details. She said further information would be released at the “appropriate time.”
Although the US switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it retains strong informal political and military relations with Taiwan. As a vibrant democracy, Taiwan also enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress and the US government has been boosting relations through high-level visits and military sales.
That has been a key source of friction with Beijing amid a string of disputes over trade, technology, human rights and other issues.


Coronavirus-hit Australian warship delivers disaster aid to Tonga

Coronavirus-hit Australian warship delivers disaster aid to Tonga
Updated 11 sec ago

Coronavirus-hit Australian warship delivers disaster aid to Tonga

Coronavirus-hit Australian warship delivers disaster aid to Tonga
  • Crew of the HMAS Adelaide would follow drastic health protocols to ensure Tonga remains free from COVID-19
NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga: A coronavirus-hit Australian warship docked in Tonga on Wednesday, delivering desperately needed aid to the volcano-and-tsunami-struck nation under strict “no-contact” protocols.
Tongan Health Minister Saia Piukala said the crew of the HMAS Adelaide would follow drastic health protocols to ensure the remote Pacific kingdom remains one of the few places in the world still free of COVID-19.
“The ship will berth and no contacts will be made. Australians from the ship will unload their cargoes and sail from port,” he told reporters.
The Adelaide was deployed as part of an international aid effort after the January 15 eruption that generated massive tsunami waves and blanketed the island nation in toxic ash.
The warship is carrying about 80 tons of relief supplies, including water, medical kits and engineering equipment.
Despite all crew members testing negative before departing Brisbane, officials in Canberra on Tuesday said 23 coronavirus cases had been detected on the vessel.
Piukala said that number had increased to 29 by Wednesday.
The ship’s 600-plus crew are fully vaccinated, and the Australian Defense Force said Tuesday that the initial 23 patients were asymptomatic or only mildly affected.
It said the ship has a 40-bed hospital, including operating theaters and a critical care ward.
Piukala said contactless protocols were being applied to all relief supplies, including those aboard the HMAS Adelaide, meaning all goods offloaded from foreign planes or ships would be left in isolation for three days before being handled by Tongans.
The ship is said to be loaded with about 250,000 liters (66,000 US gallons) of water, buckets, jerry cans and portable field-testing kits that can now be offloaded.
“We can do that in a contactless way, spray the equipment so that the chance of passing on the virus is obviously negligible,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said Tuesday.
“Under no circumstance will we compromise the health and well-being of those Tongans who have already had a concerted effort against the virus by protecting themselves, and the virus is not present on the island.”
But coronavirus restrictions are already hampering the aid effort in other ways.
Japan has announced its aid aircraft will pause trips between Australia and Tonga due to four COVID-19 cases among the mission’s staff.
“We are making sure that the impact on the mission is minimal, and once our review of anti-infection measures is completed, we’ll continue the mission,” a defense ministry official said.
Tonga closed its borders in early 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe.
Since then, the nation of 100,000 has recorded just one COVID-19 case, a man who returned from New Zealand in October last year and has since fully recovered.
However, the devastating blast from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which lies about 65 kilometers north of the capital Nuku’alofa, has created what the Tongan government describes as an “unprecedented disaster.”
Entire villages were washed away by tsunamis, while ash has poisoned water supplies and destroyed crops.
Remarkably, there have been only three reported fatalities, which the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said was thanks to effective early warnings issued by the Tongan government.
OCHA said communications severed by the eruption were slowly being restored and assessment teams were visiting hard-to-reach areas to gauge the full scale of the disaster.
It said 85 percent of Tonga’s population had been affected, with access to safe water, ash clearance and food supplies the main priorities.

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins
Updated 47 min 3 sec ago

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins
  • Highly contagious but less-lethal omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week
  • Omicron surge has fueled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday

SEOUL: South Korea’s daily new coronavirus cases exceeded 13,000 for the first time on Wednesday, driven by the spread of the omicron variant, as the government launched a new pilot testing scheme to meet skyrocketing demand.
The record 13,012 cases for the previous 24-hour period came just a day after the tally first topped 8,000 despite the extension of tough social distancing rules.
The highly contagious but less-lethal omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week, and the daily numbers could more than double or surge to even higher levels in the coming weeks, health officials warned.
“Going forward, our top priority is to reduce critically ill patients and deaths,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told an inter-ministry meeting on Wednesday.
The government introduced a new testing policy in four designated cities on a pilot basis, under which only priority groups take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test while others can get a rapid antigen test at a local clinic for faster initial diagnosis.
The program will be scaled up starting Saturday to enable 256 state-run testing stations nationwide to distribute the rapid antigen self-test kits, Kim said. Another 430 local clinics will be added next week.
As part of efforts to free up resources for serious patients, the government has also cut mandatory isolation for people who have been vaccinated but tested positive to seven days from 10, and expanded self-treatment at home for asymptomatic and mild cases.
Son Young-rae, a health ministry official, said more than 80 percent of intensive care unit beds are available nationwide, compared with some 20 percent in early December when record-breaking infections threatened to saturate the country’s medical system.
South Korea is currently carrying out 400,000-500,000 PCR tests a day, but has capacity for 800,000, Son added.
The omicron surge has fueled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday which begins on Saturday, when tens of millions travel nationwide to meet families.
President Moon Jae-in also met with aides on Wednesday to oversee the government’s efforts, calling for moves to prevent any potential shortages of test kits and ensure sufficient consultations with doctors at local clinics.
On Tuesday, some 46 South Korean athletes and coaches who will compete in the Beijing Olympics had to receive a COVID-19 test after attending a ceremony for the delegation where an official at the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee later tested positive.
South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has largely been successful in mitigating COVID-19, with 762,983 total infections and 6,620 deaths.
More than 95 percent of adults are fully vaccinated with some 58 percent having received a booster dose, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.


US Coast Guard reports 39 missing from capsized boat off Florida

This handout image, provided by the US Coast Guard on January 25, 2022, shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida. (AFP)
This handout image, provided by the US Coast Guard on January 25, 2022, shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida. (AFP)
Updated 26 January 2022

US Coast Guard reports 39 missing from capsized boat off Florida

This handout image, provided by the US Coast Guard on January 25, 2022, shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida. (AFP)
  • Incidents of overturned or interdicted vessels crowded with people, many of them Haitians or Cubans seeking to reach the United States, are not uncommon in the waters off Florida

WASHINGTON: Rescue crews searched waters off Florida’s Atlantic shore on Tuesday for 39 people reported missing by a survivor found clinging to a boat that capsized in what the US Coast Guard called a suspected human smuggling attempt gone awry.
The survivor told authorities after his rescue that he had left the Bahamas’ Bimini islands, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Miami, in a boat with 39 other people on Saturday night, the Coast Guard said in a statement posted on Twitter.
According to the survivor, the group’s vessel capsized when it hit rough weather about 45 miles (72.4 km) east of Fort Pierce Inlet, off Florida’s Atlantic coast about midway between Miami and Cape Canaveral, but no one was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.
A good Samaritan found the man perched on the mostly submerged hull of the overturned boat on Tuesday morning and rescued him before reporting the incident to the Coast Guard, which dispatched multiple cutter vessels and aircraft to search the area.
“This is a suspected human smuggling venture,” the Coast Guard said in its statement. The nationality of those who were aboard has yet to be determined, a Coast Guard spokesperson, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, said.
In another migrant crossing attempt, 32 people were rescued from a capsized vessel last Friday west of Bimini, which has become frequent transit point for sea-going smugglers, Hernandez said.
Incidents of overturned or interdicted vessels crowded with people, many of them Haitians or Cubans seeking to reach the United States, are not uncommon in the waters off Florida.
In May of 2021, 12 Cuban migrants perished and eight others were rescued after their boat flipped over off Key West, Florida.
At least 557 Cuban migrants in all have been picked up at sea by the Coast Guard since the start of the current fiscal year in October, in addition to nearly 7,400 Cubans interdicted during the previous five years, according to the agency.
Vessel crossings of Haitian migrants have likewise grown more frequent as Caribbean island nation deals with economic and political crises, as well as gang-related kidnappings. The Coast Guard said it has intercepted at least 159 Haitian nationals so far this fiscal year.
Last week, 90 people were repatriated to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, following rescue and interdiction of three illegal voyages across the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico.


What’s known about ‘stealth’ version of omicron?

A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 26 January 2022

What’s known about ‘stealth’ version of omicron?

A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
  • Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2

WASHINGTON: Scientists and health officials around the world are keeping their eyes on a descendant of the omicron variant that has been found in at least 40 countries, including the United States.
This version of the coronavirus, which scientists call BA.2, is widely considered stealthier than the original version of omicron because particular genetic traits make it somewhat harder to detect. Some scientists worry it could also be more contagious.
But they say there’s a lot they still don’t know about it, including whether it evades vaccines better or causes more severe disease.
WHERE HAS IT SPREAD?
Since mid-November, more than three dozen countries have uploaded nearly 15,000 genetic sequences of BA.2 to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data. As of Tuesday morning, 96 of those sequenced cases came from the US
“Thus far, we haven’t seen it start to gain ground” in the US, said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, which has identified three cases of BA.2.
The mutant appears much more common in Asia and Europe. In Denmark, it made up 45 percent of all COVID-19 cases in mid-January, up from 20 percent two weeks earlier, according to Statens Serum Institut, which falls under the Danish Ministry of Health.
WHAT’S KNOWN ABOUT THIS VERSION OF THE VIRUS?
BA.2 has lots of mutations. About 20 of them in the spike protein that studs the outside of the virus are shared with the original omicron. But it also has additional genetic changes not seen in the initial version.
It’s unclear how significant those mutations are, especially in a population that has encountered the original omicron, said Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
For now, the original version, known as BA.1, and BA.2 are considered subsets of omicron. But global health leaders could give it its own Greek letter name if it is deemed a globally significant “variant of concern.”
The quick spread of BA.2 in some places raises concerns it could take off.
“We have some indications that it just may be as contagious or perhaps slightly more contagious than (original) omicron since it’s able to compete with it in some areas,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily know why that is.”
An initial analysis by scientists in Denmark shows no differences in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared with the original omicron. Scientists there are still looking into this version’s infectiousness and how well current vaccines work against it. It’s also unclear how well treatments will work against it.
Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2. But they’re hopeful, especially that a prior omicron infection might lessen the severity of disease if someone later contracts BA.2.
The two versions of omicron have enough in common that it’s possible that infection with the original mutant “will give you cross-protection against BA.2,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, an infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Scientists will be conducting tests to see if antibodies from an infection with the original omicron “are able to neutralize BA.2 in the laboratory and then extrapolate from there,” he said.
HOW CONCERNED ARE HEALTH AGENCIES?
The World Health Organization classifies omicron overall as a variant of concern, its most serious designation of a coronavirus mutant, but it doesn’t single out BA.2 with a designation of its own. Given its rise in some countries, however, the agency says investigations of BA.2 “should be prioritized.”
The UK Health Security Agency, meanwhile, has designated BA.2 a “variant under investigation,” citing the rising numbers found in the UK and internationally. Still, the original version of omicron remains dominant in the UK
WHY IS IT HARDER TO DETECT?
The original version of omicron had specific genetic features that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from delta using a certain PCR test because of what’s known as “S gene target failure.”
BA.2 doesn’t have this same genetic quirk. So on the test, Long said, BA.2 looks like delta.
“It’s not that the test doesn’t detect it; it’s just that it doesn’t look like omicron,” he said. “Don’t get the impression that ‘stealth omicron’ means we can’t detect it. All of our PCR tests can still detect it.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF?
Doctors advise the same precautions they have all along: Get vaccinated and follow public health guidance about wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home when you’re sick.
“The vaccines are still providing good defense against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Long said. “Even if you’ve had COVID 19 before — you’ve had a natural infection — the protection from the vaccine is still stronger, longer lasting and actually ... does well for people who’ve been previously infected.”
The latest version is another reminder that the pandemic hasn’t ended.
“We all wish that it was over,” Long said, ”but until we get the world vaccinated, we’re going to be at risk of having new variants emerge.”


India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner

India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner
Updated 26 January 2022

India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner

India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner
  • The partnership is contributing significantly to the two nations’ economic progress

The 75th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia has seen commercial ties between the two strategic partners rise to new heights. According to the General Authority of Statistics, for the first three quarters of 2021, India was Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner.

India’s Department of Commerce found that for the current financial year (April-November), trade between the two countries was $24.9 billion, an increase of 94 percent over the same period last year. It is especially heartening to note that current trends suggest that bilateral trade will surpass pre-pandemic levels. Another achievement worth mentioning is that India is well on its way to achieving its global export target of $400 billion set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Specifically, Indian exports to Saudi Arabia will comfortably exceed the set target.

Despite the pandemic's causing a halt in the physical movement of high-level business and trade delegations between the two countries which was expected after the establishment of the Strategic Partnership Council during Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in October 2019, the momentum of engagement has been sustained via virtual platforms.

The Economic and Investment Pillar of the Council, co-chaired by the Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and the Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, has already seen meetings at the senior official level and also under each of the four Joint Working Groups: Industry and Infrastructure; Agriculture and Food Security; IT and Technology; and Energy.

There have also been several positive developments on the investment side. Some 745 Indian companies are registered as joint ventures or 100 percent owned entities in the Kingdom as of October 2021. These figures stretch across sectors and amount to cumulative invested capital of around $2 billion. Saudi investments in India have seen a big jump over the last two years, especially after the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to India in February 2019 which raised Saudi investments in India to $100 billion. Significant investments include the investments of the Public Investment Fund into Reliance Retail Ventures and Reliance Jio.

India remains a top-tier investment destination, and is on its way to becoming a top-three global economy with a nominal GDP of $8-9 trillion by 2030.

To further promote foreign investments in India, various programs, such as Production Linked Incentive Schemes and the National Single Window System have been launched. The India Investment Grid, an online portal showcasing investment opportunities across India, can be accessed at https://indiainvestmentgrid.gov.in.

Both the Embassy of India in Riyadh and the Consulate General in Jeddah have continued to organize several B2B events through a virtual format which bolsters trade and investment in various sectors. Events so far have included cooperation in IT, pharmaceuticals, fruits and vegetables, spices, gems and jewelry, home decor and handicrafts; all have attracted a positive response from the Saudi business community.

A delegation from Saudi Arabia also visited the Indusfood Exhibition organized by the Trade Promotion Council of India in the National Capital Region earlier this month. The delegation explored opportunities in the food sector, which is a priority sector of trade between the two countries. The Saudi India Business Network, a forum of Saudi and Indian entrepreneurs and professionals with chapters in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, has also been actively engaging in various initiatives under the aegis of the Embassy. We appreciate the support extended by the Saudi Authorities and Chambers of Commerce towards making these initiatives successful.

As we mark the 73rd Republic Day of India on Jan. 26 this year, there is little doubt that socio-economic partnership between our two countries will continue to strengthen, contributing significantly to the two nations' economic progress.

  • Asim Anwar is Second Secretary (Economic and Commercial) at the Embassy of India in Riyadh.