US Allies Tighten Alliance to Contain China’s Maritime Expansion

Australia’s recent shift to a more combative stance against China will tighten political and military coordination among U.S.-allied nations that want to check Beijing’s maritime expansion, analysts said this week.Canberra broke its neutral stance toward China with harsh pledges and comments in May, June and July due to a series of problems with the communist government, despite brisk trade ties. In particular, Australia openly backed the United States last month by sending the United Nations a letter that described Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the contested South China Sea as illegal.Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in a speech Wednesday that his country would work more closely with India, Japan and the United States – an ally already so close that a Chinese newspaper in May quoted a netizen calling Canberra a “dog” of Washington.Those four countries belong to a group dubbed the Quad, which formed in 2007 to discuss security issues in Asia, including China’s activities. Specialists predict more from the Quad, this time galvanized by Australia, even though the United States normally leads.“It appears at least from the Australian end that Australia is sort of trying to take a significant directive role rather than a follower role,” said Stuart Orr, professor of management at Deakin University in Australia.’Concrete action’On Wednesday, Morrison, addressing an Indo-Pacific security forum, noted the June Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India. The partnership calls for meetings at least once every two years between defense ministers. Morrison added Wednesday that Australia reached a memorandum of cooperation in July to work with Japan on space cooperation and said Australia planned to take “concrete action to support our Pacific and Southeast Asian friends and family.” Japan and India have their own bitter territorial issues with China.The U.S. and Australian governments have cooperated for decades on resisting foreign governments that Washington dislikes. Now the U.S. side is embroiled in a trade dispute with China. Both Western countries resent China for suspected technology-related crimes and want the Asian country investigated as the source of the coronavirus.Australia proposed in May a formal inquiry into the Chinese origins of the pandemic and a month later Morrison said his country had been the target of a “state-based” cyber-attack. Beijing called the June remark a smear.Compared to other countries worried about Beijing, “I think Washington and Canberra are on the same page of the book about the problems with China,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.“I think that they have a much stronger sense of unity about confronting China in a smart way,” he said.None of the Quad countries claims the South China Sea, but all of them see it as a pivot point for Chinese expansion past its land borders and recall Beijing as a Cold War foe.Fish, energy reserves, shipping lanesChina vies for sovereignty over the contested sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All five rival claimants have weaker militaries and less infrastructure on the sea’s hundreds of tiny islets than does China. Claimants prize the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea for fish, energy reserves and shipping lanes.Officials in Beijing cite historical usage records to defend their claim over about 90 percent of the sea.“China would at least have to be wary and at the same time it would have to be more concerned about Australia and the U.S. leading or sort of spearheading what they would likely see as rather unwelcome prospects of greater external interest and perceived meddling in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.India may hope to build up the Quad amid its military standoff with China near a disputed land border, London media organization India Inc. suggested in a commentary after Morrison met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.Australia’s leadership role in the Quad could mean more joint naval exercises that anger China, scholars believe.Japan and Australia joined the USS Ronald Reagan and a strike group last month for joint exercises southeast of China.U.S.-Australia military exercises will gain speed, especially if they involve Japan, India, and traditional pro-U.S. European allies such as France and the United Kingdom, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.’Moral standpoint’Southeast Asian states, despite overlapping South China Sea claims with Beijing, have shown less enthusiasm than have Quad countries toward Australia’s new assertiveness. Some, such as Brunei and the Philippines, receive aid and investment from China. Their negotiating bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hopes for an eventual maritime code of conduct with Beijing.However, they welcome the Quad’s activities from a “moral standpoint,” Koh said.Australia and Vietnam, the most outspoken maritime claimant, issued a joint statement last year to express “serious concerns about developments in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and militarization of disputed features,” a likely reference to Chinese activity.Expect Australia eventually to step up engagement with Vietnam, Thayer said.

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NBA Team Owners Commit $300 Million to Black Empowerment

NBA team owners will contribute $300 million over the next decade to establish a charitable foundation dedicated to economic empowerment in the Black community, the league announced Wednesday.The NBA Foundation, launched in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), will see all 30 club owners contribute a collective $30 million annually for 10 years in initial funding to support racial equality and social justice.”The creation of this foundation is an important step in developing more opportunities for the Black community,” NBPA president Chris Paul said. “I’m proud of our league and our players for their commitment to this long-term fight for equality and justice, and I know we will continue to find ways to keep pushing for meaningful institutional change.”The move follows worldwide protests after the death George Floyd last May while in police custody.NBA players are wearing messages of support for cultural issues on jerseys as they finish their season while “Black Lives Matter” is written upon all courts where games are played.The foundation mission will be to drive economic empowerment for Black communities through employment and career advancement, boosting access and backing for high school, college-aged and career-ready Black men and women.It will also assist national and local organizations that provide skills training, mentorship, coaching and personal development in NBA communities across the United States and Canada.Part of the foundation’s mission regarding employment will be on obtaining a first job, securing employment after high school or college and career advancement once employed.”All NBA team governors recognize our unique position to effect change and we are committed to supporting and empowering young Black men and women in each of our team markets as well as communities across the US and Canada,” said NBA board of governors chairman Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of the ownership group for the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors.Four NBA club owners, three players and executives from the NBPA and a member of the league office will serve on the foundation board of directors.”We’re dedicated to using the collective resources of the 30 teams, the players and the league to drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.”We believe that through focused programs in our team markets and nationally, together with clear and specific performance measures, we can advance our shared goals of creating substantial economic mobility within the Black community.” 

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Daily Testing for COVID-19 Dropping in US, AP Reports

Daily testing for the coronavirus in the United States is falling, even while the death toll rises, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.The number of tests has dropped nearly 4 percent over the past two weeks, AP reported.Experts said demand has overburdened laboratories that carry out the highly accurate molecular tests that detect the genetic code of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.These tests can give results in as little as two days.The experts are calling for a different test that people can do themselves and get results in just minutes, but the scientists say those tests are not as reliable. They include a do-it-yourself test where a patient would spit on a special piece of paper that changes color if the results is positive.But federal regulators say such tests could be highly unreliable.“I don’t think that would do a service to the American public of having something that is wrong seven out of 10 times,” Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Brett Giroir said. “I think that could be catastrophic.”Meanwhile, Russian authorities said Wednesday they are expanding their express COVID-19 testing to Moscow’s two other major airports after carrying out the tests at Sheremetyevo, Russia’s busiest airport.Authorities said the tests can yield results in just an hour.Facebook on Wednesday took down a post by President Donald Trump because it said the post spread misinformation about the coronavirus.“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19, which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation,” a Facebook spokesman said.The post included a link to a Fox News video where Trump says children are “virtually immune” to the virus.This is the first time one of the president’s COVID-related posts has been deleted from Facebook. Twitter also has demanded the White House remove the video from its account.Studies show that while children are less likely to become infected with the coronavirus and their symptoms tend to be milder, they are not immune and can still spread the virus to others.Gambia has imposed a three-week overnight curfew after the number of COVID-19 cases jumped 60 percent in just one week.Gambia is mainland Africa’s smallest nation and has also had the lowest number of coronavirus deaths – 16.Gambian officials said people had become lax about social distancing and other preventive measures.Four government ministers and the vice president are among those who have tested positive in recent weeks.The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government must take steps to stop the coronavirus from spreading to the Indigenous population.The justices gave authorities 30 days to come up with a plan that includes keeping outsiders from protected Indigenous communities.Indigenous groups demanded more protection, saying the coronavirus could wipe out some tribes and accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of not taking the outbreak seriously.The family of Chief Aritana Yawalapiti, one of Brazil’s most influential Indigenous leaders and leader of the people of Upper Xingu in central Brazil, died Wednesday of COVID-19.  

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Teens With AK-47 Arrested After Fleeing To Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

Police in Florida said three teenage boys were arrested after they entered U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort with an AK-47 in a backpack.Palm Beach Police spokesperson Michael Ogrodnick said the three 15-year-old boys jumped a wall at Mar-a-Lago while fleeing a police officer late last Friday.The officer had approached the boys as they sat in a car a few miles north of the resort. The boys sped off in the car, trying to escape. They abandoned the car near Mar-a-Lago when they saw another police cruiser and escaped onto the grounds of the resort, Ogrodnick said.”They didn’t try to get into any buildings, they just jumped over the wall and tried to hide,” he said.Trump was not at the resort when the incident took place.The teens, who were not identified, are being held in a juvenile facility while prosecutors decide if they should be charged as adults. The teens have denied they owned the AK-47, saying they had found it.Trump’s resort has been the scene of several invasions since he became president.In January, two women were arrested after police opened fire on them for running two security checkpoints nearby, in a car chase not related to Trump.In February, a Chinese woman was sentenced to six months in jail for resisting arrest during an incident last year when she entered Mar-a-Lago without permission. That took place just months after another Chinese woman was found guilty of lying to federal officers and trespassing onto the resort.   

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Pompeo Announces Tour of Europe Next Week

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he would visit Poland and three other European countries next week, as the United States announced plans to reposition troops outside of Germany. During this tour, which will begin Aug. 11, the U.S. top diplomat will also visit the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Austria. “It will be a very important and productive trip,” he said, announcing the tour during a press conference. Polish President Andrzej Duda, a populist conservative, was narrowly reelected to a new five-year term last month after a highly polarizing campaign in which he was notably received into the White House by Donald Trump. FILE – Poland’s President Andrzej Duda listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, June 24, 2020.The American president, who has a terrible relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has decided to withdraw thousands of American soldiers from Germany to reposition some of them in Poland. The Pentagon announced last week that the United States would deploy 1,000 additional troops to Poland in rotations, thanks to an agreement reached with Warsaw on their status in the country. They will be added to the 4,500 American soldiers already deployed by rotations in the country. The tour should also be placed under the sign of China, as Pompeo, who seeks to reduce Beijing’s influence in the world, urges U.S. allies to avoid Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.  

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US Pushes Ahead With Bid to Extend Iran Arms Embargo

The United States is pushing ahead with its bid to extend an international arms embargo on Iran by way of a second draft U.N. Security Council resolution, despite what some diplomats say is a lack of enthusiasm for such a move among its 15 members.The U.S.-drafted resolution needs at least nine votes in favor to force Russia and China to use their vetoes, which Moscow and Beijing have signaled they will do. Some diplomats question whether Washington can even secure those nine, however.”We have tabled a resolution that we think accomplishes what we think needs to be accomplished,” U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook told the Aspen Security Forum, held virtually, on Wednesday.FILE – U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 26, 2020.”The easy way is to do a rollover of the arms embargo,” he said. “It’s not difficult. There’s all the reasons in the world to do it. But we will do this, one way or another.”The arms embargo on Iran is set to end October 18 under Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which Washington quit in 2018.The second draft circulated by Washington is virtually unchanged from the first text shared with the council in June.Return of all sanctionsIf the United States is unsuccessful in extending the embargo, it has threatened to trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran under a process agreed to in the 2015 deal.Such a move would kill the deal, touted as a way to suspend Tehran’s suspected drive to develop nuclear weapons. Washington argues it can trigger the sanctions because a Security Council resolution still names it as a participant.Iran has breached parts of the nuclear deal in response to the U.S. withdrawal and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions.”For as long as Iran is allowed to enrich, we’re going to be having this discussion: How close is Iran to a nuclear breakout? … We need to restore the U.N. Security Council standard of no enrichment,” Hook said.Iran denies it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb.Diplomats say Washington would face a tough, messy battle if it tried to trigger a return to sanctions.The United States would have to submit a complaint to the council, which would then have to vote within 30 days on a resolution to continue Iran’s sanctions relief. If such a resolution is not put forward by the deadline, sanctions would be reimposed — what is known as a snapback.Some diplomats have suggested the United States will submit its complaint by the end of August to ensure the 30 days ends in September, before Russia takes the monthly rotating council presidency in October.

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US Justice Department Asks Court to Block California Net Neutrality Law

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday asked a federal judge to block California’s net neutrality law, arguing that federal law preempts the state statute.In October, a U.S. appeals court largely upheld the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repeal of landmark U.S. net neutrality rules. In 2018, California agreed not to enforce its own state net neutrality law until a final court decision on the FCC repeal.The Trump FCC in 2017 voted 3-2 to toss out Obama-era rules prohibiting internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes. The California law would reinstate those prohibitions in the state.The U.S. government is seeking a preliminary injunction to block California from being able to enforce its law.The California attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the Justice Department’s filing “and look forward to defending California’s state net neutrality protections.”The 2017 FCC 3-2 vote was applauded by internet service providers (ISPs), as it gave them sweeping powers to recast how Americans use the internet, as long as they disclose changes. The new rules took effect in June 2018, but service providers have yet to change how users access the internet.The California law was applauded by large tech companies and consumer groups that had championed the level playing field of net neutrality.The appeals court, in its October decision, also ruled the FCC had overstepped its legal authority when it expressly declared states cannot pass their own net neutrality laws.The Justice Department said despite that ruling that it still believes California’s net neutrality law is preempted by federal law. A decision on the Justice Department action is not expected before mid-October, according to a court schedule. 

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New York City to Use Checkpoints to Monitor COVID-19 Quarantine Compliance

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday plans to set up COVID-19 quarantine checkpoints in key areas to better enforce quarantine regulations.  “Travelers… will be given information about the quarantine and will be reminded that it is required, not optional,” said de Blasio at a news briefing. Fines for breaking the quarantine could reach as much as $10,000.Visitors coming from the states on New York’s travel advisory list are mandated to quarantine for 14-days. The quarantine applies to anyone coming from an area with a COVID-19 positive test rate above 10 per 100,000 people over a 7-day rolling average or an area with a 10 percent or higher positivity rate over a 7-day rolling average.  New York state leaders hope that quarantine regulations will help keep the infection rate low even as the rate rises in much of the rest of the U.S. “Our job is to do everything we can to control COVID and anticipate possible future issues, and in that regard, the issues we watch are the infection rates spreading across the country and compliance with the rules that we now have in place across the state,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement.  “The situation across the nation is still very bad and there are more states that have exceeded our thresholds for quarantine.”   “New York State has one of the lowest infection rates in the U.S.,” Governor Cuomo added.

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Worries About US Census Accuracy Grow With Cut Schedule

The U.S. Census Bureau is cutting its schedule for data collection for the 2020 census a month short as legislation that would have extended the national head count’s deadlines stalls in Congress. The move is worrying researchers, politicians and others who say the change will miss hard-to-count communities, including minorities and immigrants, and produce less trustworthy data.  
 
The Census Bureau said late Monday that the door-knocking and ability for households to respond either online, by phone or by mail to the questionnaire will stop at the end of September instead of the end of October so that it can meet an end-of-the-year deadline to turn in numbers used for redrawing congressional districts.  
 
Census experts, academics and civil rights activists worry the sped-up count could hurt its thoroughness and produce inaccurate data that will have lasting effects through the next decade. The count determines how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed and how many congressional districts each state gets.  
 
“This move will rush the enumeration process, result in inadequate follow-up, and undercount immigrant communities and communities of color who are historically undercounted,” U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, wrote Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham in a letter Tuesday.  
 
In the letter, Maloney, a Democrat from New York, requested interviews before her committee with eight Census Bureau officials, including two recent additions to the bureau’s leadership whose appointments by the Trump administration have been sharply criticized as politically driven.  
 
But Dillingham said the agency aimed to have the same level of responses as past censuses. “We will improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness,” he said.  
 
If communities are missed, it will have “a large downstream impact” not only on apportionment but social science research and other Census Bureau surveys that rely on the once-a-decade census, said David Van Riper, director of spatial analysis at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation.  
 
“It’s interesting that this is happening now because all of the COVID databases are using population data from the census,” Van Riper said. Data used from an inaccurate count during a pandemic like the one the U.S. is experiencing “would give us a false perception of what’s going on on the ground,” he added.  
 
As of Monday, 37% of U.S. households hadn’t yet responded to the census questionnaire. Some of the 500,000 door knockers hired by the Census Bureau have begun visiting those households, but they weren’t expected to go out in force until next week.  
 
An analysis by the CUNY Center for Urban Research shows that 10 states currently are trailing their 2010 self-response rates by 5 to 10 percentage points, meaning they will require a greater share of door-knocking than they did a decade ago. Those states are Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.  
 
Four former Census Bureau directors who have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations warned in a letter that cutting short the door-knocking phase would force the bureau to rely on administrative records and statistical techniques to fill gaps on a much larger scale than in previous censuses.  
 
Congress should task an independent institution to measure whether the 2020 count matches the outcomes of previous censuses, and if not, recommend what steps should be taken, said the letter signed by Vincent Barabba, Robert Groves, Kenneth Prewitt and John Thompson.  
 
Facing delays caused by the pandemic, the Census Bureau had earlier this year pushed back wrapping up field operations for the once-a-decade head count from the end of July to the end of October.  
 
The bureau also asked Congress in April to extend the deadline for turning in apportionment data used for drawing congressional districts from Dec. 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021. Top Census Bureau officials have said it would be impossible to meet the end-of-the-year deadline, and that the bureau expected bipartisan support for the request.  
 
The request passed the Democratic-controlled House as part of coronavirus-relief legislation but it hasn’t gone anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate. The chamber’s inaction coincides with a memorandum Trump issued last month to try to exclude people living in the U.S. illegally from being part of the process for redrawing congressional districts.  
 
Civil rights groups, states, cities and individuals have filed at least a half-dozen lawsuits challenging the memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color.  
 
The request to Congress also asked that the deadline for turning in data used for drawing legislative and local districts be extended from March 30, 2021, to July 31, 2021, but the Census Bureau is now aiming to finish those responsibilities by the end of March.  
 
Maloney on Tuesday introduced an update to the legislation pending in Congress that would give the Census Bureau more time by pushing back the deadlines to the later dates.  
 
Critics say the move to speed up the deadlines is just the latest Trump administration effort to politicize the 2020 census, starting with a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the form.  
 
“This is nothing but a disgusting power grab from an administration hell-bent on preserving its fleeting political power at all costs,” said Julie Menin, census director for New York City.

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US Treasury Announces New Sanctions on Ally of Zimbabwe’s Mnangagwa

The U.S. Treasury has imposed financial sanctions on an alleged Zimbabwean government ally who it says used corruption to rake in millions of U.S. dollars.Kudakwashe Regimond Tagwirei and his company, Sakunda Holdings, were targeted Wednesday by the Treasury Department.“Tagwirei and other Zimbabwean elites have derailed economic development and harmed the Zimbabwean people through corruption,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin G. Muzinich in a press release.The release said Tagwirei used opaque business dealings and relationships with top officials, including President Emmerson Mnangagwa, to win state contracts and receive favored access to hard currency, which has been in short supply for years in Zimbabwe. The department tied the sanctions to the second anniversary of a violent crackdown against protesters in Zimbabwe that left at least six people dead.A successful businessman, Tagwirei has long been connected with Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and top officials, such as President Mnangagwa and First Vice President Constantino Chiwenga. Both individuals have been subject to previous sanctions and retain spots on the U.S. Treasury’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons, a compilation of individuals who have been targeted by various sanctions programs. According to his profile on Sakunda Holdings’ website, Tagwirei sits on the National Procurement Board for Zimbabwe’s oil supply industry, in addition to serving as the company’s chief executive officer. A report commissioned by the Zimbabwean government in 2019 found that Tagwirei and his associates could not account for at least $3 billion dispensed to the Command Agriculture program, a state farm subsidy financed by Sakunda Holdings and supported by Mnangagwa, the Treasury Department says. Zimbabwe has been thrust into turmoil in recent weeks, as citizens emboldened by the #blacklivesmatter movement take to the streets to protest human rights abuses and a lack of government assistance as the economy falters during the coronavirus pandemic. Several activists, authors and civilians have been arrested. The government contends the protests are being orchestrated by foreign governments and opposition leaders in an attempt to destabilize the nation. Under the new sanctions, all property and interests of Tagwirei and Sakunda Holdings that are in the U.S. or under the control of U.S. nationals must be blocked and reported to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.  

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