Doubts cast China will be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027

washington — A senior U.S. intelligence official is casting doubt on China’s ability to make good on plans to possibly reunify Taiwan by force by its self-imposed deadline.

Various U.S. military and intelligence officials have testified publicly in recent years that Beijing’s own planning documents show President Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be ready to take Taiwan by force should efforts to reunify the island by other means fail.

They also have said China’s unprecedented military modernization and expansion efforts have been in line with the order to have an invasion plan ready to go by 2027 at the latest.

But Dave Frederick, the U.S. National Security Agency’s assistant deputy director for China, is not sure they can meet that deadline.

“It’s a pretty ambitious goal, so [I] won’t make any predictions on whether they hit it or not,” Frederick said at a security conference in Nashville, Tennessee. He added that China “remains focused on that 2027 capabilities” goal but that obstacles remain.

One of those challenges, he said, is the ability of China’s military to land troops on the island of Taiwan.

An amphibious landing “would be a really, really challenging military problem for them,” Frederick said. “[A] very difficult military problem for them to pull off.”

However, he acknowledged that China is building a fourth amphibious landing craft and that “history’s got many examples of [a] government deciding to pursue a policy that may not even be in their best self-interest, and certainly in cases where military victory isn’t guaranteed.”

Chinese officials dismissed the talk, though, telling VOA by email the situation with Taiwan is “a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese [people].”

“If the U.S. truly hopes for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, it should abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Washington should “stop meddling in the Taiwan question and stop creating new factors that could lead to tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” Liu added.

Frederick is not the first U.S. official to caution that China’s military expansion, buoyed by new equipment and weapons systems, may be outpacing its actual capabilities.

The U.S. Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report issued late last year cautioned that Beijing itself believes it still faces some deficits as it tries to field a force capable of fighting and winning wars against other capable adversaries.

“They still have a long way to go in terms of having the level of military capability that we judge that they think that they need to advance their global security and economic interests,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters at the time.

The official called the lack of combat experience “one of the shortcomings that the PRC highlights in a lot of their own self assessments.”

Top U.S. intelligence officials have said that despite China’s desire to be able to take Taiwan by force, perhaps as early as next year, they believe Xi has not decided whether to use that option.

“Beijing will continue to apply military and economic pressure as well as public messaging and influence activities while promoting long-term cross-Strait economic and social integration to induce Taiwan to move toward unification,” according to last month’s annual threat assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

A separate assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency published last week concluded that “Beijing appears willing to defer the use of military force as long as it calculates that its unification with Taiwan ultimately can be negotiated.”

“The costs of armed conflict would outweigh the benefits, and its stated red lines have not been crossed by Taiwan, the United States, or other countries,” the DIA report added.

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NASA chief warns of Chinese military presence in space

Washington — China is bolstering its space capabilities and is using its civilian program to mask its military objectives, the head of the U.S. space agency said Wednesday, warning that Washington must remain vigilant.

“China has made extraordinary strides especially in the last 10 years, but they are very, very secretive,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We believe that a lot of their so-called civilian space program is a military program. And I think, in effect, we are in a race,” Nelson said.

He said he hoped Beijing would “come to its senses and understand that civilian space is for peaceful uses,” but added: “We have not seen that demonstrated by China.”

Nelson’s comment came as he testified before the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget for fiscal 2025.

He said the United States should land on the moon again before China does, as both nations pursue lunar missions, but he expressed concern that were Beijing to arrive first, it could say: “‘OK, this is our territory, you stay out.'”

The United States is planning to put astronauts back on the moon in 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission. China says it hopes to send humans to the moon by 2030.

Nelson said he was confident the United States would not lose its “global edge” in space exploration.

“But you got to be realistic,” he said. “China has really thrown a lot of money at it and they’ve got a lot of room in their budget to grow. I think that we just better not let down our guard.”

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China-South Korea competition grows in Vietnam

taipei, taiwan — A Vietnamese delegation’s visit to China last week has underscored increasingly close economic ties between the territorial rivals, which analysts say is posing a challenge to the dominance of South Korean investment in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue led the high-level delegation from April 7 to 12 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Hue proposed the two countries create a new push for trade development and “connect Vietnam to China’s large development strategies.”

He also met with the heads of many large Chinese companies that want to participate in Vietnam’s infrastructure construction.

China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner and on the way to becoming its biggest foreign direct investor.

A representative of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, or KCCI, in Vietnam last week told Nikkei Asia that Chinese companies are pushing back South Korean firms as China steps up investment in Vietnam.

“Looking at the cumulative amount of investment in Vietnam since 1988, South Korea ranks first with $85.8 billion, ahead of Singapore and Japan. However, in recent years, Korea has been in a neck-to-neck competition with China,” Kim Hyong-mo told the Japan-based Asia news magazine.

More current figures provided by Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment put South Korean foreign direct investment since 1988 at $87 billion, accounting for more than 18% of the total, followed by Singapore at $76 billion, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But in 2023, South Korea ranked fifth after Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and China, which led in terms of newly registered projects.

According to Joeffrey Maddatu Calimag, an assistant professor at the Department of Global Business Management at Kyungsung University in Busan, South Korea, competition between South Korean and Chinese companies is increasingly fierce.

“South Korean conglomerates like Samsung Electronics Limited have notably ramped up or increased their investment or R&D spending to counter the investments of China’s in terms of this sector, the mobile technology,” he told VOA.

“And Chinese companies have demonstrated impressive R&D growth, which can heighten the competition for South Korean firms in Vietnam. These combined with China’s technological advancements, presents a formidable challenge to South Korean companies operating in the region,” he said.

South Korea’s Samsung is by far the largest single foreign investor in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Hanoi Times newspaper reports Samsung invested more than $1 billion in Vietnam in 2023, for a total of more than $22 billion, and is expected to invest a further $1 billion per year.

South Korean lens module manufacturer LG Innotek announced last year that it would invest an additional $1 billion in capital in Haiphong City, bringing the company’s total investment in Vietnam to more than $2 billion.

But China’s investment is heating up.

Vietnam’s Trade Ministry said this month that Chinese automaker Chery signed a joint venture agreement with a Vietnamese company to build a factory in Vietnam at an investment of $800 million, becoming the first Chinese EV manufacturer in Vietnam. China’s BYD, the world’s largest EV maker, also plans to set up a factory in Vietnam.

Reuters reported in November that Chinese solar panel manufacturer Trina Solar, one of five Chinese solar firms the U.S. says used plants in Southeast Asia to avoid duties on panels made in China, plans to nearly double its investment in Vietnam to almost $900 million.

China-based economist and finance commentator He Jiangbing notes that since U.S.-China trade tensions erupted in 2018, many Chinese companies have invested in Southeast Asia to avoid made-in-China tariffs. He says China’s domestic overcapacity has also forced Chinese companies to accelerate their overseas deployment.

“The focus of Southeast Asia is Vietnam because [China and Vietnam] are geographically closer. Vietnam also has a large population, with more than 100 million people. It also hoards a large part of the industrial chain transferred from mainland China,” He said. “Wherever the industrial chain moves, Chinese companies will follow.”

Nguyen Tri Hieu, a Vietnamese American economist, says Vietnam is politically closer to China, a fellow one-party communist state, than democratic South Korea.

“In Vietnam, there is a saying that the relationship between China and Vietnam is just like the teeth and the lips,” he told VOA. “South Korea is politically more remote. I would say [South] Korea is important but is not in the same position as China.”

But unlike Hanoi, Seoul has no territorial dispute with Beijing that could threaten to upend the relationship.

China’s and Vietnam’s competing claims to areas in the South China Sea have not halted trade and investment but they have at times slowed it down amid clashes and tensions.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea as its own, putting it in conflict with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

  Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Biden seeks higher tariffs on Chinese steel as he courts union voters

SCRANTON, Pa. — President Joe Biden is calling for a tripling of tariffs on steel from China to protect American producers from a flood of cheap imports, an announcement he planned to roll out Wednesday in an address to steelworkers in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

The move reflects the intersection of Biden’s international trade policy with his efforts to court voters in a state that is likely to play a pivotal role in deciding November’s election.

The White House insists, however, that it is more about shielding American manufacturing from unfair trade practices overseas than firing up a union audience.

In addition to boosting steel tariffs, Biden also will seek to triple levies on Chinese aluminum. The current rate is 7.5% for both metals. The administration also promised to pursue anti-dumping investigations against countries and importers that try to saturate existing markets with Chinese steel, and said it was working with Mexico to ensure that Chinese companies can’t circumvent the tariffs by shipping steel there for subsequent export to the U.S.

“The president understands we must invest in American manufacturing. But we also have to protect those investments and those workers from unfair exports associated with China’s industrial overcapacity,” White House National Economic Adviser Lael Brainard said on a call with reporters.

Biden was set to announce that he is asking the U.S. Trade Representative to consider tripling the tariffs during a visit to United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh. The president is on a three-day Pennsylvania swing that began in Scranton on Tuesday and will include a visit to Philadelphia on Thursday.

The administration says China is distorting markets and eroding competition by unfairly flooding the market with below-market-cost steel.

“China’s policy-driven overcapacity poses a serious risk to the future of the American steel and aluminum industry,” Brainard said. Referencing China’s economic downturn, she added that Beijing “cannot export its way to recovery.”

“China is simply too big to play by its own rules,” Brainard said.

Higher tariffs can carry major economic risks. Steel and aluminum could become more expensive, possibly increasing the costs of cars, construction materials and other key goods for U.S. consumers.

Inflation has already been a drag on Biden’s political fortunes, and his turn toward protectionism echoes the playbook of his predecessor and opponent in this fall’s election, Donald Trump.

The former president imposed broader tariffs on Chinse goods during his administration, and has threatened to increase levies on Chinese goods unless they trade on his preferred terms as he campaigns for a second term. An outside analysis by the consultancy Oxford Economics has suggested that implementing the tariffs Trump has proposed could hurt the overall U.S. economy.

Senior Biden administration officials said that, unlike the Trump administration, they were seeking a “strategic and balanced” approach to new tariff rates. China produces around half of the world’s steel, and is already making far more than its domestic market needs. It sells steel on the world market for less than half what U.S.-produced steel costs, the officials said.

Biden’s announcement follows his administration’s efforts to provide up to $6.6 billion so that a Taiwanese semiconductor giant can expand facilities that it is already building in Arizona and better ensure that the world’s most-advanced microchips are produced in the U.S. That move could be seen as working to better compete with China chip manufacturers.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, during a recent visit to China, warned against oversaturating the market with cheap goods, and said low-cost steel had “decimated industries across the world and in the United States.” The Chinese, in turn, expressed grave concern over American trade and economic measures that restrict China, according to the China’s official news agency. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also has an upcoming visit to China.

Also potentially shaking up the steel industry is Japanese Nippon Steel’s proposed acquisition of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel. Biden said last month that he opposed the move.

“U.S. Steel has been an iconic American steel company for more than a century, and it is vital for it to remain an American steel company that is domestically owned and operated,” Biden said then.

At a rally last weekend in Pennsylvania, Trump tore into Biden over Nippon Steel’s efforts to buy U.S. Steel, ignoring the president’s objections to the merger.

“I would not let that deal go through,” Trump said.

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Ousted Myanmar leader Suu Kyi moved from prison to house arrest

BANGKOK — Myanmar’s jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been moved from prison to house arrest as a health measure due to a heat wave, the military government said. On Wednesday it also granted amnesty for over 3,000 prisoners to mark this week’s traditional New Year holiday.

Suu Kyi, 78, and Win Myint, the 72-year-old former president of her ousted government, were among the elderly and infirm prisoners moved from out of prison because of the severe heat, the military’s spokesperson, Maj. Gen. General Zaw Min Tun, told foreign media representatives late Tuesday. The move has not yet been publicly announced in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi’s transfer comes as the army has been suffering a string of major defeats in its fight against pro-democracy resistance fighters and their allies in ethnic minority guerrilla forces. The nationwide conflict began after the army ousted the elected government in February 2021, imprisoned Suu Kyi and began suppressing nonviolent protests that sought a return to democratic rule.

Suu Kyi has been serving a 27-year prison term on a variety of criminal convictions in a specially-built wing of the main prison in the capital Naypyitaw, where Myanmar’s meteorological department said temperatures reached 39 degrees Celsius (102.2 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday afternoon. Win Myint was serving an eight-year prison sentence in Taungoo in Myanmar’s Bago region.

Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts say the charges were fabricated in an attempt to discredit her and legitimize the military’s seizure of power. The military had claimed that her National League for Democracy Party used widespread electoral fraud to win a landslide victory in the 2020 general election, an allegation independent observers found unconvincing.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent group that monitors casualties and arrests, more than 20,351 people arrested on political charges since the 2021 army takeover are still in detention, most of whom have not received criminal convictions.

Suu Kyi’s health has reportedly deteriorated in prison. In September last year, reports emerged that she was suffering from symptoms of low blood pressure including dizziness and loss of appetite, but had been denied treatment at qualified facilities outside the prison system.

Those reports could not be independently confirmed, but her younger son Kim Aris said in interviews that he had heard that his mother has been extremely ill and has been suffering from gum problems and was unable to eat. Aris, who lives in England, urged that Myanmar’s military government be pressured to free his mother and other political prisoners.

News about Suu Kyi is tightly controlled by the military government, and even her lawyers are banned by a gag order from talking to the media about her cases. Her legal team has faced several hurdles, including being unable to meet with her to receive her instructions since they last saw her in person in December 2022.

Whether the latest move was meant to be temporary was not announced.

Before being sent to prison, Suu Kyi was reportedly held in a military safe house inside an army base.

Other prisoners were released for the Thingyan New Year holiday, state-run MRTV television announced Wednesday, but it wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists and political prisoners who were detained for protesting army rule.

MRTV said that the head of the ruling military council, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had pardoned 3,303 prisoners, including 28 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others. Mass amnesties on the holiday are not unusual in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s martyred independence hero Gen. Aung San, spent almost 15 years as a political prisoner under house arrest by previous military governments between 1989 and 2010. Her tough stand against military rule turned her into a symbol of the nonviolent struggle for democracy and won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

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South Korea cautiously optimistic about US-Japan military upgrades

WASHINGTON — South Korea is cautiously optimistic about alliance upgrades that the U.S. and Japan have planned to bolster security in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the ministry “noted” that the U.S. and Japan, at their summit in Washington last week, spoke of “the defensive nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance” and emphasized “peace and stability” in the region.

The spokesperson continued via email to VOA’s Korean Service on Friday that “South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are making efforts to institutionalize expanded trilateral cooperation through agreements made at Camp David last year” and “to strengthen rules-based international order.”

The three countries held a trilateral summit at Camp David in August after Seoul and Tokyo mended ties frayed by disputes rooted in Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

At their bilateral summit held in Washington on April 10, Washington and Tokyo announced wide-ranging plans to revamp their military ties. 

The plans include preparations for Japan to develop and produce with the U.S. military hardware, including hypersonic missile interceptors.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel toured a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-35 fighter jet factory near Nagoya on Tuesday. He underlined the importance of Japan’s role in manufacturing weapons as U.S. supplies run thin amid crises in Europe and the Middle East.

The plans announced at the summit also call for Japan’s possible involvement in the AUKUS Pillar II security pact, enabling it to develop quantum computing, hypersonic, undersea and other advanced technologies. 

AUKUS is a defense and security group of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. AUKUS Pillar 2 refers to a suite of cooperative activities conducted by the three nations to develop and field “advanced capabilities.” 

Japan will hold trilateral exercises with the U.S. and the U.K. starting in 2025 as the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions become “ever-more linked,” according to the joint statement. 

The plans call for Japan to expand its security role and arms buildup in tandem with efforts to implement a national security strategy issued in 2022. That called for an increase in Japan’s defense budget and a shift from a defense-only policy to one that includes counterstrike capabilities amid threats from North Korea and China. 

In December, Japan eased its arms export control regime that had allowed it to sell components but not completed weapons. 

Cho Han-Bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said “Japan’s arms reinforcement can be viewed as a double-edged sword.”  

In an interview Monday with VOA’s Korean Service, he said the arms buildup significantly helps to deter threats from the Chinese military and North Korean nuclear weapons, but that it concerns South Korea.

Due to unresolved historical disputes from Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945, “trust” between the militaries of the two countries “is not restored fully,” even as they cooperate together now, he said.

South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. conducted a two-day joint naval exercise in the East China Sea from April 11 to 12. The exercise included anti-submarine warfare drills to counter North Korea’s underwater threats and interdiction drills aimed at blocking the North’s weapons shipments. 

South Korea, under President Yoon Suk Yeol, has been pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Tokyo, and has aligned itself closely with Washington in countering Beijing’s economic and military coercion.  

Under the previous administration of Moon Jae-in, Seoul relied for its security on the U.S. while bolstering economic relations with China. Ties with Tokyo remained tense. 

Much of the anti-Japanese sentiment still runs high in South Korea, despite Yoon’s outreach to Tokyo, especially among progressives who increased their majority in an April 10 parliamentary election. 

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry lodged a protest on Tuesday against Japan’s claim over a disputed island that sits midway between the two countries, called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan. 

Won Gon Park, an adjunct professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said South Korea now has to “make a choice” whether to work more closely with Japan to counter threats from North Korea and China.

He said in an interview with VOA’s Korean Service that this might be necessary, as the U.S. builds a regional security structure to bolster defenses against China. 

At their summit, the U.S. and Japan also announced a planned revision of the command structure of U.S. forces in Japan. This will complement Japan’s plan to establish a joint operations command to improve coordination of its air, ground, maritime forces by 2025. 

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said Washington “is increasingly anxious to have global partners” step up their arms manufacturing because the U.S. is not producing enough military hardware to counter all the threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

Speaking with VOA by telephone on Friday, Bennett said what was announced at the summit was that “Japan would be a global partner,” enabling the U.S. to share highly sensitive “information, technology and other capabilities in exchange for taking responsibility with security and stability in the regions that go outside Northeast Asia.”

He added, “The U.S. recognizes South Korea can’t afford to send multiple divisions to other areas around the world because of the North Korean threats” but is “anxious” to have South Korea play a deeper global role, especially in the Indo-Pacific. 

Kim Hyungjin contributed to the report.

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Chinese security presence in the Pacific comes into focus ahead of major political events   

Taipei, Taiwan — China’s growing security presence in the Pacific will be scrutinized this week as the Solomon Islands holds its national election on Wednesday. While the Pacific island nation has been plagued by a slew of domestic issues such as youth unemployment and weakening health and education systems, some analysts say the election is a “de-facto referendum” on its relationship with China.

“The results will determine whether the Solomon Islands continues growing its relationship with China or changes course in favor of a different approach,” Parker Novak, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told VOA in a written response.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who seeks an unprecedented second consecutive term, has focused on deepening the country’s ties with China since he returned to power in 2019.

After switching Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, Sogavare signed a series of security-related agreements with China, including a security pact in 2022 and a police cooperation agreement in 2023.

The developments prompted the U.S., Australia and other Pacific island nations to express concerns about the security implications of these deals. So far, the Solomon Islands hasn’t revealed details of the controversial security pact with China.

However, a leaked draft agreement shows that China could potentially deploy security and naval assets to the country.

The lack of transparency around the security deal with China has prompted several opposition candidates in the Solomon Islands to vow to abolish or review the security pact.

While opposition leaders have sounded the alarm about China’s growing security presence in the Solomon Islands, Sogavare has strongly defended his administration’s efforts to deepen bilateral ties with China.

Centering his campaign around his signature “Look North strategy,” which aims to consolidate Solomon Islands’ economic and diplomatic ties with Asian countries, Sogavare has repeatedly emphasized how Chinese support with infrastructure developments and the Pacific Games has helped place the Pacific island nation “in a more favorable footing domestically and internationally.”

In response to opposition politicians’ concerns about China’s growing influence over the Solomon Islands, China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that Beijing supports the people of Solomon Islands “in choosing a development path that suits their national conditions.”

Some experts say China’s entry into the Solomon Islands’ security sector in recent years has created friction with traditional security partners like Australia. “There has been an increase in friction as a result of China’s entry into the security space in the Solomon Islands and other parts of the Pacific,” said Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands program at Lowy Institute in Australia.

While the Solomon Islands is trying to retain relationships with partners like Australia amid its efforts to deepen ties with China, Sora said the Sogavare administration’s attempt will be difficult to execute because of continuing “strategic friction” between Beijing and Canberra, especially in the security space. [The Solomon Islands] “will need to resolve the increasing frictions,” he told VOA by phone.

Chinese security presence in the Pacific comes into focus

In addition to the Solomon Islands, China’s growing security presence in other parts of the Pacific region is also coming under scrutiny ahead of other major political events. Earlier this month, Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said he would be open to accepting Chinese security support when the country hosts the Pacific Islands Forum in August.

“There’s no reason to be concerned. China is offering to assist with the hosting of the foreign leaders’ meeting,” he told reporters in the Tongan capital Nukuʻalofa.

The Chinese Embassy in Tonga told AFP in a statement that Beijing “has no interest in geopolitical competition or seeking the so-called ‘sphere of influence.’”

Some analysts say Tonga’s decision to welcome China as a potential security provider reflects Pacific island nations’ efforts to diversify their security partners since 2021.

“China has had success in presenting itself as a security stakeholder in the region and this is certainly of concern to Canberra, Wellington and Washington, who view China’s security interests in the Pacific as disruptive and indicative of China’s broader interests,” Anna Powles, an associate professor in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, told VOA in a written response.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told ABC Australia in March that the country has removed Chinese police embedded in its police force despite the earlier decision to uphold Fiji’s policing cooperation agreement with China.

Some experts say Fiji is “walking a fine line” in its relationship with China and Western countries. “By not throwing away the police deal, Fiji is showing that they are not willing to go all in and align with the West,” Michael Walsh, an affiliated researcher at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, told VOA by phone.

In his view, Fiji’s careful calibration of its security relationship with China demonstrates that “they are going to keep having a relationship with China that extends into the security domain for the foreseeable future.”

While some experts agree that China has made progress in expanding its security presence in the Pacific, Novak from the Atlantic Council said Beijing’s security influence in the region “shouldn’t be overstated.”

“More often than not, Pacific islands countries have elected to maintain or even grow traditional security partnerships with countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States while carefully maintaining their own sovereignty,” he told VOA.

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China’s economy grew 5.3% in first quarter, beating expectations

HONG KONG — China’s economy expanded at a faster than expected pace in the first three months of the year, helped by policies aimed at stimulating growth and stronger demand, the government said Tuesday.

The world’s second-largest economy expanded at a 5.3% annual pace in January-March, beating analysts’ forecasts of about 4.8%, official data show. Compared to the previous quarter, the economy grew 1.6%.

China’s economy has struggled to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, with a slowdown in demand and a property crisis weighing on its growth.

The better-than-expected data Tuesday came days after China reported its exports sank 7.5% in March compared to the year before, while imports also weakened. Inflation cooled, reflecting deflationary pressures resulting from slack demand amid a crisis in the property sector.

Industrial output for the first quarter was up 6.1% compared to the same time last year, and retail sales grew at an annual pace of 4.7%. Fixed investment, in factories and equipment, grew 4.5% compared to the same period a year earlier.

The strong growth in January-March was supported by “broad manufacturing outperformance,” festivities-boosted household spending due to the Lunar New Year holidays and policies that helped boost investments, according to China economist Louise Loo of Oxford Economics.

“However, ‘standalone’ March activity indicators suggest weakness coming through post-Lunar New Year,” she said. “External demand conditions also remain unpredictable, as seen in March’s sharp export underperformance.”

Loo noted that an unwinding of excess inventory, normalization of household spending after the holidays and a cautious approach to government spending and other stimulus will affect growth in this quarter.

Policymakers have unveiled a raft of fiscal and monetary policy measures as Beijing seeks to boost the economy. China has set an ambitious gross domestic product (GDP) growth target of about 5% for 2024.

Such strong growth usually would push share prices across the region higher. But on Tuesday, Asian shares fell sharply after stocks retreated on Wall Street.

The Shanghai Composite index lost 1.4% and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 1.9%. The benchmark for the smaller market in Shenzhen, in southern China, lost 2.8%.

Stronger growth in the region’s biggest economy normally would be seen as a positive for its neighbors, which increasingly rely on demand from China to power their own economies. However, strong growth figures are also viewed as a signal that the government will hold back on further stimulus.

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Teen held in terrorist attack at Australian church

SYDNEY —          

Australia will work with international security agencies to assess global extremism after a stabbing at a church in Sydney.

The attack, in which a 16-year-old boy was arrested, is being treated as an act of terrorism, according to the police.

A bishop, a parish priest and several worshippers were injured Monday during a sermon that was being live-streamed.

The teenage suspect was subdued by worshippers and arrested by the police.

Australian investigators believe the alleged attacker was motivated by religious extremism.

Declaring the attack a terrorist incident gives investigators greater powers and resources to probe the precise motivations of the alleged attacker.

Australian intelligence agencies will work with their Five Eyes security alliance partners, including Canada and the U.S., to assess the global threat of extremism.

Video of the service at the Assyrian Orthodox Church has shown an individual walking toward the altar.

The alleged assailant then lunges at a clergyman and appears to stab him several times before churchgoers rush in to help.  There are screams of horror from the congregation at Christ The Good Shepherd Church in Sydney.

Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, a prominent Christian leader, was among those who were injured, along with a parish priest and a small number of worshippers.  None of the victims have life-threatening injuries.

Outside the church, a large crowd angry at the attack clashed with the police.  “Bring him out!” they chanted, calling for retribution against the teenage suspect.

A group of leaders from different faiths met with government officials and called for calm in the community. Western Sydney is one of Australia’s most culturally and religiously diverse regions.

“There is no place for violence in our community. There is no place for violent extremism,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters Tuesday. “We are a peace-loving nation. This is a time to unite (and) not divide as a community and as a country.”

Albanese was scheduled to meet with his national security advisers later on Tuesday in Canberra.

Australia’s official national terror threat level remains at “possible,” the second lowest in a five-category alert system.  A government advisory states that “there are a small number of people in Australia and overseas who want to cause Australia harm.”

The church stabbings follow the murders of six people in a separate knife attack in a Sydney shopping center over the weekend. The attacker, a 40-year-old man from Queensland state with mental health issues, was shot dead at the scene by a police officer.

Among the injured is a 9-month-old baby girl, who remains in hospital. The infant’s mother was killed in Saturday’s rampage.  It is not being treated as a terrorism-related attack.

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Untying knots: Cambodian women face social judgment, depression after divorce

Phnom Penh — “He brutally used violence against me. … He hit me. He grabbed my neck. I really had a hard time when I was with him, and my mental health was very unstable.”

When Thach Chanty, a 35-year-old woman from the southeastern Cambodian province of Kampong Cham recalls life with her former husband, “My tears almost fall down.”

Chanty, who works as a garment worker, now struggles to support her two children in the aftermath of a marriage she describes as colored with neglect and violence.

Escaping the brutality left her alone in a society that continues to judge divorced women as having failed in their primary social role of wife and mother. Chanty found solace in her family’s support.

“I felt sorry for my two sons after I divorced my husband,” she said. “A lot of people judge me for being divorced, but luckily my parents and sister have been there to support me.”

A recent report titled Separate Ways, released in late 2023 by the small nonprofit organization Klahaan, sheds light on the struggles faced by Cambodia’s divorced women. Beyond enduring significant social shame and judgment, the report says the divorced women are more likely to face financial and mental issues compared to their former husbands.

The report also finds little has changed since a November 2015 study by Cambodia’s statistics ministry in conjunction with a U.N. agency found approximately 20% of Cambodian women faced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner during relationships including marriage. The report also found emotional abuse affected one-third of women, violence often occurred in the presence of children and few victims sought assistance.

Gender disparities after divorce

Conducted online, the Klahaan study involved 40 female and male participants from Phnom Penh, the capital city, and remote areas, including Ratanakiri and Kep provinces. Among the participants, 22 women reported having gone through a divorce.

The study revealed significant gender disparities in the aftermath of divorce. Most participants — 87% — said women bear a heavier burden of shame or stigma following divorce, while only 1% considered men to be more affected than their partners.

The report also highlighted regional differences: 48% of survey respondents believed rural women experience more pronounced effects in the aftermath of divorce, compared to 8% who felt urban women faced social stigma and judgement.

Klahaan founder Mao Map told VOA Khmer the new study, which is based on FPAR methodology, aims to address the controversial choice of divorce for both women and men.

According to Mao Map, the prevailing belief in Cambodia is that women can marry only once in their lifetime — a notion that influences perceptions of divorce. To support women, Mao Map is pushing the government to establish policies that expedite the divorce process, lessening the need for court mediation and increasing protections for women’s health by eliminating victim-blaming by law enforcement.

Sar Sineth, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, emphasized the government’s commitment to assisting women and girls who have experienced violence, particularly those navigating divorce and coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said the ministry coordinates closely with government and the legal system to provide swift support.

“We’re working hard to expedite the proceedings … in providing legal assistance to victims of … divorce due to chronic violence,” she said. “And with this provision of lawyers, the National Women’s Action Council has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bar Association to support the victims and provide timely services.”

Sar Sineth did not respond when VOA Khmer asked for details about how women could access those services.

Infidelity prompts divorce

The study revealed that infidelity is a significant factor influencing women’s decisions to get divorced, with 81% of survey respondents identifying “cheating and affairs” as a likely cause for women choosing divorce. In contrast, only 68% selected the same response for men.

One participant said that while her husband began cheating on her soon after their marriage, after their children were born “he went too far — he brought her to sleep at the house that we had built together. In the end, I decided to sell that house and get a divorce.”

Thach Chanty said she no longer cares about how others judge her for divorcing to escape violence and focus on her sons.

“Initially, when I contemplated my divorce, I cried and sometimes even considered ending my life,” she said. “But now, I have let go of those thoughts and am living my normal life, driven by my desire to do everything for my kids.”

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Writer jailed in Vietnam to be recognized with international award

Washington — A Vietnamese writer and journalist serving a nine-year prison sentence for her work has been recognized with an international literary award.

The rights group PEN America has announced that Pham Doan Trang will receive its 2024 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. The honor is bestowed each year to a writer imprisoned for his or her work.

Trang is known in Vietnam for her blog and books about civil liberties. She started a blog in 2006 as a way to create space for independent debate. Since then, the writer has started online magazines, opened a publishing house, and authored books on politics, human rights, and the Vietnamese legal system.

Her books include Non-Violent Resistance, Politics for the Common People, A Handbook for Freedom Fighters, and Politics of a Police State.

The writing brought Trang to the attention of Vietnamese authorities. Her books have been confiscated and people who buy or own copies risk charges of spreading anti-state propaganda, according to PEN.

In 2020, Vietnam arrested Trang on accusations of spreading “anti-state propaganda,” and in a one-day trial in 2021, a court sentenced her to nine years in prison.

The writer is serving her sentence in a remote prison 900 miles from her hometown, which means family can visit only occasionally.

“Trang has galvanized the Vietnamese people through her writings on democracy, human rights, environmental degradation, and women’s empowerment. The Vietnamese government has persecuted and jailed Trang in an effort to still her voice,” Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, said in a statement.

“She has sacrificed her health and freedom in the pursuit of justice. Despite the government’s crackdown on dissent and activism, her powerful words continue to inspire people across Vietnam and throughout the world.”

PEN America has said that Trang’s imprisonment contradicts international human rights law and violates her right to free expression.

Neither Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor its embassy in Washington responded to VOA’s comment inquiries.

Trang is one of 19 journalists imprisoned for their work in Vietnam, making the country one of the leading jailers of media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

One of Trang’s lawyers will receive the award on behalf of the writer at a gala in New York in May, along with a friend of the writer, says PEN.

The lawyer, Dang Dinh Manh, said that Trang, “completely deserves all the honors” that are recognizing her work and the sacrifice she has made to speak up.

“As a defense lawyer for Trang, I understand her commitment to fighting for universal values, along with the very high price she had to make tradeoffs: her health, her youth, her freedom,” Manh told VOA.

The lawyer, who fled Vietnam for the U.S. because of harassment related to his legal work, added, “She completely deserves all the honors.”

The award sends a message to the Vietnamese government that “the suppression of people’s freedom is not welcomed, and is even condemned everywhere,” said Manh.

Trang’s friend Quynh-Vi Tran will also travel to New York for the award ceremony.

“PEN America had given these awards to people that they believe are writers who inspire and who use their writings to inspire others to do better things in society,” Tran, who lives in Taiwan, told VOA.

Tran, who is co-founder and executive director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, expressed thanks to PEN for “advocating for Trang’s freedom” and raising awareness of the challenges to free expression in Vietnam.

“Vietnam should understand and should follow the legal standard of human rights in the world. Because Vietnam is a member of the Human Rights Council, they cannot say they have a different definition for human rights than the rest of the world. Right?” Tran said.

PEN America has called for Trang’s release from prison and the repeal of the law under which Trang is imprisoned, among other laws that infringe on free expression.

Previous PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write winners include Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi and Ukrainian freelance journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko.

This article originated in VOA’s Vietnamese Service.

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Man arrested after 4 hurt in stabbing at church service in Sydney

Sydney — Police in Australia say a man has been arrested after a bishop and three churchgoers were stabbed in Sydney. There are no life-threatening injuries.

It occurred during a televised service at the church on Monday evening, police said. The Orthodox Assyrian church streams services online.

A video on social media shows a man dressed in black approaching a cleric at the altar identified as the bishop at Christ the Good Shepherd in suburban Wakely and appearing to stab him repeatedly in the head and upper body.

Members of the congregation are seen screaming and rushing to the bishop’s aid. The church website identified the bishop as Mar Mari Emmanuel.

NSW Ambulance service said it had treated a man in his 50s for multiple cuts and taken him to a hospital, and three others were treated for one or more cuts at the scene.

“A large police response is underway and the public is urged to avoid the area,” police said.

Australians are still in shock after a lone assailant stabbed six people to death in a busy Sydney shopping mall on Saturday and injured more than a dozen others.

Christ the Good Shepherd had been preparing for Palm Sunday later this month.

The bishop was featured in national news last year.

A video posted in May 2023 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about a campaign targeting the LGBTQ+ community showed the bishop in a sermon saying that “when a man calls himself a woman, he is neither a man nor a woman, you are not a human, then you are an it. Now, since you are an it, I will not address you as a human anymore because it is not my choosing, it your choosing.”

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China says Hong Kong must ‘tightly hold’ national security line

HONG KONG — China’s top official on Hong Kong affairs said the city should focus on national security to protect development, in a speech coming weeks after the enactment of sweeping new security laws.

“To move towards governance and prosperity, we need to tightly hold onto the bottom line of national security in order to safeguard the high quality development of Hong Kong,” said the director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, in a speech to mark an annual national security day.

Hong Kong in March enacted a new national security law, also known as Article 23, that updates or introduces new laws to prohibit treason, sabotage, sedition, the theft of state secrets and espionage, with jail terms of up to life imprisonment.

Xia, however, sought to emphasize that the law posed no threat to investors, at a time when the city has faced Western criticism of a protracted crackdown on dissent, and has struggled economically and financially.

“For the general public of Hong Kong and foreign investors, this law is the protector of their rights, freedoms, property and investment,” Xia said.

“Investors from all over the world can come to Hong Kong to invest in new businesses bravely and without concerns,” he added. “Hong Kong remains the best place in the world to do business and make money and achieve your dreams.”

Some foreign governments including the United States and Britain, however, have criticized the new law as fresh tool for authorities to clamp down on dissent. The legislation adds to another national security law China directly imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 in response to mass pro-democracy protests.

Beijing, however, says the laws are necessary to safeguard the city’s stability and prosperity.

The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong said on Saturday that visitors to the city should “exercise increased caution” with the State Department updating its travel advisory given the new national security legislation.

Canada also updated its advisory recently, saying people needed to “exercise a high degree of caution in Hong Kong due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

The security laws have so far been used to jail scores of leading Hong Kong democrats including Joshua Wong, while liberal media outlets and civil society groups have been shut down.

More than 290 people have been arrested under the Beijing imposed national security law so far. Of these, 174 people and five companies have been charged, including prominent China critic and businessman Jimmy Lai, who is currently on trial and could face life imprisonment.

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Police probe killer’s targeting of women in Sydney mall attack

SYDNEY — Australian police said Monday they are investigating why a 40-year-old man with mental illness appeared to target women as he roamed a Sydney shopping mall with a large knife, killing six people and injuring a dozen more.

Videos shared on social media showed unshaven itinerant Joel Cauchi pursuing mostly female victims as he rampaged through the vast, crowded Westfield shopping complex in Bondi Junction on Saturday afternoon.

Five of the six victims killed were women, as were most of those wounded. 

“The videos speak for themselves don’t they, and that’s certainly a line of inquiry for us,” New South Wales police commissioner Karen Webb said.

“That’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to detectives, that that seems to be an area of interest — that the offender had focused on women and avoided men,” she told national broadcaster ABC.

Webb stressed that police could not know what was in the mind of the attacker.

“That’s why it’s important now that detectives spend so much time interviewing those who know him.”

Cauchi’s Facebook profile said he came from Toowoomba, near Brisbane, and had attended a local high school and university.

His parents say he had suffered from mental health issues since he was a teenager.

‘Very traumatic’

The last of Cauchi’s six victims was identified Monday as Yixuan Cheng, a young Chinese woman who was a student at the University of Sydney.

The other women killed were a designer, a volunteer surf lifesaver, the daughter of an entrepreneur, and a new mother whose wounded 9-month-old baby is in hospital.

The mother, 38-year-old Ashlee Good, handed her bleeding baby girl to strangers in desperation before being rushed to hospital where she died of her injuries. 

Her baby, named Harriet, is in a serious condition in a Sydney hospital but is expected to improve, health authorities said. 

The only man killed was 30-year-old Pakistani Faraz Tahir, who had been working as a security guard when he was stabbed. 

A total of eight people wounded in the assault remain in hospital, some in critical condition, after four were released in the past 24 hours, health authorities said.

Cauchi’s assault, which lasted about half an hour, was brought to an end when solo police inspector Amy Scott tracked him down and shot him dead. 

Scott, hailed as a hero by police and political leaders, was spending time with her family to deal with the “very traumatic matter,” the state police chief said.

In a statement, Cauchi’s parents offered thoughts for the victims and said their son’s actions were “truly horrific.”

“We are still trying to comprehend what has happened.”

‘Doing her job’

The parents also sent a message to the officer who killed their son.

“She was only doing her job to protect others and we hope she is coping alright,” they said.

Cauchi is believed to have traveled to Sydney about a month ago and hired a small storage unit in the city, according to police. It contained personal belongings.

He had been living in a vehicle and hostels, and was only in sporadic contact with his family via text messages, his parents said.

A mound of flowers grew outside the Bondi shopping center as people paid their respects to the victims. 

Flags across the country flew at half-mast in mourning. 

The Sydney Opera House is to be lit up with black ribbon in the evening.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had spoken to the families of some victims.

“The gender break-down is of course concerning — each and every victim here is mourned,” he told ABC radio, promising a “comprehensive” police investigation.

Misinformation

The prime minister also pointed the finger at people who spread false information about the attack.

“What social media has done is make everyone a publisher and some mainstream media also spread some misinformation,” he said.

While some social media users falsely attributed the attack to terrorism, an Australian broadcaster had to apologize for wrongly identifying a 20-year-old student as the perpetrator.

A public coronial inquiry will be held into the attack, New South Wales state premier Chris Minns told reporters.

It will look into the police response and criminal investigation, but also the killer’s past interactions with state health authorities, he said.

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China ‘deeply concerned’ after Iran strikes, online commenters largely oppose Israel

Washington — China’s foreign ministry Sunday said it is “deeply concerned” about escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Hours after Iran launched more than 320 warheads towards Israel in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on Tehran’s embassy in Damascus, China’s foreign ministry published a statement calling for the immediate implementation of a U.N. ceasefire resolution.

“China expresses deep concern over the current escalation and calls on relevant parties to exercise calm and restraint to prevent further escalations. The ongoing situation is the latest spillover of the Gaza conflict.”

China has sought to play the role of mediator in the Middle East, last year helping to broker a deal that saw the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However Chinese companies have also been linked as suppliers for Iran’s military drone program, most recently in a U.S. Commerce department legal notice last week.  

Online criticism of Israel

On China’s biggest social network Weibo, the attack became the most discussed topics with over 140 million clicks and more than 23,000 comments in the hours after the news came out.

It’s difficult to gauge the real reaction of Chinese Internet users since comments are routinely censored, but the majority of uncensored comments expressed opposition to Israel and the United States, and support for the Iranian attack on Israel.

China’s official news agency “Central TV News” published a post on Iran’s attack under its Weibo account and attracted over 3,700 comments within one day.

Many of the comments expressed doubts over Israeli reports saying that only one person was injured in Iran’s aerial barrage. A user with the handle “Pikachu and his AD calcium” said: “Israeli soldiers can only die with permission. No death or injuries, I don’t believe the news;” another one named  “Owen665996” said, “This is obviously Israel’s propaganda.”

Israel said that its air defenses, aided by the United States and other countries, shot down 99% of the 320 warheads which were launched from places in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The White House called collective defense efforts “an incredible military achievement.” 

In contrast to the “mainstream” stance, some readers left supporting comments on the official account of the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.

“Go Israel! Chinese with conscious support you to strike on terrorists,” said one Weibo user “Master of Minions.” Another one with the handle “Hello Hayek” said, “support Israel to strike back and rid the terrorist cult regime!”

The Chinese Embassy in Iran posted on its website on the early morning of Apr 14 that it “once again reminds Chinese citizens and enterprises in Iran to closely follow the local security situation and the security reminders issued by the Embassy.”

It urged Chinese citizens to “effectively enhance security awareness, always tighten the string of security precautions, resolutely avoid going to sensitive areas and densely populated places.”

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Thailand’s extended Songkran festival sees millions celebrate

Bangkok — Thailand is in the middle of its Songkran celebrations, marking the country’s traditional New Year, which have millions participating in the world’s biggest water fight.

Thai officials and business owners have welcomed the festivities that increase the country’s soft power and boost its economy.

In many areas of Thailand, including the capital, Bangkok, Songkran public water fights usually last for three days starting on April 13. But this year the festival began a day earlier as Thailand enjoys a long public holiday weekend. In some areas, like the northern city of Chiang Mai, the public water fighting rituals tend to last longer.

Millions of domestic tourists and foreign visitors celebrate the occasion, boosting business for Thai companies in the tourism industry.

Chan Holland, owner of travel agency Canary Travel Thailand in Bangkok, said she believes this Songkran festival has attracted more visitors.

“More people come to Songkran this year; it’s busier for both Thai and [international] tourists” she told VOA. “There are concerts and shows, parades at the royal grounds in front of the Grand Palace. The Thai government is trying to promote the festival more internationally.”

May Kung, a part-owner of Ruen Thong restaurant in Bangkok, said bookings have increased.

“My restaurant [bookings] are better than last year. About 20% [busier],” she told VOA.

Thais enjoy the festivities by visiting temples, cleaning Buddha statues, and engaging in public water fights, which are seen as cleansing rituals. In Bangkok, excited revellers from Thailand and abroad began with the water dousing as early as Thursday.

People in the capital wore colorful, flowery shirts, armed themselves with toy water guns and buckets of water, and drenched each other from morning until night.

Authorities closed major roads for the crowds, but it was still shoulder-to-shoulder in popular areas like the Silom district, Khao San Road and the Sanam Luang field near the Grand Palace. The Siam Songkran Music Festival is another major event taking place over the weekend.

The Thai government says the Songkran celebrations, officially the “Maha Songkran World Water Festival,” will be extended this year. This comes after UNESCO designated Songkran as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in December.

“To honor its recent UNESCO designation, the 2024 festival will be celebrated [for up] to three weeks, from April 1 to 21, uniting all 77 provinces in a celebration of unmatched scale,” Nithee Seeprae, the deputy governor for marketing communications at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told VOA.

Confusion from some international visitors has put a damper on the celebrations. Some international visitors thought that public water fights would last for the entire three weeks, prompting the Thai government to respond by saying the celebrations would not all take place simultaneously.

But the festival does come at a time when Thailand has fewer concerns than recent years. The Southeast Asian country has been marred by political unrest, military coups and the COVID-19 pandemic in the last decade.

“It’s the first year under civilian government and without real fears regarding COVID-19,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist at Khaosod English newspaper, told VOA.

Thailand is now led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin after nine years under military governance. Songkran shows Thailand’s soft power, officials say.

“The Srettha government is very keen to promote it as a key festival on the global calendar and in this regard, Thailand is succeeding, despite the fact that Songkran is also celebrated in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and even parts of China,” Pravit added.

While the Songkran festival is one of the biggest holidays on the Thai calendar, the nationwide event significantly boosts the economy, which relies heavily on tourism.

The industry provides around 20% of jobs in the Southeast Asian country. Thailand saw 28 million tourist arrivals in 2023 with 35 million expected in 2024.

“We estimate that there will be over 500,000 international tourists in Bangkok and around for the Maha Songkran World Water Festival 2024 from April 11 to 15, joining locals and domestic travelers at the extravaganza at the heart of this year’s celebration,” Nithee Seeprae said.

“For economic benefit, this constitutes 8.76 billion Baht (around $240 million) from international tourism and 15.66 billion Baht (around $428.3 million) from domestic tourism with 510,000 visitor arrivals and 4.29 million domestic trips,” he added.

Tourism analyst Gary Bowerman said he believes Thailand’s government will want to maximize Songkran but must be cautious about overdoing the festival in the future.

“Essentially, Thailand is seeking to ‘extend the franchise,’ and make Songkran a three-week festival around the country to promote water-themed tourism activities,” he told VOA.

“The timing is important, as this is the start of the traditional off-peak season, and the [Tourism Authority of Thailand] doesn’t want the momentum that developed in the first quarter to drop significantly, as it has set itself an ambitious full-year visitor arrivals target.

“The risk is that, ultimately, you could dilute the cultural resonance of Songkran, and turn it into a less meaningful event across a longer period. There will be a lot of learnings from this first year of making it an extended festival. Next year will likely see further changes based on the 2024 Songkran experiences for the tourism sector across the country,” he added.

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19 dead, two missing after Indonesia landslide 

Jakarta — At least 19 people have been found dead and two more are missing after a landslide in central Indonesia, local authorities said on Sunday. 

 

The dead and two survivors were evacuated from two landslide-hit villages in Tana Toraja regency, South Sulawesi province on Saturday evening, said local disaster agency head Sulaiman Malia. 

 

“There have been 19 fatalities, with 4 deaths in South Makale and 15 others in Makale villages,” Malia told AFP on Sunday. 

 

“Currently, we are still searching for other victims,” he said, adding that there are still two individuals reported missing, presumably buried under the landslide debris. 

 

Tana Toraja and its surrounding areas have been “continuously hit by heavy rainfall, especially over the past week, with hardly any stop”, Malia added. 

 

The heavy rainfall eroded the soil of residential areas located on mountain slopes, leading to landslides that buried residents’ homes, he said. 

 

Indonesia is prone to landslides during the rainy season and the problem has been aggravated in some places by deforestation, with prolonged torrential rain causing flooding in some areas of the archipelago nation. 

 

Last month flash floods and landslides on Sumatra island killed at least 30 people with scores still missing. 

 

A landslide and flooding swept away dozens of houses and destroyed a hotel near Lake Toba on Sumatra in December, killing at least two people. 

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US, Beijing aim to boost number of American students in China

WASHINGTON — Stephen Garrett, a 27-year-old graduate student, always thought he would study in China, but the country’s restrictive COVID-19 policies made it nearly impossible and now he sees interest among fellow scholars wane even after China reopened.

Common concerns, he said, include restrictions on academic freedom and the risk of being stranded in China.

These days, only about 700 American students are studying at Chinese universities, down from a peak of close to 25,000 a decade ago, while there are nearly 300,000 Chinese students at U.S. schools.

Some young Americans are discouraged from investing their time in China by what they see as diminishing economic opportunities and strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

Whatever the reason for the imbalance, U.S. officials and scholars bemoan the lost opportunities for young people to experience life in China and gain insight into a formidable American adversary.

And officials from both countries agree that more should be done to encourage the student exchanges, at a time when Beijing and Washington can hardly agree on anything else.

“I do not believe the environment is as hospitable for educational exchange as it was in the past, and I think both sides are going to need to take steps,” said Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

The U.S. has advised its. citizens to “reconsider travel” to China over concerns of arbitrary detentions and widened use of exit bans to bar Americans from leaving the country. Campbell said this has hindered the rebuilding of the exchanges and easing the advisory is now under “active consideration.”

For its part, Beijing is rebuilding programs for international students that were shuttered during the pandemic, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has invited tens of thousands of U.S. high school students to visit.

The situation was far different after President Barack Obama started the 100,000 Strong initiative in 2009 to drastically increase the number of U.S. students studying in China.

By 2012, there were as many as 24,583 U.S. students in China, according to data by the Chinese education ministry. The Open Doors reports by the Institute of International Education, which only track students enrolled in U.S. schools and studying in China for credit, show the number peaked at 14,887 in the 2011-12 school year. But 10 years later, the number was down to only 211.

In late 2023, the number of American students stood at 700, according to Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, who said this was far too few in a country of such importance to the United States.

“We need young Americans to learn Mandarin. We need young Americans to have an experience of China,” Burns said.

Without these U.S. students, “in the next decade, we won’t be able to exercise savvy, knowledgeable diplomacy in China,” warned David Moser, an American linguist who went to China in the 1980s and is now tasked with establishing a new master’s program for international students at Beijing Capital Normal University.

Moser recalled the years when American students found China fascinating and thought an education there could lead to an interesting career. But he said the days of bustling trade and money deals are gone, while American students and their parents are watching China and the United States move away from each other. “So people think investment in China as a career is a dumb idea,” Moser said.

After 2012, the number of American students in China dipped but held steady at more than 11,000 for several years, according to Open Doors, until the pandemic hit, when China closed its borders and kept most foreigners out. Programs for overseas students that took years to build were shuttered, and staff were let go, Moser said.

Amy Gadsden, executive director of China Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, also attributed some of the declining interest to foreign businesses closing their offices in China. Beijing’s draconian governing style, laid bare by its response to the pandemic, also has given American students a pause, she said.

Garrett, who is on track to graduate this summer from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said he is ambivalent about working in China, citing the lack of access to information, restrictions on discussions of politically sensitive issues and China’s sweeping anti-spying law. He had lived in Hong Kong as a teenager and interned in mainland China, and said he is still interested in traveling to China, but not anytime soon.

Some American students remain committed to studying in China, said Andrew Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at SAIS. “There are people who are interested in China for China’s sake,” he said. “I don’t think those numbers are affected at all.”

About 40 U.S. students are now studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing center in the eastern Chinese city, and the number is expected to go up in the fall to approach the pre-pandemic level of 50-60 students, said Adam Webb, the center’s American co-director.

Among them is Chris Hankin, 28, who said he believed time in China was irreplaceable because he could interact with ordinary people and travel to places outside the radar of international media. “As the relationship becomes more intense, it’s important to have that color, to have that granularity,” said Hankin, a master’s student of international relations with a focus on energy and the environment.

Jonathan Zhang, a Chinese American studying at the prestigious Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said it was more important than ever to be in China at a time of tense relations. “It’s really hard to talk about China without being in China,” he said. “I think it’s truly a shame that so many people have never stepped foot in China.”

Zhang was met with concerns when he deferred an offer at a consulting firm to go Beijing. “They’re like, ‘Oh, be safe,’ or like, ‘What do you mean, you’re going back to China?'” Zhang said. “I feel like the (Chinese) government is trying with an earnest effort, but I feel like a lot of this trust has been broken.”

Gadsden said U.S. universities need to do more to nudge students to consider China. “We need to be more intentional about creating the opportunities and about encouraging students to do this deeper work on China, because it’s going to be interesting for them, and it’s going to be valuable for the U.S.-China relationship and for the world,” she said.

In China, Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations and a national political adviser, has suggested Beijing clarify its laws involving foreign nationals, introduce a separate system for political reviews of foreign students’ dissertations, and make it easier for foreign graduates to find internships and jobs in Chinese companies.

Meanwhile, China is hosting American high school students under a plan Xi unveiled in November to welcome 50,000 in the next five years.

In January, a group of 24 students from Iowa’s Muscatine High School became the first to travel to China. The all-expenses-paid, nine-day trip took them to the Beijing Zoo, Great Wall, Palace Museum, the Yu Garden and Shanghai Museum.

Sienna Stonking, one of the Muscatine students, now wants to return to China to study.

“If I had the opportunity, I would love to go to college in China,” she told China’s state broadcaster CGTN. “Honestly, I love it there.”

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Police identify man who stabbed 6 people to death in Sydney

SYDNEY — Police have identified the man they say stabbed six people to death at a busy Sydney shopping center before he was fatally shot by a police officer.

New South Wales Police said Sunday that Joel Cauchi, 40, was responsible for the Saturday afternoon attack at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Bondi Junction, in the city’s eastern suburbs and not far from the world-famous Bondi Beach.

NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Anthony Cooke told reporters at a media conference on Sunday that Cauchi suffered from unspecified mental health issues and police investigators weren’t treating the attack as terrorism-related.

“We are continuing to work through the profiling of the offender but very clearly to us at this stage it would appear that this is related to the mental health of the individual involved,” Cooke said.

“There is still, to this point … no information we have received, no evidence we have recovered, no intelligence that we have gathered that would suggest that this was driven by any particular motivation — ideology or otherwise,” he added.

The attack at the shopping center, one of the country’s busiest and which was a hub of activity on a particularly warm fall afternoon, began around 3:10 p.m. and police were swiftly called.

Six people — five women and one man — were killed in the attack and 12 others were injured, including a 9-month-old child, whose mother died during the attack.

Two of the six victims were from overseas and have no family in Australia, Cooke said Sunday.

Video footage shared online appears to show many people fleeing as a knife-wielding Cauchi walked through the shopping center and lunged at people.

Other footage shows a man confronting the attacker on an escalator in the shopping center by holding what appeared to be a post towards him.

Cauchi was shot dead by a lone female police officer at the scene.

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb said the officer was doing well under the circumstances and will be interviewed Sunday.

“She showed enormous courage and bravery,” Webb said, adding other responding police, civilians and staff at the center had too. “It was an awful situation … but it could have been much worse.”

The shopping center remains closed Sunday and will be an active crime scene for days, police said.

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