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Australia’s pushback against China’s grey zone tactic



Editor’s note: Australia is leading the regional pushback against China’s territorial and diplomatic expansion and interference in the Asia-Pacific, said Sascha-Dominik Bachmann, professor in law at Canberra Law School – University of Canberra.

Australia’s position on the East Vietnam Sea was the center of global attention amid the 30th Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2020.

As per the joint statement on July 28, Canberra reaffirmed U.S. alliance but opted to avoid full commitment over freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the East Vietnam Sea.

To be more exact, Australian governments have so far sailed through the international waters in accordance with international law, but never within 12 nautical miles of land features claimed by China.

Canberra, in other words, chose a cautious approach as Foreign Minister Marise Payne stated, “Let me reiterate that we make our own decisions.”

In an exclusive op-ed for Tuoi Tre News, Prof. Bachmann shared his thoughts on what is behind Australia’s stance on the East Vietnam Sea, the relationship with the United States, and the United States – China relations.

It is not surprising that both the U.S. and Australia issued a very similar condemnation of Beijing’s continuing illegal activities in the disputed maritime region on the evening of the AUSMIN talks.

This is a logical consequence of China’s ever increasing bellicose posturing in the Asia-Pacific region.

Labelled by some commentators as ‘weaponization of COVID-19,’ China seems to have taken advantage of the outbreak and its impact on the states to accelerate its ever more bellicose territorial ambitions from the [East Vietnam Sea] and East China Seas to the Chinese-Indian border dispute, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues. Beijing’s increased aggressive behavior had to be countered at one point and this is what is happening now: a naval exercise by Japanese, the United States and Australian naval vessels in the Philippine Sea, ongoing United States FONOPS in the [East Vietnam Sea], in addition to individual states like Indonesia conducting military drills in the East Vietnam Sea region to signal to Beijing that its illegal claims over the waterway are being rejected and will not stand.

In an Australian context, we can see that the current government of Scott Morrisson is leading the pushback against China’s increasing regional influence and any unrestricted warfare of the People’s Liberation Army targeting the region in general, and Australia and New Zealand in particular.

China’s influence eroding the sovereignty of these two countries has been known for years and the Morrison government has been at the forefront of countering Beijing’s such grey zone or hybrid activities. Australia has been on the receiving end of such operations in a variety of grey zone domains, from cyberattacks, influence operations, trade boycotts, and diplomatic threats to espionage. It’s a whole spectrum of DIMEFIL operations targeting our way of life and sovereignty by exploiting expertly our vulnerabilities of an open and democratic society. 

And the Morrisson government has been pushing back against such hostile actions by a supposedly partner of Australia since 2018: from banning Huawei from 5G, calling for an independent inquiry into whether COVID-19 originates in China, demanding an international investigation into Beijing’s systematic abuse of Muslim Uighurs to a call for the adoption of new tougher laws on foreign direct investment detrimental to Canberra’s national interests.

Australia’s growing concern in regard to China and its awareness of hostile activities by Beijing has seen the adoption of these governmental actions and culminated in the announcement of the adoption of a record high defense budget and increased spending on cyber as well as investment into grey zone capabilities. Such defence spending is augmented by an increased diplomatic, international law and relations-centered, strategic alliances approach.

It is heartening to see that Australia as a leading middle power is once more playing an important role in upholding the global rules-based order in the region and the examples discussed highlight how Australia’s awareness of Beijing as a source and originator of current threats to regional (and global) rule of law, security, and stability.

China’s influence has to be countered by adopting a comprehensive multitasked holder and domain counter approach. We are seeing that the Morrison administration seems to be determined to continue this as long as it is needed and Beijing returns to be a trusted partner in peaceful trade and development in the region.

And to meet this goal, Australia and its allies need to increase our resilience in the face of economic coercion, aggression, and political interference by China, with whom our future relations must come from a position of unity and strength.



Pfizer, Moderna vaccines effective against Indian variants: study



The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines should remain highly effective against two coronavirus variants first identified in India, according to new research carried out by US scientists.

The lab-based study was carried out by the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone Center and is considered preliminary because it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“What we found is that the vaccine’s antibodies are a little bit weaker against the variants, but not enough that we think it would have much of an effect on the protective ability of the vaccines,” senior author Nathaniel “Ned” Landau told AFP on Monday.

The researchers first took blood from people who were vaccinated with either of the two shots, which are predominant in the United States and have been given to more than 150 million Americans.

They then exposed these samples in a lab to engineered pseudovirus particles that contained mutations in the “spike” region of the coronavirus, which were particular to either the B.1.617 or B.1.618 variants, first found in India.

Finally, that mixture was exposed to lab-grown cells, to see how many would become infected.

The engineered pseudovirus particles contained an enzyme called luciferase, which fireflies use to light up. Adding it to the pseudovirus makes it possible to tell how many cells are infected, based on light measurements.

Overall, for B.1.617 they found an almost four-fold reduction in the amount of neutralizing antibodies — Y-shaped proteins the immune system creates to stop pathogens from invading cells. For B.1.618, the reduction was around three-fold.

“In other words, some of the antibodies now don’t work anymore against the variants, but you still have a lot of antibodies that do work against the variants,” said Landau.

“There’s enough that do work that we believe that the vaccines will be highly protective,” he added, because the overall levels remain well above those found in samples taken from people who recovered from infection with earlier unmutated virus.

But this kind of lab investigation cannot predict what the real world efficacy might look like — that will have to be investigated through other studies.

The coronavirus is known to latch on to a particular receptor on human cells called ACE2, which it uses to force its entry.

Landau’s team showed the Indian variants were able to bind more tightly to this receptor, like other variants of concern. This might be linked to its increased transmissibility compared to the original strain.

“Our results lend confidence that current vaccines will provide protection against variants identified to date,” the team concluded.

However, they do not preclude the possibility that newer variants that are more resistant to vaccines will emerge — highlighting the importance of widespread vaccination at the global level.


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Japan’s economy slumps back into decline as COVID-19 hits spending



Japan’s economy shrank more than expected in the first quarter as a slow vaccine rollout and new COVID-19 infections hit spending on items such as dining out and clothes, raising concerns the country will lag others emerging from the pandemic.

Capital expenditure also fell unexpectedly and export growth slowed sharply, a sign the world’s third-largest economy is struggling for drivers to pull it out of the doldrums.

The dismal reading and extended state of emergency curbs have heightened the risk Japan may shrink again in the current quarter and slide back to recession, defined as two straight quarters of recession, some analysts say.

“Global chip shortages caused a marked slowdown in exports, putting a drag on capital spending as well,” said Yoshimasa Maruyama, chief market economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.

“Consumption will probably remain stagnant, raising risks of an economic contraction in the current quarter.”

The economy shrank an annualised 5.1% in the first quarter, more than the forecast 4.6% contraction and following an 11.6% jump in the previous quarter, government data showed on Tuesday.

The decline was mainly due to a 1.4% drop in private consumption as state of emergency curbs to combat the pandemic hit spending for clothing and dining out.

But the bigger-than-expected contraction also reflected a surprise 1.4% drop in capital expenditure, which confounded market expectations for a 1.1% increase as companies scaled back spending on equipment for machinery and cars.

While exports grew 2.3% thanks to a rebound in global demand for cars and electronics, the pace of increase slowed sharply from the previous quarter’s 11.7% gain, a worrying sign for an economy still reeling from weak domestic demand.

Domestic demand knocked 1.1% point off gross domestic product (GDP), while net exports shaved off 0.2 point, the data showed.

“That domestic demand is weak shows the adverse effects from the coronavirus haven’t been shaken off at all,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

Despite massive monetary and fiscal stimulus, Japan’s economy slumped a record 4.6% in the fiscal year that ended in March, the data showed.

“There will undoubtedly be fiscal money poured on this problem to soften the blow, though after so much already, it is difficult to see this having more than a fairly marginal effect,” analysts at ING wrote in a research note, adding they expect the economy to shrink again in the current quarter.

“And the Bank of Japan seems to be out of fresh policy stimulus ideas currently, so we don’t anticipate anything new from them apart from extending existing measures.”

Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura blamed the weak GDP reading mainly on the curbs to combat the pandemic, adding the economy still had “potential” to recover.

“It’s true service spending will likely remain under pressure in April-June. But exports and output will benefit from a recovery in overseas growth,” he told reporters.

Japan’s economy expanded for two straight quarters after its worst postwar slump in April-June last year due to the initial hit from the pandemic.

The export-driven recovery came to a standstill as consumption took a hit from a spike in new virus strains that forced the government to re-impose curbs just 10 weeks before the Tokyo Olympic Games.


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Monster cyclone makes landfall in COVID-stricken India



A deadly cyclone blasted ashore in western India late Monday with fierce winds and drenching rains that turned streets into rivers, disrupting the country’s response to its devastating COVID-19 outbreak.

Cyclone Tauktae, which local press reports called the biggest to hit the area in 30 years, has unleashed heavy weather since the weekend that killed at least 20 people in its approach to land.

It made landfall in Gujarat state just after 8:30 pm local time (1500 GMT) as an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm packing winds of 155-165 kilometres (95-100 miles) per hour, gusting up to 185 kph, the Indian Meteorological Department said.

One woman died after high winds knocked over an electricity poll in the city of Patan in northern Gujarat, officials said.

Sea levels swelled as high as three metres (10 feet) along the coast, said local weather officials in the coastal town of Diu, which reported wind speeds of 133 kph.

The colossal swirling system visible from space has exacerbated India’s embattled response to a coronavirus surge that is killing at least 4,000 people daily and pushing hospitals to their breaking point.

In waterlogged and windswept Mumbai, where authorities on Monday closed the airport and urged people to stay indoors, authorities shifted 580 COVID-19 patients “to safer locations” from three field hospitals.

Six people died and nine were injured as the storm lashed Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, the chief minister’s office said.

Heavy rains and strong winds lash Mumbai as a major cyclone packing ferocious winds and threatening a destructive storm surge bore down on India. Photo: AFP

Heavy rains and strong winds lash Mumbai as a major cyclone packing ferocious winds and threatening a destructive storm surge bore down on India. Photo: AFP

Two navy ships were deployed to assist in search and rescue operations for a barge carrying 273 people “adrift” off Mumbai’s coast, with 28 picked up so far, the defence ministry said late Monday.

Seven people died and nearly 1,500 houses were damaged in Kerala state, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted late Monday.

COVID-19 patients evacuated

Around 200,000 people were evacuated in Gujarat, where all COVID-19 patients in hospitals within five kilometres of the coast were also moved.

Authorities there scrambled to ensure there would be no power cuts in the nearly 400 designated COVID-19 hospitals and 41 oxygen plants in 12 coastal districts.

Chief minister Vijay Rupani told reporters that over 1,000 COVID-19 hospitals in coastal towns have been provided with generators and power backups, with 744 health teams deployed along with 174 ICUs on wheels and 600 ambulances.

“Besides the daily requirement of 1,000 tonnes of oxygen in Gujarat per day, an additional stock of 1,700 tonnes has been secured and could be used in case of emergency,” Rupani said.

Virus safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and the use of sanitisers would be observed in the shelters for evacuees, officials added.

The state also suspended vaccinations for two days. Mumbai did the same for one day.

Commuters drive through a waterlogged road amidst heavy rains in Mumbai. Photo: AFP

Commuters drive through a waterlogged road amidst heavy rains in Mumbai. Photo: AFP

Thousands of disaster response personnel have been deployed, while units from the coast guard, navy, army and air force have been placed on standby.

Maharashtra evacuated around 12,500 people from coastal areas.

Four people died on Saturday as rain and winds battered Karnataka state, while two died in Goa as winds hit power supplies and uprooted trees.

‘Terrible double blow’

The vast nation of 1.3 billion people on Monday reported 4,100 deaths and 280,000 fresh COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total close to 25 million — a doubling since April 1.

“This cyclone is a terrible double blow for millions of people in India whose families have been struck down by record COVID-19 infections and deaths,” said Udaya Regmi from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The organisation said it was helping authorities to evacuate people most at risk in coastal areas, providing first aid, masks “and encouraging other critical COVID-19 prevention measures”.

This handout satellite image shows Cyclone Tauktae over western India on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP

This handout satellite image shows Cyclone Tauktae over western India on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP

Last May, more than 110 people died after “super cyclone” Amphan ravaged eastern India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal.

The Arabian Sea previously experienced fewer severe cyclones than the Bay of Bengal but rising water temperatures because of global warming was changing that, Roxy Mathew Koll from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told AFP.

“(The) Arabian Sea is one of the fastest-warming basins across the global oceans,” he said.


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