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01
July

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South Korea's president warned a NATO summit of the threat to universal values at a time of new conflict and competition, a reference to Russia's aggression in Ukraine and China's engagement with Russia, a South Korean official said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol became the first South Korean leader to attend a NATO summit, joining national NATO leaders as an observer at a meeting in Spain as Russian forces intensified attacks in Ukraine.

"As a new structure of competitions and conflicts is taking shape, there is also a movement that denies the universal values that we have been protecting," Yoon said in a speech on Wednesday, according to a South Korean official.

While he did not identify Russia or China, Yoon said the international community was facing complex security threats that a single country could not solve, the official cited him as saying in his speech that was not made public.

"He was referring to the Ukraine war, and as most other participating countries did, he raised concern about Russia's responsibility for the war and China's responsibility in the international community," the official, who declined to be identified, said on Thursday.

South Korea is a staunch U.S. ally and hosts some 28,000 U.S. troops. It has also developed a crucial economic relationship with China, South Korea's largest trading partner.

Yoon, like his predecessors, will have to balance those two relationships while at the same time facing a belligerent North Korea developing its arsenal of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

Yoon hopes to build relations with NATO members in the face of an unpredictable international situation and promote international cooperation on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, South Korean officials said before the summit.

South Korea's approach to NATO comes as the alliance is looking east towards a region it refers to as the Indo-Pacific, a new focus that Yoon welcomed, the official said.

NATO in its new strategic concept unveiled on Wednesday, for the first time described China as a challenge to NATO's "interests, security and values", as an economic and military power that remains "opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up".

China firmly opposes NATO's new strategic concept and called on NATO to "immediately stop groundless accusations and provocative remarks", Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday.

"NATO's strategic concept document ignores the facts...discredits China's foreign policy, speaks ill of China's normal military development and national defense policy and encourages confrontation," Zhao said.

Yoon, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, also attending the NATO summit as an observer, met and agreed that the progress of North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes posed serious threats to not only the Korean peninsula but also East Asia and the world. read more

Chinese state media had warned against South Korea and Japan attending the NATO summit and criticised the alliance's broadening partnerships in Asia. North Korea said this week that NATO involvement in the Asia-Pacific region would import the conflict raging in Europe.

Australia and New Zealand also attended the summit, making four observers from the region. The South Korean official said the four were "exploring their own Indo-Pacific strategies".

"At the heart of that, there are concerns and various dilemmas about China," the official said.

Asked on Thursday about South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand's attendance at the NATO summit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao said that third parties should not be targeted, or their interests undermined as different countries develop relations with each other.

"China will pay close attention to the relevant trends of NATO and will not sit idly by and do nothing if matters are harming China's interests," he said. (Reuters)

01
July

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The reclusive supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, hailed the Islamists 2021 takeover of Afghanistan during a meeting on Friday called to forge national unity and attended by religious leaders from around the country.

Taliban spokesmen confirmed that Akhundzada, who is based in the southern city of Kandahar, had come to the capital Kabul for the all-male gathering of some 3,000 participants.

After receiving pledges of allegiance from participants raising their hands, Akhundzada praised the Taliban's victory last August, which marked the end of a 20-year struggle to overthrow a western-backed government and drive U.S.-led forces out of the country.

"The success of the Afghan jihad is not only a source of pride for Afghans but also for Muslims all over the world," he said according to state-run Bakhtar News Agency, using the Arabic word signifying a spiritual struggle.

When the Islamist movement unveiled its interim government in September, the mysterious Akhundzada retained the role he has held since 2016 of supreme leader, the group's ultimate authority, but he is rarely seen publicly.

His address to the gathering of religious leaders comes a week after a deadly earthquake hit eastern Afghanistan, and exposed the lack of support the Taliban can count on from the international community.

The Afghan economy has plunged into crisis, as Western governments have withdrawn funding and strictly enforced sanctions, saying that the Taliban government needs to change course on human and women's rights.

In Thursday's speech, Akhundzada asked traders to return and invest in the country, saying overseas aid could not build the economy and would make Afghans more dependent on foreign money.

"Thank God, we are now an independent country. (Foreigners) should not give us their orders, it is our system and we have our own decisions," he said according to Bakhtar.

"We have a relationship of devotion to one God, we cannot accept the orders of others who God does not like," he said.

He said the group wanted peace and security and that neighbouring nations had nothing to fear.

The Kabul gathering began on Thursday under tight security.

At one point, sustained gunfire erupted near the venue, which Taliban spokesmen said was the result of security men firing at a "suspicious location", and the situation was under control.

At least one participant had called for girls' high schools to be opened but it was unclear how widespread support was for that proposal.

Deputy Taliban chief and acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani addressed the meeting on Friday, saying the world was demanding inclusive government and education, and the issues needed time.

"This gathering is about trust, interaction, we are here to make our future according to Islam and to national interests," he said.

The Taliban went back on an announcement that all schools would open in March, leaving many girls who had turned up at their high schools in tears and drawing criticism from Western governments.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that they would respect the decisions of those at the meeting but the final say on girls' education was up to the supreme leader.

A hardline cleric whose son was a suicide bomber, Akhundzada has spent most of his leadership in the shadows, letting others take the lead in negotiations that ultimately saw the United States and their allies leave Afghanistan last August after 20 years of fighting a grinding counter-insurgency war. (Reuters)

01
July

 

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Visiting the Malaysian city where she was born, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her story showed that Australia was part of Asia, as new data showed more than half of Australians were born overseas or had an immigrant parent.

Wong visited Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, where she lived for eight years as a child before migrating to Australia, as part of an official visit to Malaysia.

"One in two Australians are either born overseas or have parents who were born overseas so this is a very Australian experience," she told media on her first visit to Malaysia since a Labor government won office last month.

"It matters that Australia speaks to South East Asia in a way that recognises that we are part of this region and our futures are shared," she said.

Results of a census conducted every five years and released on Tuesday showed for the first time more than half of the Australian population (51.5%) were born overseas or had a migrant parent.

"We are a multicultural and diverse nation ... It is one of the strengths of who Australia is and we should tell that story in the region more," she said.

Wong recalled a day earlier in a speech that her grandmother, of Hakka Chinese descent, had raised her children alone in Sabah after most of the family died in World War Two.

Wong's father won an Australian scholarship to study architecture at the University of Adelaide, which "meant he could climb out of the poverty he experienced as a child".

He married an Australian woman, and the couple returned to raise a family in Kota Kinabalu.

Wong's comments and official visit to Malaysia come two decades after a former Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, famously said Australia could not join an East Asian diplomatic group because "they are Europeans, they cannot be Asians".

Britain, India, China, New Zealand and the Philippines were the biggest source nations for the almost one-third of Australian residents who were born overseas, the census showed, with Asian countries combined a bigger source than Britain and New Zealand.

Mahathir, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, had predicted in a 2019 newspaper interview that migration meant Australia would in future "be more Asian than European". (Reuters)

01
July

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Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos appointed career diplomat Enrique Manalo as foreign affairs secretary, the president's press secretary said on Friday.

Before the appointment, Manalo served as the Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. Prior to that, he was undersecretary for policy at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Manalo has asked for a few days before he takes over the position previously held by Teodoro Locsin so he could wind up affairs in his previous post, press secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said in a text message.

Marcos, who was sworn in as president on Thursday, has said his administration would have an independent foreign policy and recognised that international partnerships were key to a stable region.

"A veteran diplomat is more likely to appreciate the need to navigate difficult nuances and choices in geopolitics," retired political professor Temario Rivera said.

"By appointing Manalo, (Marcos) might be sending a signal of trying not to antagonize any of the major powers in the region, especially the U.S. and China."

Manalo, whose foreign service career began in 1979, also served as Philippine Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland Belgium and Luxembourg.

Marcos' cabinet appointments would have to be approved by a house appointments commission. (reuters)

01
July

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North Korea said the United States is taking advantage of its COVID-19 outbreak by offering humanitarian aid with political purposes.

North Korea's foreign ministry said in an article published on Thursday that the United States' offer was a plot to water down international criticism on its hostile policy toward North Korea.

The ministry criticized the United States' offer of humanitarian aid to be insincere amid its recent military exercises and moves to impose more sanctions.

It added that the United States, which failed on its own COVID crisis, should drop its "foolish" offer, and take care of its own situation at home.

Washington and South Korea had offered to provide humanitarian support, such as COVID vaccines and medical supplies, to North Korea after its first COVID outbreak since late April, but got no responses from Pyongyang. (Reuters)

01
July

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The European Union and New Zealand completed negotiations on Thursday for a free trade agreement that could boost the flow of goods and services by 30% and highlights Europe's push for alliances to make up for its business withdrawal from Russia.

EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the deal sent an important "geopolitical signal" and stressed the European Union would seek further partnerships.

"It's clear that we need to diversify away from Russia ... (and) look for new markets, supply chains and so forth and this is exactly what this deal contributes too," Dombrovskis told reporters.

A majority of EU members have urged the Commission, which oversees trade policy, to accelerate the conclusion of trade agreements to avoid others taking its place.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it had taken 14 years since the idea of a trade agreement was first floated.

 

Negotiations began in mid-2018 and, for the EU, the deal will put the bloc's trade with New Zealand on a par with countries that already have a trade pact with New Zealand, notably those of the 11-nation CPTPP Asia-Pacific deal.

 

It will also see it partially catching up with former EU member Britain, which has signed trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, although they are still to enter force.

The agreement will remove tariffs on a wide range of products and be the first struck by the EU to include potential sanctions for violations of environmental or labour standards, a concept it only proposed last week.

 

Tariffs will fall for EU exports such as clothing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and cars, as well as wine and confectionary. The EU will increase by 10,000 tonnes its quota of New Zealand beef, a sensitive area for France in particular, as well as raising volumes for lamb, butter and cheese.

 

"It's probably fair to say that no one likes it, so we must have got it about right," New Zealand trade minister Damien O'Connor said, half-joking, when asked about the compromises made during tough, final talks.

 

The deal may enter force in 18-24 months, subject to approval by the European Parliament and EU governments, a process which has in cases dragged on for years.

 

Bernd Lange, chair of parliament's trade committee that will scrutinise the deal, called it a good day for trade, with a deal that was one of the most progressive on labour rights and the environment. (Reuters)

 

 

01
July

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President Kais Saied has proposed a new constitution that would formalise his sweeping seizure of powers after dismantling much of Tunisia's young democracy over 11 turbulent months.

But as he prepares for a referendum to approve his changes, challenges loom ever larger, with the economy facing collapse and opposition to his rule growing.

A former law lecturer with a stiff public manner, Saied moved against the parliament last summer, surrounding its building with tanks, giving himself the right to rule by decree and assuming ultimate authority over the judiciary.

He has depicted his actions as a corrective to political dysfunction and corruption caused by the 2014 constitution that shared powers between president and parliament.

But his critics say he is a new dictator whose power grab last year was tantamount to a coup and whose march to one-man rule has trashed the democratic gains of Tunisia's 2011 revolution.

The constitution he announced late on Thursday enshrines a supreme role for the president, relegating both parliament and judiciary to functions of the state he will lead, rather than branches of power in their own right.

Having framed his July 25, 2021, seizure of powers as the start of a new republic, he has set the referendum on his new constitution on the anniversary of that date.

Saied was a political novice when elected president in 2019. Less than two years later, he outmanoeuvred his more experienced political adversaries, including the Islamist Ennahda party, with his sudden moves against the parliament and previous cabinet. These steps heralded the start of his bid to amass power.

They appeared to be hugely popular among Tunisians who were fed up with political bickering and economic malaise. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate and the president basked in a stated conviction that he represented the will of the people.

His supporters have hailed him as an independent man of integrity standing up to elite forces whose bungling and corruption have condemned Tunisia to a decade of political paralysis and economic stagnation.

But critics are deeply sceptical of promises he will preserve the rights and freedoms won in 2011, which he has written into the draft constitution, and say he is throttling Tunisia's nascent democracy. Saied has painted his opponents as enemies of the people and has urged arrests of those who defy him.

While it is unclear just how much backing Saied continues to enjoy, opinion polls have indicated declining support. The economy is in deep trouble and Tunisians are growing poorer.

The powerful labour union is already mounting public sector strikes over economic reforms required for an IMF bailout and has also indicated it disapproves of his referendum.

Though opposition to Saied is fragmented, with the most powerful parties refusing to put aside old differences to reject his plans, it has mobilised thousands of demonstrators in protests against him.

By contrast, after a pro-Saied rally last year that Reuters journalists present said had drawn only a few thousand, the president boasted that 1.8 million of his supporters had flocked to the streets.

NEW REVOLUTION

Tunisian politics is closely watched abroad because of the country's role in triggering the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprisings and its success as the sole democracy to emerge from them.

Saied, a solemn, 64-year-old who speaks an ultra-formal style of classical Arabic, wants to rewrite the history of that revolution, when he would walk at night through Tunis's old city talking with protesters.

He has changed the date when the state marks its anniversary to play down the ousting of autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and has rejected the results of hard negotiations afterwards that led to a democratic constitution.

That 2014 constitution was the work of rival political parties and civil society organisations who held a grand national dialogue to work past bitter disputes for a compromise that seemed to bring the country together.

Upon his election in 2019 as an independent candidate, defeating a media mogul accused of corruption in a landslide second-round victory, he declared a new revolution.

Besides dismissing the unpopular but elected parliament, Saied has ousted the previously independent judicial authorities and electoral commission, raising fears over rule of law and the integrity of elections.

He has also purged state employees, including some in the security services, to oust people linked to the main political parties.

He has since said he wants to hold new parliamentary elections in December.

For many Tunisians, Saied remains something of a caricature whose frequent online videos show him lecturing subordinates or visitors from behind the presidential desk.

Those videos have given few insights into policy plans to address Tunisia's main economic problems, but they have often included fiery rhetoric against his detractors and opponents, adding to fears the president seeks autocratic ends. (Reuters)

01
July

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said it was impossible to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis until the Greek leader "pulls himself together", broadcaster NTV said on Friday, amid renewed tensions between the NATO members and neighbours.

Historic rivals, Turkey and Greece have been at odds over issues ranging from overflights and the status of Aegean islands, maritime boundaries and hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean, and ethnically split Cyprus.

Erdogan has said Mitsotakis "no longer exists for him" after the Greek premier lobbied for the United States not to sell Turkey F-16 fighter jets during a speech at the U.S. Congress and the NATO members traded accusations over airspace violations and the islands.

"Let him pull himself together. As long as he doesn't pull himself together, it is not possible for us to meet," Erdogan told reporters on a return flight from a NATO summit in Madrid.

Speaking to reporters in Madrid on Thursday, Mitsotakis said EU member Greece was open to dialogue with Turkey, and repeated he would not engage in a "dialogue of personal confrontations" with Erdogan.

"I'll keep insisting that Greece's door to a dialogue within the framework we have identified, this door is always open. And at the same time, our country will continue, whenever it has the opportunity, to raise the issues of Turkish aggression within the European Union, bilaterally to our partners," he said.

Mitsotakis added Greece was "forming its own alliances" and that it wanted support from allies on national issues, but also sought Turkey as an interlocutor.

Erdogan has been angered by Mitsotakis over what he says is the Greek leader's reversal from a promise to discuss bilateral matters together, without involving other parties. He has also cancelled a high-level dialogue meeting between the neighbours in response to the tensions.

Mitsotakis also said on Thursday Greece had sent an official request to the United States for the purchase of 20 F-35 fighter jets and was examining the purchase of a second batch, as Athens beefs up military procurements amid the tensions with Ankara. (Reuters)

 

01
July

 

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Russia's ambassador to Bulgaria said on Friday she would ask Moscow to close down its embassy in the Balkan country after her appeal for Sofia to reverse a decision to expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff was ignored.

In a statement addressed to the Bulgarian people, the ambassador, Eleonora Mitrofanova, said the closure of the Russian embassy would inevitably lead to the closure of Bulgaria's embassy in Moscow too.

Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member state and once a close ally of Russia, has been roiled by diplomatic tensions this week after outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov announced the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomatic staff on espionage concerns. 

The move was the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats by Sofia in recent years and more than halved the size of Moscow's diplomatic footprint in Bulgaria.

 

Russia's ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova called the expulsions an "unprecedented hostile step and on Thursday told Sofia to reverse its decision by midday on Friday. If it did not, she said she would ask Moscow to consider ending Russia's physical diplomatic presence in Bulgaria altogether. 

Petkov earlier on Friday rejected her ultimatum.

 

"Unfortunately our appeal to Bulgaria's ministry of foreign affairs was ignored," Mitrofanova, the Russian ambassador, wrote in a statement.

 

"I intend to quickly put the question of the closure of Russia's embassy in Bulgaria before my country's leadership, which will inevitably mean the closure of the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Moscow," she wrote.

 

Responsibility for any ensuing serious consequences lay with Petkov's outgoing government, she said.

 

About 60 people gathered in front of the Russian embassy in Sofia on Friday to demonstrate against the government's decision to expel the Russian diplomatic staff.

 

Supporters of Petkov's decision plan a rally on Sunday at Sofia airport, when the 70 Russian diplomatic staff and their families are due to leave the country. (Reuters)

 

30
June

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Pakistan's foreign minister called for an easing of Western sanctions against Afghanistan under the Taliban government, saying the basic functioning of the Afghan economy must not be endangered.

The Taliban takeover last year prompted foreign governments, led by the United States, to cut development and security aid, and the strict enforcement of sanctions has debilitated the country's banking sector.

In an interview with Germany's Welt newspaper published on Thursday, foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said isolating Afghanistan economically was pushing the country into economic collapse.

"If the country remains locked out of international banking and its foreign assets remain frozen, then that is what will happen. We must not promote famine," she added.

Khar said the Western troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, in which Germany was also involved, had serious repercussions because it was not preceded by a negotiated solution, calling on Germany to play an active political role in easing sanctions.

"In the current situation, it is not a good idea to continue to starve Afghanistan and risk an economic implosion in the country," she said, adding that economic support was necessary to help the Afghan people.

"How is it that we spent $3 trillion on the war, but today don't even have $10 billion on Afghan survival? I don't understand this behavior," she added. (Reuters)

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