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Divided APEC leaders battle for unity after US, China spat

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APEC

Port Moresby | Leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific nations battled to paper over gaping differences Sunday after an unusually sharp exchange of words between the group’s two most powerful members, the United States and China.

With just hours of the two-day summit remaining, officials were still scrambling to forge enough of a consensus to issue a formal joint statement and were admitting privately that it might not be possible, amid yawning differences on trade policy.

The annual gathering has been overshadowed by speeches on Saturday from Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Mike Pence, which appeared to represent competing bids for regional leadership.

Pence warned smaller countries not to be seduced by China’s massive Belt-and-Road infrastructure programme, which sees Beijing offer money to poorer countries for construction and development projects. The “opaque” loans come with strings attached and build up “staggering debt”, Pence charged, mocking the initiative as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road”. He urged nations instead to stick with the United States, which doesn’t “drown our partners in a sea of debt” or “coerce, corrupt or compromise your independence”.

In a speech to business leaders just minutes before Pence, Xi insisted the initiative was not a “trap” and there was no “hidden agenda” — amid criticism that it amounts to “chequebook diplomacy” in the region. Xi also lashed out at “America First” trade protectionism, saying it was a “short-sighted approach” that was “doomed to failure”. The feisty barbs on a gleaming white cruise ship moored in Port Moresby set the scene for a potentially fiery meeting between Xi and US President

Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of this month. But Xi and Pence, who both wore shiny, red shirts provided by the Pacific island did hold talks on Saturday night at the leaders’ gala dinner. Pence told reporters on Sunday: “I spoke to President Xi twice during the course of this conference. We had a candid conversation.”  He told him that the US is interested in a better relationship with China “but there has to be change” in Beijing’s trade policies.

With fears that a trade war between the two rivals could cripple the Pacific Rim economy, some attendees voiced concern about the growing rivalry for influence in the region. “Business leaders do not want to speak out, but behind the scenes here, they are talking over dinner saying ‘how has this happened’?” said Denis O’Brien, the billionaire chairman of Digicel. “It’s a very forced situation, one country is trying to force all the other countries to change tariffs agreed over years,” O’Brien told AFP.

Trump — and Russian President Vladimir Putin — both decided to skip the gathering, leaving the spotlight on Xi who arrived two days early to open a Chinese-funded school and road in Papua New Guinea’s dirt-poor capital Port Moresby.

Xi has been the star of the show, front and centre at official photos whereas Pence has kept a lower profile, only deciding at the last minute to stay overnight in Port Moresby — shelving original plans to fly in and out from Cairns in Australia. As if to counter Chinese largesse, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan on Sunday announced a project to boost electricity capacity in Papua New Guinea. The project aims to raise the percentage of the PNG population with access to electricity from 13 per cent to 70 per cent.

And as the US and China vie for influence in the region, the statement dangled the prospect of similar projects for countries that “support principles and values which help maintain and promote a free, open, prosperous and rules-based region.”

With the official business of the summit relatively low-key, much of the focus has been on the unlikely venue of Port Moresby, which is hosting its first international event of this scale. The city is on lockdown with hundreds of police and military patrolling the streets of the notoriously crime-ridden capital.

Warships are stationed just off the coast to provide security for the leaders, and delegates and media have been housed in enormous cruise ships due to a dearth of hotel rooms.

India International

Indian diplomat walks out of SAARC meeting in Pakistan over minister’s presence

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Islamabad | An official of the Indian High Commission in Pakistan staged a walkout of a SAARC meeting over the presence of a minister from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) at the event, according to source here. Diplomat Shubham Singh, left the meeting to register India’s protest over the presence of PoK minister Chaudhary Muhammad Saeed at the SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry meeting on the SAARC Charter Day in Islamabad on Sunday.

India considers Kashmir as its integral part and does not recognise any minister for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).  In 2016, India had pulled out of the 19th SAARC summit that was to be held in Islamabad after the deadly terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri. The summit was called off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also declined to attend. No SAARC meeting has happened ever since.

India called off the foreign minister-level talks with Pakistan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York in September after the brutal killing of policemen in Jammu and Kashmir and the release of a postage stamp by Pakistan that glorified Kashmiri militant commander Burhan Wani.

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Donald Trump’s potential next chief of staff pick leaving White House

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Donald Trump

Washington | The White House official widely touted as Donald Trump’s favourite to succeed his outgoing chief of staff John Kelly is instead leaving the administration at year’s end, he tweeted.

Nick Ayers, the 36-year-old chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, tweeted on Sunday that “I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause,” referring to Trump’s campaign.

“Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House.” Trump announced Saturday that Kelly, 68, would leave the administration – the latest key personnel move at a time of mounting pressure from the Russia election-meddling probe that comes amid increased focus on preparing for the 2020 elections.

Shortly after Ayers said he would not take on the role, Trump jumped online to tweet: “I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff.”

“Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda,” he continued, adding that “I will be making a decision soon!” Ayers reportedly would not commit to signing on through 2020 to the president’s irritation.

And according to sources cited by The Washington Post, the youthful but politically savvy senior staffer was “skeptical” of taking the position because of the rocky tenures of Kelly and his predecessor Reince Priebus.

When Kelly was picked in July 2017 to replace Priebus, he inherited a White House plagued by political intrigue and internal disorder, and under a cloud because of the allegations of collusion with Russia.

Other potentials on Trump’s shortlist include Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Republican congressman Mark Meadows, a leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, according to the Post. The impending departure leaves Trump reliant on a reduced group of key advisers even as he prepares to deal in the new year with a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

The opposition party will have the power to launch investigations, issue subpoenas, and generally make his life more difficult.

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‘I can’t breathe’ were Jamal Khashoggi’s final words: Reports

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Washington | Jamal Khashoggi‘s final words were “I can’t breathe”, CNN has said, citing a source who has read the transcript of an audio tape of the final moments before the journalist’s murder. The source told the US network the transcript made clear the killing was premeditated, and suggests several phone calls were made to give briefings on the progress.

CNN said on Sunday Turkish officials believe those calls were made to top officials in Riyadh. Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to The Washington Post, was killed shortly after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The transcript of the gruesome recording includes descriptions of Khashoggi struggling against his murderers, CNN said, and references sounds of the dissident journalist’s body “being dismembered by a saw.”

The original transcript was prepared by Turkish intelligence services, and CNN said its source read a translation version and was briefed on the probe into the journalist’s death. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Sunday meanwhile rejected demands to extradite suspects connected to the murder of Khashoggi as sought by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to hand over suspects in the killing. According to Turkey, a 15-member Saudi team was sent to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia, however, holds that it was a “rogue” operation gone wrong — a claim undercut by the reported transcript.

For his part US President Donald Trump has refrained from blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, even though the CIA reportedly concluded that he ordered the assassination. The murder has damaged Riyadh’s international reputation and Western countries including the United States, France and Canada have placed sanctions on nearly 20 Saudi nationals.

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