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UN envoy: Lebanon’s salvation lies in the hands of its leaders

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The UN reiterated its call for the formation of a “fully empowered government” in Lebanon that can put the country on the path of recovery.

“The UN is doing what it can to mitigate the situation, but ultimately, the responsibility for salvaging Lebanon lies in the hands of Lebanon’s leaders,” UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka told the security council on Thursday.

Last week, and after nearly nine months of failed negotiations with Lebanon President Michel Aoun to form a cabinet, Saad Hariri stepped down from his role as prime minister-designate, sending the country into deeper chaos as its beleaguered currency hit its lowest level.

The parliamentary consultations, aimed at designating a new Sunni figure to form a government, are set to take place on Monday. But there is little prospect of a turnaround for the country’s devastated economy.

During a meeting to discuss the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on Lebanon, Wronecka highlighted the country’s “multiple and accumulating” socio-economic, financial, and political crises.

The World Bank dubbed Lebanon’s economic free fall as one of the world’s worst financial crises since 1850. Lebanese lira is now 21,000 to the US dollar on the black market, having lost 95 percent of its value this year because of crippling financial mismanagement, state corruption, and a severe banking crisis.

With the inaugural commemoration of the 2020 Beirut Port explosion less than two weeks away, Wronecka repeated calls for an impartial, thorough, and transparent investigation into the blast.

“The families of the victims and thousands whose lives have been changed forever by that terrible blast are still waiting,” she said to council members. “They deserve justice and dignity.”

On August 4, 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the Lebanese capital exploded, which resulted in more than 200 deaths, 7,500 injuries, and $15 billion in property damage. It also left more than 300,000 people homeless.

Lebanese authorities have failed so far to deliver any justice following the catastrophic explosion as a lack of accountability has continuously hampered the investigation from moving forward.

“The stalled domestic investigation, riddled with serious due process violations, as well as political leaders’ attempts to stop the investigation reinforce the need for an independent, international inquiry,” Human Rights Watch said.

Discussions at the security council also highlighted the importance of holding free and fair elections in 2022 within the constitutional timelines, “as a key marker of democratic accountability and an opportunity for the people to articulate their grievances and aspirations.”

Recalling the goal of Resolution 1701 to enhance Lebanon’s security, state authority, and sovereignty, the special coordinator hoped for a real commitment for the implementation of that resolution in its entirety.

Unanimously adopted in the wake of the month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, the resolution called for a full cessation of hostilities and a phased withdrawal of the Israel Defence Forces from southern Lebanon. It also allowed up to 15,000 UN peacekeepers to help Lebanese troops take control of the area.

Wronecka praised the role played by the Lebanese Armed Forces in safeguarding the country’s security and stability, including its close cooperation with the UN Interim Force In Lebanon. She called for continued support for this key institution and also welcomed the international community’s continued readiness to help Lebanon.

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‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

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A quick barrage of missile tests and bumper defense deals in the Pacific have highlighted a regional arms race that is intensifying as the China-US rivalry grows.

“There’s a little frenzy in the Indo-Pacific of arming up,” said Yonsei University professor John Delury. “There’s a sense of everyone’s doing it.”

Within 24 hours this week, North Korea fired off two railway-borne weapons, South Korea successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Australia announced the unprecedented purchase of state-of-the-art US nuclear-powered submarines and cruise missiles.

A remarkable flurry, but indicative of a region spending apace on the latest wonders of modern weaponry, experts say.

Last year alone, the Asia and Oceania region lavished more than half a trillion US dollars on its militaries, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“You’ve really seen an upward trend for the last 20 years,” the institute’s Lucie Beraud-Sudreau told AFP. “Asia is really the region where the uptick trend is the most noticeable.”

She points to a perfect storm of rapid economic growth — which puts more money in the government kitties — and changing “threat perceptions” in the region.

China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years, turning the People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force.

Beijing now spends an estimated $252 billion a year — up 76 percent since 2011 — allowing it to project power across the region and directly challenge US primacy.

But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace.

Michael Shoebridge, a former Australian defense intelligence official, now with the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, believes that spending is a direct reaction to China.

“The actual military competition is between China and other partners that are wanting to deter China from using force,” he said.

“That reaction has just grown, particularly since Xi (Jinping) has become leader. He’s clearly interested in using all the power that China gains fairly coercively and aggressively.”

Today around 20 percent of the region’s defense spending is on procurement, notably on maritime assets and long-range deterrence designed to convince Beijing — or any another adversary — that the cost of attack is too high.

Shoebridge points to Australia’s landmark decision Thursday to acquire at least eight US nuclear-powered submarines and an unspecified number of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

“They’re all focused on raising the cost to China of engaging in military conflict. They’re a pretty effective counter to the kinds of capabilities the PLA has been building.”

But even South Korean spending “is as much driven by China as North Korea,” he said. “There’s no explanation for (Seoul’s decision to build) an aircraft carrier that involves North Korea.”

Similarly, “India’s military modernization is clearly driven by China’s growing military power,” Shoebridge added.

For its part China — fond of describing its relationship with the United States as “great power rivalry” — accuses the United States of fueling the arms race.

In the words of state-backed tabloid the Global Times, Washington is “hysterically polarizing its alliance system.”

If fear of China is the driving force behind regional defense spending, then the United States has appeared happy to speed the process along, actively helping regional allies to beef up.

As China and Japan were “blazing forward” with defense programs, Delury says Washington has been “aiding and abetting” allies “in the name of deterring China.”

“We’re not seeing arms control here, we’re seeing the opposite,” he said.

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Doubts over revived nuclear deal as Iran promotes anti-Western hawk

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Iran on Wednesday demoted its chief nuclear negotiator and replaced him with an anti-Western hawk in a move that casts doubt on talks to revive the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Abbas Araghchi, one of the key negotiators of the original 2015 agreement, also lost his job as deputy foreign minister, and his role in the talks will now be limited to that of ministry adviser.

His replacement at the ministry is Ali Bagheri, a protege of President Ebrahim Raisi who was his deputy for international affairs when Raisi was judiciary chief.

Bagheri, 53, has repeatedly criticized strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and granting “foreigners” access to inspect the country’s nuclear plants and other “sensitive security facilities.”

His appointment puts Iran’s nuclear policy firmly in the hands of hard-liners close to Raisi, analyst Mehdi Zakerian said. “In the Raisi administration, the key personalities at the negotiating table are now Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation chief Mohammad Eslami and Ali Bagheri,” Zakerian said.

“Bagheri’s appointment should be seen as a clear warning to the West as it’s likely the new team will throw into question the whole basis of the nuclear deal and abandon all of Iran’s commitments if the Americans delay their return to the 2015 agreement.”

Nicki Siamaki, an analyst at Control Risks, said Bagheri’s appointment could prolong the process of reaching a deal with the US as the regime would raise the stakes to reach a deal they considered met their conditions.

President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the original deal in 2018 and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran.

Tehran responded by breaching many of the agreement’s restrictions and enriching uranium to purity levels much closer to weapons grade.

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Japan’s defense ministry seeks fresh hike in military spending

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Japan’s defense ministry is seeking an annual budget increase that will add to past hikes to expand military spending over a decade by almost a sixth, as it looks to counter the growing strength of neighboring China.

Since last year, Japan has identified China as its main national security threat, pointing in a July policy paper to a “sense of crisis” over Beijing’s threat to Taiwan, which lies close to Japanese islands along the edge of the East China Sea.

The ministry’s budget proposal, released on Tuesday, seeks an increase of 2.6 percent in spending, to a record 5.48 trillion yen ($49.93 billion), for the year starting April 1.

Finance ministry officials will review, and could amend, the request before sending it to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet for approval.

However, Japan’s defense spending increases are not enough to keep pace with China’s expanding military budget, which will increase 6.8 percent next year and is already about four times more than Japan’s, and second only to the United States in size.

Instead, Tokyo’s strategy is to build a force armed with the latest equipment to deter Beijing from military action to settle territorial or other disputes in the region.

Big-ticket spending requests include 130 billion yen for 12 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 stealth fighters, four of which will be short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) B variants operating off converted helicopter carriers.

The defense ministry is asking for 105 billion yen next year to develop its first new domestic jet fighter in three decades. The project, expected to be completed in the 2030s, at a cost of about $40 billion, is being led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Japan’s forces, which defend its islands alongside US units, also want money for new compact warships and funds to buy and develop longer-range missiles to strike distant enemy targets, including land bases.

The ministry is also seeking funds for space-related forces, such as satellites and lasers to track targets beyond the atmosphere. It also wants 34.5 billion yen to strengthen defenses against cyberattacks. ($1=109.7500 yen)

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