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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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Frustrated Balkans seek reassurance at EU summit

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Western Balkan countries can expect reassurances but no concrete progress on their stalled bids for European Union membership when EU leaders meet Wednesday.

The 27-nation club is set to talk up economic support worth billions of euros for its eastern neighbors at a summit at Brdo castle, in Slovenia, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

Brussels is keen to show it remains the strategic region’s best hope.

But there will be no breakthroughs at the meeting with the leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo on the tortuous path toward membership.

And concern is growing that frustration at years of waiting in vain for the EU’s doors to open could push some candidate countries closer to Russia and China.

“It’s a good moment for us to be assertive, and make clear that the European Union continues to be the region’s biggest donor,” an EU official said.

“The European Union continues to be the region’s main investor, and the European Union continues to be the closest trading partner.”

The EU’s push for enlargement — once a key policy for the bloc — has ground to a halt in recent years. Some richer member nations fear sparking a new wave of migration and some applicants are struggling with the required reforms.

France, Denmark and the Netherlands initially blocked accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019.

Bulgaria has since become the main obstacle to progress, refusing to let North Macedonia start the process because of a dispute over history and language.

During a tour of the region last week, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she hoped to see talks open with North Macedonia and Albania this year, after elections in Bulgaria.

“We have prepared ourselves for a wedding several times… but the guests did not show up,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama responded.

“We are no longer preparing for the wedding, but we continue to show our love.”

It was only after fierce haggling that EU members agreed say the bloc “reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process” in a draft final statement for the summit seen by AFP.

But diplomats rejected a demand by Slovenia to commit to absorbing the aspirants by 2030.

As efforts to integrate the Western Balkans have hit a wall, the EU has become increasingly concerned over the inroads being made by Moscow and Beijing, which have sent millions of coronavirus vaccines to the region.

Moscow has deep cultural ties with fellow Orthodox nations such as Serbia while Beijing has extended major loans in the region, including a controversial $1 billion for a road, which Montenegro is struggling to pay off.

The EU in response is touting an economic deal it says could provide an “unprecedented” package of up to 30 billion euros ($35 billion) to the region.

Officials also promise to deliver “tangible” results for the people in the Balkans, such as bolstering vaccine rates to match EU levels this year and ending phone roaming charges.

Brussels scored a minor diplomatic victory in the run-up to the summit by mediating a deal to ease a flare-up in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo over car license plates.

The former foes were at loggerheads for nearly two weeks after Kosovo banned cars with Serbian registration plates from entering its territory.

The latest row between Serbia and ethnic-Albanian majority Kosovo, that involves the sensitive issue of Kosovo’s Serb minority, was the worst in years.

Kosovo proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a war between independence-seeking ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces.

Roughly 100 countries, including all but five EU members, recognized the move, but not Serbia or its allies China and Russia.

EU-brokered dialogue between the two Balkans neighbors, launched a decade ago, has so far failed to achieve normalization of their ties.

 

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New alarm in US over Iran drive toward nuclear bomb

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The US is alarmed by Iran’s progress toward obtaining an atomic weapon and hopes to resume talks soon to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, a top official in Washington said on Tuesday.

Iran’s nuclear activity was also at the center of talks in Washington between US and Israeli national security teams.

Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata and his White House counterpart Jake Sullivan joined a meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group of diplomatic, military and intelligence agencies.

US President Joe Biden wants to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

Talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the deal are stalled over whether Iran or the US should take the first step. “The path in Vienna for negotiations does remain open,” a senior Biden administration official said on Tuesday. “The Iranians are sending indications to a number of parties that they are preparing to come back to Vienna and of course we will have to see whether they re-engage in that process.”

Despite skepticism among Gulf states and Israel, the Biden administration believes “very strongly that the diplomatic path remains the best,” the official said.

However, the official said the White House and Israel’s new government agreed that Iran had made rapid advances since Trump quit the 2015 deal and restored sanctions. “We have a common assessment of the extent to which Iran’s nuclear program has dramatically broken out of the box,” the official said.

“The breakout time, meaning stockpiles of enriched uranium and other ways to look at this, it’s gone from about 12 months down to a period of a few months. So obviously that’s quite alarming.”

The official said the US believed diplomacy would be “the best way to put a ceiling on the program and roll back the gains that Iran has made in recent years.” However, there was no movement toward the US lifting sanctions and if diplomacy failed “there are other avenues.”

“We think the onus right now is on the Iranian side,” the official said.

Meanwhile Iran has admitted that an Israeli sabotage attack in June on a uranium centrifuge workshop caused “severe damage,” after previously claiming that it had been thwarted.

Tehran demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, “clarify its position” on the attack on the plant in Karaj, about 50km from Tehran.

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Saudi, German officials discuss foreign relations, human rights

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Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir on Sunday held talks with Miguel Berger, state secretary of the German Federal Foreign Office, in the capital, Riyadh, to discuss bilateral relations and ways to develop them.

They also discussed regional and international developments of common interest.

Berger also met with President of the Human Rights Commission, Dr. Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad to discuss aspects of cooperation in the human rights field and ways to enhance them.

Al-Awwad reviewed the developments that the Kingdom is witnessing in support of human rights, which resulted in more than 90 human rights reform decisions.

President of the Saudi Human Rights Commission Dr. Awwad Al-Awwad meets Miguel Berger, state secretary of the German Federal Foreign Office, in Riyadh. (SPA)

He said that the Kingdom has sought to protect and promote human rights internationally, and has fulfilled the obligations to which it has become a party.

He added that this major shift in the Kingdom’s reform policy was part of the Vision 2030.

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