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Blinken heads to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand to forge front on China pushback

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The Biden administration will seek to bolster economic and security cooperation with Southeast Asia through a visit to the region next week by its top diplomat, as it works to forge a united front against China in the Indo-Pacific.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Monday and will also visit Malaysia and Thailand on his first Southeast Asia trip since President Joe Biden took office in January.

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Southeast Asia has become a strategic battleground between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies.

China claims most of the South China Sea, the vital trade route that links the region, and has turned up military and political pressure on self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers its own.
Blinken will pursue Biden’s aim of elevating engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “unprecedented” levels, focusing on strengthening regional security infrastructure in the face of China’s “bullying” and discussing the president’s vision for an Indo-Pacific economic framework, the top US diplomat for Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, told reporters ahead of the trip.
The Biden administration sees Southeast Asia as vital to its efforts to push back against China’s growing power, but the lack of a formal structure for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade deal in 2017 has limited its ability to exert influence, while Beijing’s only grows.
The administration has yet to spell out what exactly Biden’s envisaged economic framework will entail, although Kritenbrink said it would focus on trade facilitation, the digital economy, supply chain resiliency, infrastructure, clean energy, and worker standards.
Analysts and diplomats said Blinken would likely seek to woo countries by dangling the prospect of hosting US firms relocating production from China as part of efforts to secure sensitive supply chains and of development finance. But there was no sign of a willingness to offer the increased access to the US market the region craves.
“There is a burden of proof on this administration to deliver an economic strategy that shows our allies and partners that we are committed to long-term economic engagement in the region,” said Matthew Goodman, a regional economics expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“What’s been rolled out so far has promise in that regard, but it needs to be fleshed out.”
An Asian diplomat said the Biden administration had shown itself serious in its desire to step up engagement with Southeast Asia through a series of senior-level visits this year, Biden’s participation in regional summits, and long-standing security cooperation.
“But they don’t have a response to China on the economy,” he said. “The Chinese are ahead of the game by 20 years. The US needs to do something to help less-developed Southeast Asian countries. Sending aircraft carriers is not enough.”
Senior Biden administration figures, including Indo-Pacific policymaker Kurt Campbell, are acutely aware of the need to compete more effectively economically in the region with China, but any move to rejoin the trade deal Trump quit would be politically fraught given pledges to rebuild a domestic economy critics say is threatened by such mechanisms.
Biden’s plan could still be enticing, despite its limitations, Goodman said.
“If you’re Vietnam, or you’re Indonesia, or Thailand, you want to make a play for being the place where Apple could relocate its assembly capability,” he said.
“So there’s a lot in there that is interesting to these countries, but there’s a lot more detail that needs to be provided before they are going to be persuaded.”

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US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

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A US Navy F35C Lightning II combat jet conducting exercises in the South China Sea crashed while trying to land on the deck of an American aircraft carrier, injuring seven sailors, the military said Tuesday.

The pilot was able to eject before the aircraft slammed into the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Monday and then fell into the water. The pilot was safely recovered by a helicopter, said Lt. Mark Langford, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet.

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Seven sailors, including the pilot, were injured and three were evacuated for medical treatment in Manila, Philippines, while four were treated on board the ship. The three sent to Manila were reported in stable condition on Tuesday morning, the Navy said.

Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft were still being verified, Langford said.

“The status and recovery of the aircraft is currently under investigation,” he told The Associated Press.

Two American carrier strike groups with more than 14,000 sailors and marines are conducting exercises in the South China Sea, which the military says is to demonstrate the “US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force’s ability to deliver a powerful maritime force.”

Impact to the deck of the USS Carl Vinson was “superficial,” Langford said, and both carriers have resumed routine flight operations.

As China has pressed territorial claims in the South China Sea and increased pressure on Taiwan, the US and its allies have stepped up exercises in the region, in what they call freedom of navigation operations in line with international law.

As the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln strike groups began their dual carrier operations on Sunday, China flew 39 warplanes toward Taiwan in its largest such sortie of the new year, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.

The formation of 24 Chinese J-16 and 10 J-10 fighter jets stayed out of Taiwanese air space, but the maneuver prompted Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft in response.

Chinese pilots have been flying toward Taiwan on a near-daily basis, and it was unclear if Sunday’s flights were a response to the American exercises. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment.

Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory. Beijing has used diplomatic and military means to isolate and intimidate the self-ruled island, but the US has continued to support Taiwan by selling it advanced weapons and fighter planes.

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Snowstorms, cold and fire threaten displaced Syrians in northern camps

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Five-year-old Intissar and her younger sister Lin were sheltering from northern Syria’s bitter winter cold when fuel from a heater ignited their tent, killing them and seriously injuring their mother.

The young family and other displaced Syrians were living near the Turkish border in a camp of more than 400 tents, which offer little protection from snowstorms and plunging temperatures which struck in recent days.

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The cold snap has brought chaos to traffic and flights in neighboring countries but its effects are most severe in northwest Syria, where 3 million people have been left homeless in a long-running humanitarian crisis.

Many have been displaced several times by the 11-year war.

“People in the camp are suffering. The tents don’t protect from the cold,” said Nouredin al-Abdullah, whose cousin Ahmed is the father of the girls who died. “If you think about heating, God forbid, you and your children may go (the same way).”

He said the latest snowfall was the heaviest he had seen.

The weight of the snow has collapsed many tents, while water seeped underneath them.

Across the region, food supplies and health services have been disrupted and relief workers are struggling to reach some of the 300 worst affected sites, said Mark Cutts, U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

“The numbers are just staggering, and it is very difficult to provide people with all the support they need,” he said. Desperate to stay warm, people were burning cardboard and plastic bottles, and then inhaling toxic fumes.

“Even more suffering is caused because of the lack of fuel for heating,” he told Reuters, adding that at least one child had died from the freezing cold.

“There are more than 1 million people still living in tents or substandard accommodation,” Cutts said. “It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we get people out of these tents.”

Read more: Syrian prison battle death toll tops 150, concern over fate of minors

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Gunmen kill Pakistani policeman guarding polio workers

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Gunmen shot and killed a Pakistani policeman who was providing security for polio vaccination workers in the northwest on Tuesday, according to police.

The assailants fled the scene, and no one claimed responsibility for the attack in Kohat, local police official Dikdar Khan said. He added that the body of the slain policeman had been transported to a hospital.

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No polio workers were harmed in the attack, police said, a day after Pakistan launched a nationwide anti-polio campaign.

Militants in Pakistan often target polio teams and police assigned to protect them, falsely claiming the vaccination campaigns are a Western conspiracy to sterilize children. Militants have claimed responsibility for previous attacks across the country.

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Bomb blast in Pakistan’s Lahore kills three, injures 20

Pakistani police officer, two militants killed in Islamabad clash

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