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

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: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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