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With Xi-Biden meeting, U.S. aims to show responsible handling of China ties

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October 22, 2021

By Trevor Hunnicutt, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House officials are gearing up for a virtual meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping they hope will show the world Washington can responsibly manage relations between the rival superpowers, people familiar with the matter say.

Combative diplomatic exchanges with China early in the Biden administration unnerved allies and U.S. officials believe direct engagement with Xi, who has consolidated power in Beijing to a degree not seen since Mao Zedong, is the best way to prevent the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies spiraling toward conflict.

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Given China’s domestic COVID restrictions and Xi’s reluctance to travel, two sources familiar with the matter said Washington is aiming for a video conference call between Biden and Xi in November, though plans are still under discussion.

An agenda will likely not be set until after consultations with allies, they said, including during next week’s summit of the Group of 20 countries in Rome and a subsequent U.N. climate conference in Glasgow.

Biden will attend both forums. Xi, who hasn’t left China since early in the pandemic, is not expected to travel.

While the stakes for the Biden-Xi meeting are high – Washington and Beijing have been sparring on issues from the origins of the pandemic to China’s expanding nuclear arsenal – Biden’s team is so far setting low expectations for specific outcomes and has declined to say what the agenda might include.

“We are still planning details of the virtual bilateral meeting and there is nothing to preview at this time,” a senior administration official said.

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The sources familiar with current plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the meeting would be a major outcome in itself, with the hope it could bring stability to what Washington says will be long-term strategic competition.

The two sides agreed in talks in Switzerland this month to hold the virtual conference by the year-end, with direct leader-level communication intended to set relations in a more “constructive direction,” a senior U.S. administration official said at the time.

“We think it’s particularly important for the leaders to take more of a role in managing this relationship,” the official said.

Susan Thornton, a former senior State Department official for Asia now at the Brookings Institution, said the meeting could help repair a communication void and put a floor under relations that were still in a “downward spiral.”

“That’s not really an outcome, but it prevents things from getting worse,” she said.

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Throughout a trade war during former President Donald Trump’s administration, Chinese officials sought an upper hand by suggesting U.S. officials were the ones seeking talks. Now, Biden officials trying to show the United States is the responsible power have flipped the script, telling journalists after a Sept. 9 phone call between Biden and Xi that Biden had initiated the interaction.

Departing from Trump’s go-it-alone approach to China policy, Biden has staked his strategy on mobilizing allies and partners in Europe and Asia to increase leverage over Beijing.

David O’Sullivan, the former EU ambassador to Washington, told Reuters European allies had been “very anxious” that improperly managed U.S.-China relations, as appeared evident in tense public exchanges at high-level diplomatic meetings in Alaska in March, could drag them into a conflict.

“Those are the kind of messages that people are sending to this administration. I think they understand that, and I think this probably is one of the reasons why they are reaching out (to China),” he said.

Days after the Alaska meetings, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken found it necessary to stress in Brussels that the United States would not force any NATO ally to choose sides between Washington and Beijing.

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An Asian diplomat said “everyone around the world was a little bit anxious” about where the U.S.-China relationship was headed after Alaska.

Toning down the rhetoric also made sense for Xi, who over the next year wants smooth sailing for hugely important national events, including the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, and a Communist Party Congress where he is set to secure an unprecedented third term as party boss.

“Not disrupting either of these means that you have to have some managed relationship between the U.S. and China,” the diplomat told Reuters. “You minimize the risk of conflict in what is actually a very important 12 months for Xi Jinping domestically.”

Hanging over the Beijing Games is Washington’s charge that China is committing “genocide” against Muslims in its Xinjiang region, although Biden officials have so far demurred in the face of calls by rights groups and U.S. legislators for a diplomatic boycott of the event.

Still, with disagreements abounding, U.S. officials insist it is a mistake to see a “thaw” in relations.

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The administration has recently expressed concern about evidence of a nuclear build-up by China and its work on hypersonic missiles, and has also accused China of ramping up military activity in an effort to intimidate democratic Taiwan.

On Wednesday, Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, called China Washington’s “most dangerous competitor” and said the United States needed to work closely with allies.

“We have partners who believe in us and the Chinese really do not,” he said. “I think President Biden has tried to emphasize the need for us to be very closely aligned … (with) our treaty allies, our defense partners.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, David Brunnstrom, and Michael Martina; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis)

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Taiwan, Europe must defend democracy together, president says

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November 29, 2021

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

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Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society. Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

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There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Australia’s reopening plans in doubt after Omicron cases

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November 29, 2021

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

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Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

“So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country’s immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia’s population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

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Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

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Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

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November 29, 2021

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

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The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

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Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

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