Taiwan to protect sovereignty with new submarines amid China tensions

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed to defend the democratic island’s sovereignty with the construction of a new fleet of domestically-developed submarines, a key project supported by the United States to counter neighbouring China.

Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, has been for years working to revamp its submarine force, some of which date back to World War Two, and is no match for China’s fleet, which includes vessels capable of launching nuclear weapons.

At a ceremony to mark the start of construction of a new submarine fleet in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, Tsai called the move a “historic milestone” for Taiwan’s defensive capabilities after overcoming “various challenges and doubts”.

“The construction demonstrates Taiwan’s strong will to the world to protect its sovereignty,” she told the event, which was also attended by the de facto US ambassador in Taiwan, Brent Christensen.

“Submarines are important equipment for the development of Taiwan’s navy’s asymmetric warfare capabilities and to deter enemy ships from encircling Taiwan.”

The US government in 2018 gave the green light for US manufacturers to participate in the programme, a move widely seen as helping Taiwan secure major components, though it is unclear which US companies are involved.

State-backed CSBC Corporation Taiwan said it would deliver the first of the eight planned submarines in 2025, giving a major boost to Tsai’s military modernisation and self-sufficiency plan.

Company chairman Cheng Wen-lung said they had faced major challenges, including difficulty procuring parts as well as “external forces hindering the development of this programme”.

Taiwan’s armed forces are mostly equipped by the United States, but Tsai has made development of an advanced home-grown defence industry a priority.

In June, Tsai oversaw the first public test flight of a new locally designed and made advanced jet trainer.

Chinese forces have ramped up their military activities near Taiwan, on occasion flying fighter jets across the unofficial buffer median line of the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

 

Reuters

SYDNEY – Australia will lift more internal border restrictions in a boost for tourism as new coronavirus infections slow to a trickle, while first vaccines could be available in March, a government minister said.

Queensland state, a popular holiday destination, will allow visitors next week from the country’s two most populous states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, after closing its borders in August.

NSW has since notched a month without any COVID-19 cases where the source is unknown and restrictions on arrivals from Sydney will be eased on Dec. 1, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said.

Residents of Victoria, previously the country’s coronavirus hotspot, will also be welcomed if the state has no new cases on Wednesday, which would mark 26 days without community transmission.

“Queensland is good to go,” Palaszczuk told reporters in Brisbane.

NSW and Victoria opened their border on Monday, while the South Australia-Victorian border opens fully next week, in welcome news for local airline companies, Qantas Airways and Virgin Australia.

Qantas said it will run more than 1,200 return flights from Victoria and NSW into Queensland in the run-up to Christmas.

The moves will please Prime Minister Scott Morrison who has pushed state leaders to relax some curbs to help revive the economy, which shrank 7% in the three months to end-June, the most since records began in 1959.

Looking further out, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia – which has agreed to buy nearly 34 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine – is increasingly confident it can complete a vaccination programme after the release of preliminary trial results.

“Our vaccine timeline is beginning to strengthen. The news from overseas is that we are on track for first vaccines in March,” Hunt told reporters in Sydney.

AstraZeneca said its COVID-19 vaccine, cheaper to make, easier to distribute and faster to scale-up than its rivals, could be as much as 90% effective.

Australia has reported more than 27,800 cases of COVID-19 and 907 deaths since the pandemic began, but estimates there are fewer than 100 active COVID-19 cases remaining, mostly people in hotel quarantine.

Victoria said today it had zero active cases for the first time in over eight months following a strict lockdown after daily infections peaked at more than 700 in early August.

Qantas, meanwhile, said it will insist in future that international travelers have a COVID-19 vaccination before they fly, describing the move as “a necessity”.

“We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say, for international travelers, that we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft,” Chief Executive Alan Joyce told broadcaster Channel Nine.

Australia closed its international borders in March and currently requires returning travelers from overseas to quarantine for two weeks.

 

Reuters

WASHINGTON – The US federal agency that must sign off on the presidential transition has told President-elect Joe Biden that he can formally begin the hand-over process.

“I take this role seriously and, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, am transmitting this letter today to make those resources and services available to you,” General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy wrote in a letter to Biden.

US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that he was recommending that Murphy and her team “do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Lawmakers and business executives have put pressure on the little-known federal agency to recognize the Nov. 3 election results and free up millions of dollars in federal funds, office space and briefings for Biden’s team.

The GSA had said Murphy, who was appointed to her job by Trump in 2017, would “ascertain” or formally approve, the transition when the winner was clear.

“Contrary to media reports and insinuations, my decision was not made out of fear or favoritism,” Murphy wrote.

Trump has repeatedly falsely claimed he won the race and has spent weeks offering baseless claims of widespread voter fraud that have repeatedly failed to gain traction in the courts.

The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 provides no firm deadline for the GSA to act, but the agency has historically acted once media organizations call a winner, which happened on Nov. 7.

Biden is due to take office on Jan. 20 after having won the election with enough state-by-state electoral votes to secure the Electoral College win. The Democrat leads in the national popular vote by more than 6 million. Trump’s fellow Republicans have slowly broken from the president in recent days to urge the transition process to start.

 

Reuters

MANILA – US national security adviser Robert O’Brien has assured the Philippines and Vietnam, countries both locked in maritime rows with China, that Washington has their backs and would fight to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open.

“Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving,” said O’Brien, on a visit to the Philippines after concluding a trip to Vietnam on Sunday.

“I think when we send that message – that peace-through-strength message – is the way to deter China. It is a way to ensure the peace,” O’Brien said.

Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal regional opponents to what they see as Chinese overreach in the South China Sea and its disregard for boundaries outlined in international maritime law.

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim parts of it.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive claims, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there.

China maintains it is a force for peace in the region and sees the US presence as provocative and interference by an outsider.

O’Brien, who led the turnover in Manila of $US18 million worth of precision-guided munitions, said the United States stood with the Philippines in protecting its offshore resource entitlements.

“Those resources belong to the children and grandchildren of the people here,” he said.

“They don’t belong to some other country that just because they may be bigger than the Philippines,” he said, adding: “That’s just wrong.”

His visit came more than a week after the Philippines suspended its scrapping of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States for a second time, as the treaty allies work on a long-term mutual defence arrangement.

Last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if attacked in the South China Sea.

 

Reuters

SEOUL – South Korea has grappled with a resurgence in COVID-19 cases today, as a senior official warned it could be the country’s largest wave of infections if the spread is not quickly contained.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 386 new daily coronavirus cases as of midnight on Friday, bringing total infections to 30,403, with 503 deaths. New cases topped 300 for the fourth day in a row, after Tuesday saw the highest since August.

“We are at a critical juncture; if we fail to block the current spread, we could be facing a large nationwide infection that surpasses” the first two waves, senior KDCA official Lim Sook-young told a news briefing. The country was hit by a jump in cases in late February-early March and August.

The standard for imposing tougher social distancing measures was expected to be reached soon, Lim said. The daily national tally was expected to reach 400 new cases next week and more than 600 in early December if the current rate of one patient infecting 1.5 people was not curbed, she added.

Due to recent infections spreading among college and private after-school tuition academies, she especially urged young people to refrain from meeting and to get tested early.

South Korea tightened prevention guidelines on Thursday ahead of highly competitive annual college entrance exams on Dec. 3, and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called on Friday for all social gatherings to be cancelled, but bars, nightclubs, religious services and sports events continue to be permitted with attendance restrictions.

South Korea is negotiating to secure COVID-19 vaccines for 30 million people, or about 60% of the population, of which vaccines for 10 million people are expected to be procured through the global COVID-19 vaccine facility known as COVAX, Lim said.

The Seoul metropolitan region recorded 262 new cases on Friday, up from 218 cases on Thursday.

Health officials have previously said the capital region, where about half of the country’s 52 million people live and work, could be subject to tougher restrictions if the average daily infection over a week rose to 200 or more.

 

Reuters

MELBOURNE – Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the findings of a report that the country’s special forces allegedly killed 39 unarmed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan were “disturbing and distressing”.

The report, published on Thursday after an inquiry into the conduct of special forces personnel in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016, found that senior commandos forced junior soldiers to kill defenceless captives in order to “blood” the troops for combat.

It recommended referring 19 current and former soldiers for potential prosecution.

“This is a terrible, terribly disturbing and distressing report,” Morrison said in his first public comments since the publication of the document.

“But the thing about Australia is – is we will deal with it. And we will deal with it under our law, under our systems, and our justice system.”

Australia, which usually honours its military history with fervour, reacted with shame and anger to the severity of the report’s findings.

 

Reuters

HANOI – Vietnam has threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if it does not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on its platform, a senior official at the US social media giant told Reuters.

Facebook complied with a government request in April to significantly increase its censorship of “anti-state” posts for local users, but Vietnam asked the company again in August to step up its restrictions of critical posts, the official said.

“We made an agreement in April. Facebook has upheld our end of the agreement, and we expected the government of Vietnam to do the same,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the subject.

“They have come back to us and sought to get us to increase the volume of content that we’re restricting in Vietnam. We’ve told them no. That request came with some threats about what might happen if we didn’t.”

The official said the threats included shutting down Facebook altogether in Vietnam, a major market for the social media company where it earns revenue of nearly $1 billion, according to two sources familiar with the numbers.

Facebook has faced mounting pressure from governments over its content policies, including threats of new regulations and fines. But it has avoided a ban in all but the few places where it has never been allowed to operate, such as China.

In Vietnam, despite sweeping economic reform and increasing openness to social change, the ruling Communist Party retains tight control of media and tolerates little opposition. The country ranks fifth from bottom in a global ranking of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry said in response to questions from Reuters that Facebook should abide by local laws and cease “spreading information that violates traditional Vietnamese customs and infringes upon state interests”.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said it had faced additional pressure from Vietnam to censor more content in recent months.

In its biannual transparency report released today, Facebook said it had restricted access to 834 items in Vietnam in the first six months of this year, following requests from the government of Vietnam to remove anti-state content.

‘CLEAR RESPONSIBILITY’

Facebook, which serves about 60 million users in Vietnam as the main platform for both e-commerce and expressions of political dissent, is under constant government scrutiny.

Reuters exclusively reported in April that Facebook’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline early this year until it complied with the government’s demands.

Facebook has long faced criticism from rights group for being too compliant with government censorship requests.

“However, we will do everything we can to ensure that our services remain available so people can continue to express themselves,” the spokeswoman said.

Vietnam has tried to launch home-grown social media networks to compete with Facebook, but none has reached any meaningful level of popularity. The Facebook official said the company had not seen an exodus of Vietnamese users to the local platforms.

The official said Facebook had been subject to a “14-month-long negative media campaign” in state-controlled Vietnamese press before arriving at the current impasse.

Asked about Vietnam’s threat to shut down Facebook, rights group Amnesty International said the fact it had not yet been banned after defying the Vietnamese government’s threats showed that the company could do more to resist Hanoi’s demands.

“Facebook has a clear responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate in the world and Vietnam is no exception,” Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for campaigns, said. “Facebook are prioritising profits in Vietnam, and failing to respect human rights”.

 

Reuters

SYDNEY – Australian special forces allegedly killed 39 unarmed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan, with senior commandos reportedly forcing junior soldiers to kill defenceless captives in order to “blood” them for combat, a four year investigation found.

Australia said today that 19 current and former soldiers will be referred for potential criminal prosecution for allegedly killing the 39 Afghan locals.

Detailing the findings of a long-awaited inquiry into the conduct of special forces personnel in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016,Australia‘s General Angus John Campbell said there was credible information of 39 unlawful killings by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel in 23 separate incidents.

All of those kills were outside the “heat of battle”, Campbell said.

“These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values,” Campbell told reporters in Canberra.

“The unlawful killing, of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.”

The report said the majority of those killed, which included prisoners, farmers and other Afghan locals, were captured when they were killed and therefore protected under international law.

Following the recommendations of the report, Campbell said 19 current and former members of Australia‘s military will be referred to a soon-to-be appointed special investigator to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Australia‘s Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said last week that Canberra had been advised that local prosecution would negate charges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

‘BLOODING’

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had earlier warned the report would include “difficult and hard news for Australians”, but few expected some of the most shocking revelations.

While the report was heavily redacted, it included allegations that senior special forces personnel ordered the killing of unarmed Afghans.

“There is credible information that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding’,” the report read.

Once a person had been killed, those allegedly responsible would stage a fight scene with foreign weapons or equipment to justify their action, the report concluded.

The actions did not immediately come to light due to what the report concluded was a culture of secrecy and compartmentalisation in which information was kept and controlled within patrols.

The veil of secrecy was a key reason that the allegations took so long to come to light.

Although it has been the subject of rumour, Australia‘s official investigation only began after the publication of classified documents about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

A former military lawyer, David McBride, has been charged with providing the classified papers to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. He admits that he supplied the papers, but says it is in the national interest.

The four-year inquiry was conducted by New South Wales state Judge Paul Brereton, who was appointed by the Inspector-General of Defence in 2016 to investigate rumours of war crimes in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2016.

The inquiry examined more than 20,000 documents and 25,000 images, and interviewed 423 witnesses under oath.

The report recommended Canberra should compensate victims’ families even without a successful prosecution.

Campbell said he would seek to revoke citations for special operations task groups that served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.

The release of the report came after Morrison spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The Prime Minister of Australia expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan,” Ghani’s office wrote on Twitter.

Australia has had troops in Afghanistan since 2002 as part of the US-led coalition fighting the Taliban militia.

Australia has about 1,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan.

 

Reuters

Moderna Inc’s experimental vaccine is 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on interim data from a late-stage trial, the company said, becoming the second US drugmaker to report results that far exceed expectations.

Together with Pfizer Inc’s vaccine, which is also more than 90% effective, and pending more safety data and regulatory review, the United States could have two vaccines authorized for emergency use in December with as many as 60 million doses of vaccine available this year.

The vaccines, both developed with new technology known as messenger RNA (mRNA), represent powerful tools to fight a pandemic that has infected 54 million people worldwide and killed 1.3 million.

Unlike Pfizer’s vaccine, Moderna’s shot can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, which should make it easier to distribute, a critical factor as COVID-19 cases are soaring, hitting new records in the United States and pushing some European countries back into lockdowns.

“We are going to have a vaccine that can stop COVID-19,” Moderna President Stephen Hoge said in a telephone interview.

Moderna’s interim analysis was based on 95 infections among trial participants who received the vaccine or a placebo. Only five infections occurred in volunteers who received the vaccine mRNA-1273, which is administered in two shots 28 days apart.

“The vaccine is really the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert said. He urged Americans not to let their guard down and to continue washing hands and being vigilant about social distancing.

Even with fast authorization, the vaccines will not come in time for most people celebrating the US Thanksgiving and end-of-year holidays, when families and friends come together – just the types of gatherings public health officials warn against.

Moderna expects to have enough safety data required for US authorisation in the next week or so and expects to file for emergency use authorization (EUA) in the coming weeks.

The company’s shares, which have more than quadrupled this year, jumped 8%, while European and US stocks rose. The benchmark S&P 500 rose 1%, while the pan-European STOXX 600 climbed 1.3%.

Shares in Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, whose vaccine must be transported at far colder temperatures, fell 4.3% and 16.4% respectively, while Britain’s AstraZeneca , which has yet to release any results from its late-stage vaccine trials, was down 1%.

SEVERE CASES

Moderna’s data provide further validation of the promising but previously unproven mRNA platform, which turns the human body into a vaccine factory by coaxing cells to make virus proteins that the immune system sees as a threat and attacks.

Moderna expects the vaccine to be stable at normal fridge temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 48°F) for 30 days and it can be stored for up to 6 months at -20C.

Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored at -70C, the sort of temperature typical of an Antarctic winter. It can be stored for up to five days at standard refrigerator temperatures, or for up to 15 days in a thermal shipping box.

The data from Moderna’s trial involving 30,000 volunteers also showed the vaccine prevented cases of severe COVID-19, a question that still remains with the Pfizer vaccine. Of the 95 cases in Moderna’s trial, 11 were severe and all 11 occurred among volunteers who got the placebo.

Moderna, part of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed program, expects to produce about 20 million doses for the United States this year, millions of which the company has already made and is ready to ship if it gets FDA authorization.

“Assuming we get an emergency use authorization, we’ll be ready to ship through Warp Speed almost in hours,” Hoge said. “So it could start being distributed instantly.”

The 95 cases of COVID-19 included several key groups who are at increased risk for severe disease, including 15 cases in adults aged 65 and older and 20 in participants from racially diverse groups.

“We will need much more data and a full report or publication to see if the benefit is consistent across all groups, notably the elderly, but this is definitely encouraging progress, said Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The trials were designed to measure whether the vaccines stop people from getting sick rather than whether they prevent transmission, which remains to be tested.

“It is likely that vaccines that prevent symptomatic disease will reduce the duration and level of infectiousness, and thus reduce transmission, but we don’t yet know if this effect will be large enough to make any meaningful difference to the spread of the virus within communities,” said Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh.

ROLLING REVIEW

Most side effects were mild to moderate. A significant proportion of volunteers, however, experienced more severe aches and pains after taking the second dose, including about 10% who had fatigue severe enough to interfere with daily activities while another 9% had severe body aches. Most of these complaints were generally short-lived, Moderna said.

“These effects are what we would expect with a vaccine that is working and inducing a good immune response,” said Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

The US government, faced with the world’s highest known number of COVID-19 cases, could have access next year to more than 1 billion doses from Moderna and Pfizer, more than needed for the country’s 330 million residents.

The Trump Administration has mainly relied on the development of vaccines and treatments as its response to the pandemic. Moderna has received nearly $1 billion in research and development funding from the US government and has a $US1.5 billion deal for 100 million doses. The government has an option for another 400 million doses.

The company hopes to produce between 500 million and 1 billion doses in 2021, split between its US and international manufacturing sites, depending in part on demand.

Europe’s health regulator said on Monday it had launched a real-time “rolling review” of Moderna’s vaccine, as it has done for vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Brussels also said it was in talks with Moderna about securing doses.

Other countries such as China and Russia have already begun vaccinations. Russia licensed its Sputnik-V COVID-19 vaccine for domestic use in August before it started large-scale trials. It said on Nov. 11 that its vaccine was 92% effective based on 20 infections in its large trial.

 

Reuters

WASHINGTON – Four astronauts riding a newly designed spacecraft from Elon Musk’s SpaceX docked with the International Space Station Monday night, in the first crewed mission on a privately built space capsule purchased by NASA.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience by its crew of three Americans and one Japanese astronaut, docked at 11.01 pm EST (4.01 GMT), 27 hours after launching atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The space station, an orbital laboratory about 400 km above Earth, will be their home for the next six months. After that, another set of astronauts on a Crew Dragon capsule will replace them. That rotation will continue until Boeing joins the program with its own spacecraft late next year.

The Resilience crew includes Crew Dragon commander Mike Hopkins and two fellow NASA astronauts: mission pilot Victor Glover and physicist Shannon Walker. They are joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, making his third trip to space after previously flying on the US shuttle in 2005 and Soyuz in 2009.

Another US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are aboard the space station from a previous mission.

“Welcome to the ISS. We can’t wait to have you onboard,” said Kate Rubins, a US astronaut already on the space station.

Before receiving its flight certification from NASA last week, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon had been under development for roughly a decade under a public-private NASA program started in 2011 to revive the agency’s human spaceflight capability.

Sunday night’s launch marked SpaceX’s first operational mission for NASA under that program, after a test flight last summer with a crew of two US astronauts.

 

Reuters