Obama weighs lifting Vietnam arms embargo

Obama weighs lifting Vietnam arms embargoWASHINGTON: The White House is considering lifting a decades-old arms embargo against Vietnam in time for President Barack Obama’s visit to the booming Southeast Asian nation this month.

As both countries warily eye China’s military build-up in the disputed South China Sea, officials said Obama is weighing an end to the Cold War-era ban on lethal weapons exports.

Obama begins his first visit to Vietnam on May 21, some 41 years after the North Vietnamese army and its Viet Cong allies marched into Saigon, humiliating the world’s preeminent superpower.

Now the former foes — who fought a murderous 19-year war that defined both nations and killed untold thousands — are putting ideology aside and gradually building deeper trade, military and political ties.

Washington and Hanoi have been pushed together by Vietnam’s increasingly vibrant 80-million-people-strong economy, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and a mutual desire to limit China’s regional clout.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has taken a more assertive stance on territorial claims in the South China Sea — deploying materiel to the disputed Spratly Islands.

Recent military reforms announced by Xi dramatically increased navy spending.

With that, some inside the Obama administration argue that the time has come for the United States to help bolster Vietnam with the sale of advanced military equipment.

“It is a relatively easy argument for those who favor lifting the ban,” said Christian Lewis of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy.

“The benefits of deepening strategic ties to Vietnam and simultaneously containing China exceed the perceived downside of supplying Vietnam military hardware,” he added.

If the ban is lifted, most observers expect sales to start small — in part to assuage concerns about human rights, and in part not to spook China too much.

Recent preparatory visits by US-based arms contractors to Vietnam focused on the sale of less controversial maritime surveillance and patrol hardware.

But in the medium term, the embargo would open the way for sales across the board.

“This is going to be a long term thing, but it has strategic importance because of the psychological shift,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.

Vietnamese military spending has increased dramatically in the last decade, by 130 percent since 2005, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

China and Vietnam share a checkered history of border disputes, invasions and conflict and anti-Chinese sentiment has helped frame Vietnamese national identity.

During the Cold War, Vietnam was closer to the Soviet Union than it was to its behemoth neighbor to the north.

Much of Vietnam’s arsenal today is made up of aging Russia-built equipment.

But some in the US Congress still oppose lifting the arms embargo, voicing concern that weapons could be used to trample human rights.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party retains a white knuckle grip political power and its cadres’ economic interests.

Obama is expected to meet the country’s de facto leader, party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong when he visits Hanoi, as well as Tran Dai Quang — the former head of Vietnam’s controversial domestic security force who became president after an April party Congress.

But the end of the ban seems likely. Senator John McCain, one of an estimated seven million American Vietnam War veterans, has publicly stated his support for sending arms.

New era

The White House would like the visit to turn a page on the war, focusing on a pending trans-Pacific trade deal and on changing American attitudes about Vietnam and Vietnamese attitudes about America.

“Vietnam has a dynamic economy and they have a rapidly growing middle class,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

But there are still doubts about how that TPP trade deal would be implemented, in a country where whole sectors are run like fiefdoms of senior party officials and competition is intra-party.

Vietnam is “a country that is trying to decide exactly how it’s going to orient its economy in the decades ahead,” Earnest acknowledged.

Still, Western diplomats spot an opportunity in Vietnam’s eagerness to diversify trade partners outside China.

“We are looking at potentially transformative growth over the next decade, simply because footwear and garment manufacturers are going to be able to export to the United States,” said Lewis.

– AFP

AFR: Australian PM Turnbull named in Panama Papers

AFR: Australian PM Turnbull named in Panama PapersSYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been named in the Panama Papers as a former director of a British Virgin Islands company set up to exploit a Siberian gold prospect, the Australian Financial Review reported on Thursday.

Turnbull and former New South Wales Premier Neville Wran joined the board of Australian-listed Star Mining NL in 1993. The company hoped to develop a A$20 billion ($14.8 billion) Siberian gold mine called Sukhoi Log, the paper said.

Both Turnbull and Wran were subsequently appointed directors of Star Technology Services, a subsidiary of Star Mining in the British Virgin Islands which had been incorporated by Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm at the center of the global scandal.

There was no suggestion Turnbull acted improperly and he resigned from both companies in 1995, the AFR said. Turnbull’s spokesman had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.

The details are included in documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists known as the Panama Paper but are not part of the publicly searchable database, the AFR reported.

Tax havens and transparency have been thrust into the spotlight as governments worldwide launch probes into possible financial wrongdoing after the details of hundreds of thousands of clients’ tax affairs were leaked from Mossack Fonseca.

Turnbull, a former investment banker and technology entrepreneur, is campaigning ahead of a general election on July 2, with his ruling Liberal-National coalition in a virtual tie with the main opposition.

– Reuters

AFR: Australian PM Turnbull named in Panama Papers

AFR: Australian PM Turnbull named in Panama PapersSYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been named in the Panama Papers as a former director of a British Virgin Islands company set up to exploit a Siberian gold prospect, the Australian Financial Review reported on Thursday.

Turnbull and former New South Wales Premier Neville Wran joined the board of Australian-listed Star Mining NL in 1993. The company hoped to develop a A$20 billion ($14.8 billion) Siberian gold mine called Sukhoi Log, the paper said.

Both Turnbull and Wran were subsequently appointed directors of Star Technology Services, a subsidiary of Star Mining in the British Virgin Islands which had been incorporated by Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm at the center of the global scandal.

There was no suggestion Turnbull acted improperly and he resigned from both companies in 1995, the AFR said. Turnbull’s spokesman had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.

The details are included in documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists known as the Panama Paper but are not part of the publicly searchable database, the AFR reported.

Tax havens and transparency have been thrust into the spotlight as governments worldwide launch probes into possible financial wrongdoing after the details of hundreds of thousands of clients’ tax affairs were leaked from Mossack Fonseca.

Turnbull, a former investment banker and technology entrepreneur, is campaigning ahead of a general election on July 2, with his ruling Liberal-National coalition in a virtual tie with the main opposition.

– Reuters

Romney assails Trump for refusing to release tax returns

Romney assails Trump for refusing to release tax returnsWASHINGTON: Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns until after the November election should disqualify him as a presidential candidate, the party’s 2012 standardbearer Mitt Romney warned Wednesday.

“It is disqualifying for a modern-day presidential nominee to refuse to release tax returns to the voters, especially one who has not been subject to public scrutiny in either military or public service,” Romney wrote in a Facebook post.

Romney, himself a multi-millionaire, said the only logical explanation for Trump’s failure to show his back taxes was that they contain “a bombshell of unusual size.”

“Mr. Trump, tear down that tax wall,” Romney said.

Trump is a billionaire New York real estate mogul whose financial dealings have been under intense scrutiny for years.

He said in an interview with the Associated Press published Wednesday that despite pressure to release his returns, he likely will not do so before the November election due to an ongoing financial audit.

“There’s nothing to learn from them,” Trump said in the interview, adding that he did not believe they were of interest to voters.

Later Wednesday, with pressure snowballing, Trump tweeted that he did not refuse to release his returns before the election.

“In interview I told @AP that my taxes are under routine audit and I would release my tax returns when audit is complete, not after election!” he wrote.

Failure to reduce his tax returns would mark a clear break with political tradition.

Every major presidential and vice presidential nominee since 1976 has released his or her returns, according to fact-checking website PolitiFact.

Romney’s father George Romney famously released 12 years of tax returns prior to the 1968 election, when he ran for president.

Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has released her tax returns dating back to 1977.

– AFP

Romney assails Trump for refusing to release tax returns

Romney assails Trump for refusing to release tax returnsWASHINGTON: Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns until after the November election should disqualify him as a presidential candidate, the party’s 2012 standardbearer Mitt Romney warned Wednesday.

“It is disqualifying for a modern-day presidential nominee to refuse to release tax returns to the voters, especially one who has not been subject to public scrutiny in either military or public service,” Romney wrote in a Facebook post.

Romney, himself a multi-millionaire, said the only logical explanation for Trump’s failure to show his back taxes was that they contain “a bombshell of unusual size.”

“Mr. Trump, tear down that tax wall,” Romney said.

Trump is a billionaire New York real estate mogul whose financial dealings have been under intense scrutiny for years.

He said in an interview with the Associated Press published Wednesday that despite pressure to release his returns, he likely will not do so before the November election due to an ongoing financial audit.

“There’s nothing to learn from them,” Trump said in the interview, adding that he did not believe they were of interest to voters.

Later Wednesday, with pressure snowballing, Trump tweeted that he did not refuse to release his returns before the election.

“In interview I told @AP that my taxes are under routine audit and I would release my tax returns when audit is complete, not after election!” he wrote.

Failure to reduce his tax returns would mark a clear break with political tradition.

Every major presidential and vice presidential nominee since 1976 has released his or her returns, according to fact-checking website PolitiFact.

Romney’s father George Romney famously released 12 years of tax returns prior to the 1968 election, when he ran for president.

Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has released her tax returns dating back to 1977.

– AFP

Cheers in London for ‘Brexit the Movie’ premiere

Cheers in London for ‘Brexit the Movie’ premiereLONDON: Britain’s EU referendum campaign took a film star turn on Wednesday as Brexit supporters took to the red carpet in black tie and evening dresses in for the premiere of a documentary backing their cause.

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage beamed and waved at hundreds of onlookers in London’s West End, including men with Union Jack bowties and T-shirts reading “It’s Time to Break Away”.

“Brexit the Movie”, which is being released on YouTube on Thursday, combines interviews of pro-Brexit economists, politicians and small businessmen with Monty Pythonesque cartoon graphics, a potted history of the EU and its workings.

“It’s fabulous! It’s a contribution to the debate,” Farage told AFP at a champagne reception before the showing at the Odeon Cinema on Leicester Square with lawmakers and “Leave” campaign funders.

During the showing, the audience cheered at a mention of the Magna Carta, the 1215 royal charter seen as a founding stone for modern constitutions.

There were loud boos when archive images were shown of former prime minister Edward Heath signing Britain’s European Economic Community membership in 1973 and one audience member was heard shouting: “String them up!”

There was laughter too when former Sun tabloid editor Kelvin MacKenzie was shown saying: “The expression I really hate is ‘pooled sovereignty’. It’s bollocks!”

The film also includes a sketch showing hapless “European” umbrella makers — wearing sleeveless vests and braces — competing with efficient-looking and maths-proficient Asian businessmen.

“You have to wear braces and eat spaghetti to make a brolly,” the narrator, director Martin Durkin, says, mocking protection rules for European Union producers.

In another sketch, a man is shown reading French newspaper Le Monde, wearing garlic around his neck, a black beret and a sailor’s striped vest as the narrator says: “You need to wear berets and drink Ricard to grow food.”

A British fisherman who blames EU fishing quotas for the decline of his industry and a sugar businessman who berates the high tariffs on raw sugar imports from outside the EU are also interviewed in the film.

The film noted the prosperity of non-EU member Switzerland and harked back to British history, calling for “a return to the commercial and trading giant we were in the 19th century”.

Durkin thanked the 1,800 people who supported his film through crowdfunding before the showing.

“The EU is a big organisation that likes power and money. The really sinister thing is that it’s our power and our money,” he told the audience.

In the first lines of the film, accompanied by a stirring soundtrack, he states: “This film is a rallying cry. We must fight for our independence.”

– AFP

Cheers in London for ‘Brexit the Movie’ premiere

Cheers in London for ‘Brexit the Movie’ premiereLONDON: Britain’s EU referendum campaign took a film star turn on Wednesday as Brexit supporters took to the red carpet in black tie and evening dresses in for the premiere of a documentary backing their cause.

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage beamed and waved at hundreds of onlookers in London’s West End, including men with Union Jack bowties and T-shirts reading “It’s Time to Break Away”.

“Brexit the Movie”, which is being released on YouTube on Thursday, combines interviews of pro-Brexit economists, politicians and small businessmen with Monty Pythonesque cartoon graphics, a potted history of the EU and its workings.

“It’s fabulous! It’s a contribution to the debate,” Farage told AFP at a champagne reception before the showing at the Odeon Cinema on Leicester Square with lawmakers and “Leave” campaign funders.

During the showing, the audience cheered at a mention of the Magna Carta, the 1215 royal charter seen as a founding stone for modern constitutions.

There were loud boos when archive images were shown of former prime minister Edward Heath signing Britain’s European Economic Community membership in 1973 and one audience member was heard shouting: “String them up!”

There was laughter too when former Sun tabloid editor Kelvin MacKenzie was shown saying: “The expression I really hate is ‘pooled sovereignty’. It’s bollocks!”

The film also includes a sketch showing hapless “European” umbrella makers — wearing sleeveless vests and braces — competing with efficient-looking and maths-proficient Asian businessmen.

“You have to wear braces and eat spaghetti to make a brolly,” the narrator, director Martin Durkin, says, mocking protection rules for European Union producers.

In another sketch, a man is shown reading French newspaper Le Monde, wearing garlic around his neck, a black beret and a sailor’s striped vest as the narrator says: “You need to wear berets and drink Ricard to grow food.”

A British fisherman who blames EU fishing quotas for the decline of his industry and a sugar businessman who berates the high tariffs on raw sugar imports from outside the EU are also interviewed in the film.

The film noted the prosperity of non-EU member Switzerland and harked back to British history, calling for “a return to the commercial and trading giant we were in the 19th century”.

Durkin thanked the 1,800 people who supported his film through crowdfunding before the showing.

“The EU is a big organisation that likes power and money. The really sinister thing is that it’s our power and our money,” he told the audience.

In the first lines of the film, accompanied by a stirring soundtrack, he states: “This film is a rallying cry. We must fight for our independence.”

– AFP

Google bans payday loans, starting in July

Google bans payday loans, starting in JulySAN FRANCISCO: Search giant Google said Wednesday it is banning ads for payday loans, quick money that comes with extremely high interest rates that can quickly plunge a borrower into financial distress.

Starting July 13, “we’re banning ads for payday loans and some related products from our ads systems,” the company announced on an official blog.

Specifically, it is targeting loans requiring repayment within 60 days. In the United States, ads for loans with an annual percentage rate of 36 percent or higher will also be prohibited.

Payday loans are targeted at low-income people, providing ready cash that is repaid automatically from the next paycheck.

But borrowers often get sucked into a cycle of debt, due in part to interest rates that can reach the triple digits.

“This change is designed to protect our users from deceptive or harmful financial products,” the Google post said.

Ads for mortgages, car loans, student loans and credit cards will not be affected.

Users who search specifically for payday loan companies will still be able to see results for such businesses.

Rights groups applauded Google’s move.

“Low-income people and people of color have long been targeted by slick advertising and aggressive marketing campaigns to trap consumers into outrageously high interest loans,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“This ban puts payday loans in their rightful place alongside explosives and tobacco as dangerous products that deserve the highest level of scrutiny from regulators and businesses alike.”

Added Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center:

“If you’re broke and search the Internet for help, you should not be hit with ads for payday lenders charging 1,000 percent interest. Yet that’s what happens on most search engines,” he said, urging other Internet companies to follow Google’s lead.

– AFP

Queen calls Chinese delegation ‘very rude’

Queen calls Chinese delegation ‘very rude’LONDON: Queen Elizabeth II was caught on camera describing some Chinese officials as “very rude” in a rare diplomatic gaffe by the British monarch over a visit that drummed up billions in Chinese investment.

Her comments, aired on Wednesday, came just hours after Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday also made inadvertently public remarks, referring to Afghanistan and Nigeria as “most corrupt”.

Dressed in a pink coat and hat with white gloves, the queen could be heard during a garden party at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday making unguarded comments about a Chinese state visit last year.

Police commander Lucy D’Orsi was introduced to the queen as the woman who oversaw security for the state visit of President Xi Jinping and his wife in October, to which the monarch replied: “Oh, bad luck”.

The queen went on to say to D’Orsi that members of the Chinese delegation “were very rude to the ambassador” and exclaimed: “Extraordinary!”

The BBC said that the queen’s comments were blanked out on BBC World transmissions in China.

The British monarch never expresses overtly political views in public and is known for her discretion, never granting an interview in her 64-year reign.

Her husband Prince Philip on the other hand is notorious for his gaffes and off-colour jokes.

He told a group of British students during a visit to China in 1986 that they would become “slitty-eyed” if they remained in the country.

Prince Charles has had a famously fraught relationship with China because of his friendship with the Dalai Lama and has yet to make an official visit to the country’s mainland.

He referred to Chinese leaders as “appalling old waxworks” in a private journal entry about the Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997.

‘Stressful’ visit

London and Beijing both hailed Xi’s visit as a high watermark in Chinese-British relations at the time.

A clutch of contracts said by Cameron to be worth almost £40 billion (51 billion euros, $58 billion) were announced during the visit.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Wednesday said the visit had been “very successful”.

“Both sides have high level recognition of that,” he said.

Foreign minister Philip Hammond, however, was quoted by British media as saying that the visit had been “a bit stressful”.

Buckingham Palace said it would not comment on the queen’s private conversations.

Rana Mitter, director of Oxford University’s China Centre, said the comments were unlikely to hamper ties and “a significant pushback” from Britain on security for Xi’s visit could have been expected.

“I think the Chinese are extremely pragmatic on these sorts of things. There is a perception that the UK is an important enough trading and political partners that this sort of incident isn’t going to get in the way,” he said.

“I suspect that Chinese officials are far more concerned about the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union than they are about the overheard comments of high-level figures,” he said.

On Tuesday, Cameron was overheard at another Buckingham Palace event to mark the queen’s birthday calling Nigeria and Afghanistan “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”.

He was filmed making the remarks to the queen and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, ahead of an anti-corruption summit in London on Thursday where the Afghan and Nigerian presidents are expected.

“We’ve got some leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain,” the prime minister said.

“Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world,” he added.

Welby, who worked as an oil executive in West Africa before joining the church and who has also undertaken conflict resolution work in Nigeria, noted that “this particular president is actually not corrupt”.

“He’s really trying,” Cameron agreed, and the queen noted to Welby: “He is trying, isn’t he?”

It was not clear to whom they were referring, but Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani are both due to attend the summit.

In anti-bribery watchdog Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015, Afghanistan ranks 166th and Nigeria 136th out of 168 countries and territories.

– AFP

Microsoft tells UN more can be done to combat digital terror

Microsoft tells UN more can be done to combat digital terrorNEW YORK: Microsoft told the United Nations on Wednesday that technology companies can do more to combat digital terror, but warned there was no single solution to prevent terrorists from using the web.

“There is no silver bullet that will stop terrorist use of the Internet,” Microsoft’s vice president Steven Crown told a special Security Council debate on counter-terrorism.

It was the first time an IT company addressed the Security Council, which has been increasingly concerned by the use of the Internet and social media by jihadists such as the Islamic State group.

Crown said the challenge posed by terrorism on the web was daunting but that the industry was willing to discuss ways to counter “misuse of our technologies to spread violence, to destroy and to kill.”

“We know that there are tens of thousands of terrorist Internet accounts that refuse to die. As one is taken down, another quickly springs up in its place,” he said.

During the 15 minutes that followed the Paris attacks in November, there were 7,500 tweets and within two weeks, one million views of videos on the Internet praising the attacks, he said.

“Any technology can be used for good or for evil,” said Crown.

“This was true of fire — think of arson – of gunpowder, of the printing press and it is also true of our information technology products and platforms.”

Microsoft and other ICT companies are taking part in a new initiative under the UN’s counter-terrorism committee to agree on ways to address the threats, he said.

Industry response

The Microsoft official likened the new cooperation in the diverse sector to the joint effort to combat child pornography on the Internet.

“Microsoft services and Microsoft the company are different from Google, which is different from Facebook, which is different from Twitter,” he said.

“We compete fiercely at times, incredibly fiercely, but we have come together when our platforms are misused.”

He suggested that steps could be taken to make it easier for governments to report to companies any misuse of the Internet and to help them with investigations.

Crown warned, however, that respect for the rule of law, human rights and upholding freedom of expression must be a “foundation” for any action.

“Our activities in this realm must be principled, but we must press beyond what we are doing today,” he said.

A UN report last year raised alarm about the “growth of high-definition digital terror: the use of propaganda, primarily by Islamic State and its sympathizers, to spread fear and promote their distorted ideology.”

IS recruiters have made savvy use of the Internet and social media to build up the group’s pool of foreign fighters.

About 30,000 foreign fighters have flocked to Syria, Iraq and other countries to join the ranks of jihadists.

– AFP