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NATO chief wades into fiery German debate on armed drones

COLOGNE, Germany – NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he supports the use of armed drones to protect soldiers’ lives, wading into a fierce debate in Germany about buying such technology for future operations.

Stoltenberg told the German press agency DPA that the alliance would use weaponized unmanned aircraft in accordance with international law and in support of deployed troops. “These drones can support forces on the ground and reduce the number of pilots we send in harm’s way,” he was quoted as saying.

His comments come as the question of arming drones has caused a major kerfuffle between the CDU and SPD parties, which form Germany’s coalition government. Specifically, the disagreement is about whether the Bundeswehr should be allowed to lease Israeli-made Heron TP drones armed with missiles. More broadly, though, the debate is about different visions for Germany as a participant in the military fabric of the West.

Earlier this month, the SPD leadership decided to reject the acquisition of armed drones in principle, arguing that a broad debate here on ethical aspects of their use had not yet taken place, as prescribed in the government’s coalition agreement.

The party’s surprise move came after defense department officials had formally studied the issue for the better part of the year as part of a public campaign, holding hearings with experts of various backgrounds and sending a final report to lawmakers.

The SPD parliamentary spokesman on defense matters, Fritz Felgentreu, who backs the use weaponized drones under limited conditions, resigned his job in protest, arguing the party leadership’s claim of a lackluster drone debate was dishonest.

Following Stoltenberg’s remarks to DPA on Wednesday, Felgentreu joked on Twitter that the secretary-general would make a “smart Social Democrat,” a reference to his own party.

Stoltenberg’s stance is unlikely to sway any opinions here, as those rejecting armed drones for the Bundeswehr are unlikely to be glowing NATO supporters to begin with.

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NATO chief wades into fiery German debate on armed drones

It remains to be seen how Germany’s drone debate of seven-plus years evolves before it reaches the relevant decision-making stage for the French-German Eurodrone. One of the unmanned aircraft’s roles, besides spying and surveillance, is firing weapons in combat under certain conditions. Similarly, the Future Combat Air System, a French-German-Spanish project, is slated to include a series of so-called “remote carriers,” some of which will have kinetic effects.

The U.S. government’s counterterrorism drone wars since the Bush administration, often executed somewhere in the gray zone between military and paramilitary operations, still loom large in the collective conscience of Germany’s antiwar left.

Proponents of armed drones for the Bundeswehr have accused the SPD skeptics of mistrusting the government, and their own parliament, with a more responsible use of those weapons.

Airbus Defence and Space CEO Dirk Hoke, whose company manages the Heron TP lease and co-leads the Eurodrone and FCAS programs, told reporters earlier this month that he was banking on “a shift” in German public opinion to support the idea of armed drones in the end. “Our population realizes that we see higher volatility, more crises, and that the biggest economy in Europe cannot stay from the accountability and responsibility coming with that role,” he said.

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How to solve logistical challenges during a South China Sea conflict

“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.”

— Sun Tzu

Throughout history, thoughtful and responsive logistics plans have played decisive roles in such dramatic victories as the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Conversely, the lack of logistics planning has led to disastrous defeats such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In 1959, the assistant chief of staff for logistics to NATO, Rear Adm. Henry Eccles, defined logistics: “Logistics is the bridge between the economy of the nation and the tactical operations of its own combat forces.” This bridge must be developed and sustained if the forces are to be fed and equipped for conflict.

With its vast expanses of open ocean and seas as well as thousands of remote islands with little or no infrastructure, the Asia-Pacific theater presents multiple challenges to that bridge between the United States and U.S. armed forces in the region. U.S. troops operating in the region are separated from the “economy of the nation” by the world’s largest ocean. China exerts influence and expands claims in its backyard of the East and South China seas. The lack of infrastructure prevents large cargo planes from landing and large ships from pulling into a port.

The logistical challenges that would be faced in a conflict with China are daunting.

The terrain

China’s expansionist aims center primarily around the Spratly and Paracel islands. They are strategic for their rich fisheries, vast oil and natural gas reserves, and the trillions of dollars of shipping that pass through the area. These island chains, spread over 1.35 million square miles, consist of hundreds of small islands and reefs with little or no infrastructure.

According to the CIA, the Spratly Islands have only eight airports, five helipads and zero port facilities. In the Paracel Islands, the Chinese have built an artificial harbor and airfield on Woody Island that houses over 1,000 People’s Liberation Army forces.

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How to solve logistical challenges during a South China Sea conflict

With China’s Navy now outnumbering the U.S. Navy, more force multipliers, such as the next generation of vertical lift and a more robust strategic sealift fleet, are needed to fill the gap.

The threat

The Chinese understand the importance of logistics in the Western Pacific. Extending their reach in the South and East China seas is an attempt at increasing their logistical advantage in the region. The seas will provide food to feed their people, oil and gas to fuel their machines, and control of approximately 20 percent of the world’s trade.

How to solve logistical challenges during a South China Sea conflict
This photo taken Feb. 25, 2014, and received from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on April 13, 2015, shows an aerial shot of what appears to be a large-scale reclamation by China on the Chinese-held Johnson South Reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, in what is part of the disputed Spratly chain. (AFP via Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs)

If Chinese expansion in the South China Sea remains unabated, China could exert influence well beyond its borders, undermining the international law of the sea.

A 2020 study by the think tank Rand concluded that “once occupied [by Chinese forces,] China will be able to exert its influence thousands of miles south and project power deep into the ocean.” This will threaten not only our partners and allies in the region, but previously uncontested sea lines of communication. The central tenant to this threat is the anti-access/area denial umbrella China is building to deny maneuver in the contested regions.

The challenge

To negate the A2/AD umbrella of long-range sensors and missiles, a January 2019 Medium article stated the first component of the plan is to “disperse forces and capabilities to many locations for operational maneuver.”

This spreads the risk to U.S. assets and potentially expands the sphere of influence. Supporting a mobile and disaggregated force in the South China Sea will require a large, responsive sealift fleet and robust heavy vertical lift.

Unfortunately, the sealift fleet has been neglected for decades, passed over for investments in aircraft carriers and submarines. Those platforms continue to provide the United States a strategic military advantage. But they can’t operate without food to feed the crews and parts to fix the aircraft, ships and submarines. This lack of investment has led to a predictable reduction in readiness.

According to a January National Defense article during a recent sealift mobilization exercise, “only 64% [of ships] were ready for tasking, and only 40% of the fleet was prepared to conduct operations at the level they were expected to.” The article went on to state: “That’s a major problem because the military’s sealift capabilities would be critical in the event of a great power war.”

Fortunately, an Oct. 16 Forbes article reported that improvements to sealift would come at a modest cost and currently enjoy bipartisan support as well the support of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The approach is three-pronged: Extend the service life of the most modern vessels in the Ready Reserve Fleet; buy secondhand foreign commercial ships for modification; and build a new class of auxiliary vessels in domestic shipyards.

The Army’s role

Thought of as primarily a land force, a 2014 Rand study on the Army’s role concluded that supporting the joint force “may prove to be among the Army’s most important roles in a major conflict with China — and one for which currently programmed forces might prove inadequate.”

In a maritime environment with very little infrastructure, that means expanding shipboard heavy vertical lift. The Army’s heavy-lift helicopter is the CH-47. While the CH-47 has proven a reliable workhorse for the land-based Army, it has some disadvantages when it comes to operating aboard ships, and the lack of an aerial refueling probe limit its range.

The Marines are readying their next generation of heavy vertical lift, the CH-53K, for deployment, having just successfully completed sea trials this June. The CH-53K has several advantages over the CH-47 for sustaining disaggregated operations in a maritime environment. It has 50 percent greater external lift capacity, aerial refueling, shipboard compatibility, and a fly-by-wire, digital design.

How to solve logistical challenges during a South China Sea conflict
Marine Corps CH-53K King Stallion’s technical problems have been solved, maker says

The CH-53K is scheduled to join Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One on Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, by the end of October.

By: Philip Athey

While the CH-47 will continue to play the lead role in Army heavy vertical lift, having a shipboard-compatible, heavy-lift aircraft would increase the Army’s heavy lift capabilities and help to close the sustainment gap.

The longer the sustainment gap continues in the South China Sea, the higher the risk of Chinese expansion. That expansion could result in a dramatic shift to Chinese hegemony at the expense of the U.S. and our allies in the region.

Developing robust logistics infrastructure does not come easy or quickly. Fortunately, there are solutions to revitalize the strategic sealift fleet and augment the Army’s CH-47s with CH-53Ks. Manufacturing helicopters and training their crews for an Army maritime mission will take time. Building and refurbishing ships, and training and recruiting the crews that will sail them, will take an even longer time.

The question is: Will military planners realize time is running out and act before China takes the advice of its ancient general, Sun Tzu? “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

Time will tell.

Scott Trail is a retired Marine CH-46 and V-22 developmental test pilot who now works as a senior research engineer for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He has flown the CH-53E once and deployed twice (once to Afghanistan in 2001) with a squadron reinforced by CH-53E helicopters.

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The White Land Tax will spur development opportunities

JEDDAH: After the first phase of the White Land Tax (WLT) program generated SR1.4 billion ($373 million), the Ministry of Housing announced it will push ahead with the second phase of the initiative in the first quarter of 2021.

The Kingdom made the decision in 2016 to capitalize on undeveloped land in urban areas, which makes up 30 percent of those areas. A 2.5 percent tax, based on land value, was issued to landowners who had purchased plots but left them undeveloped.

The program aims to increase the volume of plots available to develop urban areas, offer residential land at reasonable prices and provide fair competition while stopping land monopolization.

Susan Amawi, strategic consulting director at real estate consultancy firm JLL, told Arab News that for the Kingdom to achieve its Vision 2030 goals it must continue to invest in giga-projects that help to develop the real estate sector. “The implementation of the second phase of the WLT program is expected to be a primary contributor to the Kingdom’s Vision, as it will encourage developers to speed up the development of their lands to avoid paying taxes,” she said.

The tax program was introduced in four phases. The first one imposes an annual fee on undeveloped plots with an area of 10,000 square meters or more. The second phase imposes tax on developed lands owned by a proprietor and where the plot is in a housing area exceeding 10,000 square meters.

The third phase covers developed land owned by a proprietor in an approved housing area when the total area exceeds 5,000 square meters. In the final phase, the fee is imposed on developed land belonging to a single owner in an urban area and where the plot is of a total area exceeding 10,000 square meters. According to Amawi, introducing the second phase is bound to “narrow (the) supply-demand gap” in the real estate sector, specifically middle-class housing areas and land that could be used for hotel and retail projects in secondary cities.

“Employing low-cost solutions, developments will raise the profile of the cities and bolster the growth of the real estate sector in the Kingdom,” she said.

One of the reasons why developers leave plots idle is high development costs, but Amawi advised them to avoid this by adopting innovative, modern construction techniques.

“Modern construction techniques (MCTs) such as modular or prefabricated construction and 3D printing are known for their sustainability and considerable efficiency in reducing construction cost and time,” she said.

“Research studies have proven that these techniques could save on construction costs by an average of 20 percent and on construction time by around 20 percent to 50 percent more than traditional construction methods,” she said. Opportunities to use these technologies are abundant in the Kingdom. In 2018, Saudi Arabia became the first Middle Eastern country to develop a 3D-printed house in Riyadh. The Ministry of Housing has also completed 23 projects on prefabricated villas to encourage these technologies.

As for hotel developers, Amawi believes MCTs can be used to enhance budget hotel experiences in the Kingdom.

“MCTs (could) contribute to the development of sustainable budget hotels, such as eco-lodges or green hotels. These are designed to blend seamlessly with the city’s culture, heritage and nature, and attract domestic or international tourists visiting on a budget,” she said.

Hotels could reduce operational costs if they invested in creative modern technologies such as “self-check-in hotel systems using mobile apps for room bookings and hotel amenities and room key-activated smart systems that go into energy-saving mode,” Amawi said.

In the retail sector, MCT could be used in indoor and outdoor cinemas, e-gaming expos, entertainment centers for families and concerts through refitting shipping containers, and by using 3D printing to create retail box parks, she said.

DUBAI: While Dubai’s economy is expected to contract by 6.2 percent in 2020, with the travel and hospitality sectors hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the emirate saw a surge in bank financing for the transport, storage and communications sectors, and strong growth in the establishment of new financial technology (fintech) companies licensed to operate.
“Our leadership’s directives were focused on ensuring that the short-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic does not translate into a long-term economic hardship that would inflict lasting damage on people and businesses by way of job losses and bankruptcies,” Sami Al-Qamzi, director general of Dubai Economy, said in a statement.
According to a report by Dubai Economy, economic growth in the emirate during the first half of 2020 declined by 10.8 percent, and is forecast to contract by 6.2 percent for the full year.
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, global travel restrictions had a big impact on the hotels and restaurants sector, which contracted by 20 percent, followed by the transport and storage sector (down 11 percent) and the retail and wholesale trade sector (down 9 percent).

The White Land Tax will spur development opportunities
Graphic by Farwa Rizwan/Arab News

Throughout the pandemic, Dubai’s government launched four stimulus packages designed to support the local business community and reduce the economic impact of COVID-19. These support packages were valued at around 6.8 billion UAE dirhams ($1.85 billion).
“According to a recent study by Dubai Economy, Dubai’s stimulus packages contributed to reducing the economic impact of the crisis by limiting the expected economic contraction to 6.2 percent in 2020, a decline that is in line with the growth outlook of countries around the globe as reported by the International Monetary Fund,” Dubai Economy said in a report issued by WAM, the UAE state news agency.
Al-Qamzi said: “These efforts include investment in healthcare and food security that will not only reduce the likelihood of future shocks, but also contribute to enhancing the Emirate’s resilience against such shocks.”
According to the Dubai Statistics Centre, activity in the hospitality and food services sector decreased by 34.6 percent in the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2019. Real estate, a key pillar of Dubai’s economy, saw activity down 3.7 percent.
The financial sector reported more positive figures, with activity up 1.4 percent. The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) added 310 new companies during the first half of 2020, up 25 percent compared to the same period last year, bringing the number of active companies in the free zone to 2,584.
Businesses in the emirate also enjoyed support from the banking sector, with the amount of credit distributed to residents up 5.5 percent by the end of the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period last year.
The data also showed 52 percent growth in financing for transport, storage and communications activity, and a 19 percent increase in personal finance for business purposes.
Staying with the sector, there was a surge in fintech companies, with 87 new ones joining the DIFC in the first half of 2020, a year-on-year increase of 74 percent.
Other sectors to see growth included productive activities such as agriculture, mining and industry, which grew 1 percent in the first half.
The government sector recorded growth of 1.1 percent in the same period, contributing 5.4 percent to the emirate’s real gross domestic product. Total government spending in the first half grew 6 percent year-on-year.

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Saudi Arabia’s technology commission signs MoUs to boost digital transformation

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) on Sunday signed three memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with global telecommunications firms — Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.
The MoUs will support and strengthen the commission’s objectives of enabling the Kingdom’s digital transformation.
The three companies will help the CITC localize the latest technologies in accordance with the global practices.
The MoUs also include holding training courses for CITC’s employees.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program are accelerating primary and digital infrastructure projects with the aim of raising living standards.  
The Kingdom has made notable progress in international indicators. It was ranked the most advanced and reform-driven country according to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report. It also ranked third globally in terms of 5G networks.

LONDON: Saudi Arabia's relationship with Bahrain is “deep and solid,” and ties between the two countries have spanned many years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Thursday.

The crown prince was speaking at the first meeting of the Saudi-Bahraini Coordinating Council.

He said the body would develop bilateral ties to advance relations in all fields including politics, economics, security, military, investment, development and culture.

He added that the two countries were working closely to confront the challenges facing the region and to preserve the interests, security and stability of the two kingdoms.

The crown prince expressed confidence that the meeting would pave the way for the council’s committees to begin work.

He thanked Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa and members of the council for their efforts and contributions to the meeting.

Organizational procedures will be approved during the meeting.

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Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance

DUBAI: It all started when the monarch of Bahrain donated a plot of land to the kingdom’s Catholic community seven years ago. Officially taking matters a step further, in 2014 King Hamad Al-Khalifa met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, reassuring him of Bahrain’s commitment to coexistence and presenting him with a detailed three-foot-long model of a proposed cathedral and its surroundings.

Next year, Bahrain will inaugurate the largest Catholic cathedral in the Gulf region, the latest testament to its longstanding tradition of openness and tolerance.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, expected to open to the public in May, sits on a complex of approximately 9,000 square meters in the expatriate-populated municipality of Awali, located about 20 kilometers away from the capital Manama.

Aside from the cathedral, the palm tree-lined complex will feature a multipurpose building, a spacious courtyard, as well as a two-story parking area. How is it that this small, predominantly Muslim island nation — smaller in area than London — is building a significant monument to the Christian faith?

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance
Cathedral sits on a complex of approximately 9,000 square meters in the expatriate-populated municipality of Awali. (Supplied)

Closely monitoring the cathedral’s construction is the Kerala-born priest Father Saji Thomas, who has served in Bahrain as part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia for the last seven years.

Father Thomas took over this herculean architectural project after Italian Bishop Camillo Ballin’s sudden death in April. “I was left like a fish out of water,” Father Thomas told Arab News.

“It was a tough time for me, but since Bishop Camillo had told me how to go about with the cathedral, I later found it easy. I feel so proud to be a part of the construction project.”

Although the coronavirus pandemic affected building plans, 80 percent of the cathedral’s physical construction has been completed, he said. Designed to accommodate 2,300 congregants, the cathedral is a collaboration between the Bahraini firm Mohammed Jalal Contracting and a team of experienced architects and engineers from Italy.

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance
King Al Khalifa presents Pope Francis with a model of the upcoming cathedral in 2014. ('A Brief History of Christianity in Bahrain' by Betsy Mathieson)

Father Thomas explained that the unique shape of the cathedral is meant to resemble a tent in which, according to the Old Testament, the prophet Moses met with people. The structure is topped with an octagonal dome — a geometric detail that is deeply symbolic and implemented in a number of churches around the world, such as the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and Germany’s Aachen Cathedral.

In Christianity, the number 8 represents Resurrection and a new beginning. Its interior four walls and alter have a marble finishing, while the four corners of the cathedral contain four chapels and an area of elevators leading to the underground parking space.

Notably, one of the chapels reveals the patron saint of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia: Our Lady of Arabia – the crowned Virgin Mary holding a rosary and the Christ Child. Looking above, in the apse of the cathedral, the visitor contemplates a series of hand-painted icons, created in Italy, that convey biblical scenes from the Nativity of Jesus Christ to the Last Supper and Crucifixion.

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance
Father Saji Thomas

Furthermore, the cathedral’s altar, baptistery, pews and other furnishings are also crafted in Italy.

The adjacent multipurpose building is pending. Made up of five floors, the building acts as a pastoral center, the residence and office of the Bishop and his assistants, as well as a place for educating newcomers the history, laws and traditions of the countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) belonging to the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia.

The cathedral’s presence reaffirms the reputation of Bahrain — home to 1.5 million citizens — as a land of openness and tolerance of other religions, including Judaism and Hinduism.

Because Bahrain was an accessible entrepot for traders and foreigners who brought along their ideas and established schools, aviation, oil and banking companies, the first Catholic Church erected in the Arabian Peninsula was in modern-day, pre-independence Manama in 1939.

The well-known Sacred Heart Church — built on land donated by the Emir of Bahrain — still stands today, opening its doors to thousands of Catholics.

Father Thomas explained that a key factor that led the country to live in its culture of acceptance is the support coming from the monarchy. “I think it mostly depends upon the ruling family. From the very beginning onwards, the King and the royal family were very kind to the expatriates,” he said.

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance

Bahrain’s constitution protects non-Muslims’ right to pursue their freedom of worship and display symbols of their faith. Along with their Muslim counterparts, they have held high positions in a variety of fields — from legislation to commerce.

Another crucial date in the history of Christianity in Bahrain is 1892, when the American Reverend Samuel Zwemer and his missionaries landed in this Arab territory and set up the first Protestant church in the region. Today, 19 registered churches exist in different parts of Bahrain, such as Sar and Budaiya, and about 9 percent of the population is Christian.

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance

“We have a good workforce, in the Middle East and the Gulf area, of expatriates from all over the world. We have engineers, doctors and nurses,” Father Thomas said, referring to expats, who make up over half of the kingdom’s total population. He also noted that many of Bahrain’s Christians come from South Asia, namely India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Europeans and Arabs from the Levant region account for the rest of the island’s Christian population.

Originally from Cyprus, 32-year-old Mario Glykys is a Dubai-based digital consultant, who grew up in Bahrain from the age of 3 until 18. He recalls a “very positive experience” of living with his family in Bahraini society as an expat and a practising member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance
Mario Glykys

“I realize more and more over the years how lucky we were to be able to grow up in such a diverse society,” Glykys told Arab News. “I always felt part of the community and I never felt as if I was an outsider within that community. In terms of a religious standpoint, acceptance is the word that I can use. We always never felt that we had an issue practising our faith – it was actually quite the opposite.”

When the Christmas season arrived every year in Bahrain, “similar to the UAE, you go to hotels and they’re all made up with Christmas trees to celebrate the period,” Glykys said, adding that the island’s Muslims “warmed to” such festive displays. “There was a lot of interest in trying to understand outside of their religion and potentially their culture as well to see how other people celebrate and what their beliefs are,” he said.

Glykys is not surprised that the Gulf’s biggest cathedral is coming up in Bahrain. “It’s really nice to see Bahrain being a pioneer in allowing people to follow their religion.” One Bahraini Muslim national, who wished to remain anonymous, said although a wave of extremist ideologies overshadowed the Gulf in the late 1970s — following Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Siege of Mecca in 1979 — Bahrainis eventually returned to “rationality and reason.”

He put it this way: “Bahrain is a place of diversity of thought. They never changed what Bahrain was about and this is something I’m very proud of.”

Many people in the Gulf view tiny Bahrain as a promising example for the wider Middle East of what having respect for others can look like. “The coexistence of religions is possible,” Father Saji said, pointing out that a mosque stands just two kilometers away from the cathedral. “That’s precisely and explicitly what we are seeing here in Bahrain with the construction of the cathedral.”

Twitter: @artprojectdxb

TUNIS, Tunisia: Tunisian authorities say 20 African migrants were found dead Thursday after their boat, which was trying to reach Europe, sank in the Mediterranean Sea. Five survivors were rescued and authorities are searching for up to 20 others believed missing.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ben Zekri told The Associated Press that Tunisian coast guard boats and local fishermen found the bodies off the coastal city of Sfax in central Tunisia.
According to the survivors, the migrant smuggling boat was carrying about 40 or 50 people heading toward Italy, Ben Zekri said.
Tunisian navy units are on the scene to search for any more survivors.

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We have everything we need - diverse nature, strong culture, great people - to achieve our target: Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is on track to meet its ambitious target of attracting 100 million visits to the Kingdom by 2030, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, the Kingdom’s Minister for Tourism, told Arab News.

“Our target is indeed ambitious,” he said. “However, we have everything we need to achieve our target.”

Some analysts have questioned whether the 100 million target might be too challenging to achieve, especially set against the numbers of tourists that visit countries with many decades of investment in the tourism industry, like France and the UAE, which respectively had 96 million and 16 million last year.

But Al-Khateeb — appointed minister last year — is confident that the Kingdom’s unexplored attractions will be an irresistible lure for global tourists in search of new experiences.

“We have a large country, diverse nature, a strong culture and great people, and therefore we have everything to get to the target we announced. I don't know any reason why not,” he insisted.

The minister was appearing on Frankly Speaking, the new series of televised interviews in which leading playmakers, in the Kingdom and beyond, are questioned on the big issues of the day.

We have everything we need - diverse nature, strong culture, great people - to achieve our target: Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb
The drive to develop the Saudi tourism industry is one of the main pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy. (Supplied)

He backed up his confidence with some hard facts. Saudi Arabia had 40 million visits of all kinds in 2019, according to statistics from the UN World Tourism Organization, compared with around 1.5 billion tourists globally in 2019, leaving a big potential market for Saudi Arabia to aim at.

Large number of those travelers — around 600 million, Al-Khateeb estimated — wanted “sun, sea and sand” holidays, and he said Saudi Arabia was well placed to offer those attractions. “We are building amazing destinations at the Red Sea, all the way from NEOM to Amaala and Jeddah Downtown, therefore we will enrich the sun and sea offering and we will compete (in that segment),” he said.

But there seems to be no plans to offer alcoholic refreshments to those holiday-makers. Some industry analysts regard alcohol as an essential part of the global tourism package, but Al-Khateeb said that his own market research did not necessarily back this up.

“From the research we have conducted in more than 25 countries — and we took a very big sample — 40 to 50 percent of travelers say they would travel to our destinations that are not offering alcohol. Therefore, we have a lot to offer other than alcohol, and there is a lot to improve in hospitality, culture, food or luxury. You name it, we will be competing on other things,” he said.

More relaxed standards of dress would be allowed on private beaches and resorts — as is currently the practice in the Kingdom. But here are no current plans to change the dress code on public beaches in Saudi Arabia, he added.

The drive to develop the Saudi tourism industry is one of the main pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy. The Kingdom has been progressively relaxing the strict travel and visa requirements of previous years, and is looking to promote it as a tourist destination across all sectors of the travel market.

The ministry’s market research also revealed a big potential market for affluent travelers seeking to explore culture, heritage and history in Saudi Arabia. “Some 30 percent of the 1.5 billion travelled for history and heritage and we have 10,000 discovered historical sites in Saudi Arabia, and five UNESCO listed sites,” Al-Khateeb said.

“Therefore, we will definitely enrich the history and heritage offering globally. People are anxious to come and experience and learn about civilizations past in this region thousands of years ago,” he said.

High-end elite tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the international travel business, and Saudi Arabia hopes to capitalize on this trend, bringing big-spending affluent travelers to sites like AlUlla and other historical locations on the Red Sea. “We see a gap in this luxury offering,” Al-Khateeb said.

We have everything we need - diverse nature, strong culture, great people - to achieve our target: Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb
Saudi Arabia had 40 million visits of all kinds in 2019. (Supplied/Royal Commission for Al-Ula)

But he is also conscious of the financial attractions of the middle segment of the tourism market, seeking beach or adventure holidays. “Today we have major offerings in 2-, 3- and 4-star accommodation, as well as food and beverage and retail. When it comes to these activities, like sport and the adventure, we are improving our offering at the high end and we are building destinations that will also satisfy the middle segment,” he said.

“Whether at the mountains or the cities or the sea it is the same thing. We have many projects today that are catering for the middle class.”

After careers in banking and government service, Al-Khateeb became tourism minister with a mandate to propel the industry towards new highs, and launched new seasons of visitor attractions late last year, alongside a fast-track visa application process for many countries in the world. But he was almost immediately faced with the huge challenge of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has hit global tourism harder than perhaps any other area of economic activity.

He sees some silver lining in the pandemic, and the government response to it.

“We focused on domestic tourism, so we launched the summer campaign this year and it was a great success. The campaign was supervised by the health committee, and they ensured social distancing and people wearing masks. The result was that more than 8 million people travelled around the 10 destinations that we launched in the summer, and more than $3bn dollars were spent domestically,” he said.

Saudis have traditionally been big spenders on their foreign travels, effectively exporting $22 billion of tourism spend in 2019. Al-Khateeb hopes that some of that cash can be kept in the Kingdom in the future as domestic attractions open up. “We have reduced the leakage. In 2019 we launched 11 ‘seasons’ in Saudi Arabia and reduced the travel outside by 30 percent. When we continue to do this, we will definitely reduce the leakage — Saudis will like to stay at home and they will enjoy the offering,” he said.

We have everything we need - diverse nature, strong culture, great people - to achieve our target: Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb
Landscape shot between Wadi Al Dawasir and Haradh in Saudi Arabia. (AFP/File photo)

Luring visitors from the wider Gulf region is also a priority. But the big plans for the Saudi tourism industry will require big investment, and a large proportion of it is expected from outside investors who can be persuaded that the Kingdom is a viable destination - for global tourists as much as for their investment dollars. As a former banker, Al-Khateeb understands very well the challenges involved.

“We need to inject about $70 billion until 2023, and more than $200 billion by 2030 to fill the gap in the offering, whether in retail or in hospitality or in recreation,” he said. “Therefore, we have been sharing our story with the world. They (international investors in leisure) came and looked at our amazing natural resources, our heritage and history and culture, and they definitely see that there is an amazing opportunity,” he said.

“We are very optimistic about attracting investors from outside Saudi Arabia to come and join our very rewarding journey.”

Foreign investment in all sectors is up 12 per cent so far this year, even with the challenges of the pandemic. There is no doubting the challenges involved in “selling” Saudi tourism to a sometimes skeptical world that often fails to see the Kingdom’s attractions while it is focusing instead on negative stereotypes. But Al-Khateeb thinks that, as more and more people visit the country and experience its unique attractions, that global mindset will gradually change.

“Saudi Arabia is going through a major transformation, and we welcome and invite people to come and experience Saudi Arabia and see the changes that happened in the last few years,” he said. “We have achieved a lot so far and the best thing to do is to come and experience life here and see the changes on the ground.”

Twitter: @frankanedubai

DUBAI: Over 500,000 people in Saudi Arabia have already registered to take the COVID-19 vaccine since its launch last Tuesday, the Ministry of Health (MoH) said.
The ministry earlier urged the public to take part in the vaccination drive by registering through the Sehaty application, the Saudi Press Agency has reported.
The vaccination will be carried out in three stages, the MoH said, with each stage targeting a specific demographic.
The ministry also reassured the country of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

The Kingdom vs. COVID-19
How Saudi Arabia acted swiftly and coordinated a global response to fight the coronavirus, preventing a far worse crisis at home and around the world

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Santa's 'grandchildren' spread joy in Italian nursing homes

ALZANO LOMBARDO, Italy -- Emotions are running high this holiday season at the Martino Zanchi Foundation nursing home in northern Italy near Bergamo after months of near-total isolation for its residents.

Long-time resident Celestina Comotti was disbelieving as a staff member read aloud a Christmas greeting from a family peering at her expectantly over a video call.

“Damn!’’ Comotti exclaimed when nursing home staff confirmed that her well-wishers - 9-year-old Simon, his sister Marta and mother Alessia - were people she had never met before. The 81-year-old woman dissolved into tears.

"I am trembling,” she said, adjusting her eyeglasses.

Despite a grim year marked by death and loneliness, the holiday spirit is descending on the Zanchi nursing home, one of the first in Italy to shut its doors to visitors after a COVID-19 case was confirmed in the nearby hospital on Feb. 23.

The bearers of glad tidings were the so-called “grandchildren of Santa Claus,” people who answered a charity’s call to spread cheer to elderly nursing home residents, many of whom live far from their families or don’t have any family members left.

The “Santa’s grandchildren” program is in its third year. Last year, it matched 2,550 “grandchildren” with residents of 91 nursing homes. This year, 5,800 gifts were dispatched to 228 nursing homes around the country -- an outpouring that is, in part, a reaction to the devastating toll that the coronavirus has had on the elderly, comprising the majority of Italy’s confirmed 70,000 COVID-19 dead.

This was the Zanchi nursing home's first year participating in the “Santa’s grandchildren” program. The town of Alzano Lombardo, where the home is located, was one of the hardest hit in Bergamo province, where Italy’s first domestically transmitted coronavirus infections cases were discovered and touched off the country's deadly spring surge.

Michela Valle, the home's activities coordinator, said her goal wasn’t so much about fulfilling elderly Italians' wishes for holiday gifts but “about creating ties.’’ The program matched benefactors with 43 Zanchi residents this season. Valle hopes that one day, when pandemic eases substantially, there can be in-person meetings.

The recipients wore Santa hats during the virtual visits with their volunteer grandchildren. They received gifts to unwrap during the calls, too. Comotti's adoptive family sent her a shawl, just as she had requested.

“Blue, like your eyes,’’ nursing home director Maria Giulia Madaschi said. Comotti laughed happily as the workers wrapped the shawl around her.

Tami “Mario” Palmiro was thrilled with his baseball cap emblazoned with the name of Bergamo's Atalanta Serie A professional soccer team, provoking a stadium cheer from the 81-year-old, before he, too, broke down in tears.

Palmiro arrived at the nursing home in August, undergoing a transition more wrenching than usual due to virus-control procedures that strictly limit family visits, Madaschi said.

One of the “grandchildren,” Ilaria Sacco, said she signed up because she was unable to travel home to Italy from California for Christmas this year, and wanted to feel connected. Another, Caterina Damiano, explained that she had lost both of her grandparents this year “but I still want to be a grandchild.”

Madaschi said she often found herself moved to tears by the interactions, as the “nipoti" and “nonni” found common ground. Many are already creating ties, sometimes with real relatives facilitating contact with the new “nipoti."

“The guests could perceive the Christmas spirit, the joy of the holiday -- to be able to unwrap and gift, such a normal event in this anomalous period in which we are living,’’ she said. “It has been a wonderful experience. To be repeated.”

—————

Barry reported from Milan. Charlene Pele contributed from Alzano Lombardo and Alberto Pellaschiar contributed from Rome.

———

One Good Thing at AP: https://apnews.com/hub/one-good-thing

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Britain has one last contract for its Sentinel spy planes: Breaking them up

LONDON — The British Royal Air Force’s fleet of Sentinel battlefield and ground surveillance jets are officially heading for the scrapyard after the Ministry of Defence released a notice Dec. 22 seeking a company to break up the aircraft for spares.

The Defence Equipment Sales Authority, the arm of the MoD responsible for disposing of surplus equipment, said it was looking for companies interested in stripping five Sentinel R1 aircraft and two Sentry E-3D airborne early warning aircraft for spares and dismantling what remains.

The five Sentinel aircraft , a variant of the Bombardier Global Express business jet, were built at a cost of nearly £1 billion (U.S. $1.3 billion), with Raytheon UK leading the extensive modification of the aircraft.

The work to scrap the aircraft will be conducted at RAF Waddington – the service’s hub for all things related to intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) – and other sites around the U.K.

The notice said there is a significant number of associated inventory spares and ground support equipment available with the Sentinel.

The time scale for the work is not known, but the battlefield-surveillance aircraft is scheduled to go out of service early next year having earned plaudits wherever it served following its first operational sortie over Afghanistan in 2008.

The aircraft’s synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indicator have provided vital intelligence in places like Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, and most recently against Islamic State over Syria and Iraq.

Britain has one last contract for its Sentinel spy planes: Breaking them up
British defense secretary says ‘tough choices’ are coming due on spending

Britain’s forces face some difficult decisions over whether to junk capabilities and make cuts to legacy programs.

By: Andrew Chuter

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Britain has one last contract for its Sentinel spy planes: Breaking them up

The break-up notice brings to a close a 10-year squabble in the MoD to stop the premature curtailment of Sentinel operations.

As early as the 2010 strategic defense and security review (SDSR) the MoD sought to axe the capability, only to temporarily reprieve the jet five years later when the next review appeared in 2015.

The requirement for an expensive update of key systems proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Sentinel, though.

Howard Wheeldon, a consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said the military should have found the cash for the modernization of the jet.

“That Sentinel required capability upgrading should not have been the reason for its premature withdrawal. ISTAR remains one, if not the most important, element of air power capability and taking a [capability] gap is unacceptable,” he said.

“The decision to scrap Sentinel capability is not only one of the worst that emerged out of SDSR 2015 but it is also the one that I believe the U.K. will most likely come to regret. The lack of such important capability, and with no imminent replacement in prospect, is dangerous and ill advised,” Wheeldon said.

The British are investing in new ISTAR capability like the Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the Wedgetail airborne command and control platform, and the Protector long-endurance unmanned aircraft, but none of them are direct replacements for Sentinel capability.

“Britain’s reluctance to invest in Sentry capability over the past two decades typifies MoD failure in this sector. For NATO, which has become used to the U.K. being unable to meet its AWACS aircraft commitments for several years, the arrival of Wedgetail into the RAF fleet in a couple of years’ time cannot come a moment too soon,” said Wheeldon.

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UK reaches deal with France to allow trucks to cross border from Wednesday

UK reaches deal with France to allow trucks to cross border from Wednesday

An aerial view shows lines of freight lorries and heavy goods vehicles parked on the tarmac at Manston Airport near Ramsgate, south east England, on December 22, 2020.

Britain and France have reached a deal to reopen their border to haulers and some passengers from Wednesday, the British Department for Transport announced on Tuesday.

As part of the agreement, rapid turnaround lateral flow tests, which can return results in around 30 minutes, on lorry drivers with the help of the military will be deployed as part of the measures to unblock cross-channel trade.

Britain's NHS Test and Trace teams will establish multiple testing sites in the southeastern region of Kent, where more than 2,800 lorries have been left trapped since the shutdown of the border.

The agreement with France will be reviewed on December 31, but could run until January 6, according to the British Department for Transport.

Under the deal, entry into France will only be granted to those traveling for urgent reasons, including haulers, French citizens, and British citizens with French residency.

The Department for Transport said the full details of the protocol, including what would happen to EU lorry drivers waiting in Kent who might test positive, would be published on Wednesday.

Rail, air and sea services will resume on Wednesday morning, with all those traveling from Britain into France required to show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within the previous 72 hours.

France had closed its border with Britain amid fears of the spread of a new virus strain, with no lorries or ferry passengers able to sail from the port of Dover.

More than 50 countries have imposed restrictions on travelers from Britain.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced the new Tier Four restrictions for London and other parts of England to combat an alarming surge in infections linked to the new virus strain, which is said to be about 70 percent more transmissible.

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Massive spending bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump

WASHINGTON — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill approved Monday night went to President Donald Trump for his signature, which was expected in the coming days.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved it by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking, a logjam that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

Massive spending bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump
Congress boosts Missile Defense Agency budget by $1.3 billion

Congressional appropriators are poised to inject over $1 billion in additional funding into the Missile Defense Agency's FY21 budget, but still hold back support on a regional ballistic missile defense underlay to bolster the homeland defense capability already in place.

By: Jen Judson

The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached. Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted in the fall.

“This deal is not everything I want — not by a long shot,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longstanding voice in the party’s old-school liberal wing. “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether we help families or not. It’s about whether we help small businesses and restaurants or not. It’s about whether we boost (food stamp) benefits and strengthen anti-hunger programs or not. And whether we help those dealing with a job loss or not. To me, this is not a tough call.”

Congress also approved a one-week stopgap spending bill to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight and give Trump time to sign the sweeping legislation.

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Massive spending bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC on Monday morning that the direct payments would begin arriving in bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more aid to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were signaling a wait-and-see approach.

The measure would fund the government through September, wrapping a year’s worth of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw Senate committee or floor debate.

The legislation followed a tortured path. Democrats played hardball up until Election Day, amid accusations that they wanted to deny Trump a victory that might help him prevail. Democrats denied that, but their demands indeed became more realistic after Trump’s loss and as Biden made it clear that half a loaf was better than none.

Massive spending bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump
Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., on Dec. 20, 2020. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The final bill bore ample resemblance to a $1 trillion package put together by Senate Republican leaders in July, a proposal that at the time was scoffed at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as way too little.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a victory lap after blocking far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He said the pragmatic approach of Biden was key.

“The president-elect suggesting that we needed to do something now was helpful in moving both Pelosi and Schumer into a better place,” McConnell told The Associated Press. “My view about what comes next is let’s take a look at it. Happy to evaluate that based upon the needs that we confront in February and March.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, D-Calif., came to the Senate to cast her vote for the bill. “The American people need relief and I want to be able to do what I can to help them,” she said.

Massive spending bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump
Congress wants an inventory of all AI projects at the Pentagon

The director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center has 120 days to detail every AI project underway at DoD.

By: Andrew Eversden

On direct payments, the bill provides $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and $1,200 to couples making up to $150,000, with payments phased out for higher incomes. An additional $600 payment will be made per dependent child, similar to the last round of relief payments in the spring.

The $300 per week bonus federal jobless benefit was half that provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March. The direct $600 stimulus payment was also half the March payment.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread lockdowns in the spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough hasn’t heard the desperation in the voices of their constituents, has not looked into the eyes of the small-business owner on the brink of ruin,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, a lifelong New Yorker who pushed hard for money to help his city’s transit systems, renters, theaters and restaurants.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle-ground position that the top four leaders of Congress — the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate — used as the basis for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off of hardline positions.

“At times we felt like we were in the wilderness because people on all sides of the aisle didn’t want to give, in order to give the other side a win,” said freshman Rep. Elssa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was gross to watch, frankly.”

Massive spending bill passed by Congress, sent to Trump
President Donald Trump watches an NCAA college football game with Army cadets during the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 12, 2020, in West Point, N.Y. (Adam Hunger/AP)

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.

The sweeping bill also contains $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

Six GOP senators voted against the bill: Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

The governmentwide appropriations bill was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature. The Pentagon would receive $696 billion. Democrats and Senate Republicans prevailed in a bid to use bookkeeping maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more for domestic programs into the legislation.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It also would carry numerous clean-energy provisions sought by Democrats with fossil fuel incentives favored by Republicans, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires. Food stamp benefits would temporarily be increased by 15 percent.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for the length of legislation was the 2,847-page tax reform bill of 1986 — about one-half the size of Monday’s behemoth.

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China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Students practice Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, Dec. 14, 2020. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li An)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Aerial photo taken on June 29, 2018 shows students practicing Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li An)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Students practice Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, June 29, 2018. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li An)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Students practice Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, Dec. 14, 2020. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li Jianan)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Aerial photo taken on June 19, 2019 shows students practicing Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li An)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Students practice Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, June 19, 2019. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li An)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Aerial photo taken on Dec. 14, 2020 shows students practicing Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li Jianan)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

A villager practices Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, Dec. 14, 2020. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li Jianan)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

Villagers practice Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, Dec. 14, 2020. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li An)

 

China's Taijiquan listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

 

An instructor teaches Taijiquan in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, central China's Henan Province, Dec. 14, 2020. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed China's Taijiquan on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Taijiquan, a kind of traditional martial arts, was born in the mid-17th century in a small village named Chenjiagou located in Central China's Henan province, before it spread to more than 150 countries and regions, attracting more than 100 million people to practice. The village Chenjiagou has dozens of Taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters, drawing learners all over the world. (Xinhua/Li Jianan)

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Disaster action film "The Rescue" continues to top Chinese box office

BEIJING, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) -- Chinese movie "The Rescue" continued to lead the Chinese box office chart with a daily box office of 31.27 million yuan (about 4.78 million U.S. dollars) on Monday.

Disaster action film "The Rescue" continues to top Chinese box office

The disaster action blockbuster has raked in a total of 268 million yuan since its release on Dec. 18, according to data from the China Movie Data Information Network.

Domestic comedy "Bath Buddy" ranked second on the daily box office chart, grossing about 10.44 million yuan on its 11th day of hitting screens.

Coming in third was American comic adaptation "Wonder Woman 1984," which earned about 9.21 million yuan on Monday, its fourth day of release. 

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Action comedy now top earner in China's year-end movie season

BEIJING, Dec. 23 (Xinhua) -- Action comedy "Bath Buddy" is currently the top earner in China's five-week year-end movie season, according to film data platform Maoyan. It has generated a total revenue of about 364 million yuan (56 million U.S. dollars) as of Wednesday morning.

Running through Dec. 31, the competitive moviegoing season will see the releases of more than 30 new titles.

Coming in 12th on China's 2020 box office chart, "Bath Buddy" is followed by four other movies that have also crossed the 300 million yuan mark, including disaster action film "The Rescue" released on Friday last week, which has seen its total box office collection top 309 million yuan.

This week is set to see several big titles land in Chinese theaters, including crime thriller "Shock Wave 2," romantic drama "I Remember," fantasy feature "Dream of Eternity," and U.S. animated comedy "Soul."

China's 2020 box office revenues had hit 18.5 billion yuan by Wednesday morning. 

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Biden should continue building intermediate-range missiles

After withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump envisioned a comprehensive agreement that controlled all Russian and Chinese nuclear systems, including about 100 Russian and 2,200 Chinese ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles. With the Xi government unwilling to join arms control negotiations, the Trump administration expressed interest in a bilateral deal with Russia. To augment its bargaining position and military capabilities, it secured $181 million to develop intermediate-range conventional missiles.

On one hand, the Biden administration should continue building ground-based, intermediate-range conventional missiles, which will have significant operational value. Developing missiles previously restricted under the INF Treaty would create bargaining chips to trade for Russian and Chinese systems. Deploying intermediate-range missiles abroad would pressure the Putin and Xi governments to engage in serious arms negotiations. Plus, U.S. officials could propose an exchange of apples for apples, which would simplify negotiations with Russia and China.

On the other hand, the Biden administration should adopt a realistic approach to arms negotiations with Russia and China. President Trump’s stated objective — rapidly achieving a single accord that controlled all Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons — was a long shot. Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s readiness to talk, U.S. officials could first seek a bilateral deal with Russia. Then, they could pursue a bilateral accord with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race. The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018

Chinese and Russian dual-capable, ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles imperil American and allied security. Protected by Integrated Air Defense Systems, they can strike American and allied forces and bases throughout Eurasia. American and allied ballistic missile defenses can intercept adversary missiles, but they could be overwhelmed and destroyed by a committed salvo. Modern missiles, such as Russia’s Iskander-M (also known as SS-26), can also evade ballistic missile defenses.

The Xi government possesses thousands of intermediate-range missiles that can damage U.S. and allied airfields and naval installations throughout the Western Pacific. For instance, the United States maintains seven air bases within 1,100 kilometers of China. By utilizing radar and satellite imagery to detect vessels 2,000 kilometers from mainland China, Beijing can wreck U.S. and allied ships at sea.

The Putin government is deploying intermediate-range missiles to augment its anti-access/area denial capabilities in Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg and Crimea. For example, SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missiles can destroy European targets from deep in Russian territory. Road-mobile, shorter-range missiles, such as the Iskander-M, can also strike Western forces from Kaliningrad and Crimea.

As they develop modern missiles, American policymakers need to convince reluctant allies to host the weapons. If allies refuse, they could deploy systems on U.S. territory in Guam or the Northern Mariana Islands. Without concrete plans to station U.S. missiles abroad, those weapons will not produce meaningful leverage during arms talks.

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Biden should continue building intermediate-range missiles

In this context, U.S. officials can pursue reductions on Russian and Chinese ground-based, intermediate-range missiles separately and in a series of stages. For instance, Putin offered to extend the New START nuclear pact. He also suggested a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The Biden administration can exploit both overtures to jump-start negotiations about intermediate-range missiles.

Biden should continue building intermediate-range missiles
Report estimates Chinese nuclear stockpile at 350 warheads

These weapons include hypersonic missiles, silo-based and road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, and their submarine-launched equivalents.

By: Mike Yeo

A new generation of ground-based, intermediate-range conventional missiles could penetrate Russian and Chinese A2/AD bubbles to strike Integrated Air Defense Systems and time-sensitive targets, including aircraft on runways and missile launchers. For example, the Army’s extended-range Precision Strike Missile, the Navy’s ground-launched Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and the Navy’s multipurpose Standard Missile-6 will each achieve initial operational capability in 2023.

Developing and deploying intermediate-range missiles would allow the Biden administration to propose an exchange of apples for apples. For instance, Precision Strike Missiles could be traded for Russian and Chinese short-range ballistic missiles. Ground-launched Tomahawks could be exchanged for Russian SSC-8s and Chinese cruise missiles. SM-6s could be offered for Chinese medium-range ballistic missile and anti-ship missiles.

To overcome allied reluctance on basing, the Biden administration can couple missile deployments with arms control negotiations. Allied politicians could sell the basing program as a way to generate leverage to reduce the threat posed by adversarial missiles. If Moscow and Beijing refuse to negotiate, it would shift the onus of blame for U.S. missile deployments to Russia and China.

The Biden administration should not anticipate a rapid breakthrough during bilateral negotiations with Russia and China. As an opening gambit, it can propose a global ceiling on ground-based, intermediate-range missiles. A worldwide ceiling would facilitate future disarmament talks, when U.S. officials could recommend missile reductions. It would also require negotiators to forge consensus about the numbers, types and capabilities of missiles subject to limitation. The INF Treaty, President Ronald Reagan concluded, demonstrated “the rewards of patience.”

Luke Griffith is a a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Ronald Reagan Institute. He was previously a Stanton nuclear security postdoctoral fellow at the think tank Rand.

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Israel To Hold 4th Election In 2 Years As Coalition Fails To Pass Budget

Israel To Hold 4th Election In 2 Years As Coalition Fails To Pass Budget

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) wears a protective face mask as he makes his way to attend the swearing-in ceremony of his new government, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in May. The Knesset has dissolved and Israel is headed to new elections for the fourth time in two years. Alex Kolomiensky/AP hide caption

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Alex Kolomiensky/AP

Israel To Hold 4th Election In 2 Years As Coalition Fails To Pass Budget

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) wears a protective face mask as he makes his way to attend the swearing-in ceremony of his new government, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in May. The Knesset has dissolved and Israel is headed to new elections for the fourth time in two years.

Alex Kolomiensky/AP

Israeli politics is once again in turmoil: parliament has dissolved and Israel will hold yet another election expected on March 23. It will be Israel's fourth national vote in the span of two years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist coalition partner Benny Gantz failed to pass a national budget in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, before a midnight deadline, leading to parliament's automatic dissolution and new elections.

But analysts say the political crisis is primarily due to Netanyahu's interest in triggering early elections to stay in power beyond his current term, hoping to strengthen his hand as he fights corruption charges in court.

"The reason we're heading to an election is because Netanyahu refused to pass a budget as required by law and honor political agreements so that he can remain in power for the duration of his trial," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

Middle East

Netanyahu To Remain Israel's Prime Minister In Deal With Election Rival

After struggling to win a new term in three consecutive elections, Netanyahu managed to form a government at the start of the pandemic by agreeing to share power with Gantz and to let him take over as prime minister in November 2021. But the government was dysfunctional and many believed Netanyahu would seek new elections rather than let Gantz take the reins.

Netanyahu and Gantz tried to delay the parliament's possible dissolution for another few weeks, but defectors from their parties blocked that effort and preferred to push for new elections. Some even reportedly hid in their cars and ignored phone calls from their own parties before slipping into the Knesset to cast their dissenting votes.

In a televised speech hours before parliament dissolved, Netanyahu vowed he would win if new elections were held, citing his procurement of COVID-19 vaccines and forging diplomatic ties with four Arab countries.

"Most Israeli citizens see our leadership and our incredible accomplishments. We bring millions of vaccines, we bring historic peace agreements, we avert the Iranian threat, we turn Israel into one of the world's leading economies," he said.

Netanyahu's fight for reelection is likely to be an uphill battle. His ally President Trump, who is immensely popular in Israel and helped Netanyahu score political points in previous elections, will no longer be in the White House. Netanyahu's corruption trial is scheduled to resume with witness testimony in February. The pandemic will continue to disrupt Israeli life and a COVID-19 vaccine drive will still not be complete.

Gideon Saar, a formidable new challenger who quit Netanyahu's governing Likud party earlier this month, is seeking to replace him. Opinion polls show Saar has a good chance of beating Netanyahu by forming his own governing coalition of secular, mostly right-wing parties.

"We enter this election with a clear advantage in polls for the political right, but also the growing possibility of [a] coalition that refuses to cooperate with Netanyahu," Plesner said.

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Tokyo Olympics costs up by 22% to $15.4 billion

Tokyo Olympics costs up by 22% to $15.4 billion

The final budget for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games has been increased by 22% to 1.64 trillion yen (15.8 billion US dollars) because of the postponement of the Games.

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said at a news conference on Tuesday that the additional cost caused by the postponement is about 294 billion yen (about 2.83 billion US dollars), with the operational cost for the delay 198 billion yen (about 1.91 billion US dollars), and the COVID-19 countermeasures cost of 96 billion yen (about 920 million US dollars).

Of all the costs, Tokyo 2020 will cover 45%, the metropolitan government 43%, and the Japanese central government will account for 12%.

The cost for COVID-19 countermeasures will be paid by the two governments, with the central government covering 58% and the Tokyo government 42%.

The Tokyo Olympics, postponed by one year due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be held from July 23 to August 8, 2021.

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Li Chunjiang resigns as Zhejiang Lions head coach

HANGZHOU, China, Dec. 23 (Xinhua) -- The Zhejiang Lions announced on Monday that Li Chunjiang has resigned as the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) side's head coach, with former assistant coach Wang Bo stepping up to replace him.

One of the CBA's most successful coaches, Li led the Guangdong Southern Tigers to the CBA title seven times between 2001 and 2013.

The 57-year-old became the Lions' head coach in 2014, taking them to an historic runners-up spot in the 2017-18 CBA season.

Li had come under fire after the Lions slumped to 10th in the 2020-21 CBA rankings after losing six of their last seven games.

Although Li will no longer serve as head coach, he is to stay with Zhejiang as an advisor to the team.

Li's successor Wang played for the Lions for four years, and became assistant coach after retiring as a player in 2013. 

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Ex-Real Madrid boss Luxemburgo leaves hospital after second COVID-19 battle

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) -- Former Brazil and Real Madrid manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo was discharged from hospital on Tuesday after overcoming COVID-19 for a second time.

The 68-year-old was admitted to the Sirio-Libanes hospital in Sao Paulo on December 11 after complaining of severe body and head aches.

"I'm going home. I beat the virus. Thanks to the doctors and this marvelous hospital for taking care of me," Luxemburgo said in a video posted on social media.

The veteran coach was asymptomatic during his first bout of the virus in July.

Luxemburgo is the only manager to win five Brazilian Serie A titles. He was Brazil's national team boss from 1998 to 2000 and had an 11-month spell in charge of Real Madrid in 2005.

His most recent head coaching role was with Palmeiras, with whom he parted ways in October. 

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Yearender: Tokyo Olympics face uphill challenge to go out of tunnel

By sportswriter Wang Zijiang

TOKYO, Dec. 23 (Xinhua) -- Thousands of jubilant Tokyoites gathered by the Tokyo Bay on a winter night, intoxicated by fireworks in the shape and color of the five Olympic rings lit up the skyline of the Japanese capital.

It was late January, and in six months the Olympic Games would be declared open by Japan's longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the brand-new National Stadium. The whole country was gripped by euphoria. After nearly seven years' preparation, everything was seemingly on track to host the world's greatest sports event.

But only a few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world and the Tokyo 2020 organizers were struck by surprise. Although the atmosphere was getting tense day by day, they managed to stage the rehearsal for the Olympic torch relay, open the iconic volleyball arena and bring back the Olympic flame from Greece.

Japan's government and IOC president Thomas Bach both insisted the games could go forward, but the withdrawal of Canada and Australia dealt a deadly blow against their political ally in Asia.

Canada became the first country to withdraw from the games on March 22, warning that it wouldn't send its athletes to Tokyo unless they are postponed for a year. Australia followed suit by citing that it was impossible to assemble a team in time.

Under the mounting pressure, Abe and Bach agreed two days later to postpone the Olympics by about one year, making the Tokyo games the first Olympics postponed in history.

"The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present," the IOC said in a statement.

The tunnel proved much longer and darker than expected and it is easy to shake confidence, even for some from IOC, Tokyo 2020 and the Japanese government are doubtful whether the games can take place in 2021.

John Coates, who heads the IOC's coordination commission, told The Australian newspaper that the games might not go ahead as rescheduled while Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori, also a former Japanese prime minister, told Japanese state broadcaster NHK more frankly, "If the current situation continues, we can't (host the games next July)."

A poll of almost 13,000 Japanese companies showed that 53.6 percent want the Games postponed again or canceled entirely. Two-thirds of the public also backed postponement or cancellation.

Japan was in desperate need of the multi-sport extravaganza. They want to repeat the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games' performance, which helped transform Tokyo from a city still recovering from the Second World War into the major international metropolis it is today.

Expectations were high. Organizers had wanted the games to help reconstruct the earthquake and tsunami-hit area in 2011, to change the future of Japan, and most importantly, as Abe had imagined, to "vitalize the whole of Japan."

Fortunately, even when the country was in a state of emergency, some were still very determined that the games could be held in time. Bach maintained a "clear commitment to having these games in July next year," while Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who was running for re-election, pledged a "120-percent effort" to ensure games could go ahead.

Koike was successfully re-elected for a second term, winning more than 60 percent of the votes and beating 21 other candidates, including Taro Yamamoto, who had said he would cancel Tokyo 2020 if elected.

Bach said that the election result was a "reflection of the great confidence the citizens of Tokyo have in her leadership during these challenging times."

But more challenges were yet to come. On August 28, Abe, who played an important role in helping Tokyo win the bid seven years ago, resigned for health reasons, throwing the Olympics into new uncertainty.

Yoshihide Suga, dubbed the "continuity candidate" for ardently pledging to continue his predecessor's policies, became the new Prime Minister, and immediately promised to do "whatever it takes" to stage the Tokyo Olympics.

Doubts were gradually removed, and officials from the central and Tokyo metropolitan governments and Tokyo Olympic officials kicked off a long-awaited meeting in September to plan countermeasures against COVID-19. Serious steps were taken to consider how the games should be held.

On a four-day visit from November 14 to 18, Bach met with Suga and made the sports world breathe a sigh of relief by promising that the Tokyo Olympics will be held as planned next summer despite the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Bach also said that a "reasonable" number of spectators would be allowed into the games venues to watch the sporting action without taking vaccines.

Nine months after the games were postponed, several things are now clear. Firstly, the games will be simplified to save money and not be held "with grand splendor," as Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said. Secondly, the games will not be held behind closed doors. Thirdly, strict countermeasures against COVID-19 will be taken.

But too many questions will have to be answered in the coming months. Specific details regarding spectators, including those from overseas, will not be decided until spring next year when the test events resume.

Since late November, Japan has been suffering the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic, with the record for daily confirmed cases broken several times. Many experts were extremely concerned about the pace of the virus's spread, as it took less than two months for the figure to double to top the 200,000-mark, compared to the nine and a half months it took to reach the 100,000-mark from when the first case was diagnosed in January.

A latest opinion poll from NHK has shown that more than 30 percent of respondents think the Tokyo Olympics should be canceled.

There is still a long way to go before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. 

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Table tennis world team championships canceled in 2020 over COVID-19

SEOUL, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) -- The 2020 ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships was canceled amid the COVID-19 resurgence in South Korea, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) announced on Tuesday.

The ITTF executive committee met Monday with representatives from the continents to cancel the championships, originally scheduled to take place in March in Busan, the South Korean southeast port city.

The competition was already postponed three times this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The daily number of infections here have hovered around 1,000 in recent days, raising the total cases to 51,460 as of midnight Tuesday.

President of the Korea Table Tennis Association (KITA) Ryu Seung-min was informed by the South Korean authorities that it would not allow major international sporting events over the next few months.

The ITTF said in a statement that the 2021 World Table Tennis Championships will be held after the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, saying it will announce the finalized details of the event in January.

In addition, the ITTF executive committee approved the 2021 world rankings, the document of which will be made public later this week together with an event schedule for the first part of 2021 leading up to the Olympic Games.

The ITTF said the new world rankings will see the WTT Grand Smash events have equal world ranking points to the Olympic Games and World Table Tennis Championships. 

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China's education goes international from 2016 to 2020

China's education sector made progress in going international during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020), the Ministry of Education (MOE) said at a press conference on Tuesday.

While seeing many Chinese students studying overseas, China has emerged as a favorable destination for international students and joint-venture learning programs over the past five years, said Liu Jin, head of the Department of International Cooperation and Exchanges under the MOE.

BRAIN GAIN

As a result of China's opening-up policy in the education sector, talented people fostered gave a boost to the country's innovation drive, according to Liu.

Over 2.5 million Chinese students studied abroad from 2016 to 2019, Liu said, noting that 80 percent of these students returned to China after completing their programs.

This year, the country has so far received more than 300,000 applications for credential evaluation and recognition from students studying overseas. The figure is up by some 30,000 over last year, said Cheng Jiacai, director-general of the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange.

To encourage more students to return from overseas, China will actively address the needs of returning students. It will do so by improving the quality of services and creating favorable employment and entrepreneurial conditions for them, said Cheng.

FAVORED DESTINATION

In 2019, close to 55 percent of international students studying in China worked on degree programs, and the proportion was seven percentage points higher than that in 2016, said Liu.

Liu said students from countries along the Belt and Road route accounted for 54.1 percent of total international students studying in China in 2019.

She added that the Chinese mainland offered more education avenues for students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, about 45,000 students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan studied at mainland universities, Liu said.

The number of mainland universities that can enroll Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan students has risen to more than 400, out of which 225 are eligible to offer postgraduate programs, Liu said.

Liu added that nearly 1,800 projects received funding support from the ministry's exchange programs for teachers and students between higher education institutions on the mainland and those in Hong Kong and Macao from 2016 to 2019. Such exchanges benefited 56,000 people, Liu said.

INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION AT DOORSTEP

During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, 580 schools and programs jointly run by Chinese and overseas education institutions have been approved and put on record by the MOE, including 356 joint-venture universities, Liu said.

So far, China has 2,332 international joint-venture learning institutions and programs, she added, noting that 1,230 of them offer programs of higher learning.

Chinese higher learning institutions have become significant partners with world-class universities as the joint-venture university programs on the Chinese mainland now enroll more than 300,000 students, Liu said.

As the coronavirus stopped many Chinese students from pursuing further education overseas, the MOE has supported 94 joint-venture programs, universities, and learning institutions to expand enrollment temporarily, according to Liu.

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Pregnant women in third trimester unlikely to pass SARS-CoV-2 infection to newborns: study

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) -- Pregnant women who are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, during the third trimester are unlikely to pass the infection to their newborns, according to a new study published Tuesday.

The study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, followed 127 pregnant women who were admitted to Boston hospitals during the spring of 2020.

Among the 64 pregnant women who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, no newborns tested positive for the virus.

"This study provides some reassurance that SARS-CoV-2 infections during the third trimester are unlikely to pass through the placenta to the fetus, but more research needs to be done to confirm this finding," said Diana Bianchi, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The results reported are limited to women in the third trimester because data on women infected during the first and second trimesters are still being collected and evaluated, according to the study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The researchers suggest their findings could help improve the care of pregnant women with COVID-19 and of their newborns, as well as provide information to assist in the development of new strategies for vaccinating pregnant women. Enditem

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Stone tablet tells environment protection rules 300 years ago

SHIJIAZHUANG, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) -- A stone tablet dating back more than 300 years, containing environmental protection regulations for the local area, was found in north China's Hebei Province.

The 63-cm-tall and 48-cm-wide tablet, discovered in Huoshui Township in the city of Wu'an, was built 311 years ago during the reign of Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), according to the city's cultural relics protection institute.

The inscriptions in the form of a rural regulation had included dozens of names of nearby places. The regulation prohibited damaging trees, logging and burning, and earth cutting in the mountains and nearby villages.

The regulation is a relatively comprehensive environmental protection law at the local level and is significant to the research of the ecological protection culture, said Wang Wei, head of the institute. Enditem

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UK economy rebounds in Q3

Britain's gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 16.0 percent in the third quarter (Q3) 2020 due to the easing of lockdown restrictions, but was still 8.6 percent below where it was at the end of 2019, the British Office for National Statistics (ONS) said Tuesday.

"The bounce back in Quarter 3 2020 has been primarily driven by a recovery in private consumption," said the ONS, noting that business investment in the period performed much weaker than the household consumption.

Despite a bounce back in Q3, analysts said the last quarter this year is expected to see a double-dip recession due to the further lockdown measures in tackling the resurgence of infection cases.

"While a double-dip recession is a clear possibility if the Tier Four COVID-19 restrictions are extended into 2021, Q3's high saving rate provides optimism that as long as vaccines are effective and widespread, GDP will stage a strong rebound in the second half of next year," said Ruth Gregory, an economist at the London-based economic analysis firm Capital Economics.

In addition, the public sector net borrowing was estimated to reach 31.6 billion pounds (about 42.5 billion U.S. dollars) in November 2020, 26.0 billion pounds (about 34.9 billion dollars) higher year-on-year, said the ONS.

"November's surge in borrowing is unlikely to be reversed much over the next few months as the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions keep many businesses closed," said Thomas Pugh, an economist at Capital Economics.

"This will only increase talk of how to pay for the crisis, but the successful roll out of vaccines next year and a rapid rebound in GDP could mean that the deficit returns to its pre-crisis level within the next few years without the need for much fiscal tightening," Pugh added.

ONS' figures came after another 33,364 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 2,073,511, according to official figures released Monday.

The coronavirus-related deaths in Britain rose by 215 to 67,616, the data showed.

To bring life back to normal, countries such as Britain, China, Germany, Russia and the United States are racing against time to develop coronavirus vaccines.

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China-Laos railway seals roof of border gate station

China-Laos railway seals roof of border gate station
Photo taken on May 31, 2020 shows the construction site of the China-Laos Railway in northern Laos. [Photo/Xinhua]

With the cast of the last can of concrete, the main structure of Boten Station, Laos' border gate station along the China-Laos railway, constructed by the China Railway Construction Engineering Group (CRCEG) was successfully concluded.

The roof-sealing ceremony was held Tuesday at the station, some 440 km north of Lao capital Vientiane, which marked the shift from the main structure construction phase to the steel grid installation, electromechanical installation and decoration.

The Boten Station, neighboring Mohan of southwestern Yunnan Province, is the first railroad station after entering Laos from China, with a construction area of 6,500 square meters and two platforms. The station house is situated on the west side of the railway, and the station adopts the integrated design of customs clearance, which officially commenced on August 16, with the maximum reception capacity of 300 passengers.

During the four-month construction, the CRCEG project department strictly implemented the specific requirements of standardized site assessment, performed standardized management, construction and inspection. The CRCEG also invited Chinese experts to validate the plan, and deployed Chinese professional technicians to carry out on-site construction.

The 422-km China-Laos railway, with 198-km-long tunnels and 62-km bridges, will run from Boten border gate in northern Laos, bordering China, to Vientiane with an operating speed of 160 km per hour.

The project started in December 2016 and is scheduled to be completed and operational in December 2021.

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More Chinese students overseas look to return home

Over 2.5 million Chinese students studied abroad from 2016 to 2019, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE).

More than 2 million of these students returned to China after completing their programs, said Liu Jin, head of the Department of International Cooperation and Exchanges under the MOE, at a Tuesday press conference.

This year, the country has so far received more than 300,000 applications for credential evaluation and recognition from students studying overseas, up by some 30,000 over last year, said Cheng Jiacai, director-general of the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange.

In order to encourage more students to return from overseas, China will actively address the needs of returning students, improve the quality of services and strive to create a favorable employment and entrepreneurial environment for them, said Cheng. 

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10 rescued after ship mishap in South China Sea

Ten crew members have been rescued after abandoning a cargo ship that was listing to one side in the South China Sea, according to the provincial maritime search and rescue center of Hainan.

The center received a report at 5 p.m. Monday that the ship, registered in Sierra Leone and carrying 3,000 tonnes of rice, was listing in waters off the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea, as it made its way from Vietnam to Malaysia.

Following the captain's order to abandon the ship, the 10 crew members, eight Filipinos and two Chinese, boarded a life raft.

After receiving the report, China's Ministry of Transport and authorities in Hainan Province sent three ships to join the rescue operation.

At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, all 10 crew members were rescued. They were in a normal condition, although one of them had sustained a minor shoulder injury. They are now on their way to Yantian Port in Shenzhen and are expected to arrive on Thursday.

"The successful rescue is a test of China's ability to safeguard the navigation safety of international ships in the South China Sea. It fully demonstrates China's commitment to rescue operations in the region," said Wu Pingsheng, an official of the rescue center in Hainan.

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China considers anti-food-waste law to ensure food security

China considers anti-food-waste law to ensure food security
Villager Wei Rishan (L) and his wife Zheng Wenying show harvested oranges at an orchard in Jiaotang village of Luzhai town in Luzhai county, south China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, March 8, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Chinese lawmakers on Tuesday began deliberating a draft law on preventing food waste to ensure food security.

The 32-article draft was submitted to the ongoing session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress for its first reading.

The law is of great significance to promoting a healthy, rational and green lifestyle and way of consumption. It is also essential to accelerating the construction of a resource-conserving and environmentally friendly society, and to sustainable economic and social development, according to an explanation submitted to the session.

Lawmakers elevate the effective policies and measures the country has adopted over the past years into the draft law in an effort to establish a long-term mechanism to prevent food waste, says the explanation.

Government duties

The draft law specifies the responsibilities of the government concerning the fight against food waste.

Governments at all levels should exercise leadership over the work on preventing food waste, improve work mechanisms, set targets and intensify supervision and management, according to the draft.

Local governments above the county level should update the public on the developments in their anti-food-waste work every year and propose measures to step up the work, the draft reads, adding that they should support sci-tech research and development that will help conserve food.

China will enforce tax policies that will facilitate the fight against food waste, according to the draft.

The draft also stipulates the responsibilities of several State Council departments, ranging from making an overall work plan to tightening management and supervision of the catering industry.

Duties of various sectors

Advocating for saving food, the draft law requires government agencies, state-owned enterprises and public institutions to toughen the management of banquets using public funds.

Catering service providers should adopt measures to minimize food waste, such as improving management systems for food purchase, storage and processing, and putting up posters to remind consumers to refrain from ordering excessive food, says the draft, adding that they can charge consumers for obviously wasting food.

It calls on catering service providers to use technologies such as big data to analyze the needs of consumers to better manage food purchases, transportation and storage.

Online food delivery platforms should also display noticeable reminders on their food-ordering pages, and travel agencies are responsible for guiding travelers in saving food.

Individuals should serve or eat an appropriate amount of food at weddings, funerals, parties and other events, as well as in daily life, according to the draft.

Food and catering industry associations should formulate anti-waste standards and rules for their members, the draft reads.

Schools should educate their students on practicing thrift and opposing waste, it says.

News media outlets are required to promote public awareness of preventing food waste, the draft says, banning them from producing, broadcasting or spreading programs or audio-video clips on binge eating.

Supervision, punishment

The draft specifies that governments at all levels and relevant departments should set up supervision and inspection mechanisms to combat food waste, and urge those who are found to have wasted food to rectify their misdeeds.

All units and individuals have the right to file complaints with administrative departments against food producers found to have wasted food, it adds.

Catering service providers inducing or misleading consumers into ordering excessive food that leads to obvious waste will be warned by market regulators. Those who refuse to make rectifications will be fined, according to the draft.

Radio stations, TV stations and online audio-video service providers who produce, release or spread content advocating gluttony will also be fined if they refuse to make corrections or commit serious violations. Regulators can suspend or shut down their services, the draft says.

A law on food security has also been listed in the legislative work plan for the next year and its drafting is underway.

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Russia bans more EU officials from entry

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Russia has decided to expand the list of representatives of European Union (EU) member states and institutions who will be denied entry to Russia, a move in retaliation for anti-Russian sanctions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

"Among them are those who are responsible for promoting anti-Russian sanctions initiatives within the framework of the European Union," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said it has sent notes on the entry ban to the heads of German, French and Swedish diplomatic missions to Russia, as well as to the EU delegation in Moscow.

In October, the European Council imposed sanctions against six Russian individuals and one Russian entity allegedly involved in the "assassination attempt" on Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "absolutely unacceptable" that the EU adopted these "illegitimate" restrictive measures at the behest of its leading member states.

The countries that initiated this step have failed to provide any evidence on the case both to the Russian authorities and to their own EU partners, it said.

"We reaffirm that any unfriendly action by Western countries will inevitably be met with an adequate response," the statement read.

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