Taiwan to discuss with US how to use new funding

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s defense ministry said Sunday it will discuss with the United States how to use funding for the island included in a $95 billion legislative package mostly providing security assistance to Ukraine and Israel. 

The United States is Taiwan’s most important international supporter and arms supplier despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. 

Democratically governed Taiwan has faced increased military pressure from China, which views the island as its own territory. Taiwan’s government rejects those claims. 

The defense ministry expressed thanks to the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the package on Saturday, saying it demonstrated the “rock solid” U.S. support for Taiwan. 

The ministry added it “will coordinate the relevant budget uses with the United States through existing exchange mechanisms and work hard to strengthen combat readiness capabilities to ensure national security and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” 

Taiwan has since 2022 complained of delays in deliveries of U.S. weapons such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as manufacturers focused on supplying Ukraine to help the country battle invading Russian forces. 

Underscoring the pressure Taiwan faces from China, the ministry said Sunday morning that during the previous 24 hours 14 Chinese military aircraft had crossed the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait. 

The median line once served as an unofficial border between the two sides, which neither military crossed. But China’s air force now regularly sends aircraft over it. China says it does not recognize the line’s existence. 

On Saturday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said China had again carried out “joint combat readiness patrols” with Chinese warships and warplanes around Taiwan. 

China’s defense ministry did not answer calls seeking comment outside of office hours Sunday. 

The island’s armed forces are dwarfed by those of China’s, especially the navy and air force. 

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China’s FM: Major powers should avoid rivalry in South Pacific

BEIJING — China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said Saturday the South Pacific region should not become an arena for major power rivalries and that its assistance to countries there is free of political conditions.

The Pacific has become a source of intense competition for influence between Washington, which has traditionally viewed it as its backyard, and Beijing, which has targeted Taiwanese diplomatic allies there.

Wang made the comments at a joint news conference with his Papua New Guinea counterpart during a visit to the country.

“The South Pacific region should not become an arena for great powers to play games, and no country should treat the island countries as its own ‘backyard’ or engage in zero-sum games and exclusionary arrangements,” Wang said.

He said any attempt to provoke confrontation in the South Pacific region does not serve the needs of its people.

“China’s engagement and cooperation with the South Pacific island countries is dedicated to mutual support and assistance to achieve common development, without any geopolitical self-interest,” Wang said.

He added that China is willing to maintain high-level exchanges with Papua New Guinea and open negotiations for free trade agreements as soon as possible.

State media Xinhua reported Wang saying that all parties should respect the choice of the people of the Solomon Islands and refrain from interfering in their internal affairs.

The Solomon Islands’ pro-China Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has retained his seat in a national election, local media reported late Friday.

Wednesday’s election was the first since Sogavare struck a security pact with China in 2022 and drew the Pacific Islands nation closer to Beijing, in moves that concerned the U.S. and Australia because of the potential impact on regional security.

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Fact-checker on China’s Weibo targets US Embassy, Russian state media

washington — This month, when a story claiming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had secretly purchased a $24 million castle from the British royal family went viral on China’s Weibo social media platform, something interesting happened.

A fake-news function on the platform debunked it as misinformation.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Chinese social media platforms have been full of pro-Russia false claims and conspiracy theories, some of which the Chinese government has endorsed.

Influential Chinese nationalist bloggers, as well as Russia’s state media RT, regularly post and spread misinformation on Weibo.

Less than 20 hours after RT posted the misinformation about Zelenskyy, Weibo attached a fact-checking note to the post.

Public criticism of Russian state media is rare in China, but the fact-check function is part of Weibo’s latest effort to regulate misinformation on the site.

Weibo rolled out the feature, called Side Note, last August. Side Note allows qualified users to submit fact-checking notes on others’ posts for Weibo to review.

Over the past few months, users have added Side Note to posts from high-profile Weibo bloggers and foreign government-backed accounts, including RT and the U.S. Embassy in China.

Weibo has tried to appear neutral when deciding what kind of misinformation to fact-check, debunking false claims from both liberal and nationalist influencers.

But it has also used the feature to push Beijing’s talking points on international issues. So far, Chinese government and state media accounts have not been subject to any fact-checking.

Weibo’s version of Community Note

In July 2023, China’s internet regulator told social media companies to crack down on false information.

” ‘Personal media’ that create and publish rumors, stir up hot societal topics or matrix [linked cross-platform] publish and transmit illegal or negative information, creating a vile impact, are all to be closed, included in the platform database of blacklisted accounts, and reported to the internet information departments,” said a memo from Central Cyberspace Administration of China.

A month later, Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media apps with a focus on news and current issues, came out with the Side Note feature.

Like the Community Note function on X, Side Note lets qualified users take on the job of fact-checking, with Weibo getting the final say on approval or rejection.

Other U.S. social media firms offer similar features. Facebook and Instagram offer “community standards” and “community guidelines,” respectively, which flag posts containing disinformation.

But unlike these firms, Weibo itself decides which posts stay up.

The company says it selects qualified users from those with verified identities or high Weibo credit scores and is gradually expanding the feature to include more users.

Side Note targets US Embassy

Since January, posts by the U.S. Embassy in China have been tagged with Side Note at least three times.

A post detailing U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expressed concerns about China’s religious freedom received two notes, one accusing Blinken of having “no regard for facts.”

A February post sanctioning 17 Chinese companies for helping Russia’s war effort in Ukraine got a note that included a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s public remarks.

And a post last month condemning Beijing for a collision between Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels got a Side Note message from Shen Yi, a prominent Chinese international relations professor with a strong nationalistic leaning. 

In the note, Shen accused the U.S. of spreading misinformation on multiple “global social media platforms” to “smear China’s national image.”

Chinese government accounts immune

Most posts tagged with Side Note belong to influencers, including nationalist bloggers.

For example, Shu Chang, who runs the popular nationalist account Guyan Muchan, saw a Side Note added to a post last week claiming that schoolchildren in the U.S. have to learn how to use “bulletproof boards” in classrooms. The Side Note clarified that the photos were from a hurricane self-protection exercise.

In recent years, nationalist bloggers like Shu have become some of the most traffic-drawing opinion leaders on Weibo.

Eric Liu, who analyzes Chinese censorship at China Digital Times, says one shouldn’t read too much into Weibo fact-checking Shu’s post.

“A lot of her stuff isn’t state narratives. She sensationalized it herself,” Liu told VOA. “Weibo doesn’t really have to protect her. Plus, [fact-checking her posts] adds to the credibility of the Side Note feature.”

Liu, who worked as a censor for Weibo and other Chinese internet companies before moving to the U.S., pointed out that Weibo has not used Side Note to fact-check government accounts or false information from state media.

In a November post, Weibo thanked users for submitting Side Notes.

“Ever since Side Note went online, active participation from every Side Note-er has effectively lowered the negative impact of controversial content and biased information, helping all users access information that’s truer and more comprehensive,” the post said.

But Liu doesn’t think of Side Note as a feature that truly gives users the power to regulate speech on the platform, because Weibo remains the final arbitrator of what notes can be added to what posts.

“Weibo’s Side Note isn’t something that netizens can fully edit, as it’s still user-generated content,” he said. “In the end, it still needs to be reviewed by censors.”

Weibo did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Evie Steele contributed to this report.

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Japan, China bicker over Beijing’s actions in Indo-Pacific

washington — China is challenging Japan’s latest analysis of the threat posed to the Indo-Pacific region by Beijing as a hyped-up threat and false accusation.

In the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s annual Diplomatic Bluebook that was published Tuesday, China’s military moves are described as posing “the greatest strategic challenge,” according to Japanese media. An official English version has not been published.

The Bluebook reportedly condemns China’s actions in the South China Sea and its attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Sea.

At the same time, according to Japanese media, it says for the first time since 2019 that Japan seeks to build “a mutually beneficial relationship” with China “based on common strategic interests.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian rejected Japan’s criticisms at a news briefing on Tuesday. “Japan has resorted to the same old false accusations against China and hype of ‘China threat’ in its 2024 Diplomatic Bluebook,” he said.

He continued: “We urge Japan to change its wrong course of actions, stop stoking bloc confrontation, truly commit itself to advancing a strategic relationship of mutual benefit with China and work to build a constructive and stable China-Japan relationship fit for the new era.”

Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said, “Japan’s concerns about Chinese behavior, both military and paramilitary, have been intensified for the last few years due to the acceleration of Beijing’s aggressive behavior in East and South China Sea.”

She continued, “In addition, Tokyo has been put on alert about Beijing’s increasingly hostile and aggressive rhetoric and behavior toward Taiwan.”

Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin could meet in early May in Hawaii, according to a Thursday report by The Japan Times citing unnamed Japanese officials.

Kihara and Austin would discuss setting up a proposed allied command and control structure and a body to identify kinds of weapons the two countries will develop and produce together, said the report. These plans were announced April 10 at a bilateral summit in Washington.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) announced on Tuesday that it will conduct a naval deployment including six surface ships, submarines, and two air units starting May 3 to support a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The deployment includes visits to more than a dozen countries including the U.S., the Philippines, India, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Palau. It is meant “to strengthen cooperation with the allied partner navies through conducting exercises,” said JMSDF.

Daniel Sneider, lecturer in international policy and East Asia Studies at Stanford University, said even as Tokyo is building its defenses and is concerned about Beijing’s assertiveness and especially its relations with Moscow, its mention in the Diplomatic Bluebook of wanting to build relations with Beijing reflects Tokyo’s balanced approach toward China.

“The Bluebook reflects a balance between, on one hand, some degree of warning the Chinese off doing things that disrupt the order” in the region “and, on the other hand, making it clear that Japan really is not interested in some type of full-scale confrontation with China,” including economic warfare, said Sneider.

As to China, it tends to see “any attempts on the part of the Koreans and the Japanese to engage and improve relations as a sign of weakness,” continued Sneider.

China, Japan and South Korea plan to hold trilateral talks in May for the first time since 2019. They will meet in Seoul ahead of a Washington-Seoul-Tokyo trilateral summit expected in July.

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Chinese-linked e-commerce companies shake up market

The Chinese-operated online markets Temu and Shein are shaking up e-commerce with their extremely low prices. But the firms are facing concerns from consumers and Congress. Evie Steele has the story from Washington.

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Chinese official criticizes US for its UN votes on Gaza cease-fire

jakarta, indonesia — Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the United States on Thursday for its votes on previous United Nations resolutions for a Gaza cease-fire, following talks in Jakarta with his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi.

During the talks, Wang highlighted the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East, and he called on all parties to exercise restraint in the conflict.

“The conflict in Gaza has lasted for half a year and caused a rare humanitarian tragedy in the 21st century. The United Nations Security Council responded to the call of the international community and continued to review the resolution draft on the cease-fire in Gaza, but it was repeatedly vetoed by the United States,” Wang said at a news briefing at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.

Wang acknowledged the passage of a Security Council cease-fire resolution in March, saying, “This time, the U.S. did not dare to stand in opposition to international morality and chose to abstain.”

He added that the U.S. claimed the resolution was not binding and said, “In the eyes of the United States, international law seems to be a tool that can be used whenever it finds useful and discarded if it does not want to use it.”

The United States has said it vetoed previous resolutions for not being linked to the release of Hamas hostages.

Both ministers expressed frustration over the humanitarian disaster caused by the Palestinian-Israel conflict. “We agree that the U.N. Security Council resolution on a cease-fire must be fully implemented and without any condition,” said Wang.

China and Indonesia both support full Palestinian membership in the United Nations. Currently, the Palestinian Authority is a nonmember observer state, but it has sought full membership since 2011.

Indonesia does not recognize Israel and has strongly supported the Palestinian cause.

Meeting with Widodo

At a meeting with President Joko Widodo, Wang expressed China’s interest in deepening cooperation and investment in energy transition, infrastructure, and the production and marketing of refined petroleum products.

Widodo highlighted bilateral trade between Indonesia and China and expressed hopes that China will further open its market for Indonesian goods, including by resolving disputes over Indonesian agricultural and fishery products.

Widodo also urged the construction of a strategic petrochemical project in Northern Kalimantan and further collaboration on food security, including replicating Chinese-style cultivation methods in growing rice, horticultural crops and durian fruit.

China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner, with a yearly trade volume reaching more than $127 billion. China is also one of Indonesia’s biggest foreign investors, with an investment value of more than $7.4 billion in 2023.

Indonesia and China will discuss the details of increasing cooperation on Friday in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara province.

Apart from economic cooperation, Marsudi said that efforts to tackle cross-border crimes, including online fraud, will be discussed at the event.

Wang will also visit Papua New Guinea and Cambodia.

Later Thursday, Wang met with Widodo and his soon-to-be successor, President-elect Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister of Indonesia.

Prabowo won the presidential election in February, and like his predecessor, he supports close ties with Beijing while seeking to balance diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China.

The Indonesian Defense Ministry said Thursday that Wang and Prabowo discussed plans for joint military exercises.

Some information for this report came from Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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Doubts cast China will be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027

washington — A senior U.S. intelligence official is casting doubt on China’s ability to make good on plans to possibly reunify Taiwan by force by its self-imposed deadline.

Various U.S. military and intelligence officials have testified publicly in recent years that Beijing’s own planning documents show President Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be ready to take Taiwan by force should efforts to reunify the island by other means fail.

They also have said China’s unprecedented military modernization and expansion efforts have been in line with the order to have an invasion plan ready to go by 2027 at the latest.

But Dave Frederick, the U.S. National Security Agency’s assistant deputy director for China, is not sure they can meet that deadline.

“It’s a pretty ambitious goal, so [I] won’t make any predictions on whether they hit it or not,” Frederick said at a security conference in Nashville, Tennessee. He added that China “remains focused on that 2027 capabilities” goal but that obstacles remain.

One of those challenges, he said, is the ability of China’s military to land troops on the island of Taiwan.

An amphibious landing “would be a really, really challenging military problem for them,” Frederick said. “[A] very difficult military problem for them to pull off.”

However, he acknowledged that China is building a fourth amphibious landing craft and that “history’s got many examples of [a] government deciding to pursue a policy that may not even be in their best self-interest, and certainly in cases where military victory isn’t guaranteed.”

Chinese officials dismissed the talk, though, telling VOA by email the situation with Taiwan is “a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese [people].”

“If the U.S. truly hopes for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, it should abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Washington should “stop meddling in the Taiwan question and stop creating new factors that could lead to tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” Liu added.

Frederick is not the first U.S. official to caution that China’s military expansion, buoyed by new equipment and weapons systems, may be outpacing its actual capabilities.

The U.S. Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report issued late last year cautioned that Beijing itself believes it still faces some deficits as it tries to field a force capable of fighting and winning wars against other capable adversaries.

“They still have a long way to go in terms of having the level of military capability that we judge that they think that they need to advance their global security and economic interests,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters at the time.

The official called the lack of combat experience “one of the shortcomings that the PRC highlights in a lot of their own self assessments.”

Top U.S. intelligence officials have said that despite China’s desire to be able to take Taiwan by force, perhaps as early as next year, they believe Xi has not decided whether to use that option.

“Beijing will continue to apply military and economic pressure as well as public messaging and influence activities while promoting long-term cross-Strait economic and social integration to induce Taiwan to move toward unification,” according to last month’s annual threat assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

A separate assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency published last week concluded that “Beijing appears willing to defer the use of military force as long as it calculates that its unification with Taiwan ultimately can be negotiated.”

“The costs of armed conflict would outweigh the benefits, and its stated red lines have not been crossed by Taiwan, the United States, or other countries,” the DIA report added.

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NASA chief warns of Chinese military presence in space

Washington — China is bolstering its space capabilities and is using its civilian program to mask its military objectives, the head of the U.S. space agency said Wednesday, warning that Washington must remain vigilant.

“China has made extraordinary strides especially in the last 10 years, but they are very, very secretive,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We believe that a lot of their so-called civilian space program is a military program. And I think, in effect, we are in a race,” Nelson said.

He said he hoped Beijing would “come to its senses and understand that civilian space is for peaceful uses,” but added: “We have not seen that demonstrated by China.”

Nelson’s comment came as he testified before the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget for fiscal 2025.

He said the United States should land on the moon again before China does, as both nations pursue lunar missions, but he expressed concern that were Beijing to arrive first, it could say: “‘OK, this is our territory, you stay out.'”

The United States is planning to put astronauts back on the moon in 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission. China says it hopes to send humans to the moon by 2030.

Nelson said he was confident the United States would not lose its “global edge” in space exploration.

“But you got to be realistic,” he said. “China has really thrown a lot of money at it and they’ve got a lot of room in their budget to grow. I think that we just better not let down our guard.”

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China-South Korea competition grows in Vietnam

taipei, taiwan — A Vietnamese delegation’s visit to China last week has underscored increasingly close economic ties between the territorial rivals, which analysts say is posing a challenge to the dominance of South Korean investment in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue led the high-level delegation from April 7 to 12 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Hue proposed the two countries create a new push for trade development and “connect Vietnam to China’s large development strategies.”

He also met with the heads of many large Chinese companies that want to participate in Vietnam’s infrastructure construction.

China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner and on the way to becoming its biggest foreign direct investor.

A representative of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, or KCCI, in Vietnam last week told Nikkei Asia that Chinese companies are pushing back South Korean firms as China steps up investment in Vietnam.

“Looking at the cumulative amount of investment in Vietnam since 1988, South Korea ranks first with $85.8 billion, ahead of Singapore and Japan. However, in recent years, Korea has been in a neck-to-neck competition with China,” Kim Hyong-mo told the Japan-based Asia news magazine.

More current figures provided by Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment put South Korean foreign direct investment since 1988 at $87 billion, accounting for more than 18% of the total, followed by Singapore at $76 billion, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But in 2023, South Korea ranked fifth after Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and China, which led in terms of newly registered projects.

According to Joeffrey Maddatu Calimag, an assistant professor at the Department of Global Business Management at Kyungsung University in Busan, South Korea, competition between South Korean and Chinese companies is increasingly fierce.

“South Korean conglomerates like Samsung Electronics Limited have notably ramped up or increased their investment or R&D spending to counter the investments of China’s in terms of this sector, the mobile technology,” he told VOA.

“And Chinese companies have demonstrated impressive R&D growth, which can heighten the competition for South Korean firms in Vietnam. These combined with China’s technological advancements, presents a formidable challenge to South Korean companies operating in the region,” he said.

South Korea’s Samsung is by far the largest single foreign investor in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Hanoi Times newspaper reports Samsung invested more than $1 billion in Vietnam in 2023, for a total of more than $22 billion, and is expected to invest a further $1 billion per year.

South Korean lens module manufacturer LG Innotek announced last year that it would invest an additional $1 billion in capital in Haiphong City, bringing the company’s total investment in Vietnam to more than $2 billion.

But China’s investment is heating up.

Vietnam’s Trade Ministry said this month that Chinese automaker Chery signed a joint venture agreement with a Vietnamese company to build a factory in Vietnam at an investment of $800 million, becoming the first Chinese EV manufacturer in Vietnam. China’s BYD, the world’s largest EV maker, also plans to set up a factory in Vietnam.

Reuters reported in November that Chinese solar panel manufacturer Trina Solar, one of five Chinese solar firms the U.S. says used plants in Southeast Asia to avoid duties on panels made in China, plans to nearly double its investment in Vietnam to almost $900 million.

China-based economist and finance commentator He Jiangbing notes that since U.S.-China trade tensions erupted in 2018, many Chinese companies have invested in Southeast Asia to avoid made-in-China tariffs. He says China’s domestic overcapacity has also forced Chinese companies to accelerate their overseas deployment.

“The focus of Southeast Asia is Vietnam because [China and Vietnam] are geographically closer. Vietnam also has a large population, with more than 100 million people. It also hoards a large part of the industrial chain transferred from mainland China,” He said. “Wherever the industrial chain moves, Chinese companies will follow.”

Nguyen Tri Hieu, a Vietnamese American economist, says Vietnam is politically closer to China, a fellow one-party communist state, than democratic South Korea.

“In Vietnam, there is a saying that the relationship between China and Vietnam is just like the teeth and the lips,” he told VOA. “South Korea is politically more remote. I would say [South] Korea is important but is not in the same position as China.”

But unlike Hanoi, Seoul has no territorial dispute with Beijing that could threaten to upend the relationship.

China’s and Vietnam’s competing claims to areas in the South China Sea have not halted trade and investment but they have at times slowed it down amid clashes and tensions.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea as its own, putting it in conflict with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

  Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Biden seeks higher tariffs on Chinese steel as he courts union voters

SCRANTON, Pa. — President Joe Biden is calling for a tripling of tariffs on steel from China to protect American producers from a flood of cheap imports, an announcement he planned to roll out Wednesday in an address to steelworkers in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

The move reflects the intersection of Biden’s international trade policy with his efforts to court voters in a state that is likely to play a pivotal role in deciding November’s election.

The White House insists, however, that it is more about shielding American manufacturing from unfair trade practices overseas than firing up a union audience.

In addition to boosting steel tariffs, Biden also will seek to triple levies on Chinese aluminum. The current rate is 7.5% for both metals. The administration also promised to pursue anti-dumping investigations against countries and importers that try to saturate existing markets with Chinese steel, and said it was working with Mexico to ensure that Chinese companies can’t circumvent the tariffs by shipping steel there for subsequent export to the U.S.

“The president understands we must invest in American manufacturing. But we also have to protect those investments and those workers from unfair exports associated with China’s industrial overcapacity,” White House National Economic Adviser Lael Brainard said on a call with reporters.

Biden was set to announce that he is asking the U.S. Trade Representative to consider tripling the tariffs during a visit to United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh. The president is on a three-day Pennsylvania swing that began in Scranton on Tuesday and will include a visit to Philadelphia on Thursday.

The administration says China is distorting markets and eroding competition by unfairly flooding the market with below-market-cost steel.

“China’s policy-driven overcapacity poses a serious risk to the future of the American steel and aluminum industry,” Brainard said. Referencing China’s economic downturn, she added that Beijing “cannot export its way to recovery.”

“China is simply too big to play by its own rules,” Brainard said.

Higher tariffs can carry major economic risks. Steel and aluminum could become more expensive, possibly increasing the costs of cars, construction materials and other key goods for U.S. consumers.

Inflation has already been a drag on Biden’s political fortunes, and his turn toward protectionism echoes the playbook of his predecessor and opponent in this fall’s election, Donald Trump.

The former president imposed broader tariffs on Chinse goods during his administration, and has threatened to increase levies on Chinese goods unless they trade on his preferred terms as he campaigns for a second term. An outside analysis by the consultancy Oxford Economics has suggested that implementing the tariffs Trump has proposed could hurt the overall U.S. economy.

Senior Biden administration officials said that, unlike the Trump administration, they were seeking a “strategic and balanced” approach to new tariff rates. China produces around half of the world’s steel, and is already making far more than its domestic market needs. It sells steel on the world market for less than half what U.S.-produced steel costs, the officials said.

Biden’s announcement follows his administration’s efforts to provide up to $6.6 billion so that a Taiwanese semiconductor giant can expand facilities that it is already building in Arizona and better ensure that the world’s most-advanced microchips are produced in the U.S. That move could be seen as working to better compete with China chip manufacturers.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, during a recent visit to China, warned against oversaturating the market with cheap goods, and said low-cost steel had “decimated industries across the world and in the United States.” The Chinese, in turn, expressed grave concern over American trade and economic measures that restrict China, according to the China’s official news agency. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also has an upcoming visit to China.

Also potentially shaking up the steel industry is Japanese Nippon Steel’s proposed acquisition of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel. Biden said last month that he opposed the move.

“U.S. Steel has been an iconic American steel company for more than a century, and it is vital for it to remain an American steel company that is domestically owned and operated,” Biden said then.

At a rally last weekend in Pennsylvania, Trump tore into Biden over Nippon Steel’s efforts to buy U.S. Steel, ignoring the president’s objections to the merger.

“I would not let that deal go through,” Trump said.

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At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Pacemaker or competitor? Beijing half marathon under probe as Chinese star handed a win

WASHINGTON — Chinese long-distance runner He Jie is at the center of a controversy over his win in the Beijing Half Marathon, as organizers started a probe after a trio of African runners appeared to deliberately slow down so He could win the race.

A video clip circulating online shows that four athletes — Kenya’s Robert Keter and Willy Mnangat, Ethiopia’s Dejene Hailu Bikila and He — were approaching the finish line around the same time. Then, the three African athletes slowed down and gestured He to pass and take the lead.

The four athletes ran neck and neck just meters from the finish line, with He eventually crossing the tape first. The Chinese marathon record holder finished in 1 hour, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds. The African trio finished one second behind him at 1:03:45.

He, 25, won gold in the marathon at the 2023 Asian Games and is China’s record holder.

When the video went viral, Mnangat first told the South China Morning Post that he “let China’s He Jie win” because “he is my friend.” He also said no one had told him to do so, nor had he been promised any monetary reward.

Six hours later, Mnangat changed his story, telling BBC Sport Africa that he “allowed He to win” because he was hired to serve as a “pacemaker” and he “was not there to compete.”

“It was not a competitive race for me,” he told the BBC. “I don’t know why they put my name on my bib/chest number instead of labeling it as a pacemaker.”

He added that his job was to set the pace and help He break the national record, which He did not achieve.

However, all three African athletes had entered the race as official competitors rather than as pacemakers. Mnangat’s Chinese agent, Karen Lin, said the issue had “nothing to do with me” and declined to comment further when approached by media.

The controversy has shocked Chinese observers, who are now questioning the fairness of the competition.

“It’s so fake. This is just too much!” one said on Weibo, China’s X-like social media platform.

“The Chinese sports scene give me chills,” another read.

Beijing Sports Bureau said it is now investigating the incident, adding that any results will be “promptly disclosed to the public.”

Mark Dreyer, an expert on China’s sports industry and the author of “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best,” questioned the “pacemaker” explanation.

“So, if they really were pacemakers, as apparently is being claimed, why didn’t they just say this originally? Why the need for a detailed investigation?” he posted on X.

He added that the “most obvious explanation here is that race fees for the Africans were guaranteed and/or a bonus was offered for letting local runner win.”

This is not the first time controversy has hit a marathon, as long-distance running has become a popular sport in China.

In 2019, four people were punished for cheating at the Shanghai International Marathon, including one who hopped on a bike.

In 2018, 258 people were caught on traffic cameras for taking shortcuts or hiring imposters to help complete the race at the Shenzhen Half Marathon.

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US, China defense chiefs hold first call since 2022

Pentagon — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, the first dialogue between the two countries’ defense chiefs in nearly 17 months.

The Pentagon said Austin and Chinese Admiral Dong Jun discussed “defense relations” and global security issues from Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine to recent provocations from North Korea. A press release said Austin stressed the importance of “respect for high seas freedom of navigation as guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea.”

Beijing has asserted its desire to control access to the South China Sea and bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary. President Joe Biden has said U.S. troops would defend the democratically-run island from attack.

Tensions have risen between China and U.S. ally the Philippines in the South China Sea as well, with China’s coast guard using water cannons this month to threaten Filipino fishing ships. China has also used collision and ramming tactics, undersea barriers and a military-grade laser to stop Philippine resupply and patrol missions.

A senior defense official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of the talks, said the call between Austin and Dong was an “important step” in keeping lines of communication open between the two military powers.

“These engagements provide us with opportunities to prevent competition from veering into conflict by speaking candidly about our concerns. That includes the PRC’s behavior in the South China Sea, as well as the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said the senior defense official. PRC is the acronym for the People’s Republic of China, the country’s official name.

The call marked the first time Austin has ever spoken to Dong, who has served as China’s minister of national defense since December. It also marked the first time that Austin has spoken at length with a PRC counterpart since November 2022, when he met with then-Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe in Cambodia.

China’s previous defense minister, General Li Shangfu, was subjected to U.S. sanctions that China deemed an obstacle to having him communicate directly with Austin. The only engagement Austin had with General Li was a handshake at the Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore last year.

The senior defense official said conversations between U.S. and Chinese defense leaders “ensure that the PRC has a clear understanding of our positions on all of the regional and global security issues.”

The talks come as the Pentagon said it had indications that a Chinese surge of weapons technology sales to Russia is helping ramp up Moscow’s defense production as it continues to attack its neighbor, Ukraine.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters in response to a question from VOA Monday that China had sold “significant quantities” of machine tools, microelectronics, optics, drones and cruise missile technology to Russia, which Moscow is using to make propellants for weapons.

“So this support is actively enabling Russia’s war in Ukraine and poses a significant threat to security — international security,” Ryder added.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that two senior Biden administration officials said that about 90% of Russia’s microelectronics in 2023 and nearly 70% of Russia’s machine tool imports in the last quarter of 2023 came from China. Russia used that technology to make missiles, tanks and aircraft.

Chinese and Russian entities have jointly produced drones inside Russia, and China-based companies are providing optical components for use in Russian tanks and armored vehicles, the officials also told AP.

The call between Austin and Dong is the latest in a series of recent conversations between U.S. and Chinese defense leaders. The top U.S. general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown, spoke with his Chinese military counterpart in December.

Earlier this month, the U.S. and Chinese militaries held working-level Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks in Hawaii for the first time since 2021.

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Chinese security presence in the Pacific comes into focus ahead of major political events   

Taipei, Taiwan — China’s growing security presence in the Pacific will be scrutinized this week as the Solomon Islands holds its national election on Wednesday. While the Pacific island nation has been plagued by a slew of domestic issues such as youth unemployment and weakening health and education systems, some analysts say the election is a “de-facto referendum” on its relationship with China.

“The results will determine whether the Solomon Islands continues growing its relationship with China or changes course in favor of a different approach,” Parker Novak, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told VOA in a written response.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who seeks an unprecedented second consecutive term, has focused on deepening the country’s ties with China since he returned to power in 2019.

After switching Solomon Islands’ diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, Sogavare signed a series of security-related agreements with China, including a security pact in 2022 and a police cooperation agreement in 2023.

The developments prompted the U.S., Australia and other Pacific island nations to express concerns about the security implications of these deals. So far, the Solomon Islands hasn’t revealed details of the controversial security pact with China.

However, a leaked draft agreement shows that China could potentially deploy security and naval assets to the country.

The lack of transparency around the security deal with China has prompted several opposition candidates in the Solomon Islands to vow to abolish or review the security pact.

While opposition leaders have sounded the alarm about China’s growing security presence in the Solomon Islands, Sogavare has strongly defended his administration’s efforts to deepen bilateral ties with China.

Centering his campaign around his signature “Look North strategy,” which aims to consolidate Solomon Islands’ economic and diplomatic ties with Asian countries, Sogavare has repeatedly emphasized how Chinese support with infrastructure developments and the Pacific Games has helped place the Pacific island nation “in a more favorable footing domestically and internationally.”

In response to opposition politicians’ concerns about China’s growing influence over the Solomon Islands, China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that Beijing supports the people of Solomon Islands “in choosing a development path that suits their national conditions.”

Some experts say China’s entry into the Solomon Islands’ security sector in recent years has created friction with traditional security partners like Australia. “There has been an increase in friction as a result of China’s entry into the security space in the Solomon Islands and other parts of the Pacific,” said Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands program at Lowy Institute in Australia.

While the Solomon Islands is trying to retain relationships with partners like Australia amid its efforts to deepen ties with China, Sora said the Sogavare administration’s attempt will be difficult to execute because of continuing “strategic friction” between Beijing and Canberra, especially in the security space. [The Solomon Islands] “will need to resolve the increasing frictions,” he told VOA by phone.

Chinese security presence in the Pacific comes into focus

In addition to the Solomon Islands, China’s growing security presence in other parts of the Pacific region is also coming under scrutiny ahead of other major political events. Earlier this month, Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said he would be open to accepting Chinese security support when the country hosts the Pacific Islands Forum in August.

“There’s no reason to be concerned. China is offering to assist with the hosting of the foreign leaders’ meeting,” he told reporters in the Tongan capital Nukuʻalofa.

The Chinese Embassy in Tonga told AFP in a statement that Beijing “has no interest in geopolitical competition or seeking the so-called ‘sphere of influence.’”

Some analysts say Tonga’s decision to welcome China as a potential security provider reflects Pacific island nations’ efforts to diversify their security partners since 2021.

“China has had success in presenting itself as a security stakeholder in the region and this is certainly of concern to Canberra, Wellington and Washington, who view China’s security interests in the Pacific as disruptive and indicative of China’s broader interests,” Anna Powles, an associate professor in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, told VOA in a written response.

Meanwhile, Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told ABC Australia in March that the country has removed Chinese police embedded in its police force despite the earlier decision to uphold Fiji’s policing cooperation agreement with China.

Some experts say Fiji is “walking a fine line” in its relationship with China and Western countries. “By not throwing away the police deal, Fiji is showing that they are not willing to go all in and align with the West,” Michael Walsh, an affiliated researcher at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, told VOA by phone.

In his view, Fiji’s careful calibration of its security relationship with China demonstrates that “they are going to keep having a relationship with China that extends into the security domain for the foreseeable future.”

While some experts agree that China has made progress in expanding its security presence in the Pacific, Novak from the Atlantic Council said Beijing’s security influence in the region “shouldn’t be overstated.”

“More often than not, Pacific islands countries have elected to maintain or even grow traditional security partnerships with countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States while carefully maintaining their own sovereignty,” he told VOA.

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China’s economy grew 5.3% in first quarter, beating expectations

HONG KONG — China’s economy expanded at a faster than expected pace in the first three months of the year, helped by policies aimed at stimulating growth and stronger demand, the government said Tuesday.

The world’s second-largest economy expanded at a 5.3% annual pace in January-March, beating analysts’ forecasts of about 4.8%, official data show. Compared to the previous quarter, the economy grew 1.6%.

China’s economy has struggled to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, with a slowdown in demand and a property crisis weighing on its growth.

The better-than-expected data Tuesday came days after China reported its exports sank 7.5% in March compared to the year before, while imports also weakened. Inflation cooled, reflecting deflationary pressures resulting from slack demand amid a crisis in the property sector.

Industrial output for the first quarter was up 6.1% compared to the same time last year, and retail sales grew at an annual pace of 4.7%. Fixed investment, in factories and equipment, grew 4.5% compared to the same period a year earlier.

The strong growth in January-March was supported by “broad manufacturing outperformance,” festivities-boosted household spending due to the Lunar New Year holidays and policies that helped boost investments, according to China economist Louise Loo of Oxford Economics.

“However, ‘standalone’ March activity indicators suggest weakness coming through post-Lunar New Year,” she said. “External demand conditions also remain unpredictable, as seen in March’s sharp export underperformance.”

Loo noted that an unwinding of excess inventory, normalization of household spending after the holidays and a cautious approach to government spending and other stimulus will affect growth in this quarter.

Policymakers have unveiled a raft of fiscal and monetary policy measures as Beijing seeks to boost the economy. China has set an ambitious gross domestic product (GDP) growth target of about 5% for 2024.

Such strong growth usually would push share prices across the region higher. But on Tuesday, Asian shares fell sharply after stocks retreated on Wall Street.

The Shanghai Composite index lost 1.4% and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 1.9%. The benchmark for the smaller market in Shenzhen, in southern China, lost 2.8%.

Stronger growth in the region’s biggest economy normally would be seen as a positive for its neighbors, which increasingly rely on demand from China to power their own economies. However, strong growth figures are also viewed as a signal that the government will hold back on further stimulus.

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China, health system top issues as Solomon Islands holds national election

SYDNEY — The Solomon Islands holds a national election on Wednesday, the first since Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a security pact with China that prompted concern from the United States and South Pacific neighbors.

Sogavare has pledged closer ties with China, which has built infrastructure since Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, while opposition parties favor ties with Western aid donors including Australia, and pledge to fix a broken health system.

The national election was delayed from 2023, after Sogavare said he wanted to focus on the Pacific Games, hosted in stadiums donated by China.

Background

Located 1,600 km (900 miles) northeast of Australia, Solomon Islands has a population of around 700,000 across an archipelago of six main islands: Choiseul, Guadalcanal, Makira, Malaita, New Georgia and Santa Isabel.

Elections for the national parliament and provincial assemblies will be held on the same day.

Polling booths open at 7 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. with an alcohol ban in place for a week. A campaigning blackout starts Tuesday.

The 50 members of the national parliament are elected for a four-year term. The prime minister is selected after polling day by a vote of newly elected lawmakers, a process that can take several weeks.

Who is running?

Sogavare became prime minister at the 2019 election after being elected to his seat of East Choiseul as an independent candidate. This time, he is running as leader of the OUR (Ownership, Unity, Responsibility) party.

He has been prime minister four times, but no Solomon Islands prime minister has been re-elected for consecutive terms.

Historically, political party coalitions have been fluid. Independent candidates won 37% of the vote in 2019, more than the biggest party, the Solomon Islands Democratic Party on 14%.

Prominent opposition party figures include:

Peter Kenilorea Jr of the United Party, who wants the China security pact scrapped, and infrastructure help from Western countries favored. He is a former United Nations official and the son of Solomon Islands' first prime minister after independence from Britain.
Matthew Wale of the Solomon Islands Democratic Party, and former prime minister Rick Hou of the Democratic Alliance Party, who have formed the CARE coalition, pledging to fix education and health, and a foreign policy that prioritizes Solomon Islands national interests.
Former Malaita premier Daniel Suidani, who previously banned Chinese companies in the nation's biggest province, and is running for Malaita governor. His new party U4C (Umi For Change) will run candidates in the national election, including former government official Celsus Talifulu.

There are 20 women running as candidates. Only two women were elected in the previous election.

Security and other issues

An election observer report in 2019 noted the traditional role of vote buying, saying “Devil’s Night” cash handouts were likely driven underground by new laws banning it.

Solomon Islands Electoral Commission advertising this month urged voters to “Keep your votes secret and say NO to vote buying and selling”.

This is the second election since the 2017 departure of the decade-long Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a multinational force of Australian, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji police.

RAMSI was formed at the request of Solomon Islands government in 2003 to maintain civil order after inter-tribal violence.

When anti-government riots broke out in the capital Honiara in November 2021, Sogavare asked Australian police to return to restore order. Six months later, Solomon Islands signed the security pact with China.

Chinese police, and the Solomons International Assistance Force (comprised of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji police and military) have a presence in Solomon Islands and operate separately, under the supervision of Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

Election observer groups from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific, Japan, Europe and the U.S. will monitor voting and counting, with national and provincial polls held on the same day.

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China says Hong Kong must ‘tightly hold’ national security line

HONG KONG — China’s top official on Hong Kong affairs said the city should focus on national security to protect development, in a speech coming weeks after the enactment of sweeping new security laws.

“To move towards governance and prosperity, we need to tightly hold onto the bottom line of national security in order to safeguard the high quality development of Hong Kong,” said the director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, in a speech to mark an annual national security day.

Hong Kong in March enacted a new national security law, also known as Article 23, that updates or introduces new laws to prohibit treason, sabotage, sedition, the theft of state secrets and espionage, with jail terms of up to life imprisonment.

Xia, however, sought to emphasize that the law posed no threat to investors, at a time when the city has faced Western criticism of a protracted crackdown on dissent, and has struggled economically and financially.

“For the general public of Hong Kong and foreign investors, this law is the protector of their rights, freedoms, property and investment,” Xia said.

“Investors from all over the world can come to Hong Kong to invest in new businesses bravely and without concerns,” he added. “Hong Kong remains the best place in the world to do business and make money and achieve your dreams.”

Some foreign governments including the United States and Britain, however, have criticized the new law as fresh tool for authorities to clamp down on dissent. The legislation adds to another national security law China directly imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 in response to mass pro-democracy protests.

Beijing, however, says the laws are necessary to safeguard the city’s stability and prosperity.

The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong said on Saturday that visitors to the city should “exercise increased caution” with the State Department updating its travel advisory given the new national security legislation.

Canada also updated its advisory recently, saying people needed to “exercise a high degree of caution in Hong Kong due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”

The security laws have so far been used to jail scores of leading Hong Kong democrats including Joshua Wong, while liberal media outlets and civil society groups have been shut down.

More than 290 people have been arrested under the Beijing imposed national security law so far. Of these, 174 people and five companies have been charged, including prominent China critic and businessman Jimmy Lai, who is currently on trial and could face life imprisonment.

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