Monday, January 27, 2020
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Obama’s pivot to Asia is dead. Despite the Trump administration’s confrontation with North Korea dominating headlines for the past several weeks, in the back channels of a major regional summit, diplomats all whispered the same thing, the pivot was over.

f anything, Trump’s obsession with North Korea and the administration needing a win on foreign policy matters means that he has softened his stance towards China, a nation he once accused of unfair trade practices and currency manipulation.

Trump has been effusive in his praise of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in recent weeks, calling him a strong leader and someone that he got along with very well.

What it means for regional players attending a conference like the ASEAN summit is that China can freely flex its muscles and assert its influence over individual members.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Chairman’s statement on Saturday which recapped the 3-day summit.

Despite four of the ten members having serious issues with Beijing over the South China Sea, the statement released was, as an Indonesian senior diplomat bluntly put, “soft.”

As the US pulls away from the region and with a growing recognition by Trump that he would have to cede some influence to coerce China to his aid on the Korean peninsula, individual ASEAN members were more vulnerable than ever to China’s bidding.

Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, countries with no stake in the South China Sea, have already courted Beijing for investment and arms with the understanding that it would need to vote Beijing’s way on certain matters.

The Philippines, as host of the summit, softened its stance considerably on China and did not press for confrontation with the superpower in any of the closed-door meetings despite having won an arbitration hearing at the United Nations which invalidated Chinese claims to the South China Sea.

The softer stance reflected President Rodrigo Duterte’s previous statements that he was willing to negotiate with China and his recognition of Beijing’s influence and deep pockets.

While the chairman’s statement did mention the South China Sea the timorous set of generalities may as well not have been published at all.

The leaders of ASEAN are due to meet in again in Manilla in November of this year. As per tradition, the second ASEAN summit of the year will also play host to the East Asia Summit.

With both Trump and Xi (and Putin) due to arrive for the talks, it will be interesting to see how much ground Trump gives in order to advance his own foreign policy agenda. Until then, the United States pivot to Asia is effectively dead.

US President Barack Obama agreed to hold off a controversial decision on sending arms to Ukraine until German-led efforts to broker a ceasefire with Russia are given a chance.

Hosting Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, Obama said he hoped she could reach a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end 10 months of bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, but warned more punitive measures are in the pipeline if that fails.

Steep Western sanctions and low oil prices have crippled Russia’s economy but have so far failed to dissuade Putin’s government from backing Ukrainian separatists. Moscow denies it is doing so.

“My hope is that through these diplomatic efforts those costs have become high enough that Mr Putin’s preferred option is for a diplomatic resolution,” Obama said.

“I won’t prejudge whether or not they’ll be successful,” he added. “If they are not, then we will want to raise the costs. And we will not relent in that.”

Obama indicated that further sanctions and “lethal defense” assistance are now on the table, but said no decision had been made yet.

Merkel has opposed sending arms, warning it would further escalate a war that Ukraine cannot win against the much larger and better equipped pro-Russian forces.

But she acknowledged that a drive to reach a ceasefire deal with Putin — after he reneged on a previous agreement — may not succeed.

“We have no guarantee,” she said in a joint press conference ahead of further talks this week. “I cannot give you a guarantee for the outcome of the Wednesday talks and maybe nothing will come out of it.

“I, myself, would not be able to live without having made this attempt.”

– ‘Order of Europe’ –

The conflict has already killed more than 5,000 people.

With violence escalating by the day, the stakes have become ever-higher as Russian-armed rebels have eaten further into Ukrainian territory.

“If we give up the principle of territorial integrity, we will not be able to maintain the peaceful order of Europe,” warned Merkel, who later took her plea for time to strike a peace deal to Canada.

Obama lent credence to the view that Ukraine, Russia and the whole of Europe is now at a fork in the road.

“We’re in absolute agreement that the 21st century cannot stand idle, have us stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

Republicans lambasted Obama for engaging in more talk and accused him of abandoning Ukraine.

“President Obama’s continual weakness in the face of aggression is making the world a more dangerous place,” stormed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

“It’s a sad fact that our enemies are seldom challenged while our friends are constantly undercut and abandoned.”

Officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are still hammering out the details for a four-way summit slated for Wednesday.

Ahead of the possible meeting in Minsk, the European Union decided to hold off implementing new sanctions against Russia, giving space for talks.

“The implementation was delayed for several days at the request of Ukrainians who wanted that the other side has less pretext to refuse negotiations or negotiate in an unconstructive manner in Minsk summit on Wednesday, if it happens,” Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.

EU foreign ministers had been set to formally sign off on adding 19 more people to a sanctions list over Moscow’s backing of the separatists.

– Sticking points –

Putin has warned that a “number of points” still needed to be agreed before the Minsk meeting can take place and wrangling was set to be intense as foreign ministry officials from the four nations met in Berlin.

Based on a largely ignored peace deal agreed in September in Minsk, the new plan may extend rebel control over territory the rebels have seized in recent weeks, although Kiev is adamant the demarcation line agreed in September should not be shifted.

French President Francois Hollande has said the proposal includes the creation of a 50 to 70-kilometer (31 to 44-mile) demilitarized zone around the current frontline.

The issues on the table include questions about levels of regional autonomy and future elections in rebel-controlled areas, said German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer.

Fresh fighting over the past 24 hours between Ukraine government forces and pro-Russian rebels left at least 11 civilians and nine Ukrainian troops dead, Kiev said.

Ukraine’s military said that 1,500 Russian troops and convoys of military hardware had crossed into the country over the weekend.

US President Barack Obama has urged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to use his influence to make separatists in eastern Ukraine stand down.

The phone call between the two leaders came as pro-Russian activists continued to occupy buildings in eastern towns.

For his part, Mr Putin rejected accusations of Russian interference, calling the reports “unreliable”.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting President, Olexander Turchynov, has announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation”.

He told parliament it had begun in the “north of Donetsk Region” on Tuesday morning and was being conducted “stage by stage, in a responsible and weighed manner”.

The extent of the operation was unclear but unconfirmed reports on Russian media, quoting separatists, speak of Ukrainian armour being on the move near the flashpoint towns of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers could be seen parked 70km (44 miles) from Sloviansk on Monday.

EU foreign ministers say they will expand a list of names targeted by sanctions.

Tension has been steadily rising since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, formerly part of Ukraine, last month.

The move, condemned as illegal by Kiev and the West, followed the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

In other developments

  • At least one separatist checkpoint near Sloviansk reportedly came under fire overnight from unknown gunmen in a car but nobody was apparently hurt
  • A presidential candidate from eastern Ukraine, Oleh Tsarev, regarded as pro-Russian, appeared before reporters in Kiev with a black eye after being assaulted by protesters as he left a TV studio
  • A report from the UN human rights office said the root of the unrest in Ukraine lay in misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred

‘Grave concern’

The White House said the “frank and direct” conversation between the two presidents was made at Russia’s request.

“The president expressed grave concern about Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilise the government of Ukraine,” a statement said.

“The president emphasised that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized.”

The statement also threatened Moscow with wider sanctions, saying “the costs Russia already has incurred will increase if those actions persist”.

The Kremlin said in a statement that recent unrest in Ukraine’s south-east was “the result of the unwillingness and inability of the leadership in Kiev to take into account the interests of Russia and the Russian-speaking population”.

It said Mr Putin had urged Mr Obama to “use the resources at the disposal of the American side” to help prevent any bloodshed.

It dismissed claims that Russia was interfering in Ukraine, saying the accusations were based on “questionable information”.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Tuesday the situation in eastern Ukraine was “very dangerous”. Speaking to the BBC, he commended the Ukrainian government for acting “very responsibly throughout this crisis”.

Thousands of Russian troops are reported to be deployed along the border between Ukraine and Russia. Kiev fears any crackdown on pro-Russian groups could trigger an invasion.

Rebels appeal to Putin

Mr Turchynov said on Tuesday the aim of the operation in Donetsk was to “protect Ukrainian citizens, to stop the terror, to stop the crime, to stop the attempts to tear our country apart”.

Pro-Russian rebels have seized buildings in about 10 towns and cities across eastern provinces that form the heartland of Ukraine’s heavy industry.

A four-way meeting on the crisis, involving the EU, Russia, the US and Ukraine is due to be held in Geneva on Thursday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Tuesday that any use of force by the Ukrainian government in the east could undermine the talks.

“You can’t send tanks against your own citizens and at the same time hold talks,” he said.

Washington (CNN) — A last-minute enrollment surge enabled the White House to meet its original sign-up target for the Affordable Care Act, a surprising victory for the Obama administration after a rocky rollout of the program that has become a political hot potato for Democrats and a rallying cry for Republicans.

President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that 7.1 million people had signed up on federal or state exchanges for coverage under the health care law now often known as Obamacare.

The enrollment period began anemically in October with a faltering federal website and ended with a crush of people trying to beat Monday’s deadline to get coverage. Not everyone who has selected a health plan has paid for it yet, officials said.

Nevertheless, Obama claimed victory at a White House ceremony, saying the program approved by Congress in 2010 — with no Republican support and vilified relentlessly by the GOP as government overreach — has been a force for good.

He said it wasn’t perfect, acknowledging the early difficulties in selecting a policy on, and he predicted more hurdles in carrying it out.

But the overall goal of starting to narrow the gap between those with health coverage and those without it has begun, and millions of Americans are embracing it, Obama said.

“That’s what the (law) is all about, making sure all of us and all our fellow citizens can count on the security of health care when we get sick,” he said, noting that the “law is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s working.”

The numbers

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office originally projected the 7 million enrollment target for the October through March period, which was adopted by the administration.

Expectations plummeted throughout the fall and into this year after the early website problems, which Obama called “several lost weeks.”

But signs of a pickup began in late January and continued into February and early March despite a fierce campaign by Republicans to demonize the law as unworkable.

Administration officials said an absolute crush of people pushed the program — Obama’s chief domestic accomplishment — over the finish line at the 11th hour. More than 4.8 million visits were made to on Monday alone.

Officials stressed that the 7.1 million figure represents only those who signed up for coverage. Those who came in late and encountered technical problems have until mid-April to complete the process. Private insurers are providing the coverage.

Health of Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told an Oklahoma TV station on Monday that insurers were reporting that 80% to 90% had paid so far.

The law also includes expanded Medicaid insurance for the poor in many states, but those participants are not part of the sign-up total.

The politics

Republicans, especially in the House, have waged a nonstop campaign to repeal or roll back the Affordable Care Act, saying it was rammed through Congress without their input and now is another illustration of big government at its worst.

They have made it a rallying cry of their fall campaign to expand their majority in the House and reclaim the Senate. It has energized the base, and the issue informs the commentary of potential GOP candidates for president as well.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement that the law “continues to harm the American people” despite Obama’s “victory lap.” He said costs are not going down, as Obama contends, and people are losing insurance plans they preferred and small businesses are chafing under the law’s requirements.

“That’s why we must replace this fundamentally flawed law with patient-centered solutions that will actually lower health care costs and help create jobs,” Steel said.

Democrats on the stump, especially those who voted for it and now find themselves in tight races, have recalibrated their position with Obama’s presidency not much help to them with voters overall in their states.

But Obama said at the White House that the law is good for the country, regardless of politics, and that the numbers show Americans want it and that it’s “here to stay.”

“I don’t get it. Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of people having health insurance?” he asked.

What people think

Americans are divided over how they view the law. Last month, 46% said they viewed it unfavorably, down 4 points since January, and 38% said they viewed it favorably, up 4 points over the same time period, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Those who held unfavorable views cited concerns about costs (23%), opposition to the individual mandate (17%), and concerns about government intrusion (10%).

Those with favorable views cited expanded access to health care and health insurance (61%), followed by the perception that it will control health care costs and make it more affordable (10%) and that it will be good for the country (7%).

The telephone survey of 1,504 adults was conducted March 11 to 17 and had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 points.

Professor Uwe Reinhardt, a health economist at Princeton University, said he was not surprised at the last-minute rush to sign up.

“I think the prayer of the conservatives that this would collapse just didn’t get answered,” he told CNN. “It fills a need.”

He predicted conservatives would chip away at whatever the number proves to be.

“It’s all just, some people hate Obama and anything he does,” he said.

The details

The administration did not release details about the numbers, including the number of younger Americans who signed up. That metric is crucial for making the program work economically because premiums from younger, healthier participants are needed to make the program work for older people who use the health care system more.

An official briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity said insurance companies were confident the percentage of young people was sufficient for the insurance marketplaces to function properly.

Obamacare’s primary goal is to reduce the ranks of the 45 million uninsured.

Until now, many Americans with pre-existing conditions had to pay sky-high prices for insurance, if they could get any at all. Often, insurers branded them “uninsurable.”

The surge

The administration pulled out all the stops in the final weeks of the enrollment period — an effort one official equated to a “get out the vote” campaign before an election.

Administration officials took to the radio airwaves by participating in 400 interviews, enlisted celebrities and athletes to promote the law, and engaged people on social media. And Obama’s interview on the online comedycast “Between Two Ferns” resulted in the so-called Zach Galifianakis effect, resulting in 33 million views of his mock interview with the comedian.

The interview with Galifianakis, along with a promotional push from Miami Heat forward LeBron James, were cited by administration officials as two of the most effective components in the push to enroll young Americans on the health care exchanges. The overall effort, the White House said, surpassed their expectations in terms of last-minute sign-ups.