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Germany Offers Expert Group in Bid to End NATO Rift

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Germany sought Wednesday to ease French worries about NATO by offering to set up a group of experts to examine the alliance’s security challenges after President Emmanuel Macron lamented the “brain death” of the military organization.

Macron’s public criticism of NATO — notably, a perceived lack of U.S. leadership, concerns about an unpredictable Turkey since it invaded northern Syria without warning its allies, and the need for Europe to take on more security responsibilities — has shaken the alliance.

At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Germany’s Heiko Maas said that the 29-nation trans-Atlantic alliance is “Europe’s life insurance and we want it to remain so.” He said the aim should be to prevent “break-away tendencies” within NATO.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, Maas told reporters, the “political arm” of NATO must be strengthened.

“We should get advice from experts, from people who understand these issues,” he said.

Maas declined to elaborate or comment on who might be part of this expert commission, saying he was more interested in how Germany’s partners react to the proposal. France’s response to the offer should indicate whether NATO’s internal differences can quickly be papered over.

Macron’s choice of words was rejected as “drastic” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel the day after they were published in The Economist magazine. Senior U.S. and European officials have since piled on, leaving France feeling isolated for speaking out.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg heads to Paris next week for talks with Macron, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 28. On the eve of the Brussels meeting, Stoltenberg said the best way to resolve differences “is to sit down and to discuss them and to fully understand the messages and the motivations.”

Asked Wednesday why Macron’s stance has angered allies or might hurt NATO, Stoltenberg said, without mentioning France, that “there is no way to deny that there are disagreements on issues like trade, like climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and also simply on how to deal with the situation in northeast Syria.”

But he added: “We have to overcome these disagreements, because it is so essential both for Europe and the United States that we stand united.”

The rift bodes ill for a Dec. 3-4 summit of NATO leaders in London, where U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to once again demand that the Europeans and Canada step up defense spending. That meeting comes amid impeachment hearings in the U.S., and in the heat of a British election campaign.

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Escaping Impeachment Hearings, Trump to Showcase Apple Plant in Texas

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President Donald Trump is getting out of Washington during the House impeachment probe. He’s headed to Texas to tour an Austin plant that produces Apple’s Mac Pro computer.

It’s Trump’s second visit to Texas in recent weeks as he highlights job growth in a state crucial for Republicans in 2020, both in terms of money and votes.

Trump’s visit follows Apple’s announcement in September that it would continue manufacturing the Mac Pro in Austin. The move came once the Trump administration agreed to waive tariffs on certain computer parts made in China.

Apple CEO Tim Cook pitched Trump on the problem that higher tariffs posed for Apple. Trump has said, “it’s tough for Apple to pay tariffs if they’re competing with a very good company that’s not.”

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Bolivian Military Deploys Armored Vehicles to End Blockade of Key Gas Plant

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Bolivian police and military forces used armored vehicles and helicopters to clear access to a major gas plant in the city of El Alto on Tuesday, a show of strength after blockades at the facility had cut off fuel supply to nearby La Paz.

Helicopters flew above roads around the Senkata gas plant, operated by state-run YPFB, which were blocked with piles of burning tires, according to a Reuters witness. Protesters are demanding the return of unseated leftist leader Evo Morales.

Morales resigned on Nov. 10 amid anti-government demonstrations and rising pressure over vote-rigging allegations after an audit by the Organization of American States (OAS) found serious irregularities in an Oct. 20 election.

But Morales supporters have since ramped up protests, calling for caretaker President Jeanine Anez to step down and for Morales to return. Mounting violence in the South American nation has seen 27 people killed in street clashes.

In what it said was a bid to restore calm, Bolivia’s congress, controlled by lawmakers from Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS), said on Tuesday it would cancel a contentious vote in the legislature that had been expected to reject Morales’ resignation.

The vote would be suspended “to create and contribute to an environment conducive to dialogue and peace,” the Legislative Assembly said in a statement, citing instructions from new Senate head and MAS lawmaker Monica Eva Copa Murga.

Eva Copa Murga later told reporters the assembly would prepare legislation to annul the Oct. 20 election and move towards new elections as soon as possible. The two chambers of Congress will convene separately on Wednesday.

“We do not want more deaths, we do not want more blood,” she said, flanked by the majority of the MAS party lawmakers, calling on the military and pro-Morales group to demobilize.

The country’s human right ombudsman said that three people have been killed in clashes with security forces around Senkata.

A woman carries a child as members of the security forces stand guard during a protest in Senkata, El Alto, Bolivia, Nov. 19, 2019.
A woman carries a child as members of the security forces stand guard during a protest in Senkata, El Alto, Bolivia, Nov. 19, 2019.

The military said in a statement they had carried out a “peaceful” operation after trying negotiation and dialogue.

The MAS party – which itself has been split over how to proceed – holds a majority in the congress and could have voted to reject Morales’ resignation, potentially creating dueling claims on the country’s leadership and raising pressure on Anez.

Morales has railed at what he has called a right-wing coup against him and hinted he could return to the country, though he has pledged repeatedly not to run again in a new election. He stepped down after weeks of protests led to allies and eventually the military urging him to go.

Desperate to Buy

Bolivians are feeling the pinch of the turmoil, with fuel shortages mounting and grocery stores short of basic goods as supporters of Morales blockade key transport routes.

In the highland capital La Paz, roads have grown quiet as people preserve gasoline, with long queues for food staples.

People stand in line to receive chicken as roadblocks have caused a food and fuel crisis, in La Paz, Bolivia, Nov. 18, 2019.
People stand in line to receive chicken as roadblocks have caused a food and fuel crisis, in La Paz, Bolivia, Nov. 18, 2019.

People lined up with gas canisters next to the Senkata plant on Tuesday. Images showed some fuel trucks moving through the area under a strong military and police presence.

“Unfortunately this has been going on for three to four weeks, so people are desperate to buy everything they find,” said Ema Lopez, 81, a retiree in La Paz.

Daniel Castro, a 63-year-old worker in the city, blamed Morales for what he called “food terrorism.”

“This is chaos and you’re seeing this chaos in (La Paz’s) Plaza Villarroel with more than 5,000 people just there to get a chicken,” he said.

The country’s hydrocarbons minister, Victor Hugo Zamora, said on Tuesday he was looking to unlock fuel deliveries for La Paz and called on the pro-Morales movements to join talks and allow economic activity to resume.

Juan Carlos Huarachi, head of the powerful Bolivian Workers’ Center union and once a staunch Morales backer, called on lawmakers to find a resolution. “Our only priority is to bring peace to the country,” he told reporters.

Jorge Quiroga, a former president and Morales critic, said Morales wanted to see Bolivia “burn,” echoing other detractors who say he has continued to stoke unrest from Mexico, which Morales denies.

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‘New Hope’ as 38 More Colombian Municipalities Cleared of Landmines

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Thirty-eight more Colombian municipalities are considered free of landmines and unexploded ordinance, President Ivan Duque said Tuesday, as civilian and military efforts to remove improvised explosives continue despite ongoing conflict in some areas.

Colombia was once among the countries where people suffered the most injuries from landmines, one result of more than five decades of armed conflict between leftist guerrillas, crime gangs, right-wing paramilitary groups and the government.

More than 700 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities once had landmines, but 391 of those are now certified as mine-free.

“Today we make history because we are freeing 38 municipalities from suspicion of mines,” Duque told attendees at a ceremony in the Andean country’s southwest. “Thirty-eight municipalities have said goodbye to this tragedy; they have the light of new hope.”

Natalia Arango works with her mine detector in a zone of landmines planted by rebels groups near Sonson in Antioquia province,…
FILE – Mine detectors are used to search for landmines in Antioquia province, Colombia, Nov. 19, 2015.

Mines, widely used by both rebels and crime gangs to impede military movements, have killed 2,297 people and injured another 9,492 since 1990, government figures show.

A 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels allowed de-mining work to accelerate in certain mountain and jungle areas which formerly had guerrilla presence, but remaining rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN) and crime gangs continue to use improvised explosives, non-governmental organizations say.

Some 9.8 million square meters have been cleaned of mines and 7,100 explosive devices destroyed across the country of 48 million. The army and 11 civilian groups and NGOs, including the Halo Trust, are responsible for de-mining work.

Colombia, along with more than 160 other countries, is a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty, which forbids the manufacture, storage and use of landmines.

It has pledged to remove all mines by 2021 and will need to ask fellow signatories to approve an extension if it misses its removal target.

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Bei Bei, Washington’s Eligible Bachelor Panda, Heads to China

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After a month of preparations and goodbyes, Bei Bei, the Washington National Zoo’s most eligible giant panda bachelor, was on his way to China on Tuesday, where scientists hope he will help increase the population of his species.

The departure of 4-year-old Bei Bei to his parents’ homeland had been pre-arranged and was announced last month by the zoo, where giant pandas have always been a visitor favorite.

Bei Bei, which means “precious treasure,” munched his last American breakfast of bamboo and leaf eater biscuits early Tuesday before entering a custom travel crate that was loaded onto a truck for the trip to Dulles International Airport, the zoo said.

From there, he began the 16-hour direct flight to Chengdu, China, aboard a dedicated Boeing 777F flown by FedEx and stocked with his favorite snacks, such as bamboo shoots, pears, and cooked sweet potatoes, it said.

Workers look at a FedEx's crate where Bei Bei, the giant panda, has been placed before his departure to China, at the…
Workers look at a FedEx’s crate where Bei Bei, the giant panda, has been placed before his departure to China, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019.

“Today is bittersweet,” zoo Director Steve Monfort said. “We’ve cared for Bei Bei, and along with millions, watched him grow into a true ambassador for his species.”

Visitors have spent the past few weeks getting their last looks as zookeepers got Bei Bei accustomed to his travel crate, first by training him to walk through it, then spending time inside with the door closed.

Breeding programs are key to efforts to reintroduce pandas into the wild. Thanks to reforestation to expand habitats in which the species can survive, pandas have been reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. There are an estimated 1,800 giant pandas in the wild.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian 

Bei Bei is not the first in his family to travel abroad. His parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived from China in 2000, and his older siblings Tai Shan and Bao Bao both packed their bags for China when they came of breeding age.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the zoo’s only remaining giant pandas.

Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson did not rule out another breeding attempt, but added in an email that “Mei Xiang is of advanced maternal age so it is highly unlikely that she will have another cub.”

An artificial insemination last year of Mei Xiang, who has been at the zoo for 20 years, failed to produce a cub.

The zoo has collaborated with Chinese scientists on a breeding program since it received its first pandas in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

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US, S. Korea Break Off Defense Cost Talks Amid Backlash Over Trump Demand

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South Korean and U.S. officials broke off talks on Tuesday aimed at settling the cost burden for Seoul of hosting the U.S. military, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said, amid a public backlash over a U.S. demand for a sharp increase in the bill.

Officials had resumed a planned two-day negotiation on Monday, trying to narrow a $4 billion gap in what they believe South Korea should contribute for the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the country for next year.

“Our position is that it should be within the mutually acceptable Special Measures Agreement (SMA) framework that has been agreed upon by South Korea and the U.S. for the past 28 years,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said, referring to the cost-sharing deal’s official name.

“The U.S. believes that the share of defense spending should be increased significantly by creating a new category,” the ministry said in a statement.

Negotiators left the table after only about one hour of discussions while the talks were scheduled throughout the day, South Korean media reported, citing unnamed foreign ministry officials.

South Korean lawmakers have said U.S. officials had demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times the 1.04 trillion won ($896 million) Seoul agreed to pay this year for hosting the 28,500 troops.

U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed the number, but Trump has previously said the U.S. military presence in and around South Korea was “$5 billion worth of protection.”

The negotiations are taking place as U.S. efforts to reach an agreement with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs appear stalled, ahead of a year-end deadline from Pyongyang for the U.S. to shift its approach.

Lee Hye-hoon, head of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, said in a radio interview on Tuesday the U.S. ambassador to South Korea talked to her at length earlier this month about how Seoul had been only paying one-fifth what it should have been paying for the cost of stationing U.S. troops.

Under South Korean law, the military cost-sharing deal must be approved by parliament.

Ruling party lawmakers have said this week they will “refuse to ratify any excessive outcome of the current negotiations” that deviate from the established principle and structure of the agreements for about 30 years.

Trump has long railed against what he says are inadequate contributions from allies towards defense costs. The United States is due to begin separate negotiations for new defense cost-sharing deals with Japan, Germany and NATO next year.

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Union Raises Money to Help US Diplomats Pay Impeachment Legal Bills

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The union representing U.S. diplomats said on Monday it has raised tens of thousands of dollars in the last week alone to help defray the legal costs of foreign service officers who have testified in U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) also issued a statement defending U.S. diplomats after Trump criticized several of those who have appeared before Congress and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said nothing specific in their support.

“These patriots go abroad to every corner of the world and serve the interests of the American people,” AFSA President Eric Rubin said in a statement. “They do so with integrity and have no partisan or hidden agenda.”

“We should honor the service of each and every one of them.”

Separately, Rubin said: “We have raised tens of thousands of dollars in the past week alone” in the union’s Legal Defense Fund to help defray lawyers’ bills. He did not provide details.

One person caught up in the inquiry said he had already run up a legal bill of more than $25,000.

Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to requests for comment. A State Department spokesperson has previously said the agency planned to provide legal assistance to employees called to testify but did not give details.

FILE – Jennifer Williams, special adviser for Europe and Russia in the Office of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed-door hearing in Washington, Nov. 7, 2019.

Trump lashed out on Sunday at Jennifer Williams, a U.S. diplomat and foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence who has testified that some of Trump’s comments on a July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart were “inappropriate.”

The call is at the heart of the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ inquiry into whether Republican Trump misused U.S. foreign policy to undermine former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 election.

Writing on Twitter, Trump accused Williams of being a “Never Trumper” who should “work out a better presidential attack.”

Trump has denied wrongdoing and branded the probe a witch hunt aimed at hurting his re-election chances.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a statement during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, Nov. 18, 2019.

Asked on Monday why he had not spoken in support of his employees, Pompeo said he would talk about U.S. policy toward Ukraine but not about the impeachment inquiry.

Pressed, he said nothing specific: “I always defend State Department employees. It’s the greatest diplomatic corps in the history of the world. Very proud of the team.”

Asked if he shared Trump’s view, expressed on Twitter, that “everywhere (former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine) Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Pompeo replied: “I’ll defer to the White House about particular statements.”



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Warren’s ‘Medicare for All’ Plan Reignites Health Care Clash

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Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to gradually move the country to a government-funded health care system has further inflamed the debate over “Medicare for All,” likely ensuring the issue will play a significant role in this week’s Democratic presidential debate.

The Massachusetts senator announced Friday that her administration would immediately build on existing laws, including the Affordable Care Act, to expand access to health care while taking up to three years to fully implement Medicare for All. That attempt to thread the political needle has roiled her more moderate rivals, who say she’s waffling, while worrying some on the left, who see Warren’s commitment to a single-payer system wavering.

The divide could complicate plans by Democrats to turn health care into a winning issue in 2020. The party successfully took back control of the House last year by championing programs that ensure that people with preexisting medical conditions keep their insurance coverage while arguing that Republicans want to weaken such provisions. But the Medicare for All debate is more delicate as advocates including Warren grapple with concerns that a new government-run system won’t provide the same quality of coverage as private insurance – and would be prohibitively expensive.

“The Medicare for All proposal has turned out to be a real deal-breaker in who gets the Democratic nomination,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University School of Public Health professor whose teaching responsibilities include courses on political strategy in health policy and public opinion polling. “This is not just another issue.’’

Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attend a Medicare For All event on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2019.
FILE – Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attend a Medicare For All event on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2019.

Warren’s transition plan indicates she’d use her first 100 days as president to expand existing public health insurance options. That is closer to what has been supported by former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Both Democratic presidential candidates have criticized Medicare for All for wiping out private insurance – something they say many Americans aren’t ready for.

Warren insists she’s simply working to expand health insurance in the short term to people who don’t have it while remaining committed to the full plan in the long run.

“My commitment to Medicare for All is all the way,” Warren said while campaigning in Iowa over the weekend.

Still, the transition signified a step toward pragmatism and an acknowledgement that the government has ways to expand health insurance coverage before embracing a universal system – something that would be difficult for any president to get through Congress. Consider that current entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, were phased in over years, not all at once.

“If she’s looked at it and decides the sensible thing to do in order to not cause too much disruption in employment situations and within the medical system is to gear up over three years, she’s probably right,” said Cindy Wolf, a customer service and shipping manager who attended the California state Democratic Convention on Saturday in Long Beach.

Still, the move may prove politically problematic for a candidate who has long decried others settling for consultant-driven campaigns seeking incremental changes at the expense of big ideas.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the original architect of Medicare for All and has made fighting for it the centerpiece of his 2020 White House bid. He tweeted following the release of Warren’s transition plan: “In my first week as president, we will introduce Medicare for All legislation.’’

Una Lee Jost, a lawyer from Pasadena, Calif., holds signs supporting Bernie Sanders at the California Democratic Convention in…
Una Lee Jost, a lawyer from Pasadena, Californi, holds signs supporting Bernie Sanders at the California Democratic Convention in Long Beach, California, Nov. 16, 2019.

Campaigning in Nevada on Monday, California Sen. Kamala Harris said, “I believe that government should not be in a position of taking away people’s choice.”

“Especially on one of the most intimate and personal decisions people can make,” Harris said, “which is about how to address their health care needs.’’

The criticism from others was far sharper. Top Biden adviser Kate Bedingfield dismissed Warren’s plan as “trying to muddy the waters” by offering “a full program of flips and twists.” Buttigieg spokeswoman Lis Smith said it was a “transparently political attempt to paper over a very serious policy problem.’’

It’s easy to see the issue spilling into Wednesday’s debate because Warren rode a steady summer climb in the polls to become one of the primary field’s front-runners – but no longer seems to be rising. Polls recently show her support stabilizing, though not dipping, as focus on her Medicare for All ideas intensifies.

The last two debates featured Warren failing to answer direct questions on whether she would be forced to raise middle class taxes to pay for the universal health care system she envisions. That set up a plan released two-plus weeks ago in which Warren vowed to generate $20-plus trillion in new government revenue without increasing taxes on the middle class – but that’s been decried by critics who accuse Warren of underestimating how much Medicare for All would really cost.

And, though Warren never promised to begin working toward Medicare for All on Day 1 of her administration, the release of the transition plan, which spelled out that the process will take years, has unsettled some.

Una Lee Jost, a lawyer who was holding “Bernie” signs in Chinese and English at the California Democratic Convention, called any lengthy transition to Medicare for All “a serious concern.’’

“We should have implemented this decades ago,” she said.

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Indian Students Face Off With Police Amid Fee Protest

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Hundreds of students from a New Delhi university faced off Monday with police, who stopped their march toward Parliament to protest increased student housing fees.
The students from Jawaharlal Nehru University chanted slogans and attempted to cross police barricades. Police detained several students during the march.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union said in a statement that the students were attacked by the police during the protest.
“The police used brutal force to disrupt our peaceful march and several students have been injured,” the statement said.
The students wanted to appeal to lawmakers to intervene in their university’s decision to hike the fees, which they have been protesting for more than two weeks. Last week, hundreds of protesting students clashed with the police during the university’s graduation ceremony.
Rent for a single-bedroom was increased to the equivalent of more than $8 per month from less than $1 per month. The security deposit more than doubled to more than $160.
Many students said they fear the fee structure would make education inaccessible to underprivileged students.
“I am the first from my family to study at a university. By raising housing fees, the university administration is putting a price on affordable education,” said Jyoti Sharma, a student at the march.
Students held signs at the march reading “Save public education” and “Ensure affordable hostels for all.”
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury offered his support to the protesting students.
“A peaceful protest march to Parliament against the unprecedented fee hikes is being forcibly stopped by the police. Strongly condemn this denial of basic democratic right to protest,” he tweeted.
The students marched despite the university saying it would partially roll back the fees.
“The students will not pay the increased fee,” said Ashutosh Verma, a student.

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China Calls on US to ‘Stop Flexing Muscles’ in South China Sea

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China on Monday called on the U.S. military to stop flexing its muscles in the South China Sea
and to avoid adding “new uncertainties” over Taiwan, during high-level talks that underscored tension between the world’s two largest economies.

The remarks by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, recounted by a Chinese spokesman, came just two weeks after a top White House official denounced Chinese “intimidation” in the busy waterway.

It also came a day after Esper publicly accused Beijing of “increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives” in the region.

During closed-door talks on the sidelines of a gathering of defense ministers in Bangkok, Wei urged Esper to “stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and to not provoke and escalate
tensions in the South China Sea”, the spokesman, Wu Qian, said.

China claims almost all the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, where it has established military outposts on artificial islands. However, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.

The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.

The U.S. Navy regularly vexes China by conducting what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations by ships close to some of the islands China occupies, asserting freedom of access to international waterways.

Asked specifically what Wei sought for the United States to do differently, and whether that included halting such freedom of navigation operations, Wu said: “We (call on) the U.S. side
to stop intervening in the South China Sea and stop military provocation in the South China Sea.”

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper, in his meeting with Wei, noted China’s “perpetual reluctance” to adhere to international norms.

“Secretary Esper pointedly reiterated that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows – and we will encourage and protect the rights of other sovereign nations to do the same,” Hoffman said.

Chinese carrier transit

Despite warm words exchanged in front of reporters, Wei and Esper also discussed thorny issues, including Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has seen months of anti-government protests.
They also talked about democratic Taiwan, which is claimed by China as a wayward province and is the Communist Party’s most sensitive and important territorial issue.

Fenghe underscored to Esper China’s position that it would “not tolerate any Taiwan independence incident”, Wu said, adding that it opposed any official or military contact with Taiwan. China has in the past threatened to attack if Taiwan, set to hold a presidential election next year, moves towards independence.

“The Chinese side also requires the U.S. side to carefully handle the Taiwan related-issue and to not add new uncertainties to the Strait,” Wu said.

The exchange came a day after news that China sailed a carrier group into the sensitive Taiwan Strait, led by its first domestically built aircraft carrier.

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Nigeria’s Oscar Disqualification Sparks Push for Films in Native Languages

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Nigeria’s Oscar Committee is urging the country’s filmmakers to use more native languages in their productions.  This, after the U.S. Academy Awards disqualified a Nigerian entry in the International Feature Film category because the movie used too much English.  While some in Nigeria’s Hollywood – known as Nollywood – support the idea of more native languages in films, others argue that non-English films limit their audience reach. 

Nollywood filmmaker Desmond Utomwen is aiming for a U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award, popularly known as an Oscar, by producing a film in a native Nigerian language.

“It’s actually a Hausa-based film, so it’s a language film, it’s not English.  I’ve done a couple of them in English but, that’s actually my first film in Hausa,’ he says.

Most Nigerian filmmakers make English-language movies to reach a larger audience globally but also inside Nigeria, where the former British colony made English the official language.

Filmmaker Darlington Abuda has been in the industry for years.

“In Nigeria, if I do a purely language film, I have made my film a regional film,” Abuda says.  “It will not get the appeal and audience traction that it needs in the other parts of the country.”

But that tide may be slowly turning after the Academy Awards this month disqualified Nigeria’s first entry in the International Feature Film category.

Only 11 minutes of Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lion Heart” – the first Nollywood film by Netflix – was in the native Igbo language.  To qualify for the international feature award, at least 50 percent of a film’s dialogue must be in a language other than English.

While the rejection was roundly criticized in Nigeria, C.J. Obasi, a member of a Nigerian Oscar committee which was set up five years ago, is optimistic.

“If you look at the bigger picture you realize that it’s a victory in that we made a submission for the first time ever,” Obasi says.  “What that does is that it re-positions the hearts and minds of filmmakers as to how we are going to tell our stories moving forward.”

Nigeria’s Oscar Selection Committee says the rejection should motivate Nollywood filmmakers to create more movies in the country’s over 500 native languages.

But convincing Nigerian filmmakers to turn away from English – the language that ties the country together and with the world – will remain a challenge.

And, for some Nollywood filmmakers like Jim Iyke, the language used is not the point.

“If someone sits in their living room and decide where my movie should be, and what platform or what awards I should get, that is on them,” Iyke says. ” I’ve done my job.  I’ve fed the artist in me.”

While Lion Heart won’t make the February Academy Awards, being rejected and having the backing of Netflix are already drawing more international attention to Nollywood — and what Nigerian filmmakers will produce next.


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Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Camp Eyes Big Gains in Local Elections

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Over the past five months, millions have marched through Hong Kong, demanding democratic reform in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. Next Sunday (November 24), Hong Kongers will finally get a chance to express their opinion, albeit in a limited way, by casting votes. If the vote goes ahead as planned, pro-democracy forces are hoping for a big win, as VOA’s William Gallo reports.

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Poll: Buttigieg Surges Ahead of Democratic Rivals in Iowa

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South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg holds a clear lead among Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa, the state that will hold the first nominating contest in February, a new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom opinion poll showed on Saturday.

Buttigieg’s support climbed to 25%, a 16-point increase since the previous survey in September, CNN reported.

It said there was a close three-way battle for second with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at 16%, and former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders each at 15%.

Since September, Warren dropped six percentage points and Biden slipped five points, while Sanders gained four points, CNN said.

Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told the network the news was encouraging and his campaign felt growing momentum in the farm state, but there was “still a lot of work to do” in increasing his name recognition there.

Buttigieg also led Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa in a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday.

A New York Times/Sienna poll released earlier this month also showed Buttigieg’s support surging in Iowa, but still behind Warren and Sanders. Nationally, he does not fare nearly as well, averaging around 8% in polls.

Buttigieg’s campaign is betting a strong finish in the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 will help quell questions about whether he is ready for the big stage, and persuade reluctant black and Hispanic voters to give him a second look.

Buttigieg, 37, has invested heavily in Iowa from the start.

His campaign has more than 100 staffers and 20 offices in the state, among the most of any candidate.

Buttigieg finished the third quarter with $23.4 million in campaign cash on hand, ranking third behind Warren and Sanders at $25.7 million and $33.7 million, respectively. Biden had $8.9 million, forcing his campaign to abandon a promise to reject support from political action committees.