The U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, announced on Monday that he would step down in early October, ending his three-and-a-half-year tenure in Beijing.
In a tweet that day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Ambassador Branstad has contributed to rebalancing U.S.-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair.”
Ambassador Branstad has contributed to rebalancing U.S.-China relations so that it is results-oriented, reciprocal, and fair. This will have lasting, positive effects on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 14, 2020
Analysts say the departure of the U.S. ambassador, a former Republican governor of Iowa, marks another sign that the U.S. engagement policy with China has reached an end.
“Terry Branstad came into the embassy with the hope that they could work something out with China, yet none of that worked out,” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, told VOA.
The U.S. ambassador enjoys special access to China's president from an old friendship.
Branstad first met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 1985, when Xi was then a county official in Iowa's sister state, Northern China's Hubei province.
When Branstad was appointed by President Donald Trump as the U.S. ambassador to China in 2017, many had hoped he would help smooth friction after Trump harshly criticized U.S. trade deals with Beijing during his 2016 campaign.
Yet U.S.-China relations have entered a downward spiral since the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving the folksy midwestern American ambassador little room to use his personal relationship to benefit bilateral relations.
“He must feel he was not performing a constructive function there,” Schell added.
Branstad became embroiled in controversy last week when China’s state-run newspaper People’s Daily rejected an op-ed that he had written. Pompeo tweeted last week that this showed the lack of reciprocity in bilateral relations because the Chinese ambassador to the United States “is free to publish in any U.S. media outlet.” China’s foreign ministry spokesman said Branstad’s article was “full of loopholes and seriously inconsistent with facts.”
Schell, a long-time China analyst, said he believes Beijing must accept most of the responsibility for worsening bilateral relations.
“I think it’s the whole framework of engagement that kept the two countries more or less stable for over 40 years,” he said. “But that framework was essentially killed by China’s very aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. And it was unnecessary.”
A high-level official from the U.S. Department of State told VOA that during the ambassador’s tenure, China maintained a policy of “seek common ground while shelving differences.” The official, who asked not to be identified when discussing the current situation, said Beijing’s tactic of ignoring policy differences has seriously damaged fundamental U.S. interests.
“The common ground is economic benefit, the difference, however, is differences on politics and universal values,” the official said, adding that activities such as forced technology transfer from American companies “pose a severe challenge to America’s fundamental national interest.”
“The departure of an ambassador won’t change anything in this dynamic,” the official said.
David Miller, former director of Research and Commodity Services with the Iowa Farm Bureau, said Branstad might also be using his return to the U.S. to help Trump win the 2020 election in a closely fought battle with former Democratic vice president Joe Biden.
“Governor Branstad is well respected, particularly in Iowa. And Iowa is a swing state,” Miller said.
CNN reported that Branstad is leaving his post earlier in part because Trump “asked” the former Iowa governor to come back and help him campaign. The ambassador’s son, Eric Branstad, is already working on the Trump campaign.
Calla Yu contributed to this report.
Austria to Welcome Skiers This Winter, Just Not Apres-Ski Parties
Austria announced Thursday that while the alpine nation’s ski resorts will be open and skiers are welcome, the nation is banning all apres-ski events (social activities after a day of skiing) during the upcoming winter tourism season.
Skiing and other winter sports are big business in Austria, making up as much as 15% of the economy. But in February and March, post-skiing partying in the clubs and bars of the popular west Austrian resort of Ischgl resulted in an outbreak that was considered one of Europe's earliest "super-spreader" events of the pandemic.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters in Vienna that while they want to encourage tourists, things cannot be as they were.
“Skiing, eating out, nature and enjoying the hospitality, outdoor activities, shopping — not just in ski resorts but also in cities, a wellness vacation in Austria, culture tourism. All that will be possible this coming winter. What won't be possible is apres ski the way we know it from the past. The risk of infection is simply too high," he said.
The new rules will follow the same COVID-19-related restrictions for all bars, clubs and restaurants in Austria — table service only, with no standing at a bar. In closed ski lifts, face masks will be required, and passengers must stay 1 meter apart, the same as on public transport.
Ski instructors and lift operators, as well as hotel and restaurant staff, will be tested regularly.
Austria is working to bring a recent surge in COVID-19 cases under control, a situation that has prompted one of its top sources of foreign tourists, Germany, to issue a travel warning for one of its skiing regions, the province of Vorarlberg.
Israel Tightens Lockdown as COVID Infections Skyrocket
Israel is tightening a strict lockdown beginning Friday as the number of COVID cases continues to skyrocket. There are close to 7,000 new cases a day, and total infections have passed 200,000, all in a country of just nine million people. Hospitals are turning away infected patients and the Israeli army is building a large field hospital for new cases.
Israel has become the first country in the world to order a second lockdown, after infection rates have spiked in the past few weeks. Israel now has one of the highest rates of new infections per capita, with more than one in eight Israelis who take a coronavirus test getting a positive result.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no choice but a complete lockdown to get the numbers down.
He said that if Israel does not take serious steps immediately, the country will be on the brink of disaster.
The order is for the entire country, except for essential services like supermarkets and pharmacies, to shut down completely for at least two weeks.
Schools were moved online a few weeks ago after the number of cases among students and teachers climbed.
On Sunday and Monday, the lockdown will affect prayers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar when people fast and atone for their sins.
Small groups will be allowed to pray together both inside synagogues and outside, with some doctors saying even this is a mistake. The new rules also limit anti–Netanyahu demonstrations which had been gaining strength over the past few months.
Officials have also considered shutting down Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.
The lockdown will exact a heavy economic price, and analysts expect the unemployment rate – which had been improving – to rise as more businesses close down permanently.
Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and an advisor to Israel’s coronavirus czar, says Israel handled the first wave of the virus very well, but made some mistakes after that.
"At the beginning Israel responded and the public went with the plan, there were no exceptions, there was a complete lockdown and the public responded," said Levine. "What happened is that once the rates went lower, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the public go and have a good time. He said this is like an accordion when the rates are low, you can behave almost normally, when the rates are high, lockdown for everything. This is a wrong concept. Dealing with the current pandemic is like a marathon and in a marathon you need to keep pace all the time, you can run a bit differently but you need to keep moving on. You cannot stop completely."
Levine warns that Israel needs a detailed plan about how to slowly open up after the next lockdown. He also said that any long-term plan will only work if the public has trust in the government. For now, polls suggest that is in doubt.
Nations Urged to Help Virus-Stranded Mariners Stuck at Sea
Another COVID-19 problem the U.N. is trying to solve: How to help more than 300,000 merchant mariners who are trapped at sea because of coronavirus restrictions.
Describing the mounting desperation of seafarers who have been afloat for a year or more, Captain Hedi Marzougui pleaded their case Thursday at a meeting with shipping executives and government officials on the sidelines of this week's U.N. General Assembly.
As the pandemic washed over the world and made shipping crews unwelcome in many ports, he said, "We received very limited information, and it became increasingly difficult to get vital supplies and technical support. Nations changed regulations on a daily, if not hourly, basis."
Several months later, many borders remain closed and flights are rare, complicating efforts to bring in replacement crews for those stuck at sea and forcing their employers to keep extending their contracts.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined shipping companies, trade unions and maritime organizations in urging governments to recognize merchant crews as essential workers and allow them to travel more freely. With more than 80% of global trade by volume transported by sea, the world's 2 million merchant seafarers play a vital role.
Merchant ship crews are used to long stretches away from home, but as virus infections and restrictions spread early this year, anxiety mounted along with the uncertainty, Marzougui said.
"Not knowing when or if we would be returning home put severe mental strain on my crew and myself," he said. "We felt like second-class citizens with no input or control over our lives."
The Tunisian-born captain spent an extra three months at sea and finally made it home to his family in Florida in late May. But more than 300,000 mariners are still stranded, waiting for replacement crews; about as many are waiting on shore, trying to get back to work.
Maritime officials from Panama, the Philippines, Canada, France and Kenya defended steps they have taken individually to allow safe crew changes or otherwise ease the crisis.
But officials lamented a lack of international coordination among nations and shipping companies, calling for new rules to protect countries from the virus while respecting the rights of stranded crews.
No figures were released for how many merchant mariners have contracted the virus, but Guy Platten of the International Chamber of Shipping said the virus risk is "relatively low" because shipping companies have strict protection measures and "have no wish whatsoever to bring infections on our ships."
He blamed "red tape and bureaucracy" for crew change delays and said border guards and local port officials in some countries are being overzealous in blocking them from coming ashore. One way goods are still able to get ashore despite restrictions is by dock workers fetching them from the ships.
France proposed compiling a global U.N. list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes. Kenya called for sharing costs globally for a rapid testing plan for major ports.
Crews often work 12-hour shifts with no weekends, and Marzougui warned that extending stints without a break risks physical and mental strain — potentially putting ships and oceans in danger.
The captain compared it to telling a marathon runner at the end of the race that they had to "do it again, right away, with no rest."
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