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What do tense US-Iranian relations mean for China, North Korea?

Deepening fractures in the relationship between the United States and Iran pose economic headaches for China but create strategic opportunities for North Korea, experts say – one of many reverberations from the weeklong crisis. Washington’s assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, a move that triggered Iranian missile attacks on the bases of US forces…

What do tense US-Iranian relations mean for China, North Korea?

Deepening fractures in the relationship between the United States and Iran pose economic headaches for China but create strategic opportunities for North Korea, experts say – one of many reverberations from the weeklong crisis.
Washington’s assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, a move that triggered Iranian missile attacks on the bases of US forces in Iraq, has raised risks of instability in the Middle East, which is worrisome for China – the biggest buyer of oil from the Gulf region. 
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Its top sources are Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which has been exporting 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day to China since October as part of an infrastructure deal. 
Beijing is also the biggest buyer of Iran’s crude, although imports have fallen since waivers from US sanctions expired last year. In November, the Communist state bought 547,758 metric tonnes (539,106 tons) of crude from Iran, well below April’s 3.04 million tonnes, according to Chinese customs data.
For Pyongyang, the issue is more political. It may see Washington’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s military commander, as a sign that the US is pursuing regime change and resume its nuclear programme to protect itself, strategists said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) was a visitor to China’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing in August last year [File: How Hwee Young/Pool Photo via AP Photo]

In an English-language editorial on Wednesday, the Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times lashed out against President Donald Trump’s administration, accusing it of using the Iran crisis to hurt China’s economy.
“Its aim is to thwart China’s development by implicating China or even dragging China into military clash,” the paper said.
“The US-Iran conflict fits into this tactic because China has big and growing reliance on energy from Iran and other Mideast [Middle East] countries, which makes it vulnerable to regional strife and turbulence.”
Few options
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration, which held naval war exercises with Iran and Russia in the Gulf of Oman last month, has sternly criticised the US for Soleimani’s death but there is not much else it can do, according to analysts.
“China is keen to avoid further strain in its relations with the US, as ensuring regional stability and ending trade war are currently its top foreign policy priorities,” said Kaho Yu, a senior Asia analyst at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft in Singapore.
Since 2018, the world’s two largest economies have been locked in a trade war that is squeezing Chinese industries. The country recorded growth of 6 percent in the last three months of 2019, a low not seen since 1992, amid slumping exports and manufacturing.
Beijing may not have the staying power to continue fighting a trade war, said Tony Nash, founder of artificial intelligence firm Complete Intelligence and a long-term China watcher. 
The Iran factor could also diminish Beijing’s leverage during its trade negotiations with Washington.
“Trump will likely use Chinese companies’ business with Iran as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations,” said Yu. Washington “is aware that China did not comply with US sanctions on Iranian crude oil exports and continues to be Iran’s key military supplier,” he continued.
In September, the White House slapped sanctions on various Chinese people and companies, including two COSCO Shipping Corporation units, for “knowingly engaging” in the transport of Iranian crude in breach of US sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Telecommunications giant Huawei, deemed a national security risk by the US, has also come under fire over alleged sanctions violations.
Its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou is currently battling extradition to the US on charges of fraud and misleading HSBC Holdings over Huawei’s business in Iran.

The US has accused Huawei and other Chinese companies of breaching sanctions on Iran [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]

But as Trump looks to convince other countries of broader security risks tied to Chinese firms, he may not succeed.
The international community could see Soleimani’s killing as an example of US recklessness, which could further erode the Trump administration’s credibility, said Nick Marro, a global trade lead at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
“That will inevitably bleed into other security issues where the US is trying to make its voice heard,” Marro warned, adding that “a destabilising foreign policy won’t win critics over to [Washington’s] camp”.

Second Trump-Kim summit collapses

An emboldened Pyongyang
Trump’s actions towards Tehran tend to spark worry about Pyongyang and this time is no different, according to strategists.
When the US leader withdrew his country from the Iran nuclear accord in 2018, concerns grew that North Korea would walk away from diplomacy. 
The country’s leader Kim Jong Un warned of a “new strategic weapon” in late December, after carrying out of a series of missile tests in the wake of a collapsed summit with Trump in February. Some worry Soleimani’s death will further encourage Kim.
“The US taking out a top Iranian leader may cause Pyongyang to rethink the scale of its next provocation,” Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha University, wrote in a Tuesday note published on The Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.
“Pyongyang may now point to Iran’s case to justify resisting denuclearisation and enhancing its self-avowed strategic deterrent for regime survival,” he continued.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up his rhetoric in the past few months and talked of a ‘new strategic weapon’ last month [KCNA via Reuters]

Kim, on the last day of 2019, said there was no basis for his nation to continue its moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to North Korea’s official KCNA news agency. Kim attributed his decision to Washington’s “gangster-like demands” and “hostile” policies that included joint military drills with South Korea and sanctions.
In response, Trump told reporters on Sunday that it was unclear whether Kim would renege on his promise of denuclearisation. “I don’t think he’d break his word to me, but maybe he will,” Trump was quoted as saying.
Soleimani’s death could ultimately derail Trump’s North Korea strategy, according to Anthony Rinna, a Korea specialist at research group SinoNK.
Given the riskiness of US foreign policy actions, other countries may be unwilling to continue cooperating with Washington, he warned: “With the current escalation in Iran-US ties, other countries with an interest in seeing a nuclear-free North Korea may be less willing to trust the US’ good faith.”
“This is particularly true as China and Russia continue to set themselves up as an alternative force for North Korean denuclearisation in contrast to the US-led campaign of sanctions,” Rinna said.
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Belarus

Belarus: Tense situation ahead of fresh anti-Lukashenko protests |NationalTribune.com

People walk about the Nemiga district in central Minsk as the country enters its third week of peaceful protests following the August 9 contested presidential elections [Misha Friedman/Getty Images] The situation in the Belarusian capital Minsk was tense on Sunday in the run-up to a planned mass demonstration against President Alexander Lukashenko. Independence Square in…

Belarus: Tense situation ahead of fresh anti-Lukashenko protests |NationalTribune.com

People walk about the Nemiga district in central Minsk as the country enters its third week of peaceful protests following the August 9 contested presidential elections [Misha Friedman/Getty Images]
The situation in the Belarusian capital Minsk was tense on Sunday in the run-up to a planned mass demonstration against President Alexander Lukashenko.
Independence Square in the centre of the city was sealed off with metal barriers and guarded by security forces as the interior ministry warned citizens not to take part in the unauthorised rally.
The pro-democracy movement ignored the threats and said Lukashenko should see that people were against him as he celebrates his 66th birthday on Sunday.
The movement added that after ruling for 26 years, his time in power was up.
Mass protests
On the last two Sundays, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Belarus to protest against Lukashenko, who has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”.
The protests are the largest and most sustained challenge of Lukashenko’s years in office, during which he consistently repressed opposition and independent news media.

On Saturday, Belarusian authorities stripped the press accreditation of many journalists covering the anti-government protests and deported some foreign journalists.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, at least 17 journalists were stripped of their accreditation issued by the foreign ministry.
Among them were a video journalist and a photographer from Reuters news agency, two from the BBC and four from Radio Liberty.
In the past few days, other demonstrations were disbanded and people arrested, indicating the power apparatus might not permit a fresh mass demonstration.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressly promised Lukashenko support from his country’s security forces in what is seen as a ploy to intimidate the protest movement.
The head of state of the ex-Soviet republic was recently cheered by supporters at public appearances.
Since the controversial presidential election on August 9, a division between the supporters and opponents of the president has emerged.
The protests and strikes in state-owned enterprises that emerged afterwards are the largest since Belarus gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

SOURCE:
News agencies

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Tense Hong Kong to mark Tiananmen with candles, flowers after ban |NationalTribune.com

4 June: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the national anthem bill had been passed. Reuters later issued a correction to say that while voting had started, the bill had not yet been passed.Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday began voting on a controversial bill criminalising ‘disrespect’ of China’s national anthem, amid concern…

Tense Hong Kong to mark Tiananmen with candles, flowers after ban |NationalTribune.com

4 June: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the national anthem bill had been passed. Reuters later issued a correction to say that while voting had started, the bill had not yet been passed.Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday began voting on a controversial bill criminalising ‘disrespect’ of China’s national anthem, amid concern over the mainland’s increasing influence on the semi-autonomous territory and a ban for the first time in three decades on its annual memorial for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The bill means anyone found guilty of disrespecting the anthem risks a hefty fine and as many as three years in jail. 
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The assembly was sitting as it emerged some 3,000 riot police – 2,000 of them on Hong Kong Island where government offices are located – would be deployed after the annual Tiananmen Square massacre was banned because of coronavirus concerns. Two water cannon were also stationed near the government complex and the Chinese liaison office, according to local media.
Vigil organisers have urged people to light candles in groups of no more than eight people to remain within the coronavirus rules on gatherings.
The bill was passed amid heightened tensions in Hong Kong after almost a year of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests and as China moved last month to impose new national security legislation on the territory, which is supposed to be guaranteed freedoms unknown on the mainland until at least 2047.
The candlelight vigil has traditionally drawn tens of thousands of people to the city’s Victoria Park. 
“The Hong Kong vigil has been a beacon of light for those of us struggling in darkness to keep the history and memory (of Tiananmen) alive,” Rowena He, an associate professor in history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of ‘Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China’ told Al Jazeera. “It shows the world and the regime that there’s something that cannot be crushed with tanks and guns and jail, and that’s the human spirit.”
Calls online have urged people to light candles in specific places throughout the evening and then “where you are” at 8:00pm local time (12:00 GMT), followed by a minute of silence. Some have said they will go to Victoria Parks in smaller groups.
“Police will observe and enforce the law as the situation requires,” the South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed high-ranking officer as saying.

Some people gathered to light candles on Wednesday night, while others held aloft neon lights depicting the date of the crackdown in roman numerals.
Speaking up
Police have said a mass gathering on June 4 would pose a threat to public health at a time when the city has reported its first locally-transmitted coronavirus cases in weeks. Hong Kong has banned gatherings of more than eight people, a public health measure authorities insist has no political motivation.
Malissa Chan, a 26-year-old who works in the property sector, told Reuters she would go to the park anyway.
“When authorities want to suppress us, there are more reasons to speak up,” she said.
Social distancing measures allow for religious gatherings under certain conditions, so some people plan to commemorate the Tiananmen crackdown in churches and temples. Other residents are also expected to lay flowers along a waterfront promenade, while some artists plan to stage short street theatre plays.

Today we commemorate the protesters who fought for democracy in Tiananmen Square, scores of whom were violently repressed by the CCP. For the first time, Hong Kong’s June Fourth vigil has been banned by the government. Defiantly, we commit to remembrance as a form of resistance. https://t.co/bd7WVdjhdx
— Lausan 流傘 (@lausanhk) June 4, 2020

China has never provided a full accounting of the 1989 violence, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people died when the military cleared the square of pro-democracy protesters who had been camped out there for weeks.
The death toll given by officials days after the crackdown was about 300, most of them soldiers, with only 23 students confirmed killed.
The event has been all but erased from history in mainland China, with Hong Kong’s vigil the most significant commemoration of the massacre anywhere in the world.
The ban means it is the first time since 1990 that it has not taken place.
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Will the tense India-China standoff at Himalayan border escalate? |NationalTribune.com

On May 5, a scuffle broke out between Indian and Chinese troops at the Pangong Tso lake, located 14,000 feet (4,270 metres) above the sea level in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. A video shot by an Indian soldier and shared on social media showed soldiers from both nations engaged in fistfights and stone-pelting at…

Will the tense India-China standoff at Himalayan border escalate? |NationalTribune.com

On May 5, a scuffle broke out between Indian and Chinese troops at the Pangong Tso lake, located 14,000 feet (4,270 metres) above the sea level in the Himalayan region of Ladakh.
A video shot by an Indian soldier and shared on social media showed soldiers from both nations engaged in fistfights and stone-pelting at the de facto border, known as Line of Actual Control (LAC). The incident, which continued until the next day, resulted in 11 soldiers being injured on both sides.
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Three days later and nearly 1,200km (745 miles) away to the east along the LAC, another fight erupted at Nathu La Pass in the Indian state of Sikkim after Indian soldiers stopped a patrol party from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Both countries downplayed the incidents, and the issues were resolved at the local commander level, as has generally been done in the past.
But in the weeks since then, the India-China border has seen soldiers from both sides camping along several disputed areas, with each side accusing the other of trespassing.
“China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.

Pangong Tso lake situated along the India-China border in Ladakh, India [Ashok Nath/IndiaPictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

Reason behind latest tension
There was no immediate comment from India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), but last week it accused the Chinese troops of hindering regular Indian patrols along the LAC.
“All Indian activities are entirely on the Indian side of the LAC. In fact, it is the Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns,” MEA spokesman Anurag Srivastava said.
About 80 to 100 tents have sprung up on the Chinese side, and nearly 60 on the Indian side, the Reuters news agency reported based on information from the Indian officials.
At least 10,000 PLA soldiers are now believed to be camping on what India claims to be its territory – Pangong Tso Lake, Galwan Valley and Demchok in Ladakh, and Nathu La in Sikkim, according to the Indian media reports.
On May 22, India’s army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane dashed off to Leh, the capital of Ladakh territory which was carved out of Indian-administered Kashmir last August, to take stock of the situation.
With little information shared by the two countries, media reports have speculated on the reasons behind the latest border standoff. The tension might have been triggered by infrastructure activities carried out by India along the LAC, analysts say.
In the past 10 years, India has been boosting its border infrastructure, with new roads and airbases inaugurated in remote Himalayan areas.
The border skirmishes are not new to the 3,488km (2,167-mile) frontier between India and China, most of which remains disputed and undemarcated. But the de facto border has largely remained calm despite hundreds of skirmishes that occur every year.

In this May 5, 2013 file photo, Chinese troops in Ladakh, India hold a banner that reads: ‘You’ve crossed the border, please go back’ [AP Photo]

‘All-out combat’
Analysts fear the latest standoff may escalate, as Chinese trucks have allegedly moved equipment inside the Indian side of LAC.
China wants the border problem to linger; it keeps India off balance and prevents India from focusing its attention on Tibet, where China is in deep problem[s].
Ajai Shukla, Indian defence analyst

Ajai Shukla, a defence analyst based in New Delhi, fears that any further escalation would mean “all-out combat”.
“Thousands of Chinese troops are on Indian soil. The only thing that remains for them is to engage in combat,” he said.
“China could be using the excuse of construction activity to put pressure on India for completely different political or economic objective[s], and that we do not know. We do not know what the Chinese objectives are in this particular case.”
Writing in the pro-Beijing Global Times newspaper, Long Xingchun from Beijing Foreign Studies University said the latest border friction was “a planned move” by New Delhi.
“India in recent days has illegally constructed defence facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, leaving Chinese border defence troops no other options but making necessary moves in response, and mounting the risk of escalating standoffs and conflicts between the two sides,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with the three services chiefs and the National Security Adviser amid the worst India-China border tensions since the 2017 Doklam standoff that continued for 73 days.
The Doklam face-off was triggered after Indian soldiers stopped the PLA from building a road in Doklam, which is claimed by Bhutan, a close ally of India.
Some analysts have suggested that the Chinese border assertion was a way to divert global attention from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
‘China doesn’t need another confrontation’
But Adam Ni, director of the China Policy Centre based in Canberra, Australia, said both the countries have an interest in maintaining peace since they are facing domestic challenges.
Ni said Beijing has plenty of issues to deal with, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and economic recovery – as well as its relationship with the United States, which has taken a confrontational turn – to just a name a few.
“So it does not need another confrontation at this point in time,” he said while appearing on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story programme.
India and China fought a war in 1962, but the border issues have lingered on, with Beijing claiming the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and New Delhi considering China-controlled Aksai Chin as its territory.
In the late 1980s, then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi held talks with his Chinese counterpart Deng Xiaoping in Beijing to reset the ties. Since then, the border had largely remained calm, with the two countries agreeing to formulate guidelines to manage the frontier.
In 1993, an agreement to maintain peace at the border was signed. Important confidence-building measures on boundary issues were further signed in 1996 and 2006.
Post-1990s, the two countries have focused on economic cooperation with bilateral trade going up to $92bn, but a large trade deficit has kept India concerned.
Last month, the Modi government put curbs on Chinese investments, a step Beijing called “discriminatory”.
India’s support for Tibet and its growing defence and security ties with the US, Japan and Australia have resulted in further suspicion from Beijing.
Meanwhile, China’s increasingly closer ties with Pakistan – which has long-running disputes with India – and Nepal have not pleased New Delhi, either.
Moreover, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Project and its massive defence budget pose a major geostrategic challenge to India. At $261bn, China’s defence budget is more than three times of India’s total of $71bn.

We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020

Modi-Xi summits
After Indian Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014, he has engaged with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But analysts say the two Modi-Xi summits held so far, which called for moving beyond Doklam and “maintaining peace and tranquility” along LAC, seem to have come undone.
“China wants the border problem to linger; it keeps India off balance and prevents India from focusing its attention on Tibet, where China is in deep problem[s],” defence analyst Shukla said.
The last major border tension occurred in 2014, when Chinese troops reportedly entered Indian territory in Ladakh. The standoff was resolved after three weeks.
Will the current standoff be resolved at the local level – or will it escalate?
Manoj Kewalramani, a fellow in China Studies at The Takshashila Institution based in India’s Bengaluru city, believes the present situation germinated from local-level frictions over patrolling and infrastructure development, which rapidly escalated.
“What’s happening today does seem to have central guidance in China, with the leadership not wanting to appear weak on territorial issues. In that sense, this situation fits a pattern of the escalation in the South China Sea and Hong Kong,” he told Al Jazeera.
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