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With China in focus, Biden makes $150 million commitment to ASEAN leaders

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo

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By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden opened a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders with a promise to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts aimed at countering the influence of rival China.

On Thursday, Biden started a two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington with a dinner for the leaders at the White House ahead of talks at the State Department on Friday.

Biden smiled broadly as he took a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House before the dinner with representatives from Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is on the agenda, Biden’s administration hopes the efforts will show the countries that Washington remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it views at the country’s main competitor.

In November alone, China pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries over three years to fight COVID and fuel economic recovery.

“We need to step up our game in Southeast Asia,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters. “We are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. We want to make clear, though, that the United States seeks stronger relationships.”

The new financial commitment includes a $40 million investment in infrastructure intended to help decarbonize the region’s power supply and $60 million in maritime security, as well as some $15 million in health funding to aid in early detection of COVID-19 and other respiratory pandemics, an official said. Additional funding will help the countries develop digital economy and artificial intelligence laws.

The U.S. Coast Guard will also deploy a ship to the region to help local fleets counter what Washington and countries in the region have described as China’s illegal fishing.

Still, the commitments pale in comparison to China’s deep ties and influence.

Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But neither are finalized.

The summit marks the first time that ASEAN’s leaders gather as a group at the White House and their first meeting hosted by a U.S. president since 2016.

Eight ASEAN leaders are expected to take part in the talks. Myanmar’s leader was excluded over a coup last year and the Philippines is in transition after an election, though Biden spoke to the country’s president-elect, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., on Wednesday. The country was represented by its foreign affairs secretary at the White House.

ASEAN leaders also visited Capitol Hill on Thursday for a lunch with congressional leaders.

CONCERN OVER CHINA

The countries share many of Washington’s concerns about China.

China’s assertion of sovereignty over vast swathes of the South China Sea has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.

Yet countries in the region have also been frustrated by a U.S. delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.

“The U.S. should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the U.S. economically and strategically,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Thursday.

The IPEF is set to be launched on Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea next week. But it does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian countries crave, given Biden’s concern for American jobs.

Analysts say that even though ASEAN countries share U.S. concerns about China, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties with Beijing and limited U.S. economic incentives.

Kao Kim Hourn, an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Reuters that the country would not “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing although U.S. investment in his country is growing.

On Wednesday, Hun Sen was the target of a shoe-throwing protester prior to his first visit to the White House over a tenure that began in 1985. The Cambodian leader has faced criticism from activists for suppressing dissent.

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U.S. Justice Dept requests Jan 6 committee transcripts -panel chair

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A mob of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump fight with members of law enforcement at a door they broke open as they storm the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice asked the House of Representatives committee investigating last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol to turn over some transcripts from interviews conducted as part of its probe, the panel’s chairman said on Tuesday.

Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson told reporters that the department had asked for the transcripts but the panel had not agreed to turn them over.

“It’s our work product. It’s the committee’s work product,” Thompson said, when asked about the request, first reported by the New York Times.

“We’re in the midst of our work. If they want to come and talk, just like we’ve had other agencies to come and talk, we’d be happy to talk to them, but we can’t give them access to our work product at this point,” he said.

Thompson said the committee planned to turn over the transcripts when it completed its investigation.

On Jan. 6, 2021, supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building, after the Republican then-president gave a fiery speech urging them to protest congressional certification of his defeat by Democrat Joe Biden in the November 2020 election.

The committee has conducted hundreds of interviews, including many with close Trump associates and former White House aides, about the Capitol riot and events leading up to it.

It plans to hold public hearings next month.

Earlier on Tuesday, Thompson said the panel had not yet decided to call Trump himself to testify.

The Jan. 6 committee last week sent subpoenas to five House Republicans, including Representative Kevin McCarthy, the party’s leader in the House, demanding that they sit for interviews.

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Pollution killing 9 million people a year, Africa hardest hit – study

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A boy swims in the polluted water of the Makoko community in Lagos, Nigeria March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja/File Photo

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By Gloria Dickie

(Reuters) – Worsening outdoor air pollution and toxic lead poisoning have kept global deaths from environmental contamination at an estimated 9 million per year since 2015 – countering modest progress made in tackling pollution elsewhere, a team of scientists reported Tuesday.

Air pollution from industry processes along with urbanization drove a 7% increase in pollution-related deaths from 2015 to 2019, according to the scientists’ analysis of data on global mortality and pollution levels.

“We’re sitting in the stew pot and slowly burning,” said Richard Fuller, a study co-author and head of the global nonprofit Pure Earth. But unlike climate change, malaria, or HIV, “we haven’t given (environmental pollution) much focus.”

An earlier version of the work published in 2017 also estimated the death toll from pollution at roughly 9 million per year — or about one of every six deaths worldwide — and the cost to the global economy at up to $4.6 trillion per year. That puts pollution on par with smoking in terms of global deaths. COVID-19, by comparison, has killed about 6.7 million people globally since the pandemic began.

For their most recent study, published in the online journal Lancet Planetary Health, the authors analyzed 2019 data from the Global Burden of Disease, an ongoing study by the University of Washington that assesses overall pollution exposure and calculates mortality risk.

The new analysis looks more specifically at the causes of pollution – separating traditional contaminants such as indoor smoke or sewage from more modern pollutants, like industrial air pollution and toxic chemicals. Here are some of the key takeaways:

WATER AND INDOOR AIR

Deaths from traditional pollutants are declining globally. But they remain a major problem in Africa and some other developing countries. Tainted water and soil and dirty indoor air put Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger as the three countries with the most pollution-related deaths, according to data adjusted for population.

State programs to cut indoor air pollution and improvements in sanitation have helped to curb death tolls in some places. In Ethiopia and Nigeria, these efforts brought related deaths to drop by two-thirds between 2000 and 2019. Meanwhile, the Indian government in 2016 began offering to replace wood-burning stoves with gas stove connections.

MODERN POLLUTANTS

Deaths caused by exposure to modern pollutants such as heavy metals, agrochemicals and fossil fuel emissions are “just skyrocketing”, rising 66% since 2000, said co-author Rachael Kupka, executive director of the New York-based Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.

When it comes to outdoor air pollution, some major capital cities have seen some success, including in Bangkok, China, and Mexico City, the authors said. But in smaller cities, pollution levels continue to climb.

HIGHEST POLLUTION-RELATED DEATHS

The study offered a list of the 10 countries most affected by pollution-related deaths, based on their findings on mortality adjusted for population.

1. Chad; 2. Central African Republic; 3. Niger; 4. Solomon Islands; 5. Somalia; 6. South Africa; 7. North Korea; 8. Lesotho; 9. Bulgaria; 10. Burkina Faso

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N.Korean leader Kim slams officials’ ‘immature’ response amid COVID outbreak

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in front of Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea April 27, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo.

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korean leader Kim Jong Un slammed his country’s response to its first officially confirmed COVID-19 outbreak as “immature,” accusing government officials of inadequacies and inertia as fever cases swept the country, state media reported on Wednesday.

North Korea reported 232,880 more people with fever symptoms, and six more deaths after the country’s first admission of the COVID outbreak last week. It did not say how many people had tested positive for COVID-19.

Presiding over a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday, Kim said the “immaturity in the state capacity for coping with the crisis” increased the “complexity and hardships” in fighting the pandemic when “time is the life”, according to the KCNA.

Since its first acknowledgement of the COVID-19 outbreak, the North has reported 1.72 million patients with fever symptoms, including 62 deaths as of Tuesday evening.

Amid concerns over the isolated country’s lack of vaccines and adequate medical infrastructure, the KCNA said health officials have developed a COVID-19 treatment guide aimed at preventing drug overdoses and other mistreatments that have led to many of the reported deaths.

The guide includes treatments individualised for different types of patients, but state media did not elaborate on which drugs are involved in the treatment plans.

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