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Germany courts Qatar and UAE for alternatives to Russian gas | Russia-Ukraine war News



Economy Minister Robert Habeck visits Doha and Abu Dhabi as fears of gas shortages grow amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has said he will discuss liquefied natural gas (LNG) supply on a trip to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as he aims to secure a hydrogen deal, making Germany less dependent on Russia for gas.

Russia is the largest supplier of gas to Germany, according to data on the Economy Ministry’s website. Roughly half of Germany’s LNG imports come from Russia.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Habeck has launched several initiatives to lessen Germany’s energy dependence on Russia, including large orders of non-Russian LNG, plans for a terminal to import LNG and slowing the nation’s exit from coal.

Habeck, before the trip starting on Saturday, said the goal was to “establish a hydrogen partnership in the medium term”.

“If we do not obtain more gas next winter and if deliveries from Russia were to be cut then we would not have enough gas to heat all our houses and keep all our industry going,” Habeck told Deutschlandfunk radio.

He will be accompanied on the trip by about 20 representatives from corporate Germany, many from the energy sector.

He also wants to discuss “short-term” LNG supply and to “give the companies that ensure the gas supply in Germany the political framework to become independent of Russian gas, topics that could not be higher on the political agenda”.

More broadly, the European Commission is also working on plans to phase out the European Union’s dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal in five years.

Habeck, also minister for climate affairs, recently visited another gas powerhouse Norway, as well as the current top global exporter, the United States.

Berlin has come in for criticism over its opposition to an immediate embargo being imposed on Russian energy supplies as a means of choking off a major source of Moscow’s foreign earnings.

But Germany believes a boycott could cripple the German economy and saddle society with huge rises in energy prices as well as lead to shortages.

While Russia has come under fire for its war in Ukraine, Habeck conceded in a Friday interview with ARD television that, where energy policy is concerned, a moral dimension “does not really exist”.

Habeck also said on Friday it was imperative to ensure a steady supply stream of supplies but stressed the country must speed up its transition from conventional natural gas to green hydrogen.

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‘We are going to die’: Food crisis worsens misery of Sri Lankans | Politics News



Sri Lanka’s prime minister has warned of a food shortage as the island nation battles a devastating economic crisis and promises to buy enough fertiliser for the next planting season to boost harvests.

A decision in April last year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilisers drastically cut crop yields and although the government has reversed the ban, no substantial imports have yet taken place.

“While there may not be time to obtain fertiliser for this Yala [May-August] season, steps are being taken to ensure adequate stocks for the Maha [September-March] season,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a message on Twitter late on Thursday.

“I sincerely urge everyone to accept the gravity of the … situation.”

Sri Lanka crisis
A vendor packs fruits to sell at a vegetable market in Colombo [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Cabinet expanded

President Rajapaksa appointed nine new members to the cabinet on Friday, including to the critical health, trade and tourism ministries.

The new ministers for the critical health, trade and tourism departments were sworn in by the president at his tightly-guarded official residence in Colombo, the government said in a brief statement.

Two legislators from the main opposition SJB party broke ranks to join the new government. Another opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, agreed to support President Rajapaksa and was given one portfolio.

However, the finance position – which will bring with it responsibility for leading negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a bailout – remains vacant.

There are speculations that the portfolio is likely to be retained by Wickremesinghe.

The delay in announcing a finance minister could hinder Sri Lanka’s negotiations with the IMF, the central bank chief warned on Thursday.

Sri Lanka crisis
People sit on empty cylinders as they wait in a queue to buy domestic gas in Colombo [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Tourism-dependent Sri Lanka is facing a dire shortage of foreign exchange, fuel and medicines, and economic activity has slowed to a crawl.

‘We are going to die’

“There is no point in talking about how hard life is,” said APD Sumanavathi, a 60-year-old woman selling fruit and vegetables in the Pettah market in Colombo, the commercial capital. “I can’t predict how things will be in two months, at this rate we might not even be here.”

Nearby, a long queue had formed in front of a shop selling cooking gas cylinders, the prices of which have soared to nearly 5,000 rupees ($14) from 2,675 rupees ($8) in April.

“Only about 200 cylinders were delivered, even though there were about 500 people,” said Mohammad Shazly, a part-time chauffeur in the queue for the third day in the hope of cooking for his family of five.

“Without gas, without kerosene oil, we can’t do anything,” he said. “Last option what? Without food we are going to die. That will happen 100 percent.”

The central bank governor said on Thursday foreign exchange had been secured from a World Bank loan and remittances to pay for fuel and cooking gas shipments, but supplies are still to flow through.

Sri Lanka crisis
A couple waits in a queue to buy kerosene at a fuel station in Colombo [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Inflation could rise to a staggering 40 percent in the next couple of months but it was being driven largely by supply-side pressures and measures by the bank and government were already reining in demand-side inflation, the governor said.

Inflation hit 29.8 percent in April with food prices up 46.6 percent year-on-year.

As anger against the government spreads, police fired tear gas and water cannon to push back hundreds of students protesting in Colombo on Thursday. They were demanding the removal of the president as well as the new prime minister.

The economic crisis has come from the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic battering tourism, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the government of President Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, who resigned as prime minister last week.

Critics accuse Wickremesinghe, appointed prime minister in his place, of being a stooge of the brothers, an accusation he denies.

Sri Lanka crisis
A protester throws back a tear gas canister towards the police during a protest near the President’s House in Colombo, Thursday [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Other factors have included heavily subsidised domestic prices of fuel and the decision to ban chemical fertiliser imports.

The Group of Seven (G7) economic powers support efforts to provide debt relief for Sri Lanka, group finance chiefs said on Thursday in a draft communique from a meeting in Germany after Sri Lanka defaulted on its sovereign debt.

Central bank chief P Nandalal Weerasinghe has said plans for debt restructuring were almost finalised and he would be submitting a proposal to the cabinet soon.

“We are in preemptive default,” he said. “Our position is very clear, until there is a debt restructure, we cannot repay.”

A spokesperson for the International Monetary Fund said it was monitoring developments very closely and a virtual mission to Sri Lanka was expected to conclude technical talks on a possible loan programme on May 24.

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Biden heads to Asia to boost Indo-Pacific ties amid Ukraine war | Politics News



Seoul, South Korea – President Joe Biden has embarked on a six-day visit to South Korea and Japan aimed at demonstrating the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region amid China’s rise and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US leader is expected in South Korea on Friday evening.

After a three-day visit that includes a summit with his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol, he will leave for Japan on Sunday for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Biden’s first trip to Asia as president, however, is being overshadowed by what US officials have called a “real risk of some kind of provocation” from North Korea, including a nuclear or a missile test.

In Seoul and Tokyo, Biden will discuss the North’s nuclear programme as well as the US’s economic and security ties with its two treaty allies in Asia. He is also likely to seek improved relations between South Korea and Japan after ties soured over historical feuds and territorial issues during the presidency of Moon Jae-in.

In Tokyo, Biden will also convene a summit of the leaders of the Quad grouping – which includes the US, Japan, India and Australia – and launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an agreement that seeks to set standards on supply chains, worker protections, decarbonisation and anti-corruption.

“The main objective of Biden’s trip to Asia is to shore up the support of key Asian allies for the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at South Korea’s Sogang University. “There is concern that the Biden administration has got its hands tied in Ukraine war when the real threat is China and the key region of the US interest is the Indo-Pacific, not Europe.”

A placard near the US Embassy in Seoul showing the US and Korean flags and two people shaking hands - in support of Biden's visit
Experts say Biden’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo is about showing support to democratic allies in the Asia Pacific and the rules-based international order [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

Biden’s visit, therefore, is aimed at showing that supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression is “closely related” to supporting its Asian allies counter China’s growing economic and military clout in the region.

“The Ukraine war is all about upholding the rules-based international order (RBIO), wherein the norm of sovereignty is the cardinal norm of international relations. Russia has violated that norm and invaded Ukraine. It should be stopped at all costs short of committing boots on the ground. The US Indo-Pacific is also about protecting RBIO in the region,” said Kim.

Democratic alliance

The White House has said Biden’s aim is not so much about confronting China, but sending a “powerful message” to Beijing and others about what the world could look like if democracies “stand together to shape the rules of the road”.

To that end, Biden’s Asia trip is also “fundamentally about” building personal ties with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters en route to South Korea.

“In both cases, he’s looking for the opportunity to just spend time to get to know these leaders … so that when they need to pick up the phone in a crisis or to respond to a major world event, there’s a baseline of trust and understanding and almost like a common operating language,” he said.

Biden’s meeting with Yoon will be his first. The South Korean leader, who was elected in a closely fought election in March, was inaugurated on May 10.

Biden and Kishida, who took office in October of last year, have met in person once before, on the sidelines of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November last year.

Hours before Biden’s arrival, Yoon sent his “sincere welcome” to the US president.

“A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it,” he wrote in the first ever tweet from his official account. “I am confident the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future,” he added, referring to South Korea by its formal name, the Republic of Korea.

Yoon’s priority for Biden’s visit will be to “establish the ROK-US alliance as a central axis for building and strengthening East Asia and global peace and prosperity”, according to aides to the South Korean president, in the face of increased provocations from North Korea.

Pyongyang has carried out a record 16 weapons launches this year and US and South Korean officials say it may be preparing to test a nuclear weapon, perhaps during Biden’s three-day visit, despite grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that has infected an estimated two million people.

“There is a genuine possibility, a real risk of some kind of provocation while we’re in the region, whether in South Korea or in Japan, that could take the form of a nuclear test, the seventh nuclear test that North Korea’s conducted. It could take the form of a missile test,” Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One, the president’s plane.

He added that Washington is prepared to respond to such an event.

“We have communicated not just our allies but with China, that this would cause the United States only to increase our fortitude in terms of defending our allies and cause adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region.”

Seoul and Tokyo align

Yoon has pledged a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor, including by seeking enhanced military drills with the US and the redeployment of US nuclear bombers and submarines to South Korean territory. But during his inauguration, he also promised an “audacious” economic plan if the North gave up its nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un shown on North Korean state television removing his face mask
North Korea is battling a severe outbreak of COVID-19, but there are concerns it could attempt a nuclear test while Biden is in the region [File: Anthony Wallace/AFP]

Analysts say they expect the US and South Korea to pursue a North Korea policy that focuses on deterrence rather than diplomacy, unlike Yoon’s predecessor, Moon.

“The significant conversation behind the scenes is going to be more around the question of how does the US effectively deliver credible extended deterrence to South Korea and what specific mechanisms does that look like,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think-tank.

And that includes discussions on “the positioning of nuclear-capable assets”, he said.

Another key outcome of Biden’s Asia trip could also be improved South Korea-Japan ties. Analysts say this is key, not only to address North Korea’s nuclear programme, but also for the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Yoon ran on a campaign platform of improving ties with Tokyo, and as president-elect, he sent a delegation in April to deliver a letter to Kishida that expressed his desire to pursue a “forward-looking partnership” with Japan, while also facing up to the shared history, according to the Yonhap news agency. These include addressing the issue of Japan forcing South Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II.

Yoon and Kishida’s desire for improved relations is a “very rare security condition” that is very advantageous to Biden, said Youngshik Bong, a research fellow at the Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies.

“For the first time in a long time, the leaderships of all three countries – South Korea, Japan, United States – are on the same page of strengthening and upgrading trilateral security cooperation …” he said. “If you look at past history, at least one leadership in one country has been quite cautious or passive in rendering full support for the trilateral security cooperation.

“But this time, all three leaders are on the same page.

“This will allow all three to work together to strengthen security cooperation,” he said.

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Australians ‘uniformly worried’ about economy on election eve | Elections News



Sydney, Australia – Australians head to the polls on Saturday to decide whether to give Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition a fifth consecutive term in office or opt for change and back Anthony Albanese’s Labor party.

From climate change to the economy, there is a sense of uncertainty about the future.

Blessed by natural resources, Australia has enjoyed more than 20 years of steady economic growth, buoyed by the mining boom and demand from China, despite an increasingly tense relationship with the world’s fastest-growing economy.

But now, Australians are feeling the pinch – the cost of living is rising and property prices spiralling out of reach – and experts say that will be what matters most at the ballot box.

“Australians are almost uniformly worried about economic management,” said political scientist Jill Shepherd from the Australian National University (ANU). “Jobs and growth are at the forefront of voters’ minds.”

Labor is proposing methods to make housing more affordable – a key concern in Australia – as well as matching wage growth to the rising cost of groceries to tackle the global inflation crisis.

“The Liberal party doesn’t want to talk about that as much because they’ve been responsible for the last four years in the rise in cost-of-living,” she told Al Jazeera. Morrison’s Liberals are the dominant party in the conservative coalition.

Scott Morrison in his customary beiuge chinos and blue shirt kicks a football towards the camera as children and adults from the Vietnamese community watch
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticised over his handling of the bushfires crisis two years ago and accused of focusing too much on photo opportunities [Mick Tsikas/EPA]

Morrison’s supporters have instead sought to focus attention on his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia was one of the first countries to close its borders and, for much of 2020 and 2021, pursued a successful zero-covid strategy – keeping the virus out with strict quarantines and ensuring the economy was largely unscathed.

However, even there, the situation is not all that positive for Morrison’s government.

After Sydney failed to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant last June, the policy was abandoned and Australia is now reporting among the highest number of new cases globally each day.

“People want this to be over and aren’t registering the significant number of deaths. There’s a Boeing 737 crash every seven to eight days,” said Dr Norman Swan, a prominent medical journalist.

Still, Swan says the pandemic is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election: “Since neither party has made it an issue there’s nothing to make you change your vote.”

Morrison has also made some missteps while in office.

Dubbed ‘Scotty from Marketing’ by a local news satire publication, critics claim he is more concerned with image and photo opportunities than policy.

He has been condemned over his response to this year’s floods – with angry Lismore residents dumping their flood-damaged belongings at his door – and also over his handling of the devastating bushfires two years ago when he went on holiday to Hawaii.

As southeastern Australia burned and people were forced to take shelter on beaches, a photo of him doing the shaka at Waikiki Beach caused an outcry.

Opening for Labor

The bungles have created an opening for Labor.

Albanese has been a member of parliament for more than a quarter of a century, but despite being around a long time, most voters know little about him. The Australian Financial Review, for example, reported that in a series of focus groups voters labelled him ‘dull’ and ‘uninspiring’.

Anthony Albanese meets a crowd of supporters during a visit to a college in Adelaide
Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has the edge going into Saturday’s poll, but has also made missteps during campaigning [Lukas Coch/AAP Image via Reuters]

He, too, has made some blunders.

At the start of his campaign, he failed to recall the unemployment rate and, a few days ago, told journalists Australia’s borders were closed – despite them opening some six months ago.

Perceptions of the two leaders might matter more given the lack of difference between the major parties’ policy platforms, at least on the economy.

Morrison’s party is proposing a scheme to allow young people early access to their superannuation funds to buy property and get a foot on the property ladder.

It is a policy that is likely to be popular among those under 40, who have been ridiculed for supposedly prioritising brunches of smashed avocado over real estate, but economists warn is likely to drive house prices even higher.

“I think what the Liberal Party is hoping here is that young voters will be so excited by the prospect of buying their first house that they won’t mind that price rise,” she said.

Another issue that has been at the forefront of voters’ minds is climate change.

Plies of ruined furniture, clothing and other personal possessions piled on the street outside flood-affected homes in Lismore
Voters are increasingly concerned about climate change after the 2019/2020 bushfires and the unprecedented flooding that hit Lismore earlier this year [File: Darren England/EPA]

Australia is particularly vulnerable to its effects, with a long history of droughts, bushfires, and floods.

Despite this, the mining industry makes up a significant portion of the country’s economy, and Morrison’s government has been heavily criticised internationally for inaction on climate change.

Albanese has said he wants to change this, getting Australia out of the “naughty corner” at United Nations climate change conferences.

“Climate change is looking at being one of the most significant factors in polling at this Saturday’s election,” said sustainability investor Katerina Kimmorley.

Narrowing lead

The desire to see determined action on climate has prompted voters to look towards independent candidates and away from the major parties.

“These independents are strong advocates on climate change. They may end up holding the balance of power in parliament and then could end up having a significant impact on climate policy,” Kimmorley said.

The two parties also diverge in their policies on Indigenous peoples.

For 50 years, Aboriginal groups have occupied the lawn outside Canberra’s Parliament House, demanding land rights and recognition as the nation’s first people in the constitution.

Now, Albanese has said he wants the constitution amended to recognise that Australia’s history did not begin in 1788 when the British arrived. A senior member of the Liberal Party, however, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, has said there is a long way to go before constitutional recognition. Frydenberg is currently polling behind his independent challenger in his once-safe Liberal seat.

Independent candidate Allegra Spender speaks to voters in the Sydney inner city seat of Wentworth where she hopes to unseat the Liberal candidate
Independent candidates, many of them women, are giving the major parties a run for their money [Mark Baker/AP Photo]

Labor has also promised to overhaul childcare to make it more affordable and enable more women to get back to work.

“One of the most effective ways we can boost participation is by getting rid of the complicated mess of payments that put hurdles in the path of parents wanting to return to work,” Albanese told an audience at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry earlier this month.

While Labor is up currently in the polls, its margin is narrowing.

“For the most part, both parties are holding together, just trying to scrape over the line to election day,” said ANU’s Shepherd.

“We’ll see after the election which party is dealing with bloodshed and recriminations.”

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