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France summons Chinese envoy over 'unacceptable' insults

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France summoned China’s ambassador on Tuesday (23 March) to underscore the unacceptable nature of insults and threats aimed at French lawmakers and a researcher, and Beijing’s decision to sanction some European officials, a French foreign ministry source said, writes John Irish.

Ambassador to France Lu Shaye had already been summoned by the foreign ministry last April over posts and tweets by the embassy defending Beijing’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and criticising the West’s handling of it.

The Chinese embassy last week warned against French lawmakers meeting officials during an upcoming visit to self-ruled Taiwan, drawing a rebuff from France.

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Since then it has been in a Twitter spat with Antoine Bondaz, a China expert at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, in which the embassy has described him as a “small-time thug” and “mad hyena”.

“It continues to be unacceptable and has crossed limits for a foreign embassy,” the French official said after Lu was received by the head of the foreign ministry’s Asia department.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Lu’s behaviour was creating an obstacle to improving relations between China and France.

The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials on Monday for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new US President Joe Biden.

In retaliation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sanctioned several European nationals, including French Member of the European Parliament Raphaël Glucksmann.

The envoy had been told of France’s disapproval of that decision, the French official said, adding that Lu was “visibly shocked by the extremely direct character of what he was told” and had tried to change the conversation to discuss Taiwan.

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Republican report says coronavirus leaked from China lab - scientists still probing origins

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A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, shared with Reuters on 18 February 2020. NEXU Science Communication/via REUTERS

A preponderance of evidence proves the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic leaked from a Chinese research facility, said a report by US Republicans released on Monday (2 August), a conclusion that US intelligence agencies have not reached, write Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball, Reuters.

The report also cited "ample evidence" that Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) scientists - aided by US experts and Chinese and US government funds - were working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans and such manipulation could be hidden.

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Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released the report by the panel's Republican staff. It urged a bipartisan investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has killed 4.4 million people worldwide. (Graphic on global cases and deaths).

China denies a genetically modified coronavirus leaked from the facility in Wuhan - where the first COVID-19 cases were detected in 2019 - a leading but unproven theory among some experts. Beijing also denies allegations of a cover-up.

Other experts suspect the pandemic was caused by an animal virus likely transmitted to humans at a seafood market near the WIV.

"We now believe it's time to completely dismiss the wet market as the source," said the report. "We also believe the preponderance of the evidence proves the virus did leak from the WIV and that it did so sometime before 12 September, 2019."

The report cited what it called new and under-reported information about safety protocols at the lab, including a July 2019 request for a $1.5 million overhaul of a hazardous waste treatment system for the facility, which was less than two years old.

In April, the top U.S. intelligence agency said it concurred with the scientific consensus that the virus was not man-made or genetically modified. Read more.

US President Joe Biden in May ordered US intelligence agencies to accelerate their hunt for the origins of the virus and report back in 90 days. Read more.

A source familiar with current intelligence assessments said the US intelligence community has not reached any conclusion whether the virus came from animals or the WIV.

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US concern over China nukes buildup after new silos report

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Military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China 1 October, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

The Pentagon and Republican congressmen on Tuesday (27 July) aired fresh concerns about China's build-up of its nuclear forces after a new report saying Beijing was building 110 more missile silos, writes David Brunnstrom, Reuters.

An American Federation of Scientists (AFS) report on Monday (26 July) said satellite images showed China was building a new field of silos near Hami in the eastern part of its Xinjiang region.

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The report came weeks after another on the construction of about 120 missile silos in Yumen, a desert area about 240 miles (380 km) to the southeast.

"This is the second time in two months the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it," the U.S. Strategic Command said in tweet linked to a New York Times article on the AFS report.

The State Department in early July called China's nuclear buildup concerning and said it appeared Beijing was deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based around minimal deterrence. It called on China to engage with it "on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing arms races."

Republican Congressman Mike Turner, ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said China's nuclear build-up was "unprecedented" and made clear it was "deploying nuclear weapons to threaten the United States and our allies."

He said China's refusal to negotiate arms control "should be a cause for concern and condemned by all responsible nations".

Another Republican, Mike Rogers, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Chinese build-up showed the need to rapidly modernize the US nuclear deterrent.

A 2020 Pentagon report estimated China's nuclear warhead stockpile in "the low 200s" and said it was projected to at least double in size as Beijing expands and modernizes its forces. Analysts say the United States has around 3,800 warheads, and according to a State Department factsheet, 1,357 of those were deployed as of 1 March.

Washington has repeatedly called on China to join it and Russia in a new arms control treaty.

The report on the new silos comes as Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold arms control talks with Russia in Geneva on Wednesday.

Sherman was in China earlier this week for talks at which Beijing accused Washington of creating an "imaginary enemy" to divert attention from domestic problems and suppress China.

Beijing says its arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia and it is ready to conduct bilateral dialogues on strategic security "on the basis of equality and mutual respect".

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US and China positions at a standstill in entrenched Tianjin talks

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With no indication of a US-China leaders' summit in the works, nor any outcomes announced from high-level diplomatic talks on Monday (26 July), relations between Beijing and Washington appear to be at a standstill as both sides insist the other must make concessions for ties to improve, write Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom.

US officials had stressed that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's trip to the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials was a chance to ensure that stiffening competition between the two geopolitical rivals does not veer into conflict.

But the combative statements that emerged from the meeting – albeit coupled with suggestions from officials that closed-door sessions were marginally more cordial – mirrored the tone set in Alaska in March, when the first senior-level diplomatic talks under President Joe Biden were overshadowed by rare public vitriol from both sides.

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While Tianjin did not expose the same degree of outward hostility that was on display in Alaska, the two sides appeared to stop short of actually negotiating anything, sticking instead to lists of established demands.

Sherman pressed China on actions Washington says run counter to the rules-based international order, including Beijing's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, what the U.S. government has deemed is an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, abuses in Tibet and the curtailing of press freedoms.

"I think it'd be wrong to characterize the United States as somehow seeking or soliciting China's cooperation," a senior U.S. administration official told reporters after the talks, referring to global concerns such as climate change, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

"It is going to be up to the Chinese side to determine how ready they are as well to… take the next step," a second U.S. administration official said of bridging disagreements.

But Wang insisted in a statement that the ball was in the United States' court.

"When it comes to respecting international rules, it is the United States that must think again," he said, demanding that Washington remove all unilateral sanctions and tariffs on China.

China's Foreign Ministry has recently signaled there could be preconditions for the United States on which any kind of co-operation would be contingent, a stance some analysts say is a recipe for diplomatic ossification and that leaves dim prospects for improved ties.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said it was important for the two sides to maintain some form of engagement. At the same time, there appeared to be no agreement in Tianjin for follow-up meetings or mechanisms for ongoing dialogue.

"That will probably leave US allies and partners uneasy. They are hoping for greater stability and predictability in the US-China relationship," Glaser said.

Both sides are likely to be disappointed if they expect the other to give in first, she added.

There has been some expectation in foreign policy circles that Biden could meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time since becoming president on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Italy in October.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the prospect of a Biden-Xi meeting did not come up in Tianjin, though she added that she expects there will be some opportunity to engage at some point.

Indications are, meanwhile, that the Biden administration may scale up both enforcement actions impacting Beijing – such as cracking down on Iranian oil sales to China – and coordination with allies in the context of countering China, including another summit later this year that Biden is keen to host with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India.

Biden's White House also has given few signals that it intends to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods established under the Trump administration.

At the same time, cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic seems almost entirely out of reach, with the United States calling Beijing's rejection of a World Health Organization plan for further study of the virus' origin "irresponsible" and "dangerous".

There has been little sign either of a willingness by China to cooperate with Washington on the climate issue, a priority for Biden, despite energetic entreaties by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

"What was on display in Tianjin is that both sides are still very far apart on how they view the value and role of diplomatic engagement," said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies,, said neither side saw much upside for now in being more cooperative.

"And there's no low-hanging fruit for cooperation for either side and any gesture toward co-operation actually comes with significant costs, both domestic and strategic," he said.

"I think we ought to have very low expectations about the two sides finding common ground and stabilizing the relationship in the near future."

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