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Friday, 04 September 2015 00:00 Published in Headlines
China’s unveiling of “carrier-killer” missiles and cuts in troop numbers on Thursday underlined a shift toward naval strength amid growing Pacific rivalry with the US, analysts said.
More than a dozen anti-ship ballistic missiles capable of traveling at 10 times the speed of sound were shown at a massive military parade in Beijing, with state television calling them a “trump card” in potential conflicts and “one of China’s key weapons in asymmetric warfare.”
For a fraction of the cost of an aircraft carrier the missile threatens to alter the balance of power in the Pacific.
The land-based DF-21D intermediate-range missile is said to be equipped with on board terminal guidance systems that give it the ability to attack a moving target, such as a carrier group at sea.
For decades, the United States’ fleet of aircraft carriers has been a key component of its ability to project power around the world, and Andrew Erickson of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation has described the DF-21D as a “Frankenweapon” that is “potentially unpredictable and disruptive.” The missile “serve as a deterrent which requires rivals in the region to think twice about deploying aircraft carrier groups against China,” James Char, an analyst at Singapore’s Nanyang University told Agence France Presse.
The technology is untested but it underlines “the growing importance of China’s naval forces” as Beijing seeks to project its power more widely in the air and on sea, he added.
Also on show in Beijing were longer-range weapons, prompting one commentator on Chinese state television to exclaim: “Look at this missile! It can hit Hawaii!”
China said in May that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy will put a greater emphasis on “open seas protection”, rather than “offshore waters defense” alone.
At the same time its air force will shift focus “from territorial air defense to both defense and offense”, it said.
Beijing is “very concerned with what its rivals, in particular the US naval forces, might do to it,” Char added.
China has been boosting its military budget with double-digit percentage increases for decades, as it takes a more assertive stance in territorial disputes with Asian neighbors in the East and South China Seas.
But the US, which has dominated the Pacific since World War II, has pushed back with a “pivot” to Asia which Barack Obama has said is aimed at maintaining “American leadership” in the region.
Washington spends far more on its military than China, and is treaty-bound to defend Japan and South Korea, while other allies in the region include Taiwan and the Philippines.
Arthur Ding, a military expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, told AFP that the DF-21D “will somewhat complicate US operations in this region”.
But he cautioned that the missiles’ effective use required advanced co-ordination between satellites and ships, and that the US has “many countermeasures” available.
Firepower and mobility
Immediately before the parade, President and army head Xi Jinping announced that the PLA — currently the largest standing military in the world with 2.3 million troops — would cut 300,000 staff.
China’s troops would “faithfully execute their solemn mission to maintain world peace,” he added, and would never “seek hegemony”.
It is the latest in a series of giant cuts to the bloated PLA, which Beijing has reduced by around two million troops since the 1980s as it seeks to craft a more efficient fighting force.
The latest decline was “within expectations” and had been under discussion for several years, Taiwan-based analyst Ding said, adding: “Overall firepower and mobility has been much better improved, so the cuts can be done.”
The fall in troop numbers is “consistent with scope of past reductions,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Ground forces will likely face the brunt of the reduction,” he added, predicting it would also probably “streamline layers of command and bureaucracy within the PLA”.
The military has been one of the targets of Xi’s much-publicized anti-corruption drive — which analysts and diplomats say can be used for internal faction-fighting — with two of China’s most senior generals falling victim to it in the past year.
Corruption - especially bribery for promotions — is thought to be endemic in China’s army, but the parade provided a show of unity and adherence to the chain of command, troops and generals alike turning their eyes to Xi and saluting as they passed.
“The high ranking army officials are nervous because many of them probably were promoted because of bribes,” Ding said.
“They have to show their loyalty. Xi has firm control of the military.”
Friday, 04 September 2015 00:00 Published in Commentary
Near Idomeni , Greece — “However hard you try, you just can’t imagine how hard this journey is for me,” says Abu Fahed, 25, who lost both his legs in a bombing and is fleeing Syria’s war through the Balkans in a wheelchair.
He is among some 250,000 people who have lost limbs in Syria’s savage four-year conflict, and among dozens in wheelchairs and on crutches who are braving the especially arduous journey over the Aegean Sea, then up to northern Greece, through the Balkans, Hungary and ultimately northern Europe.
They have to tackle often bumpy and muddy terrain, relying on friends, relatives and fellow travelers to carry them on sections of the journey that their wheelchairs cannot manage.
Some of the authorities along the way allow them to jump queues, but at other times they must wait with everyone else for hours under the sun to cross borders or be registered in the countries they cross.
“I want to reach a country where I can receive decent prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation,” Abu Fahed says, as he and his friends wait at a hotel frequented by migrants on the highway near Greece’s Idomeni for a bus to the border with Macedonia.
The former hairdresser lost both his legs in the summer of 2013 when government troops shelled his rebel-held, besieged town near Damascus.
“I was badly wounded, but had I received treatment in time I might have kept my legs. Instead, regime forces detained me for a week and amputated them. They gave me no food throughout that time,” he said, smiling as a friend he is traveling with wept with sorrow at the man’s fate.
“Had it not been for my friends, I wouldn’t have made it this far,” said Abu Fahed, dark blue pajama bottoms tied into knots around the stumps of his thighs.
Khaled, a 20-year-old Palestinian-Syrian who lost his left leg and suffered serious wounds to the right in government shelling in August 2013, is making the journey on crutches.
“I used to love playing football, but that’s all over now,” said the shy young man, who was hit by a shell as he was talking to a neighbor in a garden.
Khaled said he was terrified, “mainly for the children on board,” while crossing from Turkey’s shores on an inflatable boat to Greece’s Samos island.
When he reached solid ground he had to spend the night in the woods, waiting for someone to rescue him.
“I walked many hours the next day, but my prosthetic limb kept falling off and I had to keep stopping,” said Khaled, clad in a black T-shirt and jeans.
“I make a big effort not to fall behind the group, but it’s hard. Others can run if they have to, I can barely keep up sometimes.”
Khaled said that as a Palestinian-Syrian, he had “no choice” but to make this nearly impossible journey through the Balkans, which has become one of the major routes for the several hundred thousand people entering Europe this year.
“I am not allowed into Jordan or Lebanon for treatment, so I had to be smuggled to Turkey just so I could make this journey to a European country with decent health facilities,” he said.
Gazing up at the sky, Khaled said he wants to learn to walk without his crutches one day.
“I want to go back to my studies. I don’t want to feel like a useless member of society as I do now,” he explained.
“I wish the road became easier for us,” he said, adding that as things stand, it is well-nigh impossible for Syrians to obtain visas for Europe.
UN refugee agency spokeswoman Aikaterini Kitidi agreed.
“European countries should provide them with legal alternatives, so that the irregular passage, with all its related dangers and exploitation by smuggling networks, does not remain their only choice,” she told AFP.
“The EU could also expedite the implementation of the decision to relocate people in need of international protection from Greece to other EU member states, in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation.”
But Abu Mohammad, a 74-year-old with a spinal injury that prevents him from walking, says the flow of refugees will continue whether or not the policy changes.
“I didn’t choose to make this journey, but then again neither did any of the people you see standing here,” said Abu Mohammad, who is confined to a wheelchair.
He tries to keep his family’s broken spirits up as they make their way toward Sweden along dirt tracks, crammed trains and endless waits at border crossings from Greece up towards Hungary.
Four young men from southern Syria volunteer to carry the wheelchair through the especially rough tracks. “We do it because we believe it’s right,” says one.
Abu Mohammad, who wears a traditional olive-green robe and whose white hair and beard contrasts sharply with his dark skin, believes that even though the journey is near-impossible, “you must always chase life, wherever it is to be had.”
Thursday, 03 September 2015 00:00 Published in Commentary
Buenos Aires, Argentina — Fresh off a record-breaking opening, Argentine crime flick “The Clan,” based on the true story of a well-to-do family of kidnappers, is looking for glory at the Venice Film Festival.
The movie tells the sordid tale of the Puccio family, which kidnapped a string of wealthy victims in the 1980s and held them captive at their home in an affluent Buenos Aires neighborhood, then killed them after receiving ransom payments.
It broke the box office record for best opening weekend in Argentina when it premiered on Aug. 13, outselling the likes of “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.”
It went on to sell a million and a half tickets in two weeks, seizing the record for best opening run from last year’s Oscar-nominated anthology film “Wild Tales,” one of the most successful Argentine movies of all time.
Now it is heading to the world’s oldest film festival, which opens Wednesday, where it will compete with 20 other works for the top prize, the Golden Lion.
“I expect ‘The Clan’ to do well in Venice and meet with the same enthusiasm and emotion from the audience that we’ve felt here in Argentina,” director Pablo Trapero told AFP at the offices of his production company, Matanza Cine.
The film, co-produced by acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s production house, is Trapero’s ninth.
The 43-year-old Argentine has previously screened his work at Cannes and last year chaired the jury for the French festival’s “Un Certain Regard” competition, which seeks to recognize new talent and encourage innovative, daring filmmaking.
“The Clan” takes place against the backdrop of Argentina’s transition to democracy at the end of its brutal military dictatorship (1976 to 1983).
At the time, the country was seeking to chart a path back to normalcy after a blood-stained era in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed or abducted and presumed killed.
Arquimedes Puccio, the patriarch at the center of the film, and his wife, Epifania, seemed like an ordinary upper-middle-class couple — an accountant and a teacher devoted to their five kids.
Their eldest son, Alejandro, was a local celebrity thanks to his career as a rugby player on the Argentine national team.
But a dark past lurked beneath this veneer of normalcy.
Arquimedes was a former arms trafficker with links to the secret police and far-right death squads that killed government opponents.
In 1982, with the curtain coming down on the regime following its disastrous attempt to seize the Falkland Islands from Britain, the Puccio family kidnapped its first victim, Ricardo Manoukian, a 23-year-old teammate of Alejandro’s.
Over the next three years, they would kidnap three other victims, killing all of them but the last, who was freed after a month in captivity when police raided the house in August 1985.
Actor Guillermo Francella plays Arquimedes as a graying father figure whose pale blue eyes morph from kindly affection to chilling amorality.
Epifania, played by Lili Popovich, is his passive accomplice, but also becomes his enforcer, going as far as to reprimand Alejandro when he looks to exit the family “business.”
“The film tells the story of this family from the inside and, through it, we discover its criminal life, this horrific kidnapping enterprise, and from there the historical context of the country,” said Trapero.
It depicts a father of “unspeakable coldness and cruelty, and this son who lived in submission despite the fact that he had everything he needed to escape,” he said.
Arquimedes Puccio was sentenced to life in prison and died at age 83. To his dying day, he denied the crimes he was convicted of.
Alejandro spent more than 20 years in prison, attempting suicide four times. He died in 2008, shortly after his release.
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