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Australia drifts toward China amid wobbly US ties

As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrives in Canberra this week for a five-day official visit, attention once again turns towards China's ongoing efforts to reinforce a vital bilateral relationship amid growing diplomatic uncertainty in the region.

Australia is only one of the few countries to have officially established a prime-ministerial level dialogue with China, beginning in 2013. Li is the most senior Chinese official to visit Australia since 2014, when President Xi Jinping finalized a major bilateral trade deal.

Accompanying the premier on this trip is a large business delegation, with the ultimate aim of strengthening Chinese-Australian economic ties.

Strong economic ties

The well-being of Australia's economy is increasingly linked to Chinese investment. China is Australia's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade exceeding $107 billion (99.5 billion euros) and bilateral investment over $100 billion, while Australia is also an important source of resources for a developing China.

Australia drifts toward China amid wobbly US ties

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets with Australian Governor-General Peter Cosgrove at Government House in Canberra

Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, Professor James Laurenceson, says the Chinese-Australian economic relationship is mutually beneficial for a number of reasons.

"China is already Australia's biggest overseas customer, buying double the value of goods and services than Japan does in second place," Laurenceson told DW. "China also delivers Australia its biggest trade surplus. For a whole range of sectors, from tourism, education, beef to wine, the rise of China's middle class is the best news on Australia's economic horizon."

"Australia is important to China because it is the key supplier of the iron ore that feeds in Chinese steel production. Australia is also looked upon increasingly as a valuable supplier of high quality and safe food and beverages, and a useful test bed for Chinese companies looking to make their first international foray."

Li's visit to Australia is therefore likely to focus heavily on economic diplomacy and strengthening the existing China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), which came into force at the end of 2015. The deal has been welcomed by both sides, but there is still work to be done.

"The FTA left some areas untouched, most notably around investment rather than trade," underlined Laurenceson, "I expect we'll see some progress in this area."

US out of the loop

Beijing's move to maintain strong ties with Canberra comes as the international community attempts to contend with US President Donald Trump's erratic presence on the global stage.

In February, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Australia for talks only days after a well-publicized phone call between Trump and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull , in which the former accused the latter of trying to export "the next Boston bombers" under a previously arranged refugee-resettlement deal between the two countries.

Australia drifts toward China amid wobbly US ties

US President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Trump is alleged to have abruptly ended the conversation after telling Turnbull it was "the worst call by far" he had had with a foreign leader. The now-infamous exchange led to strains between the


Sieren’s China: When two nations are at odds

At the moment, North and South Korea are causing a headache – and not only to China. It would be justified if China were to opt for tougher measures to bring them both into line – North Korea for its missile tests and South Korea for allowing the US to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, it's actually  the US which is threatening to run riot. US President Donald Trump sees North Korea as a sly enemy that has been playing games with Washington for years. While Washington is using North Korea to push China into a corner. Trump accuses Beijing of not doing enough to rein in the regime in Pyongyang.

Gaining Beijing's trust

When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson travelled to China for the first time last weekend , he had to try to smooth relations in the light Trump's repeated digs at China. He also had to gain Beijing's trust.

But Sino-US relations are not only tense because of Trump but also because the US is installing THAAD in South Korea. Chinese analysts are concerned about its long-range X-band radar, which could be used to monitor military movements in China. This would allow the US to know ahead of time when China planned to launch intercontinental missiles.

Therefore, China has made it clear to Seoul that it is disgruntled. The government has imposed "unofficial” sanctions on South Korea. These have affected South Korea's Lotte Group, which has opened several discount stores in China over recent years. They have been forced to close on the grounds of failing to comply with fire regulations. Moreover, some Chinese consumers are boycotting Korean supermarkets that sell products such as fish, fruit or detergent.

Sieren’s China: When two nations are at odds

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Summit in early April

US Secretary of State Tillerson's visit came at a tense time . The most important result was the setting of a meeting at the highest level. The US President will meet his Chinese counterpart in the US at the beginning of April. Rex Tillerson will miss a NATO summit that will take place at the same time to meet with the Chinese officials since this is about nothing less than the US position in Asia, the world's new center of power. The US wants to continue stationing its troops in South Korea. However, this can only be justified if Pyongyang continues to be so volatile.

Beijing and Seoul are joined by the fact that both would prefer North Korea to open up peacefully. The US is not interested in such a scenario. While China and the US are at odds, Kim Jong-un can look on with glee and without any qualms test a rocket engine just on the day that the US Secretary of State visits Beijing, calling even more attention to itself.

Economic losses

The loser in this geopolitical game is the South Korean economy. The Lotte Group has lost $66 million in this month alone because of the


Pakistan struggles to bring tribal areas into mainstream

Pakistan's Pashtun-majority tribal areas, located along its border with Afghanistan, have long been associated with Islamist insurgency. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as they are called, enjoy a semi-autonomous status and are partly controlled by Islamabad. They are bordered by Afghanistan to the north and west, Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the east, and Baluchistan to the south.

Pakistan governs the FATA region through the 1901 British regulations. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has no power in FATA and the Pakistani Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the tribal region. The areas have a completely different political and electoral set up than that of the rest of Pakistan.

Until the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, FATA had cordial ties with Islamabad, but since 2001 a deep mistrust between Pakistan's federal government and the region has plagued the relations.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 forced al Qaeda and Taliban militants to flee to FATA where they have held sanctuaries since then. Since the Pakistani government doesn't have a direct and total control over these areas, it is difficult for Islamabad to act against the insurgents there. Also, many analysts claim that Islamabad allows the militants to launch terror attacks on Afghan soil. But more importantly, and most experts agree on this, that Pakistan has a delicate relationship with FATA. In order to exercise its limited influence on the area and its people, Islamabad has to bargain with FATA's "political agents." Even the British, during their colonial rule, had a difficult time governing these tribal areas.

Earlier this month, Pakistan's federal cabinet approved recommendations for FATA reforms, which include the merger of the lawless region with the country's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and repeal of the British era's Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).

Those who favor the reforms argue that the special status for the areas is the reason behind its backwardness and has so far blocked development projects, thus paving the way for extremist groups to increase their influence. But many FATA locals say that Islamabad has deliberately kept the British system in place so that it could use the areas as a buffer region against Afghanistan. Some experts even say that the merger plan is a new way to control the area in an ever-changing geopolitical situation.

Pakistan struggles to bring tribal areas into mainstream

The Pashtuns can easily travel back and forth across the border

Reforms and insurgency

The FATA reforms are yet to be approved by Pakistan's parliament. Pakistani political parties have different positions on the plan, while many experts say that changing the status of FATA and bringing it to Pakistan's mainstream political and legal system won't be effective in tackling the insurgency issue. Then there are Pashtun nationalist parties that oppose the move on the premise that the FATA people have the right to remain independent from Pakistan.

"FATA is not the only place where terrorists have their safe havens. The new measures are just an excuse for Islamabad to undermine the independence of FATA's people," Usman Kakar, a Pakistani senator belonging to the Pakhtunkhwa Milli


FBI prepares charges against North Korea over Bangladesh heist

United States federal prosecutors are reportedly building a case implicating North Korea's government of orchestrating an


South Korea raises sunken Sewol disaster ferry

Some 450 salvage workers in South Korea on Thursday completed one of the largest and most complex ship raising operations ever attempted, lifting the sunken 6,825-tonne Sewol vessel up from 40 meters below the waves off the country's southwestern coast.

Two enormous barges were positioned either side of the ferry, while 66 cables connected to a frame of metal beams were attached underneath the vessel as part of an operation that spanned months.

Throughout Thursday morning, the Sewol ferry began to slowly emerge from the waters until, at 7am local time (2200 Wednesday UTC), workers were able to climb on it to further fasten it to the barges.

South Korea raises sunken Sewol disaster ferry

Two massive rescue barges will help in raising the rest of the vessel out of the sea

The operation brought a sense of closure to the families of 304 victims who died when the vessel sank on April 16, 2014 - one of the country's worst-ever maritime disasters that proved to be altogether avoidable.

Almost all the victims on the Sewol were school children. The bodies of 295 were recovered but nine still remain missing . Relatives of those missing hope the remains will be recovered inside the vessel.

For that reason, raising the ferry had been key a demand of the affected families . Several gathered on Thursday morning to watch the rusted structure be lifted up.

"To see the Sewol again, I can't describe how I'm feeling right now," said Huh Hong-Hwan, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed in the accident, although her body is one of the few that has not yet been found.

Lee Geum-hee, the mother of another missing student, told a television crew: "We just want one thing - for the ship to be pulled up so that we can take our children home."

Once the vessel has been fully lifted, it will be mounted onto a semi-submersible ship and carried to the port of Mokpo. Lee Cheoljo, an official from South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, estimated that the entire process would 12 to 13 days.

South Korea raises sunken Sewol disaster ferry

A permanent protest site in the center of Seoul honors the 300 school children who drowned

A country traumatized

The Sewol disaster deeply traumatized South Korea and badly damaged the credibility of the recently-ousted president, Park Geun-hye.

During the first crucial hours of the accident, Park reportedly stayed in her residence and out of reach, while officials frantically sent updates and sought guidance. She has never explained what she did in the seven hours in which she failed to respond, sparking rumors of a tryst and that she was undergoing cosmetic surgery.

As a result, a permanent protest site was set up around the center of Seoul with effigies of Park's head hanging alongside photographs of the victims.

Park was formally removed from office by South Korea's Constitutional Court this month. She is currently under criminal investigation over allegations of extortion and favoritism. 

South Korea raises sunken Sewol disaster ferry

Mobile phone footage captured the moments before the Sewol completely capsized

Man-made catastrophe

Subsequent investigations showed that