* Despatch

Four months since the attacks. survivors in Negombo are living in trauma, and anger

Leaning rightward, as if he were weighed down by the helmet in his hand, a middle-aged man stood in front of the board under a neem tree at the St. Sebastian’s Church. There were 115 names in all on the board, listed in clear black Sinhala font. They ran into four columns.

“Those who sacrificed their lives for their fate,” read a line on top, running across the board. Right behind was an image of Christ.

Last Sunday, the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya had many visitors, several from Colombo and some from as far as Kandy. “Earlier we would come here every now and then, but this is the first time I am coming after the bombings. I was terrified,” said Warnakulasooriya Philomena Fernando in fluent Tamil. Like many Negombo residents of her generation, the 76-year-old was comfortably bilingual. “Though my mother tongue is Sinhala, I like speaking in Tamil because that was my medium of learning in school, it comes more naturally to me,” said Ms. Warnakulasooriya . “It’s unbelievable — what has happened here. What were those cruel bombers thinking?”

A popular church in Negombo city, located some 40 km north of Colombo and often called “little Rome” for its Catholic flavour, St. Sebastian’s comes with history spanning at least a century. But four months ago, its story took a tragic turn when one of the nine Easter Sunday bombers blew up himself on its premises, taking the lives of dozens of people, including those of children.

Sunday Mass is now held in a nearby block, while a team of military men rebuild the main shrine where the blast occurred. The young men stood on scaffoldings, giving finishing touches to the reconstruction work as some people walked in slowly, taking measured steps into the prayer zone, similar to those that had turned fatal for their fellow believers four months ago. Near one of the aisles, the floor bore craters from the bomb explosion covered with sturdy glass, preserved perhaps as an April 21 memory.

Three-pronged programme

“With the guidance of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith [Archbishop of Colombo], we have devised a three-pronged programme to address social, spiritual and psychological needs of the affected community here,” said Fr. Manjula Niroshan Fernando, who recently moved to the church after his predecessor sought a transfer following the tragedy.

“The fear has come down, but the trauma remains,” he said, pulling out neatly bound files with details of those in need of help. “Some women, whose husbands were killed need a livelihood and some source of income. Some are still in hospital and need financial support for treatment. Some have lost their immediate families and children and need solid psychiatric support to cope with the trauma,” he said.

Over 250 people died in the Easter day serial bombings, across three churches and three luxury hotels, that authorities say were carried out by local Islamist radicals. Dozens were injured.

A few of those injured at the St. Sebastian’s blast are still in hospital, over four months since. At least four persons were paralysed, while one lost her voice. A few children are undergoing treatment for skull injuries, according to church authorities.

One woman has started a nursery, while another has begun a boutique with the church’s support. Asked if they might be willing to speak, Fr. Fernando said: “No, they have categorically asked me not to send any media to their homes. They are already struggling to cope. Revisiting that episode again and again doesn’t help them in any way.”

In addition to rebuilding the church, the government is currently offering some financial and housing support to families of victims, but the people are angry.

“They are unable to come to terms with the fact that despite prior intelligence warning, they [the officials] allowed this to happen. And till date, we don’t know the truth about how and why,” said another church source, requesting anonymity.

The church’s outreach includes providing one doctor, one priest, two nuns and a counsellor to every affected family. “It is going to take time,” said Fr. Fernando.

There is trauma and then there is anger. “One lady who lost her husband and children was in hospital recently, where she saw a Muslim woman playing with her children. She couldn’t bear it, she broke down right there and yelled at her about her own loss. That is the level of hurt, what do you do?” However, the community will not disobey the Cardinal, said the priest, pointing to his repeated calls for calm and restraint. “It’s not easy for a victim.”

At the Yokohama summit, Tokyo stressed that its investments will be different from China’s projects

In late August, the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) was held in the port city of Yokohama, as Japan stepped up its efforts to counter China’s muscle in Africa. The summit emphasised Tokyo’s attempt to shift its relationship with the African continent, away from the development assistance that has been its motor in the past to promote a business-led engagement.

Tellingly, no target figures for aid were given at the summit, even as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the archipelago’s private sector will invest $20 billion over the next three years in Africa.

Moreover, the China-sized elephant in the room meant that considerable effort was expended in explaining how Japan’s investments in the continent would differ from its larger neighbour’s. Speaking to the press, Masahiko Kiya, Japan’s Ambassador for TICAD, claimed that Japanese investments would ensure that countries remained free from debt traps, in addition to be being of ‘higher quality’ and adhering to ‘higher standards’ — ‘higher’ than what was not specified, but the implications were understood.

Japan’s China problem, be it in Africa or the rest of Asia, is that it lacks the heft and size to compete on quantity, hence the refrain of quality. The tactic has had some takers, particularly given the need for many countries to hedge against Beijing’s overweening influence.

At his opening remarks at TICAD, Mr. Abe gave some examples of “quality” Japanese engagement, including a small satellite built by Rwanda together with the University of Tokyo that will provide valuable agricultural data. He also mentioned that the new 6,165 km-long undersea cable linking Angola and Brazil had been laid by Japanese company NEC (Nippon Electric Company).

Other recent examples of Japanese private sector involvement in Africa include last year’s $2 million investment by Toyota in Kenyan logistics firm Sendy, as well as Sumitomo Corporation’s stake in the Nairobi-headquartered pay-as-you-go solar firm M-Kopa (the amount has not been disclosed).

Huge Chinese presence

Despite the attempted hype, compared to Chinese investments, these remain winnow-like. In September 2018, during China’s conference with African leaders in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in financing. China’s trade with Africa totalled $200 billion in 2018, about 12 times the value of trade between the continent and Japan, which stood at $17 billion. Between 2000 and 2017, China loaned about $143 billion to African governments and their state-owned companies, according to figures from the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

It is also funding and building major prestige projects like Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway as well as the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway. According to the Japan Times, more than 3,700 Chinese firms have an established presence in Africa and about one million Chinese people live on the continent, compared to 800 Japanese firms and 8,000 Japanese people.

China’s investments have been a geostrategic headline for many years now, but critics have pointed out how small countries like Djibouti may soon sacrifice their sovereignty in return for Chinese money. Nearly 80% of Djibouti’s debt is held by China. And it’s not very different even in large nations. According to documents obtained by Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper, China accounts for 72% of Kenya’s bilateral debts.

When Japan and India issued a statement in September 2017 announcing their intent to develop an industrial corridor connecting Asia and Africa, dubbed the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), it was also tom-tommed as an alternative to unsustainable Chinese debt. In the years since, however, little progress has been made on the project, other than an occasional joint investment, like a recent one to build a cancer hospital in Kenya.

In response to a question on the AAGC by The Hindu, Mr. Kiya, the TICAD Ambassador, appeared unaware about what the AAGC was. Other analysts in Tokyo said that while cooperation with India in Africa was in principle a good idea, there is no ongoing work on the AAGC, and Japan would like to subsume any cooperation under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

“Japan will endeavour to exercise leadership on African soil through standard setting,” Ambassador Kiya concluded. But regardless of last month’s summitry, as matters stand, this declaration is unlikely to give Beijing sleepless nights.

It has set out to make it harder for people to come to the U.S., stay there and become citizens

August was a notable month in the annals of U.S. immigration. Several rules were pushed through by an administration that has explicitly and implicitly made no bones about the fact that it is making it harder to come to America, stay in America and become American. This applies to both legal and illegal immigration.

The first of these August policy tweaks was aimed at legal immigrants and involved changes to the “public charge” rule. If an individual is seeking admission to the U.S., or looking to change his immigration status and get a green card, he can be deemed inadmissible (or ineligible) as per the law if “at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, [the person] is likely at any time to become a public charge”.

The law has its roots in racist policies from the 1840s and 1850s used to deport and exclude immigrants of various kinds — Irish Catholics, Southern and Eastern Europeans, for instance. In 1882, it was put into the statute books — the same year the U.S. Congress also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, limiting Chinese immigration into the country.

The Trump administration’s changes, which will go into effect on October 15, will make it easier to designate potential immigrants as being at risk of depending on state funds and consequently making it easier to deny them green cards.

This is being done in several ways, for instance, by increasing the list of benefits that could designate a potential immigrant as likely to become a public charge. Factors that would weigh against the potential immigrant include not having an annual income of at least 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (earlier, it would have normally sufficed for the financial sponsor of a potential immigrant to meet certain income criteria), medical conditions, being old and having poor English language skills.

The net effect of this rule is to pressure would-be immigrants to get off benefits they are legally entitled to and also to foster a system that favours wealthier, better-educated, younger immigrants who have better English speaking skills.

Policy tweak

Another rule change in August will make it harder for children born to naturalised U.S. citizens serving in U.S. Embassies or stationed on U.S. military bases abroad to acquire citizenship at birth. While this latter rule is unlikely to impact a large number of children, the policy tweak is bang on target with the overall message of the administration with regard to immigration.

Finally, towards the end of August, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sent out letters saying that it would no longer handle the “deferred action” programme for non-military cases. The programme enables individuals, many of whom came to the U.S. legally but stayed on after their visas expired, to put off potential deportation.

This has included those in the U.S. for the treatment of grave illnesses and life-threatening medical conditions. The USCIS letters said that another agency — the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — would handle the programme. No public announcement was made.

A New York Times report told the story of 24-year-old Maria Isabel Bueso, who has been in the U.S. since she was seven to participate in a clinical trial for a genetic condition that doctors said would not let her live through adolescence. The woman was among those were told to leave the country within 33 days or face possible deportation proceedings. In Ms. Bueso’s case, fending off deportation could mean the difference between life and death. USCIS said it had received 1,000 deferred action applications related to medical conditions, as per the Times. There could very well be other Buesos out there.

Perhaps in response to the bad press it has received, the USCIS, on September 2, released a statement, saying it would deal with all deferred action applications that were pending on August 7. It appears that September is already proving to be busy for the agency and it has only just begun.

In a much talked-about interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin on the public charge rule, acting USCIS Director Kenneth Cuccinelli was asked if the words etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor…’ were still what the American ethos was about. His response was: “They certainly are — give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Beijing says America’s punitive tariffs are ‘against the laws’ of the market economy

The language used by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson is a barometer of what her government thinks of an issue. Nuance is often the name of the game and spokespersons are appointed to their jobs because they are good at wordplay.

So, when this writer had an occasion to attend the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s press briefing in Beijing, the depths of China’s outrage at what is increasingly seen as a trade war with the United States was evident.

Accusing the U.S. of “trade bullying practices,” the spokesperson was clear that such tactics would not work on China. He pointed out that U.S. stock markets had declined sharply and the American actions were “against the laws” of the market economy.

And, then came the punch line: “We hope that the U.S. can return to reason.”

In 2018, Beijing was Washington’s largest goods trading partner with two-way trade totalling $659.8 billion. “Goods exports totalled $120.3 billion; imports totalled $539.5 billion. The U.S. goods trade deficit with China was $419.2 billion last year. Trade in services with China (exports and imports) totalled an estimated $77.3 billion in 2018,” a U.S. government website said.

Punitive tariffs

U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a fourth round of tariffs on Chinese goods earlier in September in a bid to encourage the American people to stop buying Chinese goods. So far, Mr. Trump has imposed tariffs on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods while counter-tariffs have been imposed by Beijing on $110 billion worth of U.S. goods.

In recent tweets, Mr. Trump approvingly quoted U.S. economist Peter Morici as saying that enhanced tariffs would not impact American consumers that much.

“Importers can find suppliers outside of China. Absolutely worth it, we don’t want to be servants to the Chinese! This... is about American Freedom. Redirect the supply chain. There is no reason to buy everything from China!” Mr. Trump tweeted Mr. Morici as saying.

U.S.-China trade relations, it would appear, have come full circle. From trying to accommodate China’s rise, the U.S. under President Trump is now attempting to cut China to size, or at least making an effort to redraw trade ties with China.

It’s bizarre that the U.S., at the head of the free world that championed the market economy after the Second World War and led the charge to make free trade acceptable globally, is now turning inwards because the terms of trade with China are not favourable.

From Beijing’s response, it’s clear that a long trade war will hurt China, but the fact remains that the country has come a long way in being able to deal with challenges that come its way.

There’s little doubt that the trade war is very much about geopolitics and the targeting of companies like Huawei, which has emerged as a major player in the field of 5G technology, as it is about trade.

Clearly aware of the challenges that lie ahead of China, President Xi Jinping last week called for officials to develop a “fighting spirit”. “The struggles we face will not be short term, but long term,” he said last week in Beijing, warning that these challenges could last until 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The new Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, without naming the U.S., made his country’s position clear on the issue of trade. Speaking in New Delhi last week, he said: “We resolutely oppose provoking trade frictions... We are willing to properly handle differences on the basis of mutual respect and resolve issues through dialogue and negotiation.”

In the midst of all the friction, Xinhua and Western media outlets reported on August 30 that following a high-level conference call between Chinese and American trade officials, another round of consultations to resolve differences had been set for October. “Chinese and U.S. chief trade negotiators agreed to jointly take concrete actions to create favourable conditions for further consultations in October,” the official Chinese news agency reported.

In the past, too, both countries have demonstrated the capacity of pulling back from the brink. But the difference today is the personality of President Trump and his determination to make trade with China a domestic political issue in the U.S. in a bid to secure a second term.

The world is watching how these two countries deal with their trade issues. How they do so could well determine the future of global trade relations.

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