Ex-UK leader Truss to urge tougher China stance in Tokyo
By Sylvia Hui in London
LONDON (AP) — Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss will join the former leaders of Australia and Belgium at a conference in Tokyo later this month to call for a tougher international approach to China.
The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international group of lawmakers concerned about how democratic countries approach Beijing, said Friday that Truss will speak alongside former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Feb. 17 event in the Japanese Diet. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who is also a European Parliament lawmaker, will attend as well.
Conference organizers hope the event would help spur more coordinated diplomacy on threats raised by China ahead of the next Group of Seven richest democratic countries’ summit, scheduled in May in Hiroshima.
Truss is expected to address growing concerns over Beijing’s threats to Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. Morrison will call for more targeted sanctions against Chinese officials for serious human rights violations, while Verhofstadt will speak about the European Union’s role in maintaining international rules under pressure from Beijing.
“The scale of the challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China is such that we all need to rise above our differences and come together to defend our fundamental values and interests,” Verhofstadt said in a statement.
The three former leaders will address about 40 Japanese lawmakers as well as legislators from the U.K., Canada, the European Union and Taiwan. Senior Japanese ministers are also expected to attend.
Truss has kept out of the public eye since she quit as Conservative British prime minister in October after just 45 days in office, following an ill-conceived economic plan she unveiled that triggered a political and financial crisis.
As foreign secretary she was outspoken in criticizing China, advocating stronger ties between democracies so they can counter China and Russia more effectively. She had suggested that the U.K. should work with its allies to ensure Taiwan could defend itself against Chinese military aggression.
Her successor, current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has rejected “grand rhetoric” against China and wants a more “pragmatic” relationship with Beijing. While he has called China’s growing authoritarianism a “systemic challenge,” he stopped short of describing China as a threat to British security and said the U.K. and its allies needed to engage Beijing in diplomacy.
Western countries are rethinking their relationship with Beijing after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the U.S., Britain and the EU’s 27 member states have disagreed with each other over how to approach an increasingly assertive China.
In November, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was criticized by both his European partners and his own coalition government when he led a delegation of senior business leaders to visit Beijing.
Critics said the bilateral visit undermined unity among EU leaders, who discussed reducing their heavy economic dependence on China during a Brussels summit in October. While Scholz said there should be recognition that China was increasingly a competitor and systemic rival, he also warned against decoupling ties.
Venezuela oil czar in surprise resignation amid graft probes
A boy jumps near the “Los Petroleros” sculpture that shows two men working on an oil drill of Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A, PDVSA, on the Sabana Grande boulevard, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 20, 2023. Venezuela’s oil czar, Tareck El Aissami announced his resignation on Twitter and pledged to help investigate any allegations involving PDVSA. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
By Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The man responsible for running Venezuela’s oil industry — the one that pays for virtually everything in the troubled country, from subsidized food to ridiculously cheap gas — has quit amid investigations into alleged corruption among officials in various parts of the government.
Tareck El Aissami’s announcement Monday was shocking on multiple counts. He was seen as a loyal ruling party member and considered a key figure in the government’s efforts to evade punishing international economic sanctions.
And he led the state oil company PDVSA in a Venezuelan business sector widely considered to be corrupt — in a country where embezzelment, bribery, money laundering and other wrongdoing are a lifestyle.
“Obviously, they are giving it the patina of an anti-corruption probe,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
“Rule of law is not being advanced here,” Berg added. “This is really a chance for the regime to sideline someone that it felt for some reason was a danger to it in the moment and to continue perpetuating acts of corruption once particular individuals have been forced out of the political scene.”
Hours after El Aissami revealed his resignation on Twitter, President Nicolás Maduro called his government’s fight against corruption “bitter” and “painful.” He said he accepted the resignation “to facilitate all the investigations that should result in the establishment of the truth, the punishment of the culprits, and justice in all these cases.”
Venezuela’s National Anti-Corruption Police last week announced an investigation into unidentified public officials in the oil industry, the justice system and some local governments. Attorney General Tarek William Saab in a radio interview Monday said that at least a half dozen officials, including people affiliated with PDVSA, had been arrested, and he expected more to be detained.
Among those arrested is Joselit Ramirez, a cryptocurrency regulator who was indicted in the U.S. along with El Aissami on money laundering charges in 2020.
Corruption has long been rampant in Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves. But officials are rarely held accountable — a major irritant to citizens, the majority of whom live on $1.90 a day, the international benchmark of extreme poverty.
“I assure you, even more so at this moment, when the country calls not only for justice but also for the strengthening of the institutions, we will apply the full weight of the law against these individuals,” Saab said.
Oil is Venezuela’s most important industry. A windfall of hundreds of billions in oil dollars thanks to record-high global prices allowed the late President Hugo Chávez to launch numerous initiatives, including state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.
But a subsequent drop in prices and government mismanagement, first under Chávez’s government and then Maduro’s, ended the lavish spending. And so began a complex crisis that has pushed millions into poverty and driven more than 7 million Venezuela to migrate.
PDVSA’s mismanagement, and more recently economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., caused a steady production decline, going from the 3.5 million barrels a day when Chávez rose to power in 1999 to roughly 700,000 barrels a day last year.
David Smilde, a Tulane University professor who has conducted extensive research on Venezuela, said the moves by Maduro’s government are more than just an effort to clean its image.
“Arresting important figures and accepting the resignation of one of the most powerful ministers in a case that involves $3 billion does not improve your image,” he said. “It is probably because the missing money actually has an important impact on a government with serious budgetary problems.”
The Biden administration recently loosened some sanctions, even allowing oil giant Chevron for the first time in more than three years to resume production. Maduro’s government has been negotiating with its U.S.-backed political opponents primarily to get the sanctions lifted.
U.S. congressional researchers saw El Aissami as an impediment to Maduro’s goals.
“Should Al Aissami remain in that position, it could complicate efforts to lift oil sanctions,” a November report from the Congressional Research Center said.
The U.S. government designated El Aissami, a powerful Maduro ally, as a narcotics kingpin in 2017 in connection with activities in his previous positions as interior minister and a state governor. The Treasury Department alleged that “he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States.”
Under the government of Chávez, El Aissami headed the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He was appointed minister of oil in April 2020.
“El Aissami was a key player in the Maduro government’s sanctions evasion strategy. We’re talking about someone who knows where all the bodies are buried, so it will be key to watch where he ends up,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council focused on Colombia and Venezuela. “If El Aissami ends up being implicated himself, it could have serious implications for the entire power structure.”
In September, Maduro’s government renewed wrongdoing accusations against another former oil minister, Rafael Ramírez, alleging he was involved in a multibillion-dollar embezzlement operation during the early 2010s that took advantage of a dual currency exchange system. Ramírez, who oversaw the OPEC nation’s oil industry for a decade, denied the accusations.
In 2016, Venezuela’s then opposition-led National Assembly said $11 billion went missing at PDVSA in the 2004-2014 period when Ramirez was in charge of the company. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering some $2 billion stolen from PDVSA.
Federal Election 2021
Liberals float possibility of making motion on foreign interference a confidence vote
Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, leaves after a meeting of the Liberal Caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. The federal Conservatives are trying to force Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top aide to answer questions about allegations the Chinese government interfered in Canada’s last two federal elections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
By Mia Rabson in Ottawa
Liberal House leader Mark Holland isn’t ruling out turning a Conservative motion on foreign interference into a confidence vote that could topple the government and would test the strength of the supply-and-confidence deal between the Liberals and the NDP.
The Conservatives tabled the motion in the House of Commons Monday demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, appear at the House ethics committee before the middle of April. They want her, along with more than a dozen other witnesses, to answer questions about allegations that the Chinese government interfered in Canada’s last two federal elections.
The move follows weeks of filibustering by the Liberals to prevent Telford from being summoned to appear at the House procedure committee on the same topic.
Alberta MP Michael Cooper said Telford is “a critical witness to get to the heart of the scandal.” He said she should be able to answer what Trudeau knows about Beijing’s attempts at meddling, when he learned about it and what he did about it.
The Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois both seem prepared to vote in favour of the motion. The NDP has yet to say where it stands on this specific motion, but intends to push its own motion demanding a full public inquiry be called on the issue of foreign interference.
NDP House leader Peter Julien reiterated Monday that his party wants an inquiry to look at the issue as a whole, rather than focus only on China. But the Conservatives have rejected calls to expand the probe to include meddling by other governments, such as Russia and Iran.
The Tories challenged the NDP to side with them instead of the “corrupt government.”
“While this motion is a test for this government, it is also a test for the NDP,” said Cooper.
It certainly could be the first real test of the supply-and-confidence arrangement the NDP and Liberals agreed to a year ago. Under that deal, the NDP is supporting the government on budgets and other votes that are automatically viewed as confidence matters, in exchange for the government moving on key NDP priorities such as dental care.
A confidence vote is one that the government must win — or be forced to resign.
The agreement, reached in early March 2022, does address situations in which the government declares a confidence vote on other matters. It requires the Liberals to inform the NDP of a confidence vote as soon as possible, and the NDP to discuss with the Liberals how its MPs intend to vote before announcing so publicly, “to permit discussions” to take place.
Holland hinted those talks are underway now, when asked specifically if the government would move to declare the Conservative motion a confidence matter.
“I think it’s not helpful to jump to the end of a process when we are still having conversations in a contemporaneous circumstance,” Holland said in a scrum with reporters outside the House Monday afternoon.
The Liberals are on the same page with the NDP about wanting to look at foreign interference from all other countries, not just China. However, thus far, Trudeau has rejected calls for a public inquiry, choosing instead to appoint a “special rapporteur” to oversee an investigation on the issue.
Trudeau named former governor general David Johnston for the role. The prime minister has committed to abiding by his advice, including any recommendation to hold a full public inquiry.
Holland accused the Conservatives of playing partisan games with the very serious issue of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic processes. He said the government has offered to bring its national campaign chairs from 2019 and 2021 to the committees to answer questions.
He said the Conservatives won’t offer the same, though the Conservative motion Monday includes not just Telford but more than a dozen others, including all the campaign chairs for every official party in the House of Commons for both the 2019 and 2021 elections.
The campaign chairs and co-chairs were briefed during the elections about any signs of foreign interference.
Holland said the decision to focus so intently on Telford is entirely about partisan politics.
Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer said the Tories would support the motion even if the Liberals made it into a confidence motion noting the issue is important enough.
“It’s up to Justin Trudeau to make those kinds of decisions. And it’s up to the NDP to decide whether or not they’re going to allow themselves to be bullied around to cover up Liberal scandals,” Scheer told reporters on Parliament Hill.
Scheer rejected Holland’s contention that seeking Telford’s testimony amounts to partisan games. He argued she is one of the few people in Trudeau’s orbit during both elections and regular government work.
“She also would have had incredibly sensitive information as to the Liberal campaign itself, and that’s why it’s so important.”
— With files from Dylan Robertson
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
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