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Biden welcomes Southeast Asian leaders with energy, security pledges

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US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo (center) addresses Southeast Asian leaders in Washington at a forum of the US-ASEAN Business Council
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President Joe Biden on Thursday welcomed Southeast Asian leaders to Washington, promising support for clean energy and maritime security in the face of a rising China.

The Biden administration made the pledge as it opened a two-day summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, part of a campaign to show that the United States still prioritizes Asia despite months of intense focus on repelling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The White House announced some $150 million in new initiatives — a modest sum compared with a $40 billion package for Ukraine and with the billions pumped into the region by China, which has surpassed the United States as ASEAN’s largest trading partner.

But the United States said it was working with its private sector and it plans to unveil a broader package, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, when Biden travels next week to Tokyo and Seoul.

“I hope this meeting can build a momentum for the return of the US presence in the region,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a forum of the US-ASEAN Business Council before the leaders headed to a White House dinner.

The White House said it was committing $60 million to new maritime initiatives that will include the deployment of a Coast Guard cutter and personnel to fight crime on sea. 

Efforts will include countering illegal fishing and the use of forced labor, a US official said.

The waters around the South China Sea are among the busiest in the world, connecting the economic powerhouses of Asia with the energy supplies of the Middle East, and the area is rife with territorial disputes with an increasingly assertive Beijing.

The White House said it was also devoting $40 million to invest in clean energy in economically diverse Southeast Asia and said the United States was working with the private sector to raise up to $2 billion.

Another initiative — launched as Biden separately held a virtual summit on Covid — includes a project to test for emerging respiratory diseases in urban Southeast Asia through a new office in Hanoi of the US Centers for Disease Control.

– Meeting with Myanmar opposition –

Southeast Asia has often been seen as a victim of its own success, with the United States focused elsewhere for lack of pressing problems in the region.

But in Myanmar, once hailed as a democratic success story, the United States has been ratcheting up pressure since the junta in February last year toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.

In a symbolic statement, the United States will represent Myanmar with an empty chair at the summit.

As leaders gathered in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with representatives of the democratic leadership in exile, the National Unity Government, including its foreign minister, Zin Mar Aung.

Sherman said the United States will “continue to work closely with ASEAN and other partners in pressing for a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Burma,” a State Department statement said, using Myanmar’s former name of Burma.

Human Rights Watch said that the focus on Myanmar was insufficient and that Biden should address democratic backsliding across Southeast Asia.

Leaders visiting the White House included Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, who is ASEAN’s current chair.

“If the US doesn’t publicly raise human rights concerns during meetings, the message will be that human rights abuses are now tolerated in the name of forging alliances to counter China,” said John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director.

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Powell wins second term as Fed chief as inflation battle rages

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The confirmation of Jerome Powell (pictured May 4, 2022) as US Federal Reserve chair for a second term comes amid surging inflation
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The US Senate on Thursday confirmed Jerome Powell to a second term as head of the Federal Reserve, as the central bank ramps up its fight to crush soaring inflation.

The vote came amid inflation that has hit a 40-year high, fueled by the conflict in Ukraine and sanctions imposed on Russia, as well as Covid-19 restrictions in China that have raised concerns the global supply snarls may worsen.

The Fed chair has said his primary focus is on getting inflation under control, but acknowledged the effort could be painful.

US President Joe Biden, whose popularity has taken a hit from the soaring inflation and record gasoline prices, has repeatedly said that tackling the issue is primarily a job for the Fed.

“I am pleased to see the Senate take a step forward on my agenda to get inflation under control by confirming my nominees to the Fed,” he said in a statement after the vote.

Powell, who first joined the Fed board in 2012, led the central bank as it slashed the benchmark interest rate to zero at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and pumped money into the financial system to prevent a severe downturn in the world’s largest economy.

Now, he is overseeing efforts to cool price pressures affecting American families.

The Fed last week announced its largest rate hike since 2000 and signaled similar increases were likely in the coming months.

The challenge for Powell and the Fed is to turn down the heat on inflation without tipping the United States into recession.

While he has expressed confidence the economy is strong enough to withstand the tighter monetary policy, Powell said it will be challenging amid the unprecedented global shocks and “may actually depend on factors that we don’t control.”

In an interview with Marketplace on Thursday, he renewed his warning that “the process of getting inflation down to two percent will also include some pain.”

But “the most painful thing would be if we were to fail to deal with it and inflation were to get entrenched in the economy at high levels.”

– Delayed confirmation –

Powell, a Republican, enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the 80-19 vote — but also bipartisan opposition. Six Democrats voted against him, including progressive senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“Working families should not bear the cost of fighting inflation,” Warren tweeted after the vote. “As Fed Chair, Jerome Powell must focus on strengthening our economy without slamming the brakes on its growth or hurting families already struggling with higher prices.”

Powell had continued at the helm of the central bank even after his first four-year term officially expired February 4.

His confirmation was delayed by the battle to approve Lisa Cook to join the Fed board — the first Black woman to serve in the post — who was finally confirmed on Tuesday with only Democratic votes.

The Senate late Wednesday also confirmed Philip Jefferson to the board, marking the first time the institution has had more than one Black governor.

With the latest additions, the Fed board will be just one short of its full complement of seven governors. 

In his statement, Biden urged the Senate to confirm his final nominee, Michael Barr, as vice chair for supervision.

The US president’s first pick for the role of top Fed banking cop, Sarah Bloom Raskin, withdrew her name from consideration in March when it became clear she would not have sufficient support due to opposition from Republicans and from a key Democratic lawmaker over her stance on climate change issues in banking supervision.

Cook, a professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University, and Jefferson, of Davidson College, each have researched inequality in the labor market. 

Powell has repeatedly stressed the importance of ensuring economic opportunities extend to disadvantaged groups — a notable change of focus in an economy where Black workers face far higher unemployment rates than other racial groups.

Jefferson is only the fourth Black man to serve as a Fed governor.

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Twitter execs exit, hirings halt as Musk buy looms

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Twitter executive Kayvon Beykpour tweeted that he was on paternity leave when he got word not to return to his job at the tech firm being bought by Tesla chief Elon Musk.
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Twitter confirmed Thursday that two senior executives are heading for the exit and it has paused most hiring, as Elon Musk stands poised to become the global messaging platform’s new owner.

Kayvon Beykpour, a general manager who leads research, design and engineering at Twitter, is leaving along with head of products Bruce Falck, a Twitter spokesperson told AFP.

Beykpour however said he was ousted from the San Francisco-based tech company.

“The truth is that this isn’t how and when I imagined leaving Twitter, and this wasn’t my decision,” Beykpour, who is on paternity leave, said in a tweet.

Twitter chief Parag Agrawal “asked me to leave after letting me know that he wants to take the team in a different direction,” he added.

Twitter also confirmed that, effective this week, it is pausing all hiring except for business-critical roles.

Musk’s $44-billion deal to buy Twitter was announced last month but still needs the backing of shareholders and regulators.

The takeover is expected to close later in 2022, with Musk — who runs space exploration endeavor SpaceX and electric automaker Tesla — stepping in as its boss at least for a little while. 

Musk is on record saying he would lift the ban Twitter slapped on Donald Trump, contending that kicking the former US president off the platform “alienated a large part of the country.”

Musk’s endorsement of a Trump return triggered fears among activists that Musk would “open the floodgates of hate.”

Trump has stated publicly he would not come back to Twitter if permitted, sticking instead with his own social network, Truth Social, which has failed to gain traction.

Trump was booted from Twitter and other online platforms after supporters, fired up by his tweets and speech alleging election fraud, attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in a deadly bid to stop Joe Biden from being certified as winner of the presidential election two months earlier.

Musk reasoned that permanent bans at Twitter should be rare, and reserved for accounts that are spam, scams or run by software “bots.”

Activist groups have called on Twitter advertisers to boycott the service if it opens the gates to abusive and misinformative posts with Musk as its owner.

The fate of Twitter’s top attorney, deemed a moral champion of the platform, has been in doubt since Musk tweeted displeasure with content moderation she had carried out.

The lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, has led efforts to battle bullying and posts that could lead to real-world harm such as the US Capitol riot.

She was involved in the decision to ban Trump, and others including removing political advertising from the app.

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Biden administration cancels 3 offshore oil lease sales

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Reaching first oil and gas production from a federal offshore lease typically takes at least one or two years of drilling and other work
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The Biden administration has scotched plans to hold three offshore oil and gas lease sales in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, a government spokeswoman said Thursday. 

Citing a lack of interest from the industry, the Interior Department won’t offer tracts at the proposed Cook Inlet in Alaska, an agency spokeswoman said.

The department also will not undertake a pair of lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico “as a result of delays due to factors including conflicting court rulings that impacted work on these proposed lease sales,” the spokeswoman said.

The action comes as polling shows US President Joe Biden struggling with low approval ratings amid consumer fury at high gasoline prices and inflation in other household staples.

Reaching first oil and gas production from a federal offshore lease typically takes at least one or two years of drilling and other work. That means the decision on the lease sales will not affect the near-term supply outlook driving commodity prices.

Still, Republican politicians and business lobby groups slammed the Biden administration’s energy policy, which has emphasized the need for more green energy to address climate change.

“President Biden’s administration is actively making high gas prices worse,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana.

“When we need to unleash American energy production, the Biden administration kills opportunities at every turn. The administration’s actions over the past year and a half have been an all-out assault on American energy, Louisiana jobs, and families’ pocketbooks.”

The US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum institute also blasted the decision, with the latter pointing to a problematic “pattern” in which the Biden administration “talks about the need for more supply and acts to restrict it.”

But the Alaska Wilderness League called the development “great news for Alaska,” touting it as a “huge win for the environment, our climate, and endangered Cook Inlet belugas.”

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