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More Muscular US-China Presence Leads to Increasingly Close Encounters in Indo-Pacific

South Korea scrambled its fighter jets after Chinese and Russian military aircraft entered its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the south and east of the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday — an incident that followed two recent encounters between American and Chinese forces in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the aircraft that entered Seoul’s ADIZ were participating in an annual joint air exercise with Russia over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea — the sixth such drill since 2019. The latest drills were launched on the heels of U.S. joint military exercises with Seoul.

South Korea’s ADIZ is not part of the country’s airspace; however, neither country gave notice that its planes were entering the zone, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Tuesday’s incursion followed two earlier close encounters: A Chinese warship crossed closely in front of a U.S. destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, and a Chinese fighter jet maneuvered near an American military plane in international airspace over the South China Sea on May 26. A Biden administration official has cited the incidents as examples of Beijing’s increasing “aggressiveness.”

The encounters with Chinese vessels coincide with trilateral naval exercises between the coast guards of U.S., Japan and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Such incidents increase the risk of miscalculations and escalation as tensions rise between Washington and Beijing over issues ranging from trade policies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Taiwan’s security.

New and disturbing norms

Beijing incursions in the region have been steadily ramping up in recent years. Just in 2023, there have been at least 745 incursions by Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ alone, according to data from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.

Meanwhile, Washington is projecting a more muscular presence in the Indo-Pacific, increasing its military drills and shoring up extended deterrence with allies including South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.

Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during his news briefing Tuesday that the encounters are not about freedom of navigation, as the United States contends, but “hegemony of navigation and distinct military provocation.”

“The U.S. has been sending warships and military aircraft halfway around the world to China’s doorsteps and engaging in close-in reconnaissance and showoff of military muscle near China’s territorial sea and airspace,” Wang said.

Encounters in the Indo-Pacific between the two rivals have become the “new and disturbing norm,” said Zuri Linetsky, a research fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation.

“Both parties, the United States and China, are acting poorly and kind of instigating and spiraling the tensions,” Linetsky told VOA. “That has knock-on effects for regional players — in this case South Korea — but also Japan and Taiwan.”

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, rejected the notion that the U.S. is partly to blame for the escalation.

“We all want to see the tensions come down,” he told VOA during the White House news briefing Tuesday, arguing that the administration is working “very, very hard,” to de-escalate, but their diplomatic outreach has so far been unreciprocated by Beijing.

Last week, Beijing declined Washington’s request for a face-to-face meeting at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu, due to personal sanctions on Li that have not been lifted by the administration.

However, there has been some progress on the diplomatic front, with high-level officials from the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council holding private talks with their Chinese counterparts in recent weeks.

Officials are also working to reschedule U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing that Washington canceled after it shot down a Chinese spy balloon in February.

Increased defense spending

Growing concerns over China, whose military expenditure has increased for 28 consecutive years, have helped fuel an arms race in the region.

According to military spending data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2022, countries in Asia and Oceania spent $575 billion in defense, a 2.7% increase from 2021 and a 45% increase from 2013, continuing an uninterrupted upward trend dating back to at least 1989.

Global military expenditure increased by 3.7% in 2022, according to SIPRI data, mainly driven by a heightened threat from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions in East Asia.

“The continuous rise in global military expenditure in recent years is a sign that we are living in an increasingly insecure world,” said Nan Tian, a senior researcher with SIPRI’s Military Expenditure and Arms Production Program. “States are bolstering military strength in response to a deteriorating security environment, which they do not foresee improving in the near future.”

Jorge Agobian contributed to this report.

New Yorkers Celebrate Law That Protects People Based on Weight or Height

Moving around metropolitan areas can present challenges for individuals who are obese or have height limitations, as many public spaces are not designed to accommodate their needs. However, a new law adds weight and height to the list of characteristics that are protected from discrimination in New York City. Aron Ranen has the story.

Washington Sanctions Iran Missile Program

Washington reacted swiftly Tuesday to Tehran’s unveiling of a new hypersonic missile by placing a fresh round of sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, with White House officials calling Iran’s moves “destabilizing.”

“The Biden administration has been very clear, very concise, and very firm on pushing back on Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, to include the development of an improving ballistic missile program,” said John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council. “I’m not going to talk about the specific reports of this alleged hypersonic missile, but we have laid down very clear sanctions and other activities to push back on what Iran is doing in the region, again, to include their ballistic missile program.”

State television in Iran says the missile — named Fattah, or “Conqueror” — has a range of up to 1,400 kilometers. That’s just short of the aerial distance between Tehran and Jerusalem. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi described the new weapon as “an anchor of lasting security and peace” in the Mideast region.

The U.S. Treasury said Tuesday that new sanctions target seven individuals and six entities in Iran, China and Hong Kong that supply Tehran’s missile program with “sensitive and critical parts and technology,” including items such as centrifuges, often used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

The sanctions show ”our commitment to respond to activities which undermine regional stability and threaten the security of our key partners and allies,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. “The United States will continue to target illicit transnational procurement networks that covertly support Iran’s ballistic missile production and other military programs.”

Raisi boasted that the missile is entirely Iranian-designed and manufactured.

“This missile is a deterrent,” he said. “Its power is an anchor of lasting security and peace for the regional countries.”

But analysts say this is likely to only increase tensions.

“Regardless of whether the Iranian hypersonic missile works as intended, it nevertheless highlights the growing threat that Iran poses to the U.S. and its strategic interests in the Middle East,” said Nicholas Carl, an Iran-focused analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Tehran has become increasingly aggressive in pursuing its regional objectives in recent years. Those objectives include attaining regional hegemony, destroying the Israeli state and expelling American forces from the region. And Iranian leaders have continually demonstrated their readiness to involve their growing missile capabilities in this more confrontational approach.”

That said, Carl questioned whether the new weapon lives up to the hype. At the unveiling ceremony, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace branch, said the missile can destroy others’ anti-missile systems.

“There is still a big question mark over whether Tehran actually can field the missile that it has described,” he said. “Regime officials tend to often overstate their military capabilities.”

Without a direct line between Washington and Tehran, other nations will need to play a role in reducing tensions. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Saudi Arabia, a nation that very recently renewed its diplomatic ties with Tehran.

When asked by VOA about the implications of that, Kirby said: “If the Iranians opening up an embassy in Riyadh can help increase transparency of what they’re doing and why — if it can de-escalate tensions, if it can lead to a reduction in their destabilizing behavior, including intercepting maritime shipping as they attempted to do over the last several days in the Strait of Hormuz — then all that’s to the positive.”

The United Nations is also watching. When asked by VOA on Tuesday whether the missile launch violates United Nations resolutions aimed at stopping Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the secretary-general, said: “I don’t have the data and information to opine on that. We do believe that Iran needs to live up to its commitments regarding Security Council resolutions.”

US Judge Blocks Florida Ban on Trans Minor Care, Says 'Gender Identity is Real'

Saying gender identity is real, a federal judge temporarily blocked portions of a new Florida law that bans transgender minors from receiving puberty blockers, ruling Tuesday that the state has no rational basis for denying patients treatment.

Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction, saying three transgender children can continue receiving treatment. The lawsuit challenges the law Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed shortly before he announced a run for president.

“The elephant in the room should be noted at the outset. Gender identity is real. The record makes this clear,” Hinkle said, adding that even a witness for the state agreed.

Transgender medical treatment for minors is increasingly under attack in many states and has been subject to restrictions or outright bans. But it has been available in the United States for more than a decade and is endorsed by major medical associations.

Hinkle’s ruling was narrowly focused on the three children whose parents brought the suit.

Attention on the new law has focused on language involving minors, and Hinkle’s ruling focuses on the use of GnRH agonists, known as puberty blockers, and cross-sex hormones. The lawsuit doesn’t address other language that makes it difficult to near impossible for adults to receive or continue gender-affirming care.

Hinkle said people who mistakenly believe gender identity is a choice also “tend to disapprove all things transgender and so oppose medical care that supports a person’s transgender existence.”

Banning treatment for minors ignores risks patients might face, Hinkle said.

Research suggests that transgender youth and adults are prone to stress, depression and suicidal thoughts, and the evidence is mixed on whether treatment with hormones or surgery resolves those issues.

Even ahead of contemplating medical treatment, experts agree, allowing children to express their gender in a way that matches their identity is beneficial, such as letting children assigned male at birth wear clothing or hairstyles usually associated with girls, if that is their wish.

“There are risks attendant to not using these treatments, including the risk — in some instances, the near certainty — of anxiety and depression and even suicidal ideation. The challenged statute ignores the benefits that many patients realize from these treatments and the substantial risk posed by foregoing the treatments,” Hinkle said.

He also noted that hormone treatments and puberty blockers are often used to treat non-transgender children for other conditions, so the law makes their use legal for some, but not for others.

The three children in the lawsuit will “suffer irreparable harm” if they cannot begin puberty blockers, Hinkle said.

“The treatment will affect the patients themselves, nobody else, and will cause the defendants no harm,” Hinkle said.

The governor’s office didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment.