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Tillerson Meets ASEAN Ministers to Seek Support on North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Thursday to seek their support in pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

Tillerson’s first meeting with all members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations will also address another pressing regional issue – China’s assertive pursuit of territory in the South China Sea, where several ASEAN members have competing claims.

Tillerson told reporters at the start of the Washington meeting that he and his counterparts would discuss North Korea.

Last week in the U.N. Security Council, Tillerson called on all U.N. members to fully implement U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, which has ignored demands to abandon its weapons programs and is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

He also called on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying it abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund the arms programs. Tillerson warned countries that if they did not do so, Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea.

All ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea and five have embassies there.

The Trump administration wants Southeast Asian countries to crack down on money laundering and smuggling involving North Korea and restrict legal business too, U.S. officials said.

The administration has been working to persuade China, North Korea’s neighbor and only major ally, to increase pressure on Pyongyang. U.S. officials say they are also asking China to use its influence with more China-friendly ASEAN members, such as Laos and Cambodia, to persuade them to do the same.

U.S. efforts have included a flurry of calls by President Donald Trump at the weekend to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.

Diplomats say U.S. pressure has caused some irritation in ASEAN, including Malaysia, which has maintained relations with Pyongyang in spite of the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother at Kuala Lumpur International airport on Feb. 13.

On the South China Sea, ASEAN has adopted a cautious approach recently toward China, with a weekend summit of its leaders avoiding references to Beijing’s building and arming of islands there.

Analysts say this reflects concerns among some in the region that former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has been abandoned in favor of Trump’s “America First” agenda, leading to more countries being pulled into Beijing’s orbit.

 

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EU Accepts Amazon’s e-book Commitments

The European Union’s competition watchdog says it accepts commitments made by online giant Amazon to change part of its e-book contracts to avoid fines for anti-competitive behavior.

 

Amazon has promised not to enforce any contract clause that might oblige other publishers to offer it similar terms and conditions as those offered to competitors.

 

The EU Commission said Thursday that it has made the commitments legally binding. Amazon could be fined 10 percent of annual turnover if it reneges over the next five years.

 

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the “decision will open the way for publishers and competitors to develop innovative services for e-books, increasing choice and competition to the benefit of European consumers.”

 

The Commission says Europe’s e-books market is worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion).

 

 

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Eurozone Economy Growing at ‘Fastest Rate in 6 Years’

A closely watched survey indicates that economic growth across the 19-country eurozone struck a 6-year high in April.

Financial information company IHS Markit says Thursday that its purchasing managers’ composite output index — a broad gauge of economic activity — rose to 56.8 in April from 56.4 the previous month. The reading was at its highest level since April 2011.

Anything above 50 indicates expansion.

Chris Williamson, the firm’s chief business economist, said the survey portrays “an economy that is growing at an encouragingly robust pace and that risks are moving from the downside to a more balanced situation.” He said it’s consistent with quarterly growth of 0.7 percent.

On Wednesday, figures showed the eurozone grew by 0.5 percent in the first quarter.

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Urban League Report Notes Gains by Blacks, Hispanics in US

African-Americans and Hispanics, the largest racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, made positive strides economically and educationally during the past year but continue to lag behind whites, a civil rights group’s annual study contends.

“The theme of this year’s State of Black America report is ‘protecting our progress,’ ” National Urban League CEO Marc Morial said.

In its study, released Tuesday, the league found the standard of living for African-Americans was 72.3 percent of that of whites, on average. For Hispanics, the equality index was a bit higher, at 78.4 percent. The index measures quality of life for blacks and Hispanics in terms of economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement.  

Minority employment is at its highest level in almost a decade, but “any progress made towards racial equality is increasingly under threat.” Morial said. More minorities have health care at a time when efforts are underway to roll back expanding coverage, he added.

Improvements in education

The report indicated that African-Americans made gains in education, with a growing percentage of blacks staying in school and obtaining associate degrees.

According to the report, racial disparities plague minorities in terms of social justice equality. As examples, the report noted that more blacks are jailed after being arrested than is the case with whites, and that whites posted a greater decline than blacks in their likelihood of being victims of violent crime.

The study also found a troubling rise in hate crimes committed against members of religious and racial minorities. “A nation of a great mosaic that the United States of America represents cannot tolerate hateful incidents. It is corrosive, it is divisive and it is un-American,” Morial said.

The Trump administration has proposed major budget cuts to government programs that help low-income Americans, who are disproportionately black. The civil rights organization said it would press lawmakers and private groups to invest $4 trillion over the next 10 years in job training, enhanced education programs and infrastructure projects to revitalize minority communities.

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You Are Welcome Here, US Colleges Assure Overseas Students

On a trip to India, the president of Portland State University reassured prospective students they’d be safe on his campus. Purdue University sent overseas applicants a note from two mayors touting Indiana’s “friendly smiles” and hospitality. And dozens of other schools produced online videos to welcome foreign students.

As U.S. colleges face new but significant declines in applications from abroad, many are rolling out marketing efforts to combat fears of harassment and concerns that President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration reflects a United States that is becoming less welcoming to foreigners.

“Students are telling us that they don’t feel safe here in the United States. That they’re concerned about discrimination, racism,” said Katharine Johnson Suski, admissions director at Iowa State University. “This year it was a little more important to make sure that they felt comfortable with their decision.”

Drop in overseas students expected

Colleges and universities have received a financial boost in recent years from international students, who are typically charged higher tuition rates than American peers who live in state. Some schools have come to rely on revenue from foreign students, whose enrollment has climbed sharply over much of the past decade, according to federal data.

But there is evidence enrollment figures at some schools could drop next fall. Nearly half the nation’s 25 largest public universities saw undergraduate applications from abroad fall or stagnate since last year, according to data colleges provided to The Associated Press in response to public records requests. Eight schools did not provide data, while six saw gains.

International applications to the University of Arizona are down 24 percent compared with this time last year; California State University, Northridge, is down 26 percent. The University of Houston has seen a 32 percent drop, although it’s still accepting applications and its numbers will likely rise.

The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately comment.

Temple posts a ‘you are welcome here’ video

Philadelphia’s Temple University sparked a chain reaction in November when it posted an online video featuring students and staff members saying “You are welcome here” in multiple languages, set to upbeat piano music. Since then, more than 100 other schools have made similar videos and circulated them abroad. Temple, a private university, also hosted seven overseas receptions for admitted students, more than in the past.

At Iowa State University, officials are ramping up their overseas mailings to sell students on the school’s Midwestern charm. The University of Minnesota is considering a phone campaign. The University of Florida has produced videos featuring “global Gators” and is offering online video chats.

“Given the current climate, it seems like this is something which is even more important,” said Joseph Glover, provost at Florida. “Obviously we are concerned about the situation, like every other public university in the United States.”

Safety concerns are nothing new among international students, but many schools say anxieties have grown since Trump was elected. Some students have said Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and his proposal to ban immigration from six majority-Muslim nations have given them pause. Some application deadlines fell before the election, but even Trump’s campaign rhetoric cast doubts, experts say.

Kansas shooting a common subject

Students in India have been particularly alarmed, especially after a gunman shot two Indian men at a Kansas bar in March, killing one, after allegedly saying “get out of my country.”

Portland State President Wim Wiewel was in India soon after the shooting to meet prospective students, and the discussion quickly turned to safety. Wiewel and his wife reassured families that Portland is friendly to foreign visitors.

“People in America recognize that even though there are a few crazies around, it’s not like it’s open season on Indians or Muslims,” Wiewel said. “Having us talk to them totally took away their fears. But the problem, of course, is we can’t talk to everyone.”

Some government officials are trying to tackle the problem, too. Several of the videos feature cameos from state governors or congressional members. A top official from America’s embassy in India penned a newspaper column last week stressing that “U.S. colleges and universities take pride in providing safe and welcoming environments.”

Along with India, fewer applications have been coming from China and Saudi Arabia, which previously sent large numbers to American colleges. Experts say factors at play include economic turmoil in China and India, but some have blamed the downturn on a “Trump effect.”

University officials offer assurances

Officials at the University of New England say Trump’s election has complicated plans to recruit Moroccan students. At a February open house in Tangier, the election was a frequent concern.

“Several students wearing hijabs wondered whether they would be welcome in the United States, given the election of Donald Trump and the rhetoric they were hearing,” said Anouar Majid, vice president for global affairs at the private school in Portland, Maine. “We assured them that the United States is very welcoming.”

When he applied to the University of New England, 17-year-old Aymane Lamharzi Alaoui was worried about discrimination, he said. Since then, he has spoken with family members in Boston and believes Americans are more welcoming than some of Trump’s comments suggest.

“I know there’s an increase in xenophobia and racism in the past couple of months in the U.S.,” he said in an interview.  “I’m sure there are some places where I wouldn’t be very welcome, especially places in the southern United States, but I think most of the country is very tolerant.”

Loss of overseas students will hurt

For most colleges, it’s too early to know how many overseas students will enroll next fall. But many say any loss could be a blow.

At Iowa State, where applications are down 23 percent, international students bring valued diversity, said Suski, the admissions director. And there is also the revenue they provide.

 

“There will,” Suski said, “be a financial impact on our campus come this fall.”

 

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Royal Caribbean Cruises Returning to New Orleans

Royal Caribbean International has announced it will resume weeklong cruises from New Orleans to the Bahamas and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

News outlets report Royal Caribbean said in a news release Monday that their 2,435-passenger Vision of the Seas cruise ship will relocate in December 2018 to the Port of New Orleans after a three-year hiatus. The company announced the move as part of an overview of its 2018-2019 fleet plans.

After a two-year agreement with the Port of New Orleans ended in 2014, the Miami-based company chose to end sailings from the city. The departure came despite several years of growth for the city as a cruise hub.

The 915-foot ship will sail from Miami to Los Angeles before setting sail for New Orleans.

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Congress Warns US Airlines to Improve Customer Service

U.S. lawmakers have put the nation’s airlines on notice: Improve customer service or we will make you.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing for top airline executives to testify, and to determine how Congress might respond after a passenger was violently dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

“Seize this opportunity,” committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, told United CEO Oscar Munoz and other airline executives at a hearing. Otherwise, “we’re going to act and you’re not going to like it,” he said, predicting a “one-size-fits-all” solution that may serve some airlines but not all.

Munoz apologized repeatedly for the removal of David Dao, 69, who last month refused to give up his seat to make room for airline employees. The video of airport police dragging Dao from his seat went viral.

“In that moment for our customers and our company we failed, and so as CEO, at the end of the day, that is on me,” Munoz said. “This has to be a turning point.”

Munoz was joined at the hearing by United President Scott Kirby and executives from American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

American Airlines experienced its own public relations fiasco last month when a passenger video went viral, showing a woman on a plane in tears holding a child in her arms and another at her side after an encounter with a flight attendant over a baby stroller.

United and other airlines have announced policy changes regarding overbooked flights. Airlines have said they routinely overbook flights because a small percentage of passengers do not show up.

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Greece Reaches Deal with Eurozone Lenders for More Bailout Funds

Greece reached a deal with its European lenders Tuesday for more reforms in exchange for a badly needed bailout installment so Athens could avoid possible bankruptcy.

After months of often tough talks, Greek officials agreed to more pension cuts and tax increases.

The European Commission and European Central Bank will bring the deal to their finance ministers at their May 22 meeting.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ leftist government says it is confident parliament will approve the new round of cuts.

Greece desperately needs about $8 billion to meet a debt payment in July or stare possible bankruptcy in the face.

International Monetary Fund official Poul Thomsen says while the IMF welcomes the deal between Greece and its eurozone lenders, the country needs debt relief and restructuring. Thomsen says the Greek debt of close to 180 percent of its gross domestic product is unsustainable.

The IMF has balked at taking part in the latest Greek bailout unless the debt is renegotiated.

Greece has been relying on international bailouts since 2010, when the outgoing conservative government badly underreported the country’s debt.

The harsh economic reforms, including cuts in social spending and tax hikes, have caused pain and chaos for many Greeks. But the bailouts have helped Greece fend off total collapse.

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Trump Nominee for China Envoy Pledges to Tackle Steel Trade

President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to China said on Tuesday he would do everything possible to address what he called China’s “unfair and illegal” sales of underpriced steel in the world market.

“I want to do everything I can to make sure that we stop the unfair and illegal activities that we’ve seen from China in the steel industry,” the nominee, Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, said at his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing.

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GOP Targets Law Enacted After 2008 Financial Meltdown

Republicans who eagerly awaited a GOP president so they could take a heavy knife to many of the regulatory requirements for banks, insurers and other financial institutions finally get their chance.

The House Financial Services Committee, led by Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, is slated to begin work Tuesday on legislation to largely undo the Dodd-Frank law, which Congress passed and Democratic President Barack Obama signed after the financial meltdown in 2008.

 

The GOP argues that the law hurts the economy by making it harder for consumers to get credit to buy a new house or a car, or for entrepreneurs to start or expand a small business. Hensarling has complained that banks are offering fewer credit cards and free checking accounts, while community banks report that compliance with Dodd-Frank’s regulatory burdens make it harder to provide more mortgages.

 

With Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans are counting on an ally for their effort.

 

Democrats fear that the changes would allow the kind of risky practices that crashed the economy.

 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called the bill “a 589-page insult to working families.” She told the committee that banks of all sizes are posting record profits and access to consumer credit and small business lending is at historically high levels.

 

“This bill doesn’t solve a single real problem with the economy or with our financial system, but it does make some big-time lobbyists happy,”  Warren said.

 

Hensarling’s bill would repeal about 40 provisions of Dodd-Frank, targeting the heart of the law’s restrictions on banks by offering a trade-off: Banks could qualify for most of the regulatory relief in the bill so long as they meet a strict basic requirement for building capital to cover unexpected big losses. He says the capital requirements will work as an insurance policy against a financial institution going out of business.

 

Republicans are likely to pass the measure in the House, but face significant obstacles in the Senate where leaders have emphasized their desire to find areas of agreement to enhance economic growth.

 

Hensarling also goes after the consumer protection agency that Congress established after the financial crisis, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, reducing its powers and making it easier for the president to remove its director.

 

Hensarling disputed Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters’ assessment that the bill is “dead-on-arrival.”

 

“I do not consider this to be an exercise in futility,” he told reporters. “I think it is important to move this bill forward, and I think at the end of the day, end of the Congress, we will see major portions of the Choice Act enacted into law.”