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Beijing wants deal despite hardline stance—Clete Willems

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U.S. trade delegation member Clete Willems leaves a hotel for talks with Chinese officials in Beijing, China on February 13, 2019.

Jason Lee | Reuters

China may have just signaled it’s going more hard-line on trade, but it could actually be a good thing, former top White House trade negotiator Clete Willems, told CNBC on Wednesday.

Beijing added a new member to its negotiating team last week: Commerce minister Zhong Shan, who’s seen by many officials in Washington as a hard-liner. It could be a sign that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is standing firm on trade, analysts say.

The Chinese minister was present at last month’s G-20 summit. He also participated in a phone conversation with U.S. trade representatives last week.

By adding Zhong to the negotiating team, it shows that Xi is trying to win over the hard-liners, said Willems, who left his role as deputy director of the National Economic Council (NEC) in March.

President Xi is only going to be able to get a deal if the hard-liners are bought in.

Clete Willems

Former top White House trade negotiator

“China has now elevated its commerce minister Zhong Shan and made him a part of the core negotiating team along with (Vice Premier) Liu He. A lot of people are nervous — he’s seen as a hard-liner,” Willems told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

But he’s not overly concerned. “I actually think it’s a good thing because what it shows is that President Xi is trying to get buy-in from both the hard-line within China and the reformers, which is going to be necessary ingredients for a deal,” Willems said.

“President Xi is only going to be able to get a deal if the hard-liners are bought in,” he added.

Flexibility needed

Willems has served as the lead trade negotiator for the U.S. at summits like the G-7 and G-20, and also participated in trade talks in Washington and Beijing. He was a right-hand man to NEC Director Larry Kudlow on trade with China.

According to Willems, the Chinese team did try to “show flexibility” during the talks, but things turned around after they returned to Beijing.

“What ended up happening is that when Liu He brought the deal back to President Xi and to the entire political class in China, there was a bit of a rebellion from hard-liners who didn’t think the deal was good from China’s standpoint,” Willems said.

“So there’s going to need to be flexibility, but I think China has shown they’re willing to put these things on the table,” added Willems, who’s now a partner at international law firm Akin Gump.

U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that there’s still a long way to go to reach a deal with China. He also threatened to slap tariffs on another $325 billion of Chinese goods.

But Willems told CNBC that a deal will ultimately be reached.

“My inclination is that we will get a deal, I think that a lot of really good work was done. I think it’s in both sides’ interest to harvest that work,” he said. “I think China’s economy — whether or not they want to admit it — is in a little bit of a difficult situation, and it’s in their interest to get a deal.”

The prolonged trade battle seems to be taking a toll on the Chinese economy. Data on Monday showed its economic growth slowed to 6.2% in the second quarter — the weakest rate in at least 27 years.

— CNBC’s Yun Li contributed to this report.

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Pru, Acqua, Suay, Wagyu, Anise

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The image of Phuket as a cut-price destination for backpackers and budget-conscious retirees is long out of date.

Phuket has now become a favorite vacation destination for the world’s wealthiest individuals, many of them arriving on super-yachts.

Yachts are becoming a common sight in Phuket.

Asiandelight

It started when the Amanpuri resort opened and spearheaded the island’s upmarket transformation. Anthony Lark was the founding general manager at Amanpuri, before setting off in 2004 to create Trisara, one of the poshest resorts on the island.

Over the past 16 years at Trisara, Lark has taken care of a host of bold-faced names — Kate Moss, Roger Federer, Tom Jones, Kylie Minogue, members of U2 and Maroon 5. And he has watched Phuket evolve to cater to a choosier clientele.

“The changing culinary scene has been driven by supply and demand,” Lark said. “When I first got here, it was all pad Thai noodles, green curry and grilled fish on the beach. There were a few good Italian restaurants but absolutely no demand for fine dining, so that category simply didn’t exist.”

Pru’s jampa salad, which includes 15 different ingredients grown on the restaurant’s farm, is topped with a passion fruit vinaigrette.

Courtesy of Pru

Phuket wasn’t on super-yacht owners’ radar 20 years ago, said Lark, whereas today, five marinas have been built to cater to them.

“There were maybe a dozen million dollar holiday homes on Phuket,” said Lark of the 1980s. “Now, there are 150 villas worth in excess of that sum.”

“That’s brought a customer with higher, more exacting demands.”

Phuket earns its first Michelin star

In 2016, Trisara opened Pru — a restaurant specifically aimed at catering to the tastes of nomadic foodies and wealthy travelers.

An acronym for “plant, raise, understand,” Pru is a creative farm-to-table establishment that sources many ingredients from its own 96-hectare organic farm.

Black kingfish, sourced from the Andaman Sea, is paired with organic beetroot sorbet and house-made mulberry vinegar.

Courtesy of Pru

Young chef Jimmy Ophorst, who came to Phuket from the Netherlands nearly eight years ago, was rewarded for his efforts when Pru won a Michelin star — the first to be awarded to a restaurant on Phuket — on the inaugural 2019 Thailand list. Retaining the accolade in 2020, Pru remains the only Michelin-starred restaurant on the island.

“It’s unbelievable the impact winning a Michelin star has had on me as a chef, and on this restaurant,” Ophorst said.

Duck egg, charred eggplant, locally-sourced abalone and wild herbs.

Courtesy of Pru

“I’ve never worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant before in my life,” he said. “From the moment we won it, the restaurant has been full — many people tell me they’ve come to the island just to dine with us.”

Ophorst said when Pru was opened, a key goal was to make Phuket the second-best dining destination in Thailand, after Bangkok. He said the level of cuisine has grown a lot since Michelin started looking at restaurants on Phuket.

“There are so many good chefs here, I’m sure we can get plenty more stars on the island.”

A decade of decadence

Ten years ago, there was little in the way of upscale dining outside the big hotels. Now, there are many independent restaurants doing brisk business.

Sardinian chef Alessandro Frau’s modern-Mediterranean Acqua Restaurant is the bookmakers’ favorite to be the next Phuket spot to secure a star.

Acqua’s smoked Sardinian eel and pickled vegetables in a white balsamic vinegar sauce.

Courtesy of Acqua.

But an array of others is quietly vying for the attention of Phuket’s discerning gourmands. For example, Suay Restaurant in the upscale northwest neighborhood of Cherngtalay serves creative, modern Thai.

Suay Restaurant earned a spot in the Michelin Guide 2020.

Courtesy of Suay Restaurant

British-run Bampot specializes in contemporary European cuisine, alongside excellent cocktails. Exquisite Italian is served at the lilliputian (just six tables) La Gaetana. Carnivores are catered for at Twin Palms’ new Wagyu Steakhouse — unimaginative name, but unbelievable meat.

High-end southern Thai food at Anise.

Courtesy of Anise

Despite Phuket’s increasingly upmarket positioning, it’s still possible to enjoy an incredible meal here for a humble sum. Even Lark has deviated from his traditional high-luxury lane to launch a new value-focused restaurant, Anise. Its proposition: simple, beautiful, authentic Thai food served in an elegant space at affordable prices.

“Phuket’s culinary scene has now done what Bali did in the 1990s,” said Lark. “It’s grown up.”

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Bollywood’s Deepika Padukone’s battle with mental illness, depression

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Bollywood star Deepika Padukone has spoken out about her battle with depression, calling for greater public discussion to help tackle the mental health crisis.

Padukone, who is one of India’s highest-paid actresses, said her experience during a seeming “professional high” revealed the illness’ indiscriminatory nature and inspired her to campaign for other sufferers.

“Mental illness crept up on me when I least expected it,” Padukone said last week.

“The perception and the general understanding was that I was at a professional high,” she said last Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “But what I was also experiencing was this hollow, empty, pittish feeling … I would just cry out of nowhere.”

Padukone was diagnosed with depression in 2014.

The 34-year-old celebrity, who has over 30 movies to her name, said she considered herself lucky that her mother had spotted her symptoms and urged her to seek medical help.

Indian actress Deepika Padukone delivers her acceptance speech during the “Crystal Award” ceremony at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 20, 2020.

Fabrice Coffrini

However, she noted that stigma and lack of awareness surrounding mental illness can make it difficult for sufferers to reach out. In India alone, an estimated 7.5% of the population suffers from some kind of mental illness, according to the World Health Organization, yet provisions remain scarce.

That inspired Padukone to set up the Live, Love, Laugh Foundation in 2015 to support other sufferers. The charity aims to spread awareness of mental health issues, having launched India’s first national campaign, as well as working to help people reach diagnoses.

Learning to understand what she was experiencing was the first step to recovery, Padukone said. She encouraged potential sufferers and the people around them to look out for telltale signs of depression, such as prolonged feelings of sadness, sleeping and eating irregularities, as well as suicidal thoughts.

“The toughest part in the journey for me was not understanding what I was feeling,” said Padukone. “Just having the diagnoses in itself felt like a massive relief.”

Padukone was speaking at the WEF meeting — a gathering of global business leaders and policymakers — where she was honored with the 2020 Crystal Award for her contributions to mental health awareness.

In 2018, she was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year.

Don’t miss: A psychologist says doing these 5 things helped her cope with grief during the holidays

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More US service members diagnosed with brain injury after Iran missile attack

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A picture taken on January 13, 2020 during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group, shows a view of the damage at Ain al-Asad military airbase housing US and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar.

Ayman Henna | AFP | Getty Images

A total of 50 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injury from this month’s Iranian missile attack on Iraqi bases hosting American troops, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Of those TBI cases, which can include concussions, 31 were treated in Iraq and have returned to duty, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell said in a statement.

Last week, the Pentagon said there were 34 service members diagnosed with concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

Of the 16 new diagnosed cases, 15 service members have returned to duty in Iraq, Campbell said.

Iran launched ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops on Jan. 8 local time. The strike was in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was commander of its elite Quds Force, in a drone attack outside Baghdad’s airport less than a week before.

No one was killed in Iran’s strikes, and a day after targeting U.S. forces, President Donald Trump said that no one was hurt or killed.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman has said that a lot of TBI symptoms are late developing and manifest themselves over a period of time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that some symptoms of concussions and other traumatic brain injury can appear right away, but other symptoms may not be noticed for days or months after the injury.

One of those new cases involved a service member transported to Germany for further evaluation and treatment, bringing the total taken there to 18. That person had been taken to Germany “for other health reasons and has since been diagnosed with a TBI,” Campbell said.

Last week, another Pentagon spokesman said that eight U.S. service members who were sent to Germany were then taken to the United States.

Campbell’s statement Tuesday said that there was no information as to whether anyone else has returned to the U.S.

A service member that had been taken to Kuwait for treatment has since returned to duty, Campbell said.

Hours after Iran launched missiles against U.S. forces, Iran’s armed forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane that departed from Tehran’s airport, in an incident that Iranian officials blamed on “human error” and which Iran’s president has called an “unforgivable mistake.”

All 176 people aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 were killed, including many Iranians and Canadians.

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