Updated: 34 min 9 sec ago
The U.S. has begun a multimillion dollar cleanup of an airbase in Vietnam that the U.S. used during the Vietnam War to store the highly toxic chemical Agent Orange. The launch Saturday of the $183 million program at the Bien Hoa airport, outside Ho Chi Minh city, comes more than 40 years after the end of the war. Bien Hoa was one of the main storage sites for the toxic formula. The U.S. sprayed 80 million liters of Agent Orange over South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to deprive the Communist guerillas of tree cover and food. The Agent Orange chemicals stored at Bien Hoa are believed to have seeped into the surrounding soil, sediment and rivers. Agent Orange contains dioxin and has been linked to increased rates of cancer and birth defects across generations of Vietnamese. In November, the U.S. completed a similar cleanup program at Danang airport that cost $110 million. The amount of toxins at Bien Hoa is four times higher than the amount cleaned up at Danang. Neither the United States government nor the manufacturers of the chemical have admitted any liability. Nor have they offered any compensation to Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange. U.S. military veterans have been compensated for exposure to Agent Orange since 1991.
The U.S. launched on Saturday a $183 million cleanup at a former Vietnam storage site for Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used in the nations' bitter war, which years later is still blamed for severe birth defects, cancers and disabilities. Located outside Ho Chi Minh City, Bien Hoa air base — the latest site scheduled for rehabilitation after Danang air base's cleanup last year — was one of the main storage grounds for Agent Orange and was only hastily cleared by soldiers near the war's end more than four decades ago. U.S. forces sprayed 80 million liters (21 million gallons) of Agent Orange over South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 in a desperate bid to flush out Viet Cong communist guerrillas by depriving them of tree cover and food. The spillover from the clearing operation is believed to have seeped beyond the base and into groundwater and rivers, and is linked to severe mental and physical disabilities across generations of Vietnamese — from enlarged heads to deformed limbs. Largest 'hot spot' left At Bien Hoa, more than 500,000 cubic meters of dioxin had contaminated the soil and sediment, making it the "largest remaining hot spot" in Vietnam, said a statement from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which kicked off a 10-year remediation effort Saturday. The dioxin amounts in Bien Hoa are four times more than the volume cleaned up at Danang airport, a six-year, $110 million effort that was completed in November. "The fact that two former foes are now partnering on such a complex task is nothing short of historic," said the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel Kritenbrink, at Saturday morning's launch, which was attended by Vietnamese military officials and U.S. senators. Hanoi says up to 3 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, and that 1 million suffer grave health repercussions today — including at least 150,000 children with birth defects. An attempt by Vietnamese victims to obtain compensation from the United States has met with little success. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 declined to take up the case, while neither the U.S. government nor the manufacturers of the chemical have ever admitted liability. While U.S. officials have never admitted direct links between Agent Orange and birth defects, USAID on Saturday also issued a "memorandum of intent" to work with government agencies to improve the lives of people with disabilities in seven Vietnamese provinces.
North Korea has criticized U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “nonsense” call for Pyongyang to show that it’s serious about giving up its nuclear weapons, the second time it has criticized a leading U.S. official in less than a week. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he is open to a third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but Bolton told Bloomberg News on Wednesday there first needed to be “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.” “Bolton, national security adviser of the White House, in an interview with Bloomberg, showed above himself by saying such a nonsense,” North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters when asked about his recent comments, the Korean Central News Agency said Saturday. “Bolton’s remarks make me wonder whether they sprang out of incomprehension of the intentions of the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S. or whether he was just trying to talk with a certain sense of humor for his part, with its own deviation,” she said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name. “All things considered, his word has no charm in it and he looks dim-sighted to me.” The North Korean vice minister also warned that there would be no good if the United States continued “to throw away such remarks devoid of discretion and reason.” North Korea said Thursday it no longer wanted to deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and that he should be replaced in talks by someone more mature, hours after it announced its first weapons test since nuclear talks broke down.
China will show off new warships including nuclear submarines and destroyers at a parade next week marking 70 years since its navy's founding, a senior commander said on Saturday, as Beijing flexes its increasingly well-equipped military muscle. President Xi Jinping is overseeing a sweeping plan to refurbish the People's Liberation Army (PLA) by developing everything from stealth jets to aircraft carriers as China ramps up its presence in the South China Sea and around self-ruled Taiwan. The navy has been a key beneficiary of the modernization plan as China looks to project power far from the country’s shores and protect its trading routes and citizens overseas. Last month, Beijing unveiled a target of 7.5 percent rise in defense spending for this year, a slower rate than last year but still outpacing China's economic growth target. Deputy naval commander Qiu Yanpeng told reporters in the eastern city of Qingdao that Tuesday's naval parade - likely to be overseen by Xi himself, though China has not confirmed that - will feature 32 vessels and 39 aircraft. "The PLA Navy ship and aircraft to be revealed are the Liaoning aircraft carrier, new types of nuclear submarines, new types of destroyers, as well as fighter aircraft," Qiu said, without giving details. "Some ships will be revealed for the first time." The Liaoning, the country's first carrier, was bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China. It's not clear if China's second carrier, an as-yet unnamed ship developed and built purely in China, will also take part, but in the past few days state media has run stories praising recent sea trials. Around a dozen foreign navies are also taking part. While Qiu did not give an exact number, China has announced the parade would include ships from Russia, Singapore, India, Thailand and Vietnam - which frequently complains of Chinese military activity in the disputed South China Sea. China's last naval battles were with the Vietnamese in the South China Sea, in 1974 and 1988, though these were relatively minor skirmishes. Chinese navy ships have also participated in international anti-piracy patrols off Somalia's coast since late 2008. Strong Navy 'Essential' Qiu reiterated China's frequent stance that its armed forces are not a threat to anyone and that no matter what happens it will never "pursue hegemony.” "It is fair to say that the PLA Navy has not brought war or turbulence to any place," Qiu said. But China has been scared by its past and needs good defenses at sea, h added. "A strong navy is essential for building a strong maritime country," Qiu said. "From 1840 to 1949, China was invaded by foreign powers from the sea more than 470 times, which caused untold suffering and deep wounds to the Chinese nation." China has frequently had to rebuff concerns about its military intentions, especially as military spending continues to scale new heights. Beijing says it has nothing to hide, and has invited foreign media to cover next week's naval parade and related activities, including a keynote speech by navy chief Shen Jinlong, who is close to Xi. Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the PLA's Naval Research Academy, told reporters after Qiu had spoken that inviting foreign navies to take part in the parade was a sign of China’s openness and self-confidence, noting China had also done this for the 60th anniversary in 2009. "New nuclear submarines and new warships will be shown - this further goes to show that China's navy is open and transparent," said Zhang.
One of the key components of empathy is what scientists call facial mimicry. It seems complicated, but is as simple as smiling when someone smiles at you, and that conveys a lot of information. Scientists have always thought that animals who do it, humans included, are a small group, but maybe not. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed a statement from a senior North Korean foreign ministry official saying they no longer want him involved if talks with the U.S. resume. Pompeo said he is still in charge of the U.S. negotiating team and that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has promised to denuclearize "half a dozen times." The exchange comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet with Kim Jong Un. VOA's Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.
Recent technological advances demonstrated by China have started an intense debate on whether it is set to take a lead in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, which has extensive business and military applications. U.S. concerns about China's AI advances have also influenced, in part, the ongoing trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. Both the United States and European Union are taking measures to stop information leaks that are reportedly helping Chinese companies at the expense of Western business. But many analysts are saying that Chinese corporate and defense-related research in areas like AI and 5G wireless technologies can thrive on their own even if information from the Western world is shut off. China is already reportedly leading in several segments of businesses like autonomous vehicles, facial recognition and certain kinds of drones. The U.S.-based Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence recently captured attention when it reported that China is a close second after the United States when it comes to producing frequently-cited research papers on artificial intelligence. The U.S. contribution is 29%, and China accounts for 26% of such papers. "The U.S. still is ahead in AI development capabilities, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing rapidly because of the significant new AI investments in China," Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a professional organization, told VOA. Political advantage Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent months encouraged Communist leaders to "ensure that our country marches in the front ranks when it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies." He also asked them to "ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands." Analysts said China's political system and its government's eagerness to support the technological advancement were key reasons it could build infrastructure such as cloud computing and a software engineering workforce, and become a big player in artificial intelligence. Chinese companies enjoy special advantages in deploying new technology like facial recognition, which is often difficult in democratic countries like the U.S., said William Carter, deputy director and fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "China does have strengths in terms of application development and deployment, and has the potential to take the lead in the deployment of some technologies like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition where ethical, social and policy hurdles may impede deployment in the U.S. and other parts of the world," Carter said. China's capabilities in image and facial recognition are possibly the best in the world, partly because government controls have made it easier to generate data from a wide range of sources like banks, mobile phone companies and social media. "These capabilities arise out of the use of deep learning on very large data sets. In general, China has the advantage of having more real world data to train AI systems on ... than any other country," Selman said. Other areas where China has shown significant advances are natural language processing (in Chinese only) and drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarming. "China also has unique capabilities that are not found in the U.S. or Europe. I'm thinking of electronic payment platforms [e.g. AliPay] and the super app WeChat that provide an advanced platform for the rapid introduction of further AI technologies," Selman said. U.S. role Last February, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking government agencies to do more with AI. "Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States," Trump was quoted as saying in an official press release accompanying the order. Critics have said that Trump's order does not suggest enhanced government investment and plans for attracting fresh talent in AI research and development, which is essential for growth and industry competition. Gregory Allen is an adjunct senior fellow with the research group Center for a New American Security. He was recently quoted as saying that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending the most on research and development at $2 billion over five years. In contrast, the Chinese province of Shanghai, which is a city government, is planning to spend $15 billion on AI over 10 years. "So literally, we have the U.S. federal government at present at risk of being outspent by a provincial government of China," Allen said. China's AI capabilities have limits. They suffer from major weaknesses in areas like advanced semiconductors to support machine learning applications. "At the end of the day, when it comes to most major AI fields, China is not the technological leader and is not the source of most foundational innovations," Carter said. The U.S. still dominates in the overall market for self-driving car technology, machine translation, natural language understanding, and web search. China has gained a strong presence in a few segments of these businesses, largely because of its vast domestic market. Despite the competition, collaboration and exchange of ideas occur between the two countries in the AI field, although this aspect is less discussed, Carter added. "Politically, the dynamic is more competitive; economically and scientifically, it is more collaborative," he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday rejected a North Korean demand that he be replaced as President Donald Trump's top negotiator, as the United States and Japan vowed to continue to enforce tough sanctions on North Korea until it dismantles its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Pompeo's refusal to step down and the joint U.S.-Japanese pledge made at a meeting of their foreign and defense ministers at the State Department threw more uncertainty over the possible resumption of stalled denuclearization talks. The talks have been at an impasse over sanctions since Trump's second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without any agreement in late February, and the North has warned it may not return to the table without immediate sanctions relief. "Nothing changed, we're continuing to work. I'm still in charge of the team," Pompeo told reporters, insisting that he and his special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun would remain on the job. "President Trump is obviously in charge of the overall effort, but it will be my team and special representative Biegun who will continue to lead the U.S. efforts to achieve what Chairman Kim committed to do,"he said. "He's made that commitment to President Trump multiple times, he's made it to me personally half a dozen times and I am convinced we still have a real opportunity to achieve that outcome and our diplomatic team will continue to remain in the lead.'' Pompeo's comments — at a news conference with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya — were his first response to the North Korean demand, which followed an announcement by Pyongyang on Thursday that it had tested a new tactical weapon. The test, along with the North's criticism of Pompeo for "talking nonsense" and misrepresenting Kim's positions, signaled a hardening stance and cast doubt on a quick resumption of negotiations. Pompeo, Shanahan, Kono and Iwaya all said that they would not bow to North Korea's sanctions relief demands. "We will continue to press North Korea to abandon all of its weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles and related programs and facilities," Pompeo said, speaking on behalf of the group. "We will continue to enforce all sanctions against North Korea and encourage every country to do so.'' Kono said Friday's meeting came at "a critical time to align the response to the North Korean situation," noting that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will travel to the U.S. to meet Trump next week and that Trump will soon visit Japan." Japan and the United States will continue to cooperate on full implementation of all U.N. Security Council resolutions," he said in reference to international sanctions the world body has imposed on the North. The U.S. is refusing to ease major sanctions until North Korea completely and verifiably dismantles its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles while the North wants significant sanctions to be lifted before the process is completed. Japan has also advocated a tough approach to the North in contrast to South Korea, which has pushed for a step-by-step approach that would lift some international sanctions as incentives. Pompeo has said some minor relief, including the possible easing of travel restrictions, could be considered in the short- to medium-term but that the crippling sanctions the North most wants removed will not be lifted until it fulfills what he says have been Kim's repeated pledges to Trump to completely denuclearize. On Thursday, North Korea said it had test-fired a new type of "tactical guided weapon," its first such test in nearly half a year, and demanded that Pompeo be excluded from future negotiations. Although the test didn't appear to be of a banned mid- or long-range ballistic missile that could scuttle chances of resuming the negotiations, it allowed North Korea to show its people it is pushing ahead with weapons development and reassuring hardline military officials worried that diplomacy with Washington is a sign of weakness. North Korea's foreign ministry accused Pompeo of playing down the significance of comments by Kim, who said last week that Washington has until the end of the year to offer mutually acceptable terms for an agreement to salvage the high-stakes nuclear diplomacy. In a statement, the director general of the American Affairs Department Kwon Jong Gun said that Pompeo was "talking nonsense" and misrepresenting Kim's comments. During a speech at Texas A&M University on Monday, Pompeo said Kim promised to denuclearize during his first summit with President Donald Trump and that U.S. officials were working with the North Koreans to "chart a path forward so we can get there.'' "He [Kim] said he wanted it done by the end of the year," Pompeo said. "I'd love to see that done sooner.'' The North Korean statement said Pompeo was "misrepresenting the meaning of our requirement" for the negotiations to be finalized by the year's end, and referred to his "talented skill of fabricating stories." It said Pompeo's continued participation in the negotiations would ensure that the talks become "entangled" and called for a different counterpart who is "more careful and mature in communicating with us.'' In a speech before his rubber-stamp parliament last week, Kim said he is open to a third summit with Trump, but only if the United States changes its stance on sanctions enforcement and pressure by the end of the year.
As Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto stood on stage claiming a victory in this year’s general elections that few could believe, Sandiaga “Sandi” Uno, his running mate, watched on from behind, ashen faced and dour. The image went viral on social media, highlighting a split between Prabowo and Sandiaga, who seemed at odds. According to all counts, apart from their own, they were defeated by the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has claimed victory with 54 percent of the vote. It’s a result Prabowo refuses to accept. “Sandi didn’t look very happy at being beside him last night. That was a facial expression we have not seen on Sandi for the entire campaign,” said Greg Barton, Chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization. “Normally he’s full of energy and smiling, that’s his trademark. He looked like he was attending a funeral,” he said. What followed was an uneasy night amid speculation that Prabowo would instigate mass rallies following Friday prayers, prompting an appeal from Police Chief General Tito Karnavian who told all parties to end the mobilization of supporters. Troops were seen being deployed in Jakarta. Instead of rallying on the streets, about 1,000 supporters gathered outside Prabowo’s home in central Jakarta, where he again refused to concede defeat, citing his own “quick poll result” – which has been widely discredited – and vowed to challenge the result through the courts. “Well he certainly wants to get attention, of course he’s got a few weeks before the official results come out in which he can save face by these sort of stunts, but it looks increasingly silly,” Barton said. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also warned the post-election situation looked tense and could potentially could harm the country's security and political life while urging his supporters “not to get involved in any act of violating Indonesia's Constitution.” In a letter to his Democratic Party, Yudhoyono said the real results were determine by the General Elections Commission, where counting supports Jokowi’s claim to the presidency. But through it all Sandiaga, a successful businessman, emerged as a crowd favorite with his honesty and moderate views on Islam, acting as a counter-balance to Prabowo who has a long history of courting conservative Muslims. “An Indonesian friend of mine said ‘Sandiaga is the son-in-law that every Indonesian mother wants’,” said Don Greenlees, a senior fellow with the Australian National University. “The big thing is can he find a coalition of parties or a party with sufficient support in its own right to back him.” “He shapes up as a very good candidate for 2024, there’s no question that he has the ambition.” As the voting continued, Jokowi was a substantial eight percentage points ahead of Prabowo but this was still below expectations when compared with the double-digit lead he held in the opinion polls during the campaign. “Prabowo performed better than expected. He seems to have done best in the provinces that have the most pronounced Muslim identity. So the identity politics aspect of the election did bear out,” Kevin O’Rourke, an analyst with PT Reformasi Info Sastra, said. He also said Sandiaga had emerged as a future political force. “He has the asset base to finance another run. He has established a national profile and name recognition. But there’s also a few other considerations,” O’Rourke said. “There’s going to be a few contenders for the presidency next time around, including perhaps Prabowo himself. The result yesterday may embolden him to make a third try, health permitting, and if so then questions arise about which parties might be able to nominate Sandi for a run.” Despite protests from Prabowo, which mimicked his response to defeat by Jokowi at elections in 2014, Indonesia was widely praised for its handling of this election. For the first time the polls encompassed presidential, legislative and provincial ballots, included about 193 million registered voters and were dubbed “the most complex elections in the world.” Fears that large numbers of voters among the 60 million-strong youth vote, known as “golput”, would abstain or deliberately spoil their ballots due to dissatisfaction with both candidates, proved unfounded with turnout at a record high 80 percent. “We have a pretty mature system, as far as polling is concerned,” Barton added.
Prabowo Subianto, the retired army general who ran against President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the Indonesian presidential race on Wednesday, April 17, has declared victory in the country's national election. Accompanied by his running mate, businessman Sandiaga Uno, and representatives of the political parties that supported him, Subianto told a news conference at his home in Jakarta he won by 62% over the incumbent based on the votes they have recapitulated. “Today, I, Prabowo Subianto, state that Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno and myself declare our victory as President and the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia for the period of 2019-2024,” he told reporters Thursday. Quick count accuracy The quick count results, however, refuted his claim. According to various survey agencies including Litbang Kompas, Indo Barometer, Charta Politika, Poltracking, Indikator and Cyrus Network, Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, won by 53% to 55%, while Subianto and Uno only received 44% to 46% of the votes. Arya Fernandes, a political researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), believes the quick count results of the 2019 presidential election is accurate. “We believe in the quick counts that are done by CSIS with Cyrus Network, as well as other survey agencies. In general, candidate number 1 (Jokowi and Ma’ruf) is leading,” he told VOA. He adds the quick count results will not be very different with the final result from the General Election Commission (KPU), with a margin of error between 1% to 2%. According to Fernandes, the quick count is done with a strict scientific methodology and has been successful in showing the winner of the election since 2004, right after the voting is over. “What they do is counting the result of sample polling stations, so the result is shown. It is unlikely to change and that’s why quick count is a reliable tool in determining who is winning,” he said. Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Subianto’s campaign team, Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, asks Subianto’s supporters not to trust the results of the quick counts performed by survey agencies. “Remain calm and be patient. Follow the process and supervise (the counting), we will ensure Prabowo-Sandi win,” he stated on Wednesday. Dispute in Constitutional court? Andre Rosiade, another spokesperson from Subianto’s team, said they are planning to file a petition to the Indonesian Constitutional Court if the real count result from the KPU is different with his team’s result. “For example, if our real count (result) is different with the KPU, but we found massive and structured fraud, then it’s possible we will bring it to the Constitutional Court,” he said. Subianto also mentioned they have proof of various attempts for fraud which happened in villages, districts and cities in Indonesia. Rosiade added that the campaign team is still waiting to receive the data from all over Indonesia. Nevertheless, Rosiade reiterates that the final decision on the presidential election result lies with the General Election Commission. Official results expected in May The official result will be released by the KPU on May 22 after manually counting the number of votes from 193 million people who went to 809,563 different polling stations. According to their website, as of today, the commission has recapitulated the data from more than 11,000 polling stations, which shows similar number with the quick count results, Jokowi is leading by 56%. Fernandes believes it will be difficult to challenge the real count result done by the commission. They must have proof that fraudulent activities took place in one voting booth by looking at the physical evidence, such as the counting form on which each vote is recorded. “If there is proof then it can be settled at the Constitutional Court. But if we look at the process of regional or general elections in the past, in 98% of the disputes usually the commission will win. Only in a few cases they recounted the votes, usually in smaller polling stations,” he said. The chairman of General Election Comission, Arief Budiman, said the KPU has organized the 2019 presidential and legislative election transparently with many independent observer agencies involved in the process. He asks the Indonesian people to wait for the official result.
Both China and Vietnam are building up tiny islets across Asia’s most disputed sea, but while China receives international criticism Vietnam receives very little, and even gets some support because its pace of construction is slower and widely seen as defensive. Vietnam’s work on islets it has held for decades is kept to areas of the South China Sea closest to its mainland coasts. The country shuns military mega projects that might appear offensive. And it belongs to the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) known for working out any bilateral differences. These factors differ from China. “They’ve never had, I think, a standoff with any other country, because all the other claimants have respectfully kept to their developable spheres around the South China Sea, and I think there’s this intra-ASEAN consensus, that within ASEAN the claimants do not rock the boat so as to present a common front towards China,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Vietnam has slowly added buildings on some of its 10 major islets since 2017, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said in a report earlier this month. The initiative under the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies also tracked new communications equipment, a sports field and the extension of a runway from 750 meters to 1,300 meters on its largest holding Spratly Island. Locking in occupation Development of military-controlled islands that Vietnam has occupied for decades in the South China Sea’s Spratly Island chain involves landfill work plus installation of solar panels on some buildings, the initiative report says. The report points also to 25 “pillbox” forts that Vietnam has built on sometimes submerged reefs or banks. Vietnam is very slowly reclaiming land for construction that offers self-defense against harsh weather, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Construction has shunned use of large ships that might grab international attention, he said. “The Vietnamese government has made it very clear they just reclaim the islands for self-defense, and they do not expand massively for other purposes,” Nguyen said. “I don’t think the Vietnamese government wants to draw a lot of attention from other countries on their reclamation, so that’s the reason they want to do it quietly.” Hanoi hopes its tiny islets can get by without much help from mainland Vietnam, Chong said. He said the country is preparing for a long stay on the islets. Vietnam is upgrading islets to make them harder for China to take without a cost, not for offensive military use, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative Director Gregory Poling said. “The Vietnamese endgame seems to be making these facilities more survivable, raising the cost for the Chinese to try to take them,” he said. China normally leaves Vietnam alone at sea because they have shown a willingness to “bump shoulders” with Chinese vessels if pushed, he said. China contrast China claims about 90 percent of the disputed sea, overlapping Vietnam’s smaller claim as well as tracts that four other governments call their own. The other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Chinese reclamation work particularly alarms Vietnam because China controls the full Paracel archipelago, also claimed by Hanoi, and three major islands in the Spratly chain. Beijing’s reclamation work has created infrastructure for military aircraft and radars, the think tank initiative says. Chinese contractors had used 1,294 hectares of reclaimed land to help develop reefs and atolls under their control, according to a Pentagon estimate in 2016. China draws attention from other countries, including the United States, when it sends bombers and naval vessels into the sea. Both China and Vietnam cite historic usage to back their maritime claims. Keeping peace China and the Philippines have complained occasionally to Vietnam over the years because its islets fall into their claims. But the complaints fade because the other countries do not see Vietnam as a threat, scholars believe. Vietnam’s armed forces and maritime development budget lag China, which is Asia’s top economic and military power. Chinese officials meet sometimes with ASEAN leaders but lack access to the regular events for Southeast Asian heads of state, defense chiefs and foreign ministers. “One ASEAN country is not going to war with another ASEAN country,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “We would find consensus. That’s the true spirit of diplomacy.” Vietnam also has picked up support from Japan and the United States, both keen to limit Chinese expansion. Japan’s agreement in 2014 to donate six coast guard vessels to Vietnam helped prove its “power projection abilities,” Chong said. The U.S. Navy regularly passes ships through the sea to warn China.
Thai authorities have raided a floating home in the Andaman Sea belonging to an American man and his Thai partner who sought to be pioneers in the “seasteading” movement, which promotes living in international waters to be free of any nation’s laws. Thailand’s navy said Chad Elwartowski and Supranee Thepdet endangered national sovereignty, an offense punishable by life imprisonment or death. It filed a complaint against them with police on the southern resort island of Phuket. Thai authorities said they have revoked Elwartowski’s visa. Elwartowski said in an email Thursday that he believes he and Supranee, also known as Nadia Summergirl, did nothing wrong. “This is ridiculous,” he said in an earlier statement posted online. “We lived on a floating house boat for a few weeks and now Thailand wants us killed.” Seasteading pioneers in hiding The couple, who have gone into hiding, had been living part-time on a small structure they said was anchored outside Thailand’s territorial waters, just more than 12 nautical miles from shore. They were not there when the navy carried out their raid Saturday. The Thai deputy naval commander responsible for the area said the project was a challenge to the country’s authorities. “This affects our national security and cannot be allowed,” Rear Adm. Wintharat Kotchaseni told Thai media Tuesday. He said the floating house also posed a safety threat to navigation if it broke loose because the area is considered a shipping lane. Revival of seasteading Seasteading has had a revival in recent years as libertarian ideas of living free from state interference, such as by using crypto-currency including Bitcoin, have become more popular, including among influential Silicon Valley figures such as entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Elwartowski, an IT specialist, has been involved in Bitcoin since 2010. Several larger-scale projects are under development, but some in the seasteading community have credited the Andaman Sea house with being the first modern implementation of seasteading. “The first thing to do is whatever I can to help Chad & Nadia, because living on a weird self-built structure and dreaming of future sovereignty should be considered harmless eccentricities, not major crimes,” Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer who heads The Seasteading Institute, said on his Facebook page. Pilot project The floating two-story octagonal house at the center of the controversy had been profiled and promoted online by a group called Ocean Builders, which touted it as a pilot project and sought to sell additional units. The group describes itself as “a team of engineering focused entrepreneurs who have a passion for seasteading and are willing to put the hard work and effort forward to see that it happens.” In online statements, both Elwartowski and Ocean Builders said the couple merely promoted and lived on the structure, and did not fund, design, build or set the location for it. “I was volunteering for the project, promoting it with the desire to be able to be the first seasteader and continue promoting it while living on the platform,” Elwartowski told The Associated Press. “Being a foreigner in a foreign land, seeing the news that they want to give me the death penalty for just living on a floating house had me quite scared,” Elwartowski said. “We are still quite scared for our lives. We seriously did not think we were doing anything wrong and thought this would be a huge benefit for Thailand in so many ways.” Asked his next step, he was more optimistic. “I believe my lawyer can come to an amicable agreement with the Thai government,” he said.
A report released Thursday concludes disdain for journalists throughout the world has increased during the past year, due primarily to the behavior of authoritarian leaders. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index report, conducted by Reporters Without Borders, said "authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media," resulting in a "hatred of journalists" that has "degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear." The United States' ranking in the annual index of press freedom declined for the third time in three years, a result of U.S. President Donald Trump's regular threats to reporters and his inflammatory remarks about the media, the report said. The U.S. ranked 48th among the 180 nations and territories that were surveyed, maintaining a descent that started in 2016. For the first time since the report started in 2002, the United States was included in a category of countries where the treatment of journalists is described as "problematic." The report said while a deterioration of the press freedom climate in the U.S. predated Trump's presidency, the first year of his time in office "has fostered further decline in journalists' right to report." The report cited Trump's repeated declarations of the news media as an "enemy of the American people," attempts to deny White House access to "multiple media outlets," regular use of the term "fake news" in retaliation to critical reporting, and calls to revoke the broadcasting licenses of "certain media outlets." It noted that hatred toward reporters prompted a gunman to murder four journalists and another employee last June at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland just east of Washington. The gunman had mental health issues and was angry with the newspaper for reporting about his pleading guilty to criminal harassment in 2011. "Amid one of the American journalism community's darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level," the report said. European countries once again occupied most of the spots at the top of the index. Norway topped the list for the third consecutive year, followed by Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. The United Kingdom ranked 33rd, rising seven spots since last year. But the report said the U.K. "remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe," noting its more favorable ranking was due to the sharp deterioration of press freedom in other countries. The countries at the bottom of the list were dominated by Asian countries. Turkmenistan ranked 180, topped by North Korea, Eritrea, China and Vietnam in ascending order. The Americas experienced the most pronounced regional deterioration worldwide, primarily due to the decline of the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The European Union and the Balkans registered the second largest regional deterioration, followed by the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific. The findings are based on responses to an 87-question survey that assesses pluralism, media independence and censorship in each country. Government policy was not evaluated. Responses were provided by media representatives, sociologists and attorneys around the world. Their feedback was integrated into a database of reported abuses and violent acts against journalists. To access the report in its entirety, visit https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.
A U.S.-based Christian evangelical organization says three of its American volunteers who were detained in Laos more than a week ago for proselytizing have been freed and deported. The operations manager for Vision Beyond Borders, Eric Blievernicht, said in an e-mail that the three crossed into Thailand on Thursday night. "Our prayers for their release and that they might be home for Easter are being answered," Blievernicht wrote. He gave no other details. The missionaries, identified by the Casper, Wyoming-based group only as Wayne, Autumn and Joseph, were detained by Laotian police on April 8 while visiting villages in the northwestern province of Luang Namtha to distribute Gospel tracts and other Christian material. The website of U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia, citing an unidentified district policeman, reported Tuesday that the three were detained for handing out religious materials without receiving official permission. Christians in Laos, especially those carrying out proselytizing work, face pressure from two quarters. The country's rigid old-style communist government is suspicious of outsiders and seeks to regulate all religions. The mostly Buddhist country's animist community, usually found in rural areas, also is often hostile. The U.S. State Department's 2017 International Religious Freedom Report said about Laos that "Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians." Vision Beyond Borders is one of a number of missionary groups that do semi-covert work in countries whose governments are often hostile to Christianity, and are best known for actions like smuggling Bibles into places such as China. The group says it also helps support poor and orphaned children, provides safe houses for women who have escaped sex trafficking, and has sent refugee relief supplies to the Middle East.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to meet later this month in Moscow. The Kremlin announcement was made Thursday after North Korea said it tested a new tactical weapon armed with a "powerful warhead." The Kremlin did not provide details of the Putin-Kim summit, but said it had planned the meeting for months. Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump have held two summits as part of an ongoing effort to denuclearize North Korea, but the efforts have stalled. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier U.S. presidential advisor Fiona Hill met in Moscow with her Russian counterpart, Yuri Ushakov. The U.S. State Department said the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was also in Moscow. Russia and North Korea have relatively warm relations and Putin has long expressed a willingness to meet with Kim. The last meeting between the leaders of the two countries occurred in 2011, when Kim's father, the late Kim Jong Il, met in Siberia with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Philippine diplomats have started evacuating a small group of Filipinos from the Libyan capital after it was hit by a barrage of rocket fire that wounded one Filipino, officials said Thursday. Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Emmanuel Fernandez said in Manila that three hospital workers and four students were evacuated by Philippine Embassy personnel from Tripoli to Tunisia, where they are to take flights back home. Manila’s top diplomat in Tripoli, Elmer Cato, said 13 more Filipinos have sought help and are expected to be flown back home in the next few days. But of about 1,000 Filipinos in Tripoli, only 20 have so far asked to be repatriated, including a man who was wounded in the rocket fire late Tuesday in the Libyan capital, he said. About 50 other Filipino workers have been evacuated to safer areas within Libya by their employers, Cato said. There are more than 2,000 Filipinos in Libya, mostly working as nurses, teachers and oil industry workers. “They have to stay here and take the risk because they have to provide for their families back home,” Cato told The Associated Press in a cellphone message, adding that Filipino nurses in Libya are treated well and receive much higher salaries, along with other benefits. Last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila raised the threat level in Libya’s capital to 3 and urged Filipinos and their dependents in Tripoli and outlying areas to consider leaving temporarily to avoid getting caught in the fighting. If the threat level is raised to 4, the government would have to implement a forced evacuation of Filipinos. The Philippine labor department has also imposed a ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Libya, particularly in Tripoli and areas within a 100-kilometer (62-mile) radius of the capital, because of fighting between rival militias for control of the North African nation’s capital. Many of the Filipinos in Tripoli refuse to return home because they feel the ongoing fighting would eventually ease, but Cato said that after the volleys of rocket fire hit Tripoli for the first time this week, some have started to consider to leave. The Philippines is one of the world’s major labor providers, with a tenth of its more than 100 million people working abroad, including many house helpers and construction workers. The income they send home has helped the Philippine economy stay afloat in dire economic times. The wounded Filipino in Tripoli, Rolando Torres, was in his living room when he was startled by two powerful explosions outside his house. He ran to another room to check what happened but before he could open a window, he heard another loud blast, which sent debris flying that wounded him in the forehead, Cato said. Torres, a warehouse worker, immediately called the Philippine Embassy and was fetched later from his house. The rocket fire struck a Tripoli community where more than 200 Filipino nurses and their dependents live. They stayed put and treated the wounded, mostly Libyans, in a clinic, Cato said. On Wednesday night, the Philippine Embassy received reports that rockets struck a hospital south of Tripoli, where 15 Filipino nurses work. Filipino embassy personnel could not reach the Filipinos for hours but later managed to contact the hospital owner, who reported that the Filipinos were fine and would be moved to safety soon, Cato said.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Thursday he was won re-election after receiving an estimated 54% of the vote, backtracking on an earlier vow to wait for official results after his challenger made improbable claims of victory. Widodo, after meeting with parties in his coalition, told reporters that the leaders of Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey and numerous other nations have congratulated him on securing a second term. The vote estimate is based on so-called quick counts of a sample of polling stations by a dozen reputable survey organizations. Widodo said that 100% of sample polling stations have now been counted or close to that. The quick counts have been accurate in previous elections. “We all know that the QC (quick count) calculation is a scientific calculation method. From the country's experiences of past elections the accuracy is 99.9%, almost the same as real count results,” Widodo said. Widodo's rival, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, has claimed he won 62% of the vote in Wednesday's election based on his campaign's own counts, repeating a similar claim when he lost to Widodo in 2014. The Election Commission is required to release official results by May 22. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, is an outpost of democracy in a Southeast Asian neighborhood of authoritarian governments and is forecast to be among the world's biggest economies by 2030. A second term for Widodo, the first Indonesian president from outside the Jakarta elite, could further cement the country's two decades of democratization. Subianto, a strident nationalist, ran a fear-based campaign, highlighting what he sees as Indonesia's weakness and the risk of exploitation by foreign powers or disintegration. Widodo said he had sent a representative to talk to Subianto and his camp. “This afternoon I have sent an envoy to meet Prabowo to set a meeting, and if people see our meeting, we will be able to show how the elections have ended smoothly, safely and peacefully,” he said. The country's security minister and its military and police chiefs said earlier Thursday that they will crack down on any attempts to disrupt public order while official results from presidential and legislative elections are tabulated. Security minister Wiranto, who uses a single name, told a news conference with the chiefs of police and all military branches that security forces will “act decisively” against any threats to order and security. He said the voter turnout of 80.5% gives the winner of the presidential election “high legitimacy.” National police chief Tito Karnavian said the Election Commission and courts are the appropriate institutions for resolving complaints about the election. Subianto's hard-line Muslim supporters plan mass prayers in central Jakarta on Friday but it was unclear if the event will be allowed to go ahead. “I appeal to everybody not to mobilize, both mobilization to celebrate victory or mobilization about dissatisfaction,” Karnavian said. The election was a huge logistical exercise with 193 million people eligible to vote, more than 800,000 polling stations and 17 million people involved in ensuring the polls ran smoothly. Helicopters, boats and horses were used to get ballots to remote and inaccessible corners of the archipelago. Voting ran smoothly, apart from a few districts where logistical problems caused delays, and was peaceful, a remarkable achievement for a country steeped in political violence. Widodo's campaign highlighted his progress in poverty reduction and improving Indonesia's inadequate infrastructure with new ports, toll roads, airports and mass rapid transit. The latter became a reality last month in chronically congested Jakarta with the opening of a subway.
Juhyun Lee contributed to this report. SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korea is demanding that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo no longer take part in any further talks involving its nuclear weapons program. Kwon Jong Gun, a senior official in the North’s foreign ministry, says Pyongyang wants someone who is “more careful and mature in communicating,” according to a report by the official KCNA news agency. Kwon Jong Gun’s comments were released hours after the regime announced that the North had tested a new “tactical guided weapon,” the latest display of Pyongyang’s military capabilities. KCNA said Kim Jong Un supervised and guided the Wednesday test, calling it an operation of “very weighty significance.” The KCNA report did not elaborate on the type of weapon tested, but the phrase “tactical” suggests it is not a ballistic missile. Still, the test could be seen as a warning to the United States, amid an impasse in talks over North Korea’s nuclear program. “Kim is trying to make a statement to the Trump administration that his military potential is growing by the day, and that his regime is becoming frustrated with Washington’s lack of flexibility in recent negotiations,” says Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A U.S. military official said late Wednesday the Pentagon is aware of the reported test, but has no further comment. North Korea has not carried out a nuclear or long-range missile test for well over a year, since Kim began talks with the United States and South Korea. Instead, the North has carried out smaller provocations. In November, Kim oversaw the test of what KCNA also referred to as a newly developed “high-tech tactical weapon.” U.S. officials later played down the significance of that test. Stalled talks Nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea have been stalled since a February meeting in Hanoi between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump ended in no deal. Trump wants Kim to completely abandon his nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief. Kim has only offered limited steps toward denuclearization. Kwon Jong Gun warned Thursday that “no one can predict the situation” on the Korean Peninsula if the United States does not give up “the root cause” that led the North to seek nuclear weapons. Last week, Kim said he was open to another summit with Trump, but warned he would only give the U.S. until the end of the year to change its “approach” to the negotiations. A North Korean official said last month that Kim is considering resuming missile tests and pulling out of the talks with the United States. What did North Korea test? It isn’t clear the weapon North Korea tested Wednesday was even a missile KCNA referred only to a “tactical guided weapon.” Regardless, the weapon doesn’t appear to have been nuclear-capable, since usually such arms are referred to as “strategic,” rather than “tactical.” “The design indexes of the tactical guided weapon, whose advantages are appreciated for the peculiar mode of guiding flight and the load of a powerful warhead, were perfectly verified at the test-fire conducted in various modes of firing at different targets,” KCNA said. “It is likely to be a new cruise missile” with a limited range, says Kim Dong-yub, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “If it is a cruise missile, then it has no relevance with the current sanctions. Existing sanctions only apply to ballistic missiles.” Increase in provocations? Even though North Korea’s latest test is not likely a ballistic missile, it is still meant to send a message to Trump, said Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The test amounts to “calibrated signaling to remind us where things can go if we don’t moderate our negotiating position,” Narang says. It isn’t clear how Trump will respond to North Korea’s latest test. Earlier this week, Trump said talks with North Korea “are moving along just perfectly.” Meanwhile, commercial satellite photos from last week showed increased activity at North Korea’s main nuclear site, according to a U.S. research organization. The Center for Strategic and International Studies noted the presence of five specialized railcars at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. “In the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns,” the report said. Also Wednesday, Kim carried out a public inspection of a military unit for the first time in several months, reviewing a flight exercise of the Korean People’s Army. Kim is expected to meet next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. With U.S. negotiations stalled, Kim is likely to push Putin to provide economic aid and sanctions relief.
An earthquake of magnitude 6.1 struck Taiwan’s coastal city of Hualien Thursday, shaking buildings and temporarily suspending subway services in the capital Taipei, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. Local television footage showed school children being evacuated from buildings, while a weather bureau official said it was the largest quake to hit the island so far this year. A large crack could be seen in the center of a road in Taipei’s eastern district of Xinyi, the city’s financial hub. The quake hit at a depth of 18 km (11 miles), the Central Weather Bureau said. No other details were immediately available. The central government said it had set up a disaster reaction center. The United States Geological Survey put the magnitude of the quake at 6.4, adding that it struck at a depth of 15 km (9 miles) from Hualien. Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers its own, lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is prone to earthquakes. More than 100 people were killed in an earthquake in the island’s south in 2016, and a quake of 7.6 magnitude killed more than 2,000 people in 1999.
Amazon.com Inc. plans to close its domestic marketplace in China by mid-July, people familiar with the matter told Reuters, focusing efforts on more lucrative businesses selling overseas goods and cloud services in the world’s most populous nation. Amazon shoppers in China will no longer be able to buy goods from third-party merchants in the country, but they still will be able to order from the United States, Britain, Denmark and Japan via the firm’s global store. Amazon expects to close fulfillment centers and wind down support for domestic-selling merchants in China in the next 90 days, one of the people said. Home-grown e-commerce The move underscores how entrenched, home-grown e-commerce rivals have made it difficult for Amazon’s marketplace to gain a foothold. Consumer insights firm iResearch Global said Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s Tmall marketplace and JD.com Inc. controlled 81.9 percent of the Chinese market last year. “They’re pulling out because it’s not profitable and not growing,” said analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Securities. Ker Zheng, marketing specialist at Shenzhen-based e-commerce consultancy Azoya, said Amazon had no major competitive advantage in China over its domestic rivals. Unless someone is searching for a very specific imported good that can’t be found elsewhere, “there’s no reason for a consumer to pick Amazon because they’re not going to be able to ship things as fast as Tmall or JD,” he said. Amazon’s customers in China will still be able to purchase the firm’s Kindle e-readers and online content, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing unit that sells data storage and computing power to enterprises, will remain as well. The U.S.-listed shares of Alibaba and JD.com rose 1% Wednesday after Reuters first reported the move, before paring gains later in the day. Amazon’s shares closed flat. US retreat, e-commerce showdown The withdrawal of the world’s largest online retailer — founded by the world’s richest person — comes amid a broader e-commerce slowdown in China. Alibaba in January reported its lowest quarterly earnings growth since 2016, while JD.com is responding to the changing business environment with staff cuts. It also follows the Chinese e-commerce retreat of other big-name Western retailers. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. sold its Chinese online shopping platform to JD.com in 2016 in return for a stake in JD.com to focus on its bricks-and-mortar stores. Similarly, the country appears to factor less in the global aspirations of fellow U.S. tech majors Netflix Inc., Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Pachter said. Amazon bought Chinese online shopping website Joyo.com in 2004 for $75 million, rebranding the business in 2011 as Amazon China. But in a sign of Tmall’s dominance, Amazon nevertheless opened an online store on the Alibaba site in 2015. The firm is still expanding aggressively in other countries, notably India, where it is contending with local rival Flipkart.