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Updated: 36 min 9 sec ago

Cheap and Green: Pyongyang Upgrades Its Mass Transit System

56 min 18 sec ago
Pyongyang is upgrading its overcrowded mass transit system with brand new subway cars, trams and buses in a campaign meant to show leader Kim Jong Un is raising the country's standard of living.   The long-overdue improvements, while still modest, are a welcome change for the North Korean capital's roughly 3 million residents, who have few options to get to work or school each day.  First came new, high-tech subway cars and electric trolleybuses — each announced by the media with photos of Kim personally conducting the final inspection tours. Now, officials say three new electric trams are running daily routes across Pyongyang.  Transport officials say the capacity of the new trams is about 300, sitting and standing. Passengers must buy tickets in shops beforehand and put them in a ticket box when they get on. The flat fare is a dirt cheap 5 won (US$ .0006) for any tram, trolleybus, subway or regular bus ride on the public transport system. The Pyongyang Metro has a ticket-card system and the Public Transportation Bureau is considering introducing something similar on the roads as well.  Private cars are rare Privately owned cars are scarce in Pyongyang. Taxis are increasingly common but costly for most people. Factory or official-use vehicles are an alternative, when available, as are bicycles. Motorized bikes imported from China are popular, while scooters and motorcycles are rare. The subway, with elaborate stations inspired by those in Soviet Moscow and dug deep enough to survive a nuclear attack, runs at three- to five-minute intervals, depending on the hour. Officials say it transports about 400,000 passengers on weekdays. But its two lines, with 17 stations, operate only on the western side of the Taedong River, which runs through the center of the city. “The subway is very important transportation for our people,” subway guide Kim Yong Ryon said in a recent interview with The AP. “There are plans to build train stations on the east side of the river, but nothing has started yet.” The lack of passenger cars on Pyongyang's roads has benefits. Traffic jams are uncommon and, compared to Beijing or Seoul, the city has refreshingly clean, crisp air. Electric trams, which run on rails, and electric trolleybuses, which have wheels, are relatively green transport options.  Crowded and slow But mass transit in Pyongyang can be slow and uncomfortable.  The tram system, in particular, is among the most crowded in the world.  Swarms of commuters cramming into trams are a common sight during the morning rush hour, which is from about 6:00 to 8:30. Getting across town can take about an hour. Pyongyang's tram system has four lines. In typical North Korean fashion, one is devoted to taking passengers to and from the mausoleum where the bodies of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, lie in state. The city's red-and-white trams look familiar to many eastern Europeans. In 2008, the North bought 20 used trams made by the Tatra company, which produced hundreds of them when Prague was still the capital of socialist Czechoslovakia. North Korea squeezes every last inch out of its fleet.  Red stars are awarded for every 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) driven without an accident, and it's not unusual to see trams with long lines of red stars stenciled across their sides. One seen in operation in Pyongyang last month had 12 — that's 600,000 kilometers (372,800 miles), or the equivalent of about 15 trips around the Earth's circumference. The numbers work Impossible as that might seem, the math works. Ri Jae Hong, a representative of the Capital Public Transportation Bureau, told an AP television news crew the main tram route, from Pyongyang Station in the central part of town to the Mangyongdae district, is 21 kilometers from end to end. He said a tram might do the full route there and back on average six times a day.  By that reckoning, it would take just over 198 days of actual driving to win that first red star. 

Chinese Militia Aside, Philippines to Keep Building on Disputed Islet

2 hours 1 min ago
China and the Philippines became friends in 2016 after four years of struggling for control over a shoal where both sides fish. The friendship has held, but in December and January, China moved as many as 90 ships close to another islet they dispute to monitor Philippine construction of a beaching ramp. The naval, coast guard and idle fishing vessels just watched, but Philippine officials know China has the more powerful military. Still, the Philippines is expected to keep building on the islet, called Thitu, without hurting relations with China. "It will continue, but there seems to be no effort on the part of the Philippine government to try to at least say something or file a diplomatic protest regarding the number of boats that have responded to the development," said Maria Ela Atienza, a University of the Philippines political science professor. China values its friendship with the Philippines to keep Manila's ally, Washington, out of the maritime dispute, scholars believe, so it moved ships near Thitu in a way that raises alarm without stopping island construction or causing other material setbacks. Authority in the Spratly Islands The 37-hectares (90 acres) belongs to a bigger sovereignty dispute over the South China Sea where it's located. China claims about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway, competing for sovereignty with five other governments, including the Philippines. Beijing has taken a lead militarily over the past decade to access the sea's fisheries, oil and gas. Scarborough Shoal, over which the two countries sparred from 2012 to 2016 before making amends, is in the same sea. On Thitu, one of nine Philippine-held islands in the sea's Spratly chain, the beaching ramp should be finished in early 2019, the Philippine defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, has said.  Resident housing, a fishing port, desalination plant, solar energy project and marine research facilities are eventually due on the islet with a population of about 100 people, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, under the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a U.S. research group, said. Chinese ships ranging from 30 to 70 meters in length arrived in December and January from Subi Reef, a Chinese-controlled feature about 22 kilometers (14 miles) away, the initiative said. Still friends, still building The Philippine defense secretary said earlier this month construction will continue on Thitu Island. An official in the armed forces called the ships "no cause for worry," according to a Feb. 14 report by the domestic news website Inquirer.net.  Manila did not formally protest to Beijing over the ship movement. These reactions by Philippines officials will keep alive the friendship that President Rodrigo Duterte arranged in mid-2016, effectively letting island construction continue without incident, experts believe. "I don't expect this to have a major impact on Sino-Philippine relations as long as the Chinese can refrain from violence, but it is a reminder of why the armed forces and defense bureaucracy in the Philippines have been unwilling to fully buy into Duterte's embrace of Beijing," maritime initiative director Gregory Poling said. The lack of violence may even be remembered as a concession from China, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "It's probably a nicely shrouded provocation to the Philippines, but it cannot be drummed up any further, because there will be voices that point out it's a concession," Chong said. "China will continue its provocations. The fact that they haven't sent warships and aircraft means their provocations are reduced to a nonconfrontational level." More ship movement China has sent its "militia" to "intimidate and harass" other maritime claimants before, Poling said. Hundreds of idle, pro-government Chinese fishing vessels operate near Subi Reef, he added. Beijing and Manila have grown used to "cat-and-mouse" games in the Spratly Islands, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Last year, someone from China planted the Chinese flag on a Sandy Cay, a Spratly feature normally under Philippine control. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim all or parts of the South China Sea. Another Chinese "paramilitary force" about the size of the one that visited Thitu Island backed up a Chinese oil firm that had parked a rig in waters contested by Vietnam in 2014, Poling said. China will probably send more fleets near islands controlled by other countries once it buries a year-old trade dispute with the United States, which believes China should keep the sea open internationally, Oh said. "I don't see China having major movements in the South China Sea over the next few — let's say months or so — and that's because they are focusing on these trade negotiations, and they would not like to get distracted. But after the trade negotiations are settled, we might see some major movements of China in the region," he said.

China Accuses US of Trying to Block its Tech Development

9 hours 46 min ago
China's government on Monday accused the United States of trying to block its industrial development by alleging that Chinese mobile network gear poses a cybersecurity threat to countries rolling out new internet systems.   And in a potential blow to the U.S.'s effort to rally its allies on the issue, British media reported that the country's intelligence agencies have found it's possible to limit the security risks of using Chinese equipment in so-called 5G networks.   The U.S. argues that Beijing might use Chinese tech companies to gather intelligence about foreign countries. The Trump administration has been putting pressure on allies to shun networks supplied by Huawei Technologies, threatening the company's access to markets for next-generation wireless gear.   The company, the biggest global maker of switching gear for phone and internet companies, denies accusations it facilitates Chinese spying and said it would reject any government demands to disclose confidential information about foreign customers.   The U.S. government is trying to "fabricate an excuse for suppressing the legitimate development" of Chinese enterprises, said the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Geng Shuang. He accused the United States of using "political means" to interfere in economic activity, "which is hypocritical, immoral and unfair bullying."   U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking last weekend in Germany, urged European allies to take seriously "the threat" he said was posed by Huawei as they look for partners to build the new 5G mobile networks.   The 5G technology is meant to vastly expand the reach of networks to support internet-linked medical equipment, factory machines, self-driving cars and other devices. That makes it more politically sensitive and raises the potential cost of security failures.   Pence said Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment makers provide Beijing with "access to any data that touches their network or equipment." He appealed to European governments to "reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or our national security systems."   In what could amount to a turning point for the U.S. effort to isolate Huawei, Britain's National Cyber Security Centre has found that the risk of using its networks is manageable, according to the Financial Times and several other British media outlets.   The reports cited anonymous sources as saying that there are ways to limit cybersecurity risks, and that the U.K.'s decision would carry weight with European allies who are also evaluating the safety of their networks.   The British government is to finish a review of its policies on the safety of 5G in March or April. The office of British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that "no decisions have been taken.''   If eventually confirmed, "such a decision by the U.K. would be a strong message and could be influential in the medium term," said Lukasz Olejnik, a research associate at Oxford University's Center for Technology and Global Affairs.   The British review "could inevitably serve as an input or a reference point in other countries' risk assessments," he added.   European officials, including a vice president of the European Union, have expressed concern about Chinese regulations issued last year that require companies to cooperate with intelligence agencies. No country in Europe, however, has issued a blanket veto on using Huawei technology in the way the U.S. has urged.   The U.S. Justice Department last month unsealed charges against Huawei, its chief financial officer — who had been arrested in Canada — and several of the companies' subsidiaries, alleging not only violation of trade sanctions but also the theft of trade secrets.   The United States has not, however, released evidence to support its accusations that Huawei and other Chinese tech companies allow the Chinese government to spy through their systems. That has prompted some industry analysts to suggest Washington is trying to use security concerns to handicap Chinese competitors.   "China has not and will not require companies or individuals to collect or provide foreign countries' information for the Chinese government by installing backdoors or other actions that violate local laws," said Geng.   Britain's National Cyber Security Centre admitted last summer that it had concerns about the engineering and security of Huawei's networks. While not commenting Monday on the media reports, it added: "We have set out the improvements we expect the company to make."   Huawei said in a statement Monday that it's open to dialogue and that "cybersecurity is an issue which needs to be addressed across the whole industry."

Abe Mum on Trump's Claim of Nomination for Nobel Peace Prize

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 21:49
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kept quiet Monday over President Donald Trump's claim that he had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, but praised him and emphasized he did not deny doing so. Trump's assertion Friday that Abe had nominated him for the honor and sent him a copy of the letter has raised questions and criticism in Japan. Questioned in parliament, Abe praised Trump for his dealings with North Korea but said, "In light of the Nobel committee's policy of not disclosing recommenders and nominees for 50 years, I decline to comment." Neither the prime minister nor his spokesman denied Trump's comment. "I never said I didn't" nominate him, Abe said in response to a follow-up question by Yuichiro Tamaki, a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party for the People. Tamaki said in a tweet Monday that he was concerned such a nomination would "send the wrong message to North Korea and the rest of international society." Junya Ogawa, another opposition lawmaker, cited various policies and actions by Trump that he said ran contrary to the spirit of the peace prize, calling the nomination "an embarrassment for Japan." In responding to Tamaki's questions in parliament, Abe lauded Trump for meeting with Kim and working to resolve the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program and missile tests. Trump had also addressed Japan's concerns over past abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea, Abe said, adding "he and the entire White House also actively cooperated in resolving the issue." "I highly praise President Trump's leadership," Abe said. Trump's claim that Abe had sent him a "beautiful copy" of a letter sent to the Nobel committee could not be immediately verified. Nor could a report Sunday by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, citing unidentified government sources, that Abe had nominated Trump at the U.S. president's request. The government's top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, echoed Abe's remarks in refusing further comment. The situation is awkward for Abe at a time when his government is under fire for allegedly manipulating data on wages to suggest his economic policies were yielding better results than was actually the case. "Being Trump's closest friend among world leaders has not worked out too well for Abe," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. "He's not making Abe look very good." The U.S. is Japan's ally and anchor for national defense and Abe has assiduously cultivated cordial ties with Trump. He was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after he won the 2016 presidential election. The two share a love for golf and have teed off together both in Japan and the U.S. The halt to North Korean nuclear and missile tests since early last year has been a relief for Japan, which sits well within the range of its missiles and has sometimes had test rockets land in its territorial waters. Abe has been keen to claim progress in resolving the abduction dispute with North Korea, an important issue for his nationalist political base. The deadline each year for Nobel Peace Prize nominations is midnight, Jan. 31. The Nobel committee's website says there are 304 candidates for the 2019 prize, 219 individuals and 85 organizations. Former U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, his first year in office, for laying out a U.S. commitment to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Trump complained Friday that Obama was there "for about 15 seconds" before he was awarded the prize. Trump's landmark June 2018 summit with Kim in Singapore was replete with pomp but thin on substance. The two leaders are due to meet later this month in Hanoi, Vietnam. The president's comments Friday drew speculation that South Korean President Moon Jae-in might have been the one who nominated the president, but his spokesman said he had not. Kim Eui-kyeom, Moon's spokesman, said Moon believed Trump "has sufficient qualifications to win the Nobel Peace Prize" for his work toward peace between North and South Korea, which have yet to sign a peace treaty after their 1950-53 war. The Nobel committee chooses the recipient of the prize in early October by a majority vote. The prize is awarded on Dec. 10, in Oslo, Norway.

China Seizes $1.5 Billion in Online Lending Crackdown

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 18:13
Chinese police have investigated 380 online lenders and frozen $1.5 billion in assets following an avalanche of scandals in the huge but lightly regulated industry, the government announced Monday. Beijing allowed a private finance industry to flourish in order to supply credit to entrepreneurs and households that aren't served by the state-run banking system. But that threatens to become a liability for the ruling Communist Party after bankruptcies and fraud cases prompted protests and complaints of official indifference to small investors.   The police ministry said it launched the investigation because person-to-person, or P2P, lending was increasingly risky and rife with complaints about fraud, mismanagement and waste.   The ministry gave no details of arrests but said more than 100 executives were being sought by investigators and some had fled abroad. It said authorities seized or froze 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) but gave no indication how much might be returned to depositors.   Police say some lenders and investment vehicles were brazenly fraudulent, while others collapsed after inexperienced founders failed to manage risk.   Monday's statement said P2P lenders were investigated for complaints including wasting money, reporting phony investment plans and using illegal tactics to raise money.   Lending through online platforms grew by triple digits annually until 2017 when regulators tightened controls.   Depositors lent 1.9 trillion yuan ($280 billion) last year, but that was down by 50 percent from 2017, according to the Shenzhen Qiancheng Internet Finance Research Institute.   The outstanding loan balance stood at 1.2 trillion yuan ($177 billion) at the end of 2018, down 25 percent from a year earlier, according to Diyi Wangdai, a web site that reports on the industry.   P2P lenders are part of a privately run Chinese finance industry the national bank regulator estimated in 2015 had grown to $1.5 trillion.   The internet has helped financial platforms attract money from financial novices with little knowledge of the risks involved.   Many lend to factories and retailers or invest in restaurants, car washes and other businesses. But inexperience and poor risk control means a downturn in business conditions can bankrupt them.   Finance as a whole has come under tougher scrutiny after a 2015 plunge in stock prices led to accusations of insider trading and other offenses.   In one of China's biggest financial scams, authorities say depositors lost 50 billion yuan ($7.7 billion) in online lender Ezubo before it was seized by regulators in 2015.   The founder and his brother were sentenced to life in prison in 2017.    

The Role of Washington-Beijing Ties on Northeast Asia

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 17:35
Should Washington and Beijing reach an agreement on the current tariff impasse, that may not be enough to avert what many experts speaking at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies called a “new Cold War” between the countries. Yoon Young-kwan, former South Korean Minister of Public Affairs said, “We are now entering to a more unstable and dangerous era of international relations.”  He was not alone in that assessment. “The foundations for a constructive U.S.-China relationship are more fragile than at any time in recent decades,” said Stapleton Roy, former U.S. Ambassador to China during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations and the founding director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S. He said the hostile rivalry between China and the United States will continue to adversely affect the interests of East Asian nations. “If Washington and Beijing cannot reconcile their respective interests and ambitions in the western Pacific,” Roy added, “This will increase the possibility of military confrontations, divert resources from economic development to a dangerous and costly the arms race, and enhance the likelihood of nuclear proliferation and increased pressures on the countries in East Asia to choose sides.” Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Obama and Trump administrations Daniel Russel also noted, “The deterioration of U.S.-China relations has implications for Northeast Asia that go well beyond North Korea. All countries are going to resist being forced to line up behind one side or another in a new Cold War.” Furthermore, Executive Director at Nanjing University’s China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, Zhu Feng, says Beijing is still “grappling” with the shift in Washington’s policy on China during the first two years of the Trump administration. Zhu said China is “shocked” over the range and speed of how the bilateral relations have changed so quickly and that the current tariff dispute was a “wake-up call” for Beijing. Ultimately Roy surmised, “No country will benefit from such an outcome [of a Cold War], least of all China and the United States.”  Repairing ties The experts speaking at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies inagural U.S.-China-South Korea trilateral conference were unsure how Beijing and Washington might resolve their current fractured relationship. “I think the political atmosphere on China-U.S. relations in Washington is much worse than in Beijing,” said Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University. He says that many are focusing more on the negative side of U.S.-China relations at the expense of ignoring the positive side of the of the relationship. ​“We have a lot of shared interests between the two countries,” he adds, “The two sides have a lot of cooperation on global governance issues, immigration, corruption, anti-corruption, money laundering, [and] even cyber to some extent.” He asserts that by taking into consideration the “shared interests and aspirations” of Beijing and Washington, a mutually beneficial relationship between the two can be created and managed. Ajou University professor Kim Heungkyu also suggested that in order to balance, or mediate competition in the region, it may also become necessary for “middle powers” to play a greater role in the fostering of better ties between the U.S. and China. Impact on Asia Russel says that may be difficult because the geopolitical situation in the Asia Pacific region has been fundamentally altered. “The whiplash that these countries in Asia feel from the reversal of U.S. policy from Obama to Trump from Trump to the next [president], has so undermined the confidence in sustained character and the dependability of U.S. policy, that countries in the Asia Pacific feel compelled to diversify [and] to reduce their dependence on the United States. Another impact the tense relationship between China and the U.S has. on the region, says Jia, is Beijing’s role on denuclearizing North Korea. He says that in China, some view the denuclearization of North Korea as a “U.S. problem” and Beijing should not be involved. Others, Jia says, view it as a “Chinese problem,” and it should work with Washington to bring about a solution. However, because of increased U.S.-China tension, “These people will say, ‘You know, now China-U.S. [relations] is so bad, why should we help the U.S.?’” He further states that if the United States and China were to become “enemies,” then some feel it would be in Beijing’s best interest not to apply pressure to North Korea, thus creating more problems for Washington. How the United States and China resolve their current issues will have an impact on Beijing’s foreign policy, said Jia. U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27-28 for a second denuclearization summit.  In addition, on Sunday, the president touted "big progress" was being made in trade talks with China. 

Australian Political Parties Targeted In Mass Hacking Attempt

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 17:16
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the country's major political parties have been hit by a hack on their computer networks. The government says the systems were infiltrated by a “sophisticated state actor”.  Australia’s cyber security agencies believe an unnamed foreign government was behind the attacks earlier this month. Computer networks used by all of the major parties were compromised. The breach was uncovered during an investigation into the hacking of computer servers at Parliament House in the national capital, Canberra.  “Members will be aware that the Australian Cyber Security Center recently identified a malicious intrusion in the Australian parliament house computer network. During the course of this work we also became aware that the networks of some political parties; Liberal, Labor and Nationals have also been affected. But our cyber experts believe that a sophisticated state actor is responsible for this malicious activity,” Morrison said. Officials say there is no evidence of electoral interference, but Australia is boosting its cyber defenses in response. A federal election is expected in May. In December, Canberra publicly accused China for the first time of supporting a campaign of cyber espionage to steal commercial secrets. In 2015 and 2016, there were high-profile attacks on Australia’s official weather and statistics agencies  Beijing has previously denied interfering in Australia’s domestic affairs. Following the online breach earlier this month there was also press speculation that North Korea or Russia could have been involved. Officials said there was “no evidence” that information had been accessed or stolen.

NYC’s Chinatown Welcomes Year of the Pig With Vvibrant Parade

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 07:39
Drums, dragons and dancers paraded through New York’s Chinatown on Sunday to usher in the Year of the Pig in the metropolis with the biggest population of Chinese descent of any city outside Asia. Confetti and spectators a half-dozen or more deep at points lined the route of the Lunar New Year Parade in lower Manhattan. “The pig year is one of my favorite years, because it means lucky — everybody likes lucky — and, for me, a relationship or family” and a better life, Eva Zou said as she awaited the marchers. “Because I just moved here several months ago, so it’s a big challenge for me, but I feel so happy now.” There’s an animal associated with every year in the 12-year Chinese astrological cycle, and the Year of the Pig started Feb. 5. Some marchers sported cheerful pink pig masks atop traditional Chinese garb of embroidered silk. Others played drums, banged gongs or held aloft big gold-and-red dragons on sticks, snaking the creatures along the route. Someone in a panda costume marched with a clutch of well-known children’s characters, including Winnie the Pooh, Cookie Monster and Snoopy. Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, both Democrats, were among the politicians in the lineup, where Chinese music mixed with bagpipers and a police band played “76 Trombones,” from the classic musical “The Music Man.” The lunar year is centered on the cycles of the moon and begins in January or February. Last year was the Year of the Dog. While some parade-goers were familiar with the Chinese zodiac, others said they were just there to enjoy the cultural spectacle or partake in a sense of auspicious beginning. “We’re here to get good luck for the year,” said Luz Que, who came to the parade with her husband, Jonathan Rosa. His hopes for the Year of the Pig? “Wellness, well-being and happiness,” he said.

Trump: US Trade Talks with China Making 'Big Progress'

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 05:53
President Donald Trump said Sunday "big progress" is being made in U.S. trade talks with China on what he calls "so many different fronts." "Our country has such fantastic potential for future growth and greatness on an even higher level," the president tweeted. Trump said last week he might put off the March 1 deadline to increase tariffs on China if a trade deal is close. But a China trade expert who served in the Obama administration says he has only seen "incremental progress" toward a trade deal with China. "The realistic approach is that the deadline gets extended and the negotiations possibly go into the end of this year, I would suspect," former Assistant Trade representative for China Jeff Moon tells VOA. Moon believes negotiators on both sides are failing to address the real reason the U.S. imposed stiff sanctions on China in the first place -- allegations that it is stealing U.S. intellectual property, and China's demands that U.S. firms turn over trade secrets if they want to keep doing business in China. "It's not possible to resolve those issues in two weeks. Those are very complex issues that require longer talks...so a quick settlement is not a good settlement. It just glosses things over," Moon said. He forecast things getting "messy" over the long run if those matters are not settled. He also said Trump has "muddied" the negotiations by letting politics creep into the trade talks with such issues as North Korea. Trump has threatened to hike tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports to the U.S. from 10 to 25 percent if there is no trade deal reached by March 1. China has accused the U.S. of violating global trade rules, saying it is preventing the Chinese economy from thriving. Current U.S. sanctions on China were met with retaliation from Beijing by sanctions on U.S. goods.

Researcher: China Surveillance Firm Tracking Millions in Xinjiang

Sun, 02/17/2019 - 20:34
A Chinese surveillance firm is tracking the movements of more than 2.5 million people in the far-western Xinjiang region, according to a data leak flagged by a Dutch internet expert. An online database containing names, ID card numbers, birth dates and location data was left unprotected for months by Shenzhen-based facial-recognition technology company SenseNets Technology Ltd, according to Victor Gevers, co-founder of non-profit organization GDI.Foundation, who first noted the vulnerability in a series of social media posts last week. Exposed data also showed about 6.7 million location data points linked to the people which were gathered within 24 hours, tagged with descriptions such as "mosque", "hotel," "internet cafe" and other places where surveillance cameras were likely to be found. "It was fully open and anyone without authentication had full administrative rights. You could go in the database and create, read, update and delete anything," said Gevers. China has faced an outcry from activists, scholars, foreign governments and U.N. rights experts over what they call mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups who call Xinjiang home. According to its website, SenseNets works with China's police across several cities. Its Shenzhen-listed parent company NetPosa Technologies Ltd has offices in a majority of Chinese provinces and regions, including Xinjiang. SenseNets and NetPosa, as well as the Xinjiang regional government, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday. The Chinese government has ramped up personal surveillance in Xinjiang over recent years, including the construction of an extensive video surveillance system and smartphone monitoring technology. Gevers said the foundation directly alerted SenseNets to the vulnerability, in line with GDI.Foundation protocol. He said SenseNets did not respond, but that it has since taken steps to secure the database.

Dinosaurs Tracks Saved from Australian Floods

Sun, 02/17/2019 - 19:18
A team of Australian paleontologists and volunteers has saved a once-in a lifetime fossil discovery from devastating floods in Queensland state. The dinosaur tracks give a rare insight into an ancient world.  Found on an outback farm near the Queensland town of Winton, 1,100 kms from Brisbane, they are estimated to be almost 100 million years old. The footprints are stamped into a large slab of sandstone rock, and were made by a sauropod, a giant creature with a long neck and tail, and by two smaller dinosaurs.  Some of the footprints are up to a meter wide and come from the Cretaceous period.   Scientists were alerted to the danger posed to this remarkable collection when it was partly damaged by severe flooding last year. For three weeks scientists and volunteers worked to carefully dig up and relocate the dinosaur tracks.    They are being stored at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum in Winton, where they will eventually go on display. David Elliott is the museum's executive chairman. "We really want to preserve the integrity of the tracks.  We do not want to just tear them up and go and lock them on the ground somewhere.  You know, they have to be done a certain way.  We cannot just leave it here because that is, you know, [a] find of a lifetime." Dinosaur tracks are rare in Australia. Steve Poropat, a paleontologist at Swinburne University in Melbourne says the footprints were saved from recent monsoonal flooding in Queensland. "The imperative was to get those soft footprints out of the ground because they just would not have lasted in another flood now that they have been fully exposed.  To get it all out of the ground, to make sure that it is safe from future floods is fantastic," he said.  Monsoonal rains in Queensland have caused chaos, flooding hundreds of homes and drowning several hundred thousand livestock.  Officials said it was a one-in-100-year event, and they have warned it could take years to rebuild the local cattle industry. As the floodwaters recede on land, they are polluting parts of the Great Barrier Reef.  Experts say plumes of polluted water are stretching up to 60 kms from the coast, putting more pressure on coral that has suffered mass bleaching in recent years.  When ocean temperatures increase, corals can expel the algae that live in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's greatest natural treasure and stretches 2,300 kms down Australia's northeast coastline.

Trump Receives Update on China Trade Talks 

Sun, 02/17/2019 - 08:43
President Donald Trump received an update on trade talks with China on Saturday at his Florida retreat after discussions in Beijing saw progress ahead of a March 1 deadline for reaching a deal. Trump, at his Mar-a-Lago club, was briefed in person by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and trade expert Peter Navarro, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and other aides joined by phone.  The White House offered no additional detail.  Both the United States and China reported progress in five days of negotiations in Beijing this week, but the White House said much work remained to be done to force changes in Chinese trade behavior.  Shortly after the meeting with his trade team, Trump said on Twitter the talks in Beijing were "very productive."  At a White House press conference on Friday, he said the talks with China were "very complicated" and that he might extend the March 1 deadline and keep tariffs on Chinese goods from rising.  U.S. duties on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are set to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent if no deal is reached by March 1 to address U.S. demands that China curb forced technology transfers and better enforce intellectual property rights.  China's vice premier and chief trade negotiator, Liu He, and Lighthizer are to lead the next round of talks next week in Washington. 

China Rebuffs Germany's Call for US Missile Deal With Russia 

Sun, 02/17/2019 - 06:33
China on Saturday rejected German Chancellor Angela Merkel's appeal to join a Cold War-era arms control treaty that the United States accuses Russia of breaching, saying it would place unfair limits on the Chinese military.  Fearing a nuclear arms race between China, Russia and the United States after the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the United States is withdrawing from, Merkel made her call for a global treaty.  "Disarmament is something that concerns us all and we would of course be glad if such talks were held not just between the United States, Europe and Russia but also with China," Merkel told the Munich Security Conference.  Russia and the United States are the signatories to the 1987 INF Treaty that bans land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (300-3,400 miles) and which U.S. President Donald Trump started the six-month withdrawal from this month, blaming Russian violations.  Moscow denies any wrongdoing, but the United States and its NATO allies want Russia to destroy its 9M729 nuclear-capable cruise missile system, which Washington says could allow Russia to strike Europe with almost no warning.  Merkel's suggestion of involving China in a negotiation is seen by European NATO diplomats as a potential way out of the impasse because a new treaty could address American concerns about a growing military threat from China and Russia.  China 'doesn't pose a threat' But China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, who spoke on a panel in Munich, said that Chinese missiles were defensive.  "China develops its capabilities strictly according to its defensive needs and doesn't pose a threat to anybody else. So we are opposed to the multilateralization of the INF," he said.  China's stated ambition is to modernize its People's Liberation Army by 2035, improve its air force and push into new technologies including very high-speed cruise missiles and artificial intelligence.  Its defense budget grew nearly 6 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the London-based International Institute for Security Studies (IISS).  Retired Chinese Gen. Yao Yunzhu told delegates a new arms control agreement would work only if it included sea- and air-launched missiles, as well as land, because most of China's military technology is ground-based and the country would not want to put itself at a disadvantage.  Cheaper to build, more mobile and easier to hide, ground-based rocket launchers are an attractive option to China as it develops its armed forces, experts say, whereas the United States operates more costly sea-based systems to comply with the INF.  "China is traditionally a land power and the Chinese military is a ground force," Yao said.  "If China is to enter into these kinds of negotiations, I think it ought to be more comprehensive to include not only land-based but also air- and sea-based strike capabilities ... and that would be hugely complicated," she said. 

Kim Jong Un to Arrive in Vietnam on Feb. 25 Ahead of Trump Summit

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 21:55
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will arrive in Vietnam on Feb. 25 ahead of a planned second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, three sources with direct knowledge of Kim’s schedule told Reuters on Saturday. Trump and Kim are due to meet in Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28 following their historic first meeting last June in Singapore. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday Washington aims to “get as far down the road as we can” at the summit. Kim will meet with Vietnamese officials when he arrives in Hanoi, said the sources, who requested anonymity citing the sensitivity and secrecy surrounding the movements of the North Korean leader. He will also visit the Vietnamese manufacturing base of Bac Ninh and the industrial port town of Hai Phong, one source said. Vietnam’s president and general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, will meet Kim ahead of a planned trip by Trong to neighboring Laos, one of the sources with direct knowledge told Reuters. A Reuters witness saw Kim’s close aide, Kim Chang Son, in Hanoi on Saturday visiting a government guesthouse and the Metropole and Melia hotels in the center of the capital. Reuters was first to report last month that Hanoi was preparing to receive Kim for a state visit this month. Communist-ruled Vietnam, which has embraced economic reforms and developed close diplomatic ties with its former foe the United States, has been widely touted as a model of reform for isolated and impoverished North Korea. The former Cold War allies, which share a similar socialist ideology and exchanged military and political support during the Vietnam War, are eyeing a new chapter in relations following Hanoi’s opening up and embrace of the West. 

Arrest of Journalist Maria Ressa Casts Pall on Philippines Journalistic Independence

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 20:19
The U.N. Human Rights Office is calling on the Philippine judiciary to drop all charges against journalist Maria Ressa.  It says pursuing the case threatens an independent media in the country.  Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of the independent news outlet Rappler, was arrested on libel charges earlier this week.  She has since been freed on bail. This is not her first arrest.  Ressa, a frequent critic of the policies of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, has repeatedly been charged with infractions, such as tax evasion. U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville says Ressa was charged in an effort to prevent the independent voice of Rappler from being heard.  He tells VOA she is being charged with libel or defamation under the Philippines' 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act. "It makes on-line libel a crime punishable with up to 12 years in jail.  So, it is a pretty Draconian sentence," Colville said. "In the views of international human rights experts, defamation law should not lead to criminal charges and in this case, this law is being used to sentence and silence and threaten journalists." Colville says the Ressa case is likely to have repercussions on other journalists, pushing many to self-censorship for fear of being punished.  He says the public could be deprived of good news reporting as a result. The U.N. human rights office is calling for a thorough, independent review of all charges against Ressa and other media professionals in the Philippines.  It urges the judiciary to safeguard its own independence by throwing out cases that clearly are politically motivated. It says the charges are not in line with international human rights standards.  It adds they also trample on the rights of journalists to carry out their professional duties safely and without fear of reprisal.  

Immigration Key Battleground in Upcoming Australian Election 

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 16:30
Australia’s center-right government says it will re-open a controversial detention center on Christmas Island, after parliament voted to allow asylum-seekers on Nauru and Manus to come to Australia for medical treatment. The passage of the bill was an embarrassing defeat for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who says making it easier for sick migrants held offshore to be treated in Australia would encourage more asylum-seekers to come by sea. “To anyone who thinks they should get on a boat, I’m here and I will stop you,” he said. “My job now is to do everything within my power and in the power of the government to ensure that what the parliament has done to weaken our borders does not result in boats coming to Australia.” Critics see scare tactics The detention center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, is to be reopened. It had been in operation since 2003, but was closed last year. Critics say the prime minister’s decision to reopen the facility 300 kilometers south of Indonesia is an attempt to scare voters about border security ahead of an election expected in May. Opponents point out that the medical evacuation law passed this week covers only people already detained offshore, and will not apply to new arrivals. Professor Alex Riley from the University of Adelaide says many migrants will know the restrictions that Australia will impose. “Refugees are much better at sourcing information. The availability of smartphones and the growing information on the internet means that people soon work out what the opportunities really are,” Riley said. “People absolutely will be looking at the details. Before you jump on a boat and risk your life going to another country with the prospect of spending years and years in detention on an island, you are going to look at the details of what the law really says.” Since 2013, the Australian navy has been turning or towing back asylum-seeker boats. There has been unrest at detention camps in the South Pacific, where other migrants intercepted at sea have been held. They have been told they will never be allowed to settle in Australia. News is welcome, if temporary On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, refugees have welcomed news that they can go to Australia for medical treatment. But Khalid Hamad who fled Sudan says his long-term future remains uncertain. “It is not (a) permanent solution to us,” he said. “To go to Australia, yes, to get the treatment, that is it. What after that? It is not (a) permanent solution, just temporary solution.” While the impassioned political debate has focused on migrants arriving by boat, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, little attention is given to a record number of people, mostly from China and Malaysia, who arrive by plane seeking asylum in Australia.

Huge Land Loss Predicted for Vietnam's Mekong Delta

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 14:45
Nearly the entire Mekong Delta in Vietnam — an area that helps feed about 200 million people — will sink underwater by the year 2100 at current rates, a new study predicts. The delta, which is home to almost 18 million people and produces half of Vietnam's food, faces this potential humanitarian crisis largely because the heavy extraction of groundwater is causing land to sink as sea levels simultaneously rise, the study found. Researchers at Utrecht University created a delta-wide numerical model to track the impacts of groundwater exploitation over the past 25 years and use that as the basis of future predictions. When combined with rates of sea-level increase because of climate change, they found that no matter what action was taken the vast low-lying delta plain will be lost — though changes to land use could salvage other areas. "The results revealed that when groundwater extraction is allowed to increase continuously, as it did in the past decades, extraction-induced subsidence could potentially drown almost the entire Mekong delta," they concluded. Philip Minderhoud, a subsurface and groundwater systems researcher at Utrecht University who led the study, said groundwater extraction was one of the most important in a raft of factors causing the delta to sink on average by about 1 centimeter per year. "The delta's going to see a lot of changes in the coming decades," he said. Fueled by Vietnam's transition to a market-based economy in 1986, groundwater extraction had accelerated from practically nothing 30 years ago to the 2.5 million cubic liters now sucked out of the delta's water table every day. The loss of water, he explained, reduced pressure in the underlying geology, causing the delta to sink. "Of course the people in the delta, their development over the past decades, was partly possible because they had this groundwater source as a free resource of fresh water," he said. "That is going to be a major challenge because you either accelerate the speed at which you're drowning or you don't have anything to drink and to water your crops with." At the same time, he said, the sea level is rising at a rate of about 3 to 4 millimeters per year. Man-made burdens The weight of structures on the delta, decreased upstream sediment flows and natural compaction are also contributing factors to the loss of delta land, he said. "But it [groundwater extraction] is the only cause that you as a human can really actively change if you want to reduce the amount of subsidence," he said. While residents of the delta have proved themselves adept at raising houses and roads to deal with the problem, the impact to agriculture would be unavoidable and severe, he added. Vietnam is the world's second largest rice exporter, and 95 percent of it is produced in the Mekong delta, which also accounts for 60 percent of its fish exports. Bui Chi Buu, a Vietnamese government adviser on rice production and former director-general of The Institute of Agricultural Science for Southern Vietnam, said the economic impacts of the land loss remained unclear. "We worry about the future. The fresh water resource, it means the natural water resource come from the Mekong river in the dry season is not right," he said. Floods, drought, crop losses In 2016, Vietnam lost more than $1.6 billion because of floods and drought that destroyed at least 300 million tons of rice in the delta, he said. The immensely vivid and fertile region is known as Dong Bang Song Cuu Long in Vietnamese — the delta of nine dragons — after the nine branches of the Mekong that deposit rich sediment as they fan out into the ocean across the roughly 40,000 square kilometer area. Those nine branches had now decreased to seven, Buu said. "But in the future maybe we have four or five, I don't know," he added. Lost sedimentation Loss of naturally replenishing sediment is another critical factor in the sinking of the delta. Upstream dams on the Mekong, which flows more than 4,000 kilometers from the Tibetan plateau in China through Laos and Cambodia before discharging through the delta, had led to about a 40 percent loss in sediment flow, he said. A 2018 study by the Mekong River Commission found a catastrophic 97 percent of sediment flow to the delta would be lost by 2040 if all planned dams on the Mekong and its tributaries go ahead. Buu said policy responses to the myriad forces eroding the delta, potentially including dikes and sluice gates, were in the works. Pham Van Hung, deputy general director of the Division for Water Resource Planning and Investigation for the South of Vietnam, who also contributed to the study, said some groundwater extraction restrictions were recently introduced by the government. Tens of millions of tons of sand were also being mined from the Mekong, including in the delta, every year, compounding the problem, said WWF-Greater Mekong's Water Lead, Marc Goichot. All of these forces impacted a dynamic equilibrium that naturally replenished the delta. "What is clear is they all are contributing to the same thing," he said. "The sinking of the delta is a huge issue."

High-Stakes US-China Trade Talks to Continue in Washington

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 13:30
U.S. President Donald Trump is considering extending the March 1 deadline to impose higher tariffs on China, as the world's two leading economies continue trade negotiations next week in Washington. State Department correspondent Nike Ching reports from the State Department.

China Giving Pakistan $3.5 Billion in Loans, Grants

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 00:00
China is promising about $3.5 billion to help bolster Pakistan's dwindling foreign cash reserves and pay for socio-economic development plans undertaken by the country's new government. Beijing will soon deposit $2.5 billion in the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), raising to $4.5 billion the total amount in commercial loans China has given Pakistan this fiscal year, officials and diplomatic sources confirmed. Officials say the Chinese government has also promised a grant of $1 billion for education, health, vocational training, drinking water and poverty alleviation projects over the next three years. Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar said Chinese experts are due to arrive in Islamabad later this month to coordinate socio-economic development under the promised grant. Pakistan's foreign currency exchange remains under severe pressure, despite receiving around $2 billion from China and $4 billion from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in commercial loan deposits. SBP reserves stood at $8.2 billion last week, barely enough to cover two months' worth of imports. China's CPEC In the last six years, China has made significant financial contributions to direct investment, soft loans and commercial deposits to help its close ally, Pakistan, overcome severe economic challenges. Under its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has invested $19 billion in Pakistan to build and improve road infrastructure and power plants and opened the strategic Arabian Sea port of Gwadar. Beijing has also given Islamabad concessional loans for some projects under what is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The cooperation deal has created more than 70,000 jobs for Pakistanis and quickly resolved the country's chronic energy crisis. But investments from China had stopped because all major projects under CPEC will be complete by the end of this year. Chinese and Pakistani officials say preparations are under way to launch the next phase of CPEC in coming weeks to construct nine special economic zones across Pakistan. Beijing plans to relocate some of its industries by transferring technology to the new industrial zones to help Islamabad increase its exports to overcome its massive trade deficit and shore up cash reserves. CPEC has "changed the image of Pakistan" and encouraged other countries to invest in the country, notes veteran opposition Senator Mushahid Hussain, who chairs the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of parliament. He praised China for being the only country to bring unprecedented, massive investments to Pakistan five years ago when other nations were reluctant to do so due to terrorism-related security concerns and political considerations. "Before CPEC, people were talking of a failing state, of problems of Pakistan. Today, Pakistan is part of the solution to key regional problems [including Afghanistan] and Pakistan's image is that of an investor-friendly, tourism-friendly destination," Mushahid said. China believes a stable and strong Pakistan is in the interest of China, said Yao Jing, Chinese ambassador to Islamabad. "China would like to align the development strategies of both countries and support development of Pakistan," he wrote in a recent article. Khan's reform agenda Prime Minister Imran Khan's nascent government has embarked on a major economic reform agenda to revive the country's crisis-ridden economy and attract much-needed foreign direct investment. Khan has defended what he admits are "painful reforms," saying Pakistan's financial woes could not be addressed without taking tough, long-overdue measures. He blames alleged mismanagement and corruption by his predecessors for the ailing state of the economy. The government has increased duties on luxury imports, significantly devalued the currency to encourage exports, and raised prices of utility services, particularly natural gas, to generate more revenue. Officials defend their arrangement of emergency loans from Pakistan's friendly countries, saying they are intended mainly to secure a breathing space for macroeconomic stabilization measures to take root and create a business-friendly environment. Saudi Crown Prince to visit In addition to lending urgent cash deposits of $3 billion each at an interest rate of about 3 percent, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also allowed Islamabad to defer $6 billion in oil import payments for one year. Pakistani officials say the Saudi government has already disbursed $3 billion and the process for $3 billion in deferred oil payments have been finalized. An agreement is expected to be signed when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visits Islamabad Saturday. The prince is expected to announce projects worth up to $20 billion during his first state visit, Pakistani investment minister Haroon Sharif told VOA this week. The projects include a massive oil refinery in Gwadar with an estimated investment of around $10 billion. The UAE is working to establish an oil refinery in Pakistan and plans investments in other sectors. Malaysia, Qatar and South Korea are among other countries anxious to invest in Pakistan, officials said.

Trump: Trade Negotiations with China 'Going Extremely Well'

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 22:39
U.S. President Donald Trump is hailing progress in ongoing trade talks with China, with negotiators set to meet next week in Washington as the March 1 deadline approaches. "It’s going extremely well, who knows what (that) means because it only matters if we get it done. But we’re very much working very closely with China and President Xi, who I respect a lot, very good relationship that we have, and we’re a lot closer than we ever were in this country with having a real trade deal," Trump told reporters at the White House Friday. Earlier in the day, China's President Xi Jinping met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in Beijing. The official Xinhua news agency reported Xi said that he hopes the two sides can reach a mutually beneficial deal in their next round of negotiations.  A U.S. Treasury Department statement said the U.S. delegation focused on issues such as forced technology transfers, intellectual property rights, cyber theft, agriculture, services and currency.  "Detailed and intensive discussions led to progress between the two parties. Much work remains, however," the Treasury statement said.  China's state media report said the talks over the past two days made some progress on difficult and important issues. The statement said although much work remains to be done, the American officials said they were hopeful and willing to work with China to reach a deal in line with the interests of both sides. This week's high-level discussions were aimed at reaching a deal ahead of the March deadline for an escalation in tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports. In a tweet on Friday, before meeting with Xi, Secretary Mnuchin said that he and Lighthizer had “productive meetings” with China’s top negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He. Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of China’s nationalistic tabloid the Global Times was optimistic, noting that there is a “great possibility for China and the U.S. reaching (a) final agreement.” In a tweet, he said, “From what I know, during the just-concluded round of China-U.S. trade talks, the two sides have discussed how to draft a document on comprehensively solving China-U.S. trade disputes, namely a MoU,” adding that “After nearly one year of tough talks, I think the finishing line is nearly in sight.” Despite, Hu’s optimism, few analysts see anything truly final being hammered out in the 90-day period that ends March 2. At best, most express a hope that the two sides will be able to create a framework that charts the way forward. Last July, President Trump began raising tariffs that were aimed at “confronting China’s unfair trade practices,” such as a lack of reciprocal market access and complaints that Beijing steals or forces the handover of technology from companies. The trade tussle also seeks to address China’s multi-billion-dollar trade surplus with the United States and generous subsidies for state industries. China has responded by offering to narrow the trade surplus by purchasing more American soybeans, natural gas and other exports, but its willingness to press forward with key structural reforms remains a key sticking point. VOA Mandarin Service reporter Jinxun Li contributed to this report.  

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