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Malaysia's Former PM Najib Net Tightens

2 hours 21 min ago
The net around embattled former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his associates is tightening with investigations into his administration's alleged misdeeds ratcheting up this week. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared Najib "totally responsible" on Tuesday for a massive alleged fraud from state fund 1MDB while outlining potential charges against the former PM. Then two days later police announced they would reopen the case of the 2006 murder of a Mongolian model who had worked on the purchase of two submarines when Najib was defense minister, local media reported. 28-year-old Altantuya Shaariibuu was shot and then blown up in a forest with military grade explosives. "I can confirm we are reopening investigations," Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun reportedly said, adding the deceased's father had filed a complaint raising new evidence. Two former police officers who were serving as members of Najib's security detail at the time were convicted of murdering the model, who had worked as an interpreter for Abdul Razak Baginda - then an adivsor to Najib. Abdul Razak was acquitted of abetting the officers in 2008 in a case civil society groups and corruption watchdogs have alleged was a government cover up involving kickbacks. Najib has consistently denied any connection to the incident while Abdul Razak Baginda has denied any responsibility for the death of Altantuya, with whom he had an affair. Mahathir Mohamad, who defeated Najib in a stunning election upset in May, said earlier in the week that investigators would likely seek to charge the former PM with embezzlement, bribery and "a number of other charges" over his role in the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad scandal. Mahathir told the Reuters news agency Malaysian investigators had a near "perfect case" against the principal perpetrators of the 1MDB scam, in which the US justice department alleges some $4.5 billion was siphoned out the state fund, with $700 million landing directly in Najib's account. "He was totally responsible for 1MDB. Nothing can be done without his signature, and we have his signature on all the deals entered into by 1MDB. Therefore, he is responsible," Mahathir said.   At a five-star hotel on the Malaysian tourist island of Langkawi, Najib told Reuters in his first interview since the shock election loss that he did not know if the hundreds of millions of dollars that moved through his personal bank account came from 1MDB. Najib, who was chairman of 1MDB, said the fund's board should have told him if something was wrong, claiming he was unaware if paintings, yachts, gems and prime real estate had been purchased to launder money from the fund. "I was not aware of these purchases. This was done without my knowledge. I would never authorize 1MDB funds to be used for any of these items. I've been in government so long, I know what's right and what's wrong," he said. As for the hundreds of handbags, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each, jewels and other luxury items seized from his properties, Najib said these were gifts. He has previously said $681 million that ended up in his bank account was also a gift - from the Saudi Royal Family, most of which he gave back. "People would expect a former prime minister to be treated with decorum. Instead, I've been subjected to raids and all the other things," he said on Wednesday. Malaysians are growing impatient to see Najib charged after a massive electoral backlash that most observers believe was primarily driven by public outrage over the 1MDB scandal. But while the Pakatan Harapan coalition that ousted him are just as eager to see Najib charged, observers say they are also determined to ensure the highly complex case which requires coordination between justice departments across the globe is absolutely rock solid. James Chin, Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania, said he expected charges against Najib to come within about three months. "So I think the Malaysian people want the government to move very fast but as I mentioned earlier because this is a legal complex issue with multi jurisdictions it will not be so simple," he said. "So one way of moving forward is that they may just charge him for part of the things that happened in Malaysia first and they would deal with the international transactions later." The US, Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg have all conducted investigations into 1MDB, in which officials from a Saudi Arabian energy firm and a flamboyant Malaysian financier have also been implicated. That financier, Low Taek Jho, gave paintings by Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Leonardo DiCaprio and helped finance The Wolf of Wall Street using stolen 1MDB funds, US prosecutors alleged. Mahathir said this week that Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, was hiding in "many countries" that did not have extradition treaties with Malaysia. Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism in Kuala Lumpur, told VOA that coordinated investigations were starting to paint a much fuller picture of the scale of alleged corruption committed by Najib's administration. "What's out there is only 70% or so of the malfeasance. We are uncovering a lot more," she wrote in an emailed response. "This is work in progress and will be a long term one."

Former South Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil Dies

8 hours 3 min ago
Kim Jong-pil, the founder of South Korea’s spy agency whose political skills helped him also serve twice as prime minister, first under his dictator boss and later under a man his agency kidnapped, has died. He was 92.    Kim was declared dead on arrival at Seoul’s Soonchunhyang University Hospital from his home Saturday, said hospital official Lee Mi-jong. He described the cause of death as age-related complications.   A retired lieutenant colonel, Kim was a key member of a 1961 coup that put army Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee in power until his 1979 assassination. Park was the father of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president who was ousted from office last year over an explosive corruption scandal and is now serving a 24-year prison term.  Prints left on South Korea   South Korea’s presidential office released a statement saying Kim’s “fingerprints and footprints that marked South Korea’s modern political history will not be easily erased.”    After the senior Park seized power, Kim created and headed the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, a predecessor of the current National Intelligence Service, before serving as his prime minister, the country’s No. 2 post, from 1971-1975.    Park Chung-hee used the spy agency as a tool to suppress his political rivals at home, including then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, who became South Korea’s president in the late 1990s.    A government fact-finding panel said in 2007 that KCIA agents kidnapped Kim Dae-jung from a Tokyo hotel in 1973, days before he was to start a coalition of Japan-based South Korean organizations to work for their country’s democratization. It was the first official confirmation of one of the most notorious KCIA operations to stifle dissent.    Kim Jong-pil didn’t direct the agency at the time of the 1973 kidnapping, and 25 years later he joined forces with Kim Dae-jung and helped him win the 1997 presidential election. He served as Kim Dae-jung’s prime minister from 1998-2000 under a power-sharing plan.   The 2007 panel report did not draw a clear conclusion on whether the kidnapping was ultimately aimed at killing Kim Dae-jung, who said his abductors nearly dumped him from a ship at sea before they stopped when a U.S. military helicopter made a low pass over the vessel.  Transition to democracy   Related to Park by marriage, Kim Jong-pil was his No. 2 man for much of his rule. But after Park was gunned down by his intelligence chief during a late-night drinking party in October 1979 and a new military junta led by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan seized power through a coup, Kim was accused of corruption and surrendered property worth millions of dollars before moving to the United States.    Kim returned to South Korea after Chun, bowing to weeks of massive public protests, allowed a free, direct presidential election in 1987, which marked South Korea’s transition toward a genuine democracy. Kim founded his own conservative party and ran for the hotly contested 1987 election to compete with Chun’s army buddy and government candidate Roh Tae-woo, Kim Dae-jung and another opposition leader Kim Young-sam.   Roh won the election largely thanks to a split in opposition votes, and Kim Jong-pil placed fourth. The three opposition candidates came to dominate South Korean politics in the so-called “era of the three Kims.”  Kingmaker   Kim Jong-pil had enjoyed a strong support from his home turf in central Chungcheong province and people who valued the rapid economic development during Park’s rule. But he never reached a level of support to seriously contend for the presidency and instead became a kingmaker by exercising his political leverage in presidential races.   In 1990, he and Kim Young-sam merged their parties with Roh’s ruling party in a landmark three-way merger, which eventually helped Kim Young-sam win the 1992 presidential election. The merger of pro-democracy fighters and former coup members invited long-running criticism that it dampened democracy.   After supporting Kim Dae-jung’s successful 1997 presidential bid, Kim Jong-pil and his conservative party members were given several Cabinet posts in the new government. But their coalition fell apart in 2001 because of a dispute over Kim Dae-jung’s famous “sunshine policy” of engaging North Korea with aid and exchange programs. Kim Dae-jung won the 2000 Novel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile with North Korea and promote democracy in South Korea.   Dubbed as “perennial No. 2 man,” Kim Jong-pil served as a member of the National Assembly nine times. He quit politics in 2004 after his now-defunct United Liberal Democrats suffered crushing defeats in parliamentary elections.    “I’ve been completely burned to ashes,” he said in a retirement news conference.   Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

Remains From North Korea Likely to be Hard to Identify

8 hours 42 min ago
The U.S. military will face a difficult task in identifying the remains of soldiers missing from the Korean War as the Pentagon prepares to receive them from North Korea in coming days, officials and experts said. U.S. President Donald Trump, who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an historic summit in Singapore this month, said Thursday that Pyongyang was in the process of returning the remains of U.S. troops missing from the 1950-1953 conflict. 200 US troops The Pentagon has said North Korean officials have indicated in the past they have the remains of as many as 200 U.S. troops, and Trump himself has mentioned that figure. U.S. officials expect the remains to be handed over to United Nations Command in South Korea at Osan Air Base near Seoul then transferred to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. Once in Hawaii, forensic experts will face the challenge of identifying the remains. Among the techniques they could use are detective work with old photos, comparing DNA from remains to that of missing soldiers’ relatives and analysis of dental work. A U.S. official familiar with the process said the remains could be co-mingled, meaning not separated by individual, and could include people who were not American. Months, years to identify The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it could take months and even years to identify the remains. Cases of co-mingled remains are the most difficult because they require identifying which skeletal fragments belong to the same person, said Luis Fondebrider, president of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, a nongovernmental group that applies forensic science to investigate human rights violations. The degree that bones have broken down is also important, and deterioration, such as from being under soil, can affect whether DNA can be recovered, he said. Remains that North Korea has handed over in the past have not always been identifiable as U.S. troops, despite the dog tags North Korea handed over with them, according to a 1994 RAND Corporation research report. Between 1990 and 1992, North Korea returned 46 sets of remains, according to the report. “With no exception, every North Korean claim associated with human remains has shown to be false. For example, these 46 sets are actually fragments of more than 70 individuals,” the report said. Forensic analyses suggested none were American, the report said. Richard Downes, whose father went missing in the Korean War and is president of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, was optimistic the Trump-Kim summit would lead to the return of more remains. “But we’ve seen this before, and that was words on a paper and promises made, so now we have to see action,” he said. Joint mission A more effective way of repatriating remains is to have a joint mission between U.S. researchers and the North Korean military, Downes said. The United States conducted joint recovery operations from 1996 to 2005. That method enabled U.S. researchers to keep the remains more intact and to glean clues from their surroundings. About 7,700 U.S. military personnel still remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, U.S. military data show. More than 36,500 U.S. troops died in the conflict.

US, South Korea Indefinitely Suspend Military Drills

9 hours 45 min ago
The United States and South Korea have agreed to indefinitely suspend two exchange program training exercises, the Pentagon said Friday, in the aftermath of the summit earlier this month between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “To support implementing the outcomes of the Singapore Summit, and in coordination with our Republic of Korea ally, Secretary Mattis has indefinitely suspended select exercises,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said. “This includes suspending FREEDOM GUARDIAN along with two Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises scheduled to occur in the next three months,” White said. Regarding suspension of the exercises, South Korea’s defense ministry said, “South Korea and the U.S. decided to delay two of KMEP (drills) indefinitely, which was going to take place within the next three months. “This is a part of follow-up measures after the North Korea-U.S. summit and South Korea-North Korea summit. There could be additional measures should North Korea follow suit with productive cooperation.” Annual exercises At a news conference after the meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump announced that he would halt what he called “very provocative” and expensive regular military exercises that the United States holds with South Korea. North Korea had long sought an end to the war games. Earlier this week, the United States and South Korea said they were suspending planning for August’s Freedom Guardian exercise. Last year, 17,500 American troops and more than 50,000 South Korean troops joined the Freedom Guardian drills, although the exercise is mostly focused on computerized simulations rather than field exercises. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, played down the significance of suspending the Korean Marine Exchange Program training exercises, saying they were relatively minor. Allies baffled Jim Mattis met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton on Friday, White said. “In support of upcoming diplomatic negotiations led by Secretary Pompeo, additional decisions will depend upon the DPRK continuing to have productive negotiations in good faith,” she added. Every spring, the United States and South Korea conduct Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, both of which wrapped up in May. The decision to halt military exercises with South Korea baffled allies, military officials and lawmakers. The drills help keep U.S. forces at a state of readiness in one of the world’s most tense flashpoints.

Trump Declares N. Korea Still Poses ‘Extraordinary Threat’

11 hours 30 min ago
President Donald Trump declared Friday that North Korea still poses an “extraordinary threat” to the United States. In an executive order, the president extended for one year the so-called “national emergency” with respect to the nuclear-armed nation, re-authorizing economic restrictions against it. While expected, the declaration comes just nine days after Trump tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. The order appears to undermine the president’s claim. It states that “the existence and risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material” and the actions and policies of the North Korean government “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” The national emergency has been in place since 2008 and is a sign of the enduring tensions between the U.S. and North Korea that spiked last year as the North moved closed to perfecting a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach American soil, but ebbed with the June 12 summit where Kim agreed to “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.  The two sides, however, still have to negotiate the terms under which the North would give up its nukes and win relief from sanctions — a goal that has eluded U.S. administrations for a quarter-century. Trump claimed at a Cabinet meeting Thursday that denuclearization had already begun, although Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters a day earlier that he wasn’t aware that North Korea had taken any steps yet toward denuclearization, and that detailed negotiations have not yet begun. Meanwhile, the Pentagon said Friday evening that it has “indefinitely suspended” a major military exercise with South Korea, known as Freedom Guard and scheduled for August, as well as two Korean Marine exchange training exercises. Officials had announced Monday that planning for Freedom Guard had been suspended in line with Trump's decision to halt what he called U.S. “war games” in South Korea. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Dana W. White, said further decisions about military exercises in South Korea “in support of diplomatic negotiations” led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will depend on North Korea “continuing to have productive negotiations in good faith.”

Analysts: Don’t Rush North Korea Denuclearization

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 16:17
The U.S. insistence on the complete denuclearization of North Korea could work against America’s interests as political pressure mounts to make rapid progress, analysts say.  “It actually creates incredible inverse incentives to reduce the size and estimation of the problem,” said Rebecca Hersman, the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and an international security adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, during a Singapore summit assessment forum this week. ​Vague commitment North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula when he met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the recent Singapore summit. The United States, South Korea and Japan all interpret Kim’s commitment to mean the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of the North’s nuclear arsenal. “Complete denuclearization is the goal. I think the V and the I, the verifiable and irreversible, is the methodology getting to that goal. So the task now is how to spell out that methodology to reach that goal,” said South Korean Foreign Minister Kang, Kyung-wha on Wednesday. The United States and its allies also vowed to keep international sanctions against North Korea in place until “significant progress” is made toward reaching the denuclearization goal. In contrast Pyongyang wants a step-by-step approach linking concessions to incremental progress. ​Political pressure The CVID approach may seem comprehensive but political pressure could persuade the United States to define success in a limited way to gain a dramatic win, perhaps by dismantling a limited number of declared nuclear weapons and sites, but not accounting for undisclosed capabilities. “If North Korea gives up the missile warheads or the ICBMs in the earlier stages, then I believe that U.N. Security Council will be able to adopt a resolution to relieve the sanctions or even partly abolish them,” said Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The Trump administration is pressing for rapid progress that could help his Republican Party in the November midterm elections or help his own re-election bid in 2020. The Kim government also wants a resolution to soon ease the harsh economic sanctions that block 90 percent of the country’s trade. ​Take it step by step A step-by-step process might provide incremental incentives for less dramatic results, but could also be used to hold North Korea accountable until its compliance can be assured. “I prefer to look at it and say, ‘I don’t trust North Korea.’ Step-by-step, I will want to reduce that risk. I want to reduce what they do to me and our allies. And I am never going to believe it until I can believe the fundamental political situation and the nature of the regime has changed,” said Hersman, the CSIS adviser who also worked on countering weapons of mass destruction for the State Department during the administration of President Barack Obama. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to meet with North Korean officials “at the earliest possible date “to implement the outcome of the recent leaders’ summit,” according to the State Department on Thursday. Many analysts expect the next round of talks to produce a detailed plan to enact the vague declaration of intent made at the summit, beginning with what weapons systems, materials, technology and development facilities are to be targeted for dismantlement. Warheads, weapons labs North Korea is estimated to have between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads, numerous ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that can potentially strike the U.S. mainland, and 40 to 100 clandestine weapons labs and facilities, according a RAND Corporation report. President Trump said on Thursday North Korea was blowing up four of its big test sites and “total denuclearization” has already started taking place. However U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was “not aware” of any North Korea denuclearization measures at this time, and the U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North recently said there had been no sign of any activity toward dismantling any other missile test site in North Korea. Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.

Changing Times for Malaysia's Long-Muzzled Media?

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 15:54
The surprising upset in Malaysia's May elections not only ushered in a new governing coalition, but it might also mean major changes for the media, which were largely under the previous government's control. Dave Grunebaum has the story for VOA from Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.]

Philippines, Muslim Rebel Group Close to Landmark Power-Sharing Deal

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 09:40
After four years of talks and one deadly setback, the Philippines is finalizing a law that would offer some autonomy to a flagship Muslim separatist group on the historically troubled southern island of Mindanao. Both houses of the Philippine legislature have passed initial versions of the law, and President Rodrigo Duterte is to sign a final draft July 23 just before a state-of-the-nation speech, according to domestic media reports. The law would give at least one major rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) autonomy over land use in a segment of Mindanao, the country’s southernmost major island. However, lawmakers may remove some of the clauses that the front wants, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of Philippine advocacy organization Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Metro Manila. The group might protest the law if too many items are taken out but ultimately they will go along with it, he said. “The MILF might not get what they want,” Casiple said, using the rebel group’s acronym. “But at the least it would end the MILF rebellion if you’re talking about the leadership itself.” ​Four years of effort Muslim rebel negotiators, the government and lawmakers have haggled over the law since the rebel front and the state reached a peace deal in 2014 requiring the Moro front to lay down arms. Today’s legislation called the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or BBL, would create an autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. That region would in turn replace an existing 12,536-square-kilometer tract carved out for Muslim groups in Mindanao and come with more rights for its inhabitants. The law should inspire the Moro front to shun any further violence, said Enrico Cau, Ph.D. student in international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “None of them are looking for war,” Cau said. “President Duterte will say he doesn’t want to go to war with his own kin, and MILF seems very reasonable. Basically, they have no reason, no rational reason, not to want peace in the region.” Muslims have lived in the 21 million population Mindanao’s west and outlying islands for more than 500 years. Many live in poverty and resent the country’s Christian majority control of resources. About 121,000 people have died in related conflicts since the 1960s. The Philippine Congress was set to pass a law in 2015 but stopped after the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ambushed troops near its holdings in Mindanao and killed 44 commandos. Duterte, himself from Mindanao and in office since 2016, has pushed for negotiations and told Congress this year to make it an urgent priority. Moro group peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal has urged passage of a law that reflects the peace deal. “The only BBL acceptable to us is a BBL compliant to the peace agreement,” Iqbal said in a video statement posted on the group’s official Facebook site. “The MILF position is, let the BBL pass Congress and the Senate now.” ​Sticking points Negotiations are expected to continue until the final signing, Casiple said. The Moro front and the government would haggle over rights to the autonomous region’s exact boundaries and rights to any oil and gas discoveries. The proposal calls for equal sharing of coal, natural gas and petroleum. Congress has also lowered from 6 to 5 percent the Bangsamoro region’s proposed annual share of national internal revenue, allotting it $1.1 billion, Philippine media reports say. Duterte has said the region would not be allowed to keep a separate military. Another sticking point: whether autonomy sharing covers a separate rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front. The group has expressed reservations about the process, and one of its factions plotted a deadly attack in Mindanao in 2013. The Moro National Liberation Front wants the law to allow job placement, scholarships and permission for its founder, Nur Misuari, to join talks with the government, a group representative said for this report. “To soften my pragmatic attitude against BBL, I only want a scholarship abroad on skill courses such as beer making, Mandarin language, alternative clean energy, and whatever that could help me learn new skills to go back to peaceful mainstream livelihood,” the representative said. Analysts expect the law to omit smaller, more violent Mindanao-based Muslim groups such as the Abu Sayyaf known for kidnapping foreigners, and the Maute Group that battled troops for five months in 2017. Those left out might rebel, scholars have said in the past. Separatist groups in Mindanao have shown a pattern of reappearing under new names or locations to stage attacks. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front as the law’s chief Muslim beneficiary needs a plan for how to handle other groups in surrounding Mindanao, Cau said.

Trump: N.Korea Blowing Up Test Sites, ‘Total Denuclearization ... Has Already Started’

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 01:45
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that North Korea was blowing up four of its big test sites and that a process of “total denuclearization ... has already started taking place.” Speaking at a meeting of his Cabinet at the White House, Trump said: “They’ve stopped the sending of missiles, including ballistic missiles. They’re destroying their engine site. They’re blowing it up. They’ve already blown up one of their big test sites, in fact it’s actually four of their big test sites. “And the big thing is it will be a total denuclearization, which has already started taking place.” Asked on Wednesday whether North Korea has done anything toward denuclearization since a landmark summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters: “No, I’m not aware of that. I mean, obviously, it’s the very front end of a process. The detailed negotiations have not begun. I wouldn’t expect that at this point.” Mattis sat next to Trump at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting. The U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North said in an analysis at the end of last week there had been no sign of any activity toward dismantling Sohae or any other missile test site. Trump, who has been leading an international drive to press North Korea to abandon development of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States, told reporters after the June 12 summit that Kim had pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations. A U.S. official said on Wednesday that the site Trump referred to then was the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, a major facility in the western part of the country that has been used for testing engines for long-range missiles. North Korea announced ahead of the Singapore summit the suspension of its ICBM testing and also closed its nuclear bomb test site. U.S. officials, however, have cautioned that such actions are reversible.

India, Top Buyer of US Almonds, Hits Back With Higher Duties

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 00:21
India, the world’s biggest buyer of U.S. almonds, raised import duties on the commodity by 20 percent, a government order said, joining the European Union and China in retaliating against President Donald Trump’s tariff hikes on steel and aluminum. New Delhi, incensed by Washington’s refusal to exempt it from the new tariffs, also imposed a 120 percent duty on the import of walnuts in the strongest action yet against the United States. The move to increase tariffs from Aug. 4 will also cover a slew of other farm, steel and iron products. It came a day after the European Union said it would begin charging 25 percent import duties on a range of U.S. products on Friday, in response to the new U.S. tariffs. India is by far the largest buyer of U.S. almonds, purchasing over half of all U.S. almond shipments in 2017. A kilogram of shelled almonds will attract duty of as much as 120 rupees ($1.76) instead of the current 100 rupees, the Commerce Ministry said. Last month, New Delhi sought an exemption from the new U.S. tariffs, saying its steel and aluminum exports were small in relation to other suppliers. But its request was ignored, prompting India to launch a complaint against the United States at the World Trade Organization. “India’s tariff retaliation is within the discipline of trade tariffs of the World Trade Organization,” said steel secretary Aruna Sharma. Trade differences between India and the United States have been rising since U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Bilateral trade rose to $115 billion in 2016, but the Trump administration wants to reduce its $31 billion deficit with India, and is pressing New Delhi to ease trade barriers. Earlier this year, Trump called out India for its duties on Harley-Davidson motorbikes, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to cut the import duty to 50 percent from 75 percent for the high-end bikes. But that has not satisfied Trump, who pointed to zero duties for Indian bikes sold in the United States and said he would push for a “reciprocal tax” against countries, including U.S. allies, that levy tariffs on American products. In the tariff rates issued late on Wednesday, the commerce ministry named some varieties of almonds, apples, chickpeas, lentils, walnuts and artemia that would carry higher import taxes. Most of these are purchased from the United States. Walnuts have gone from 100 percent duty to 120 percent, the government note said. India also raised duties on some grades of iron and steel products. In May it had given a list of products to the WTO that it said could incur higher tariffs. An official from the steel ministry said at the time that the new tariffs were intended to show displeasure at the U.S. action. “It is an appropriate signal. I am hopeful that all of this (trade war) will die down. In my view this is not in the interest of the global economy,” said Rajiv Kumar, vice chairman of the Indian government’s policy thinktank Niti Aayog. Rising trade tensions between the United States and some major economies have threatened to derail global growth. Officials from India and the United States are expected to hold talks on June 26-27 to discuss trade issues, local daily Times of India reported on Thursday citing Press Trust of India. The U.S. Commerce Department on Wednesday announced a preliminary finding that imports of large-diameter welded pipe from China, India, South Korea and Turkey were subsidized by those countries, and said it was imposing preliminary duties that could top 500 percent. In a separate trade dispute, Trump threatened on Monday to hit $200 billion of Chinese imports with 10 percent tariffs if Beijing retaliates against his previous announcement to target $50 billion in imports. The United States has accused China of stealing U.S. intellectual property, a charge Beijing denies. ($1 = 68.1700 Indian rupees)  

Japan Cancels Missile Evacuation Drills

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 17:00
Japan has decided to cancel evacuation drills staged to prepare the country for ballistic missile attacks from North Korea, citing the recent diplomatic thaw following last week’s summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. Officials in Tochigi prefecture say an evacuation drill scheduled for next week was canceled at the government’s request. Evacuation drills scheduled in at least eight other prefectures later this year have also been suspended. The drills began last year after North Korea test-fired two ballistic missiles over Japan and launched several others into Japanese waters. Despite the decision to cancel the evacuation drills, Tokyo still plans to deploy two land-based Aegis missile interceptor units by 2023.

Report Identifies Test Site Kim Vowed to Destroy

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 15:09
The missile engine test site that President Donald Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had committed to destroy is a major facility in the western part of the country that has been used for testing engines for long-range missiles, according to a U.S. official. Trump told reporters after their June 12 summit that Kim had pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations, which would be North Korea’s most concrete concession at the landmark meeting in Singapore. However, the president at the time did not name the site. A U.S. official identified it Wednesday as the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, saying North Korea “has used this site to test liquid-propellant engines for its long-range ballistic missiles.” Pyongyang has said its missiles can reach the United States. Chairman Kim promised that North Korea would destroy a missile engine test stand soon,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Summit hailed as success ​There was no immediate word on the exact timetable, and North Korea has not publicly confirmed that Kim made such a commitment. CBS News was the first to identify the site, which is the newest of North Korea’s known major missile testing facilities. Although Trump has hailed the Singapore summit as a success, skeptics have questioned whether he achieved anything, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilateral nuclear disarmament, appeared to make no new tangible commitments in a joint written declaration. The U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North said in an analysis at the end of last week there had been no sign of any activity toward dismantling Sohae or any other missile test site. The U.S. official said: “The United States will continue to monitor this site closely as we move forward in our negotiations.” Little-known site What little is known about the Sohae site, located in Tongchang-ri, has been pieced together from analysts’ assessments and the North Korean state news agency KCNA. It was reported to have been established in 2008 and has research facilities nearby for missile development as well as a tower that can support ballistic missiles. The site is mainly used to test large Paektusan engines built for long-range missiles such as the Hwasong-15. North Korea has spent considerable effort and resources to develop the site as a “civilian space program” facility, denying that it has a military application, said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the 38 North. “Presumably, if North Korea does destroy the Sohae facility, they are also signaling that they are willing to stop satellite/rocket launches this time around as well, a point that has derailed negotiations in the past and is a significant new development,” she said. North Korea has other missile testing facilities but the shutdown, if it happens, would be significant, analysts said. Symbolic gesture only “The missile testing is not just done in Tongchang-ri so it does not necessarily mean all ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) will be disabled. But the most well-known one is this, so there is a great symbolic meaning if this is shut down,” said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in South Korea. North Korea announced ahead of the Singapore summit the suspension of its ICBM testing and also closed its nuclear bomb test site. U.S. officials, however, have cautioned that such actions are reversible. Asked on Wednesday whether North Korea has done anything toward denuclearization since the summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters: “No, I’m not aware of that. I mean, obviously, it’s the very front end of a process. The detailed negotiations have not begun. I wouldn’t expect that at this point.” Yang Uk, senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum, agreed that a shutdown of the Sohae testing site would be a symbolic gesture rather than a move to technically disable its missile capabilities. “Sohae has technically been used as an ‘engine’ testing site. North Korea has already finished developing (the) Baekdu Engine, so there would be no problem running ICBM missile programs even if they close down the Sohae site,” Yang said. The move will only be significant if North Korea takes more than cosmetic steps to fully shutter the site, not just the test stand, said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It’s only a good deal if they dismantle all the facilities at Sohae and re-employ the scientists in something civilian,” she said.

It’s a Girl: New Zealand Prime Minister Delivers Her First Child

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 13:42
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to her first child, a girl, Thursday, Ardern said in a posting on Instagram. Ardern, 37, became New Zealand’s youngest prime minister when she took office through a coalition deal last year after an inconclusive election, and now becomes the first woman in the country’s history to give birth while in office. “Welcome to our village wee one,” Ardern wrote on Instagram. “Feeling very lucky to have a healthy baby girl that arrived at 4.45 pm weighing 3.31 kg (7.3 lb) ... We’re all doing really well thanks to the wonderful team at Auckland City Hospital.” She posted a picture of herself, smiling and holding the baby in a blanket, with her partner, television presenter Clarke Gayford. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has stepped in as acting prime minister and will run the country for the next six weeks while Ardern takes maternity leave, according to an agreement they published earlier. Ardern gave birth in Auckland Hospital, the country’s largest public hospital, with her partner, television presenter Clarke Gayford, at her side. Ardern is one of the few elected leaders to hold office while pregnant. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto gave birth while she was prime minister in 1990. Supportive public The public has generally been supportive of the popular prime minister. New Zealand has long had a progressive reputation and was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893 and Ardern is the country’s third female prime minister. Ardern found out she was pregnant on Oct. 13, just six days before she was propelled into the job when Peters, the leader of the New Zealand First Party, announced he was siding with her Labour Party in post-election negotiations. Peters is a colorful political veteran who first entered Parliament in 1978 and has held senior positions in both center-left Labour and center-right National governments. Ardern had played down the chances of any disruption arising from her absence, saying she and Peters would be in regular contact. “There actually hasn’t really been a need to put down a plan. ... We already talk about significant issues, that will just continue, we’ll just be in different roles,” she said in a interview with Fairfax media just before going on maternity leave. Ardern has said she plans to return to work at the beginning of August. Gifts from well-wishers Then, Gayford will take care of the baby and will travel with Ardern between their Auckland home and the capital, Wellington, as well on international engagements. Ardern worked until late into her pregnancy, regularly encountering members of the public who touched her stomach and passed on gifts such as “onesies” and miniature rain boots, known as “gumboots.” “It’s been great,” she told reporters at her last major public event before giving birth. “New Zealanders are incredibly generous people and have been generous in their support of me regardless of the politics just as another human being going into a new stage of life.

China: ‘Capricious’ Trade Tactics Will Hurt US Workers

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 12:33
China’s commerce ministry on Thursday accused the United States of being “capricious” over bilateral trade issues and warned that the interests of U.S. workers and farmers ultimately will be hurt by Washington’s penchant for brandishing “big sticks.” Previous trade negotiations with the United States had been constructive, but because the U.S. government is being unpredictable and challenging, Beijing has had to respond in a strong manner, commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng said in a regular briefing in Beijing. President Donald Trump threatened Monday to hit $200 billion of Chinese imports with 10 percent tariffs if Beijing retaliates against his previous announcement to target $50 billion in imports. The United States has alleged that China is stealing U.S. intellectual property, a charge denied by Beijing. Washington’s accusations of forced tech transfers are a distortion of reality, and China is fully prepared to respond with “quantitative” and “qualitative” tools if the U.S. releases a new list of tariffs, Gao said. Markets worried “It is deeply regrettable that the U.S. has been capricious, escalated the tensions, and provoked a trade war,” he said. “The U.S. is accustomed to holding ‘big sticks’ for negotiations, but this approach does not apply to China.” Financial markets are worried about an open trade conflict between the world’s two biggest economies after three rounds of high-level talks since early May failed to reach a compromise on U.S. complaints over Chinese practices and a $375 billion trade deficit with China. A Sino-U.S. trade war could disrupt global supply chains for the tech and auto industries, sectors heavily reliant on outsourced components, and derail world growth. “It will not be easy for the U.S. to identify $200 billion worth of Chinese imports that it can levy tariffs on without hurting U.S. companies and/or consumers, given the strong involvement of U.S. companies in a large share of China’s exports to the U.S.,” British forecaster Oxford Economics said in a recent note. ​‘Cannot be soft’ China said it will impose additional tariffs on 659 U.S. goods, with duties on 545 of them to kick in July 6, after Trump said Washington will impose tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese products. The U.S. goods affected July 6 include soybeans, fruit, meat products such as pork, autos, as well as marine products. Beijing has yet to announce an activation date for its tariffs on the remaining 114 U.S. products, which include crude oil, coal and a range of refined fuel products. “We cannot be soft with Trump. He is using his ‘irrationality’ as a tactic and he is trying to confuse us,” said Chen Fengying, an economics expert at state-backed China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. “But if we could accomplish some of the things that he wants us to do, such as IP, market reforms, he’d be helping us. Of course there are risks, those would depend on how we handle those reforms.” Dow-listed firms China could hit back at U.S. firms listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average if Trump keeps exacerbating tensions with China over trade, state-controlled Chinese tabloid The Global Times said Thursday. The Dow, which counts Boeing, Apple and Nike among its constituents, ended down 0.17 percent Wednesday. The 30-stock share index has declined 0.25 percent year-to-date. “U.S. unilateral protection measures will ultimately harm the interests of U.S. companies, workers, and farmers,” Gao told reporters. He said the two sides are to negotiate on issues around the manufacturing and service industries “in the near future.” War of words White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who views China as a hostile economic and military power, said Tuesday that Beijing had more to lose from a trade war. “Jobs for the Chinese are just as precious as those for the Americans,” Zha Daojiong, professor of international political economy at the School of International Studies at Peking University, told Reuters in an email. “It will be wise for the two sides to come back to the negotiation table, abide by a temporary agreement and turn down the rhetoric.” China imported $129.89 billion of U.S. goods last year, while the United States purchased $505.47 billion of Chinese products, according to U.S. data.

Fukushima Residents See Hope, Pain in Nuclear Tourism

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 11:41
On a cold day in February, Takuto Okamoto guided his first tour group to a sight few outsiders had witnessed in person: the construction cranes looming over Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Seven years after a deadly tsunami ripped through the Tokyo Electric Power plant, Okamoto and other tour organizers are bringing curious sightseers to the region as residents who fled the nuclear catastrophe trickle back. Many returnees hope tourism will help resuscitate their towns and ease radiation fears. But some worry about drawing a line under a disaster whose impact will be felt far into the future. The cleanup, including the removal of melted uranium fuel, may take four decades and cost several billion U.S. dollars a year. ​Bragging rights “The disaster happened and the issue now is how people rebuild their lives,” Okamoto said after his group stopped in Tomioka, 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) south of the nuclear plant. He wants to bring groups twice a week, compared with only twice a month now. Electronic signs on the highway to Tomioka showed radiation around 100 times normal background levels, as Okamoto’s passengers peered out tour bus windows at the cranes poking above Fukushima Daiichi. “For me, it’s more for bragging rights, to be perfectly honest,” said Louie Ching, 33, a Filipino programmer. Ching, two other Filipinos and a Japanese man who visited Chernobyl last year each paid 23,000 yen ($208.75) for a day trip from Tokyo. Namie The group had earlier wandered around Namie, a town 4 kilometers north of the plant to which residents began returning last year after authorities lifted restrictions. So far, only about 700 of 21,000 people are back, a ratio similar to that of other ghost towns near the nuclear site. Former residents Mitsuru Watanabe, 80, and his wife, Rumeko, 79, have no plans to return. They were only in town to clear out their shuttered restaurant before it is demolished, and they chatted with tourists while they worked. “We used to pull in around 100 million yen a year,” Mitsuru said as he invited the tourists inside. A 2011 calendar hung on the wall, and unfilled orders from the evacuation day remained on a whiteboard in the kitchen. “We want people to come. They can go home and tell other people about us,” Mitsuru said among the dusty tables. Okamoto’s group later visited the nearby coastline, where the tsunami killed hundreds of people. Abandoned rice paddies, a few derelict houses that withstood the wave and the gutted Ukedo elementary school are all that remain. It’s here, behind a new sea wall at the edge of the restricted radiation zone, that Fukushima Prefecture plans to build a memorial park and 5,200-square-meter (56,000-square-foot) archive center with video displays and exhibits about the quake, tsunami and nuclear calamity. ​Luring tourists “It will be a starting point for visitors,” Kazuhiro Ono, the prefecture’s deputy director for tourism, said of the center. The Japan Tourism Agency will fund the project, Ono added. Ono wants tourists to come to Fukushima, particularly foreigners, who have so far steered clear. Overseas visitors spent more than 70 million days in Japan last year, triple the number in 2011. About 94,000 of those were in Fukushima. Tokyo Electric will provide material for the archive, although the final budget for the project has yet to be finalized, he said. “Some people have suggested a barbecue area or a promenade,” said Hidezo Sato, a former seed merchant in Namie who leads a residents’ group. A “1” sticker on the radiation meter around his neck identified him as being the first to return to the town. “If people come to brag about getting close to the plant, that can’t be helped, but at least they’ll come,” Sato said. The archive will help ease radiation fears, he added. ​Spectacle Standing outside a farmhouse as workmen refurbished it so her family could return, Mayumi Matsumoto, 54, said she was uneasy about the park and archive. “We haven’t gotten to the bottom of what happened at the plant, and now is not the time,” she said. Matsumoto had come back for a day to host a rice-planting event for about 40 university students. Later they toured Namie on two buses, including a stop at scaffolding near the planned memorial park site to view Fukushima Daiichi’s cranes. Matsumoto described her feelings toward Tokyo Electric as “complicated,” because it is responsible for the disaster but also helped her family cope in its aftermath. One of her sons works for the utility and has faced abuse from angry locals, she added. “It’s good that people want to come to Namie, but not if they just want to get close to the nuclear plant. I don’t want it to become a spectacle,” Matsumoto said. Okamoto is not the only guide offering tours in the area, although visits of any kind remain rare. He said he hoped his clients would come away with more than a few photographs. “If people can see for themselves the damage caused by tsunami and nuclear plant, they will understand that we need to stop it from happening again,” said Okamoto, who attended university in a neighboring prefecture. “So far, we haven’t come across any opposition from the local people.”

Australian Senate Approves $106B in Income Tax Cuts

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 10:02
Australia's prime minister achieved an important political victory on Thursday when the Senate passed personal income tax cuts worth 144 billion Australian dollars ($106 billion) over a decade. The tax cuts for most of Australia's workforce were a centerpiece of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's annual budget plans revealed in May. That budget is expected to be the last before Turnbull's conservative coalition seeks another three-year term at elections due by early next year. The center-left opposition Labor Party supported the proposed initial tax relief for low- and middle-income earners beginning next month. But it opposed a third and a final stage of the plan that reduces taxes of those with incomes from AU$120,000 to AU$200,000 beginning in mid-2024. Turnbull on Wednesday refused to split the legislation so that the Senate could reduce taxes for those on lower incomes but not for higher-income earners. The Senate had to pass or reject the changes in their entirety. The Senate on Thursday chose to endorse the entire package, 37-33. The government holds only 31 of the 76 seats in the Senate. Minor parties provided the majority the legislation needed, with Labor senators voting against it. Labor's leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, accused senators who supported the package of voting for a tax cut for themselves. A senator's base pay is around AU$200,000. Opposition leader Bill Shorten this week vowed to repeal the tax changes for higher-income earners if Labor wins power at the next election. But that might not be possible since governments rarely win majorities in the Senate. Shorten will also go to the election promising bigger tax breaks for modest incomes than Turnbull delivered. The Senate win will bolster Turnbull's hopes of passing corporate tax cuts through Parliament next week.

No Signs Yet of North Korean Denuclearization   

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 08:51
A week after U.S. President Donald Trump proclaimed North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, his top military official cautioned there are no new signs Pyongyang is doing anything to denuclearize. “I’m not aware of it,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon. “I wouldn’t expect that at this point,” he added. “[We're] obviously at the very front end of the process. The detailed negotiations have not begun.” Trump declared the threat of a nuclear North Korea had ended June 13, following his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump tweeted upon returning to the U.S. “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!” ​But a day later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned tough sanctions would remain in place until the U.S. could verify Pyongyang’s “complete denuclearization.” Pompeo has said he expects to return to North Korea soon to settle on details of the U.S. deal with Pyongyang. As part of that agreement, Trump has pledged to end U.S.-South Korea military exercises. South Korean officials this week said they had agreed to suspend the annual Freedom Guardian exercise with the U.S., originally scheduled to take place in August. Details on how that will happen, though, are still being worked out. U.S. and South Korean officials expect to discuss the issue Friday, with consultations expected to continue next week when the U.S. defense secretary travels to Seoul. Mattis described the ongoing talks as part of the “usual, close coordination” between the U.S. and South Korean militaries. “Everything is going fine between us and the Republic of Korea,” he said. “We’ll sort out some of the details here Friday morning.” Mattis also said he had no update on when North Korea might return additional remains of U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War,  something Kim Jong Un pledged as part of the agreement in Singapore. “These discussions are also ongoing,” Mattis said. “I know that we’re engaged on it. That’s all that I can tell you.”

New Credit Rating Speaks of Vietnam's Complicated Makeover

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 05:00
A decent rating from Fitch this month has Vietnam riding high on the small victory, despite some of the less favorable economic trends connected to this first-of-its-kind rating. The state monopoly Vietnam Electricity, or EVN, clinched a "BB" score June 6 from Fitch Ratings, which until then had never officially assessed the credit of a non-financial company owned by the Hanoi government. That prompted a cross-section of officials in the southeast Asian country to gush about the promise in store for one of the world's fastest-growing economies. "This positive rating enables EVN to issue international bonds, diversify our financing sources, and reassure domestic and foreign institutional investors," said Dinh Quang Tri, the acting CEO of EVN. "We are now on a stronger footing to deliver more reliable electricity to Vietnam." The ebullience, however, is tempered by two questions: Will this be enough for investors to trust EVN? And how much should government become involved in business? Renewable energy EVN underscores the mixed sentiments that analysts express about Vietnam, a communist country transitioning to capitalism. The fact that the government runs EVN contributed to Fitch's confidence in its report card. "We believe the company can secure adequate funding in light of its position as an entity closely linked to the sovereign," it said in a media release. Yet businesses want even more promises from the government. Vietnam has spent years courting investment in renewable power, for example, but with limited success. That is in part because businesses that generate wind, solar, and other alternative energy sources can sell it only to EVN, and they are afraid of losing money if the company does not buy their electricity. For renewables, "there is no provision for any form of government guarantee, assurance, or support to enhance the creditworthiness of EVN as the sole off-taker/purchaser," corporate law firm Baker McKenzie said in a September report. State vs. free market Some would like to see more government involvement in general, especially to bail out companies in trouble. Others would like to see less involvement, as evidenced in the push for Vietnam to privatize further by selling stakes in its many state-owned enterprises. The country has not settled on a balance between the free market and the government. Hanoi used to give iron-clad pledges that it would pay up in case of default at one of its state firms or public works projects. The government is doing that less often now because it is moving away from a centrally-planned economy, as well as reducing its sovereign debt. Public anxiety mounted in recent years as Vietnam approached its debt ceiling of 65 percent of gross domestic product, though the country has made progress in reining in the debt. That means EVN must tread lightly. Now that the power company has a Fitch Rating, it is eyeing international bonds to borrow money from investors around the world. Going through this financing process is "helping EVN benefit from the discipline that comes with access to capital markets," said Jordan Schwartz, who is the director of the World Bank group overseeing infrastructure, guarantees, and public-private partnerships. The World Bank gave EVN funds and technical assistance to prepare for the Fitch assessment. Its credit rating shows how tightly EVN's fate correlates with that of the government. Electricity prices, for example, will have to increase for the utility to make profits and improve its rating. Big increases, however, require approval from Hanoi, which also wants to keep power affordable for citizens. The correlation is even blunter in Fitch's analysis. The overall credit rating for Vietnam's government itself also is BB. If that improves, so could the score for EVN, Fitch said, "provided EVN's linkages with the state do not deteriorate significantly."

Trump Trade Strategy Savaged on Capitol Hill 

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 04:30
Testifying before a Senate panel, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday withstood a bipartisan barrage of complaints and criticism over the Trump administration’s escalating trade battles with China and key American allies.  “I don’t think the Chinese want a trade war any more than we do,” Ross told the Senate Finance Committee. “The president’s general view is that the trade war was lost years ago. This is an attempt to fix outcomes that were unsatisfactory.” Senators responded with incredulity and, at times, sarcasm to the commerce secretary’s defense of new tariffs announced or contemplated on imports ranging from steel to automobiles. “A car isn’t a can of soup, Mr. Secretary,” the committee’s chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah said. “These tariffs do not support U.S. national security. Instead, they harm American manufacturers, damage our economy, hurt American consumers, and disrupt our relationship with our long-term allies.” “It sounds to me like we got a government-run mercantilist economy, as opposed to a free-market economy,” Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said. Ross announced that more than 20,000 U.S. entities have asked the administration for waivers, allowing them to import steel goods tariff-free, of which 42 had been approved so far. He admitted that steel prices have risen in the United States, harming some domestic industries. But he said tariffs are not primarily to blame. “There has been a lot of speculative activity — storing inventory, withholding product from the market,” the commerce secretary said, adding that the administration is investigating “whether there are people who illegitimately are profiteering” from tariffs. Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet countered that tariffs must be to blame for rising costs, since the punitive measures enabled any profiteering taking place. Bennet also expressed consternation over U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel after Ross admitted that the United States does not, in fact, have a trade deficit with Canada on the product. “What is the national security rationale for putting a tariff on the Canadian steel industry with whom we have a trade surplus?” the Colorado senator asked. Ross replied that the United States has to respond to steel dumping on a global basis because China “masks” the true volume of steel exports to the United States by shipping products through other countries, including Canada. “If you just believed the raw numbers, China is shipping less to us than they did five years ago. The reality is quite to the contrary,” the commerce secretary said. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said he applauds President Donald Trump’s determination to vigorously enforce U.S. trade laws, crack down on China’s trade practices, and update the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But Wyden criticized the administration’s performance in pursuit of those goals. “The administration’s trade moves seem more like knee-jerk impulses than any kind of carefully thought-out strategy. It’s most obvious accomplishment on trade so far is sowing a lot of chaos that has united allies and China against us,” the Oregon senator said. “I’ve heard from Pacific Northwest cherry growers who’ve gotten nearly 1.5 million boxes of cherries ready to ship to China. They’re worried those cherries are going to end up stuck on the dock or rotting in a warehouse due to China's retaliation [on tariffs].” Ross told senators he backs Trump’s decision to act boldly on trade. “We tried negotiation. I, myself, have been four or five times in China negotiating over the last year or so,” Ross said. “There have been years of talk with China about intellectual property. The president feels, and I agree, that now is the time for action. And unless we make it more painful for them to continue those practices, it’s unlikely we will succeed.” Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania bemoaned a heavy-handed approach to trade. “We’re picking winners and losers and probably resulting, in my view, in the risk of far more jobs lost than jobs that are going to be gained,” he said. “I wish we would stop invoking national security, because that’s not what this is about. This is about economic nationalism and an economic policy of managing trade.” Toomey is backing a proposal by a fellow Republican, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, that would require congressional approval for tariffs levied for national security reasons. The Senate declined to vote on the bill last week, but Corker and other backers have vowed to continue fighting for the measure.

New Zealand Leader Ardern in Hospital for Birth

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 03:39
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrived Thursday at Auckland Hospital as she prepared to give birth to her first child. Ardern, 37, would become just the second elected world leader in modern times to give birth while in office. The late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gave birth to daughter Bakhtawar in 1990. Ardern's due date was June 17. The birth has been highly anticipated in the South Pacific nation of nearly 5 million people. She has not said whether she's expecting a boy or a girl. Ardern's office confirmed she had arrived at the hospital with partner Clarke Gayford. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has taken over as acting prime minister. Ardern plans to take a six-week leave before returning to work. Under the arrangement, Ardern will still be consulted on major decisions, including issues of national security. Ardern has said she is confident the government will continue to run smoothly in her absence. She said she hoped to be "sharing the good news'' in an announcement but also to have some quiet time to enjoy as a family. Asked earlier this month how the couple had been faring while trying to choose a name, Ardern responded: "Terribly. Do you have any suggestions?''