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Hong Kong Independence Speech Draws Warnings

3 hours 55 min ago
Officials in the Chinese capital, Beijing, and in Hong Kong have issued a string of warnings after a journalists’ association broadcast a speech by an advocate for the city’s independence. The immediate censure by Chinese and Hong Kong officials hinted that city lawmakers may soon be pressed to pass a law against sedition and treason, which could stifle protest in the partially autonomous territory. Earlier this week, Andy Chan Ho-tin, convener of the Hong Kong National Party, told a crowd at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, or FCC, that “if Hong Kong were to become truly democratic, Hong Kong’s sovereignty must rest with the people of Hong Kong. And there is only one way to achieve this: independence.” Chan, who was banned from being a legislative candidate in 2016, denounced China as a worldwide threat to freedom. He also called on foreign governments, including the United States, to help Hong Kong. “China is, by nature, as an empire, a threat to all free peoples in the world,” Chan told the audience. “Simply saying you are pro-independence is somehow the same as committing treason. … There is, in other words, no longer freedom of speech in Hong Kong, but instead, the freedom to think and say whatever Peking (Beijing) wants us to. Hong Kong is no longer that much different from China, and the international community has to acknowledge that.” ​Pressure to cancel appearance Public officials had pressured the club to cancel the talk, which was carried live on Facebook. The local public radio broadcaster, RTHK, refused to air the speech live, saying it refused to be a platform for Hong Kong independence. Soon after the speech, the director of Beijing’s State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office hinted the city should deploy national security legislation to protect against threats to the Chinese nation. Hong Kong last considered such a security law in 2003, when a half million people poured into the streets in protest. The bill was later shelved. “The HKNP and people, including Chan, have plotted, organized and carried out activities with seditious intention. They want to break up the nation,” Zhang Xiaoming said Thursday. Pro-Beijing media groups, which often speak more directly than the government, have routinely denounced Chan, especially since last month, when Hong Kong police served the 27-year-old activist with a letter advising him to close his party. The police argued the party posed an “imminent threat” to national security even though neither Chan nor his few members have been accused of committing violence since the group formed in 2016. In an interview with VOA before his speech, Chan said he had been given until early September to voluntarily end the political group. He said the letter from the police came as a surprise, but that he wasn’t worried.  “I’m fine. I’m not arrested,” he said. ​China condemns correspondents club China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong condemned the FCC and accused the institution of abusing local freedoms by providing a platform for Chan.  “Freedom of expression is fully protected by the Chinese Constitution, the Hong Kong Basic Law and related laws in Hong Kong. Yet there are bottom line and limitations for such freedom. Advocacy for ‘Hong Kong independence’ violates the constitution and the law. It by no means falls within the purview of free speech,” the ministry said. The Hong Kong government scolded Chan and the FCC. “Providing a public platform for a speaker to openly advocate independence completely disregards Hong Kong’s constitutional duty to uphold national sovereignty. It is totally unacceptable and deeply regrettable,” it said in a statement. After the talk, the club’s board said in a statement: “The FCC stands for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Hong Kong and across Asia, and neither endorses nor opposes the views of its various speakers and panelists,” it said. The platform to speak at the club, an institution that routinely hosts talks by newsmakers, drew fire from the city’s former chief executive. C.Y. Leung, who was once a target of a massive anti-government protest in 2014, urged the club to withdraw the invitation. He said the government should consider leasing the FCC’s longtime headquarters in the city center to another tenant. ​Beijing sovereignty More than 30 Hong Kong lawmakers have issued a joint statement urging the government to take concrete measures to prevent local organizations from providing venues for separatists. Chinese President Xi Jinping, during a visit to the former British colony last year, said no one should challenge Beijing’s sovereignty over the city. Since then, the city’s courts have imprisoned several activists in the city’s independence and pro-democracy movement. In June, Edward Leung, a onetime legislative candidate, was sent to jail for six years on charges of rioting and assaulting an officer.

China, US to Resume Trade Talks This Month

4 hours 54 min ago
A Chinese delegation will travel to the United States later this month to resume negotiations as a trade war intensifies between the world’s two biggest economies. China’s Commerce Ministry says Vice Minister Wang Shouwen will meet with David Malpass, an assistant U.S. Treasury secretary for international affairs. The ministry issued a statement saying Beijing welcomes dialogue, but “will not accept any unilateral trade restriction measures.” China and the United States have engaged in a round of reciprocal tariffs since July 6, when Washington officially imposed 25 percent tariffs on more than 800 Chinese products worth $34 billion. Beijing retaliated by imposing the same percentage of retaliatory tariffs on 545 U.S. items, also worth $34 billion. The two sides will impose an additional round of tariffs on $16 billion worth of goods from each country effective August 23.

Key Ruling for Women on Trial in Kim Jong Nam Killing

6 hours 35 min ago
Two Southeast Asian women on trial for the brazen assassination of the North Korean leader’s half brother arrived at a Malaysian court Thursday to hear a judge’s decision on whether to call them to enter their defense or acquit them of murder. A defense phase of the trial could take several more months. If they are acquitted, they may not be freed right away as prosecutors could appeal as well as push forward with separate charges for overstaying their visas. Indonesia’s Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnam’s Doan Thi Huong, 29, are accused of smearing VX nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face in an airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur Feb. 13, 2017. The women have said they thought they were taking part in a prank for a hidden-camera show. Four more suspects During the six-month trial, prosecutors have laid out a murder plot involving four suspected North Korean government agents who recruited and trained the two women and provided them with the VX used to kill Kim. All four fled the country the same morning Kim was killed. The two young Southeast Asian women are the only suspects in custody and face the death penalty if convicted. Airport security footage shown in court captured the moment of the attack and prosecutors said linked the women to the other suspects. Shortly after Kim arrived at the airport, Huong was seen approaching him, clasping her hands on his face from behind and then fleeing. Another blurred figure was also seen running away from Kim and a police investigator testified that it was Aisyah. Kim died within two hours of the attack. Lawyers: Women were pawns Lawyers for the two women have said their clients were pawns in a political assassination with clear links to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. They say the prosecution failed to show the two women had any intention to kill — key to establishing the women are guilty of murder. The real culprits, the defense argues, are the four North Korean suspects. Kim, the eldest son in the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding, had been living abroad for years after falling out of favor. It is thought he could have been seen as a threat to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s rule.

In Chinese Port City, Japan's Toyota Lays Foundation to Ramp Up Sales

8 hours 43 min ago
Toyota is likely to make 120,000 more cars a year in the Chinese port city  of Tianjin as part of a medium-term strategy that's gathering pace as China-Japan ties improve, said four company insiders with knowledge of the matter. The Japanese auto maker’s plan to boost annual production capacity by about a quarter in the port city will lay the foundation to increase sales in China to two million vehicles per year, a jump of over 50 percent, the four sources said. The Tianjin expansion signals Toyota’s willingness to start adding significant manufacturing capacity in China with the possibility of one or two new assembly plants in the world’s biggest auto market, the sources said. Car imports could also increase, they said. The move comes at a time when China’s trade outlook with the United States appears fraught and uncertain. Toyota plans to significantly expand its sales networks and focus more on electric car technologies as part of the strategy, the sources said, declining to be identified as they are not authorised to speak to the media. Toyota sold 1.29 million vehicles in China last year and while sales are projected at 1.4 million this year, “capacity constraints” have restricted stronger growth, the sources said. Over 500,000 vehicles a year Toyota’s manufacturing hub in Tianjin currently has the capacity to produce 510,000 vehicles a year, while Toyota as a whole, between two joint ventures, has overall capacity to churn out 1.16 million vehicles a year. Manufacturing capacity numbers provided by automakers are called straight-time capacity without overtime. With overtime, a given assembly plant can produce 20 to 30 percent more than its capacity. According to two Tianjin government websites last week, Toyota has been given regulatory approval by the municipal government's Development and Reform Commission to pursue its expansion. The two websites — including the official website for the Tianjin development district where Toyota's production hub is based — said the Japanese automaker plans to expand its Tianjin base to be able to manufacture 10,000 all-electric battery cars and 110,000 so-called plug-in electric hybrids annually. It wasn’t immediately clear when Toyota will be able to start producing those additional cars. A Beijing-based Toyota spokesman declined to comment. The Tianjin facilities, which produces cars such as the Toyota Corolla and Vios cars, are owned and operated by one of Toyota's joint ventures in China. The venture with FAW in Tianjin plans to invest 1.76 billion yuan ($257 million) for the expansion, according to the two Tianjin websites. Historical backlash  China is sometimes a market difficult to operate for Japanese companies because of historical reasons. In 2012, cars sold by Toyota and other Japanese automakers were battered when protests erupted across China after diplomatic spats over disputed islets known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Since then, Toyota has emphasised steady growth rather than taking on risky expansion projects. According to the four sources, Toyota’s attitude towards China began changing markedly after an official visit to Japan by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May. During the visit, Li toured Toyota’s facilities on the northern island of Hokkaido, and was escorted by Toyota’s family scion and chief executive Akio Toyoda. Toyoda has since sought to boost his company’s presence in China, a vision that had culminated in an active effort to identify specific ways to do just that, according to the four sources. They said aside from boosting capacity, Toyota is also looking at the possibility to significantly expand its distribution networks for the mainstream Toyota and premium Lexus brands. Timing is perfect for Toyota It wasn’t immediately clear how significant a distribution network expansion Toyota is planning for both brands. Currently, Toyota has more than 1,300 stores for the Toyota brand and nearly 190 for its Lexus luxury cars. The timing for the China expansion couldn’t be better. Earlier this year, Toyota was able to finally launch a couple of much anticipated, potentially high-volume subcompact sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) — two China-market versions of the Toyota C-HR crossover SUV which hit showrooms in the United States last year. The C-HR variants are relatively small crossover SUVs that other manufacturers, most notably Japan’s Honda, have leveraged to grow sales rapidly and sell more cars in China than its much bigger rival Toyota. Honda sold 1.44 million vehicles in China last year. Benefit for Lexus Lexus is also deemed likely to benefit from a windfall from growing trade tensions between China and the United States. In retaliation for U.S. trade actions, China raised tariffs on automobiles imported from the United States in early July to 40 percent, which, among other things, has forced Tesla, BMW, as well as Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz to raise prices on certain U.S. — built vehicles, such as the hot-selling BMW X5 and X6 crossover sport-utility vehicles. One likely consequence for those brands is a sales fall, a profit squeeze, or both. By contrast, all Lexus cars Toyota sells in China are brought in from Japan and benefit from a much lower tariff rate of 15 percent levied on non-U.S. produced car imports.

Rights Group Demands Freedom for Jailed Vietnamese Environmentalist

11 hours 40 min ago
Amnesty International is demanding Vietnam immediately and unconditionally free environmental activist Le Dinh Luong, who is scheduled to go on trial Thursday. Le Dinh Luong has been accused of taking part in activities aimed at "overthrowing the state" — charges Amnesty says are political. "For peacefully campaigning on behalf of fishermen affected by an environmental disaster, Le Dinh Luong could face a life sentence or even the death penalty," Amnesty's Clare Algar said Wednesday. She calls on Vietnam to drop the charges, saying Le Dinh Luong was denied access to a lawyer only until a few weeks ago, leaving doubts whether he can get a fair trial. Le Dinh Luong is a long-time free speech activist. He helped lead the fight for compensation for fishermen whose livelihoods were ruined when a Taiwanese-owned steel plant dumped toxic waste in Vietnamese waterways in 2016, killing massive numbers of fish. The company admitted responsibility only after protests erupted across Vietnam. Authorities arrested 40 demonstrators while others fled the country. Le Dinh Luong was jailed last year and denied access to any visitors or a lawyer until last month.

US Broadens Visa Bans Over 'Flawed' Cambodia Election

11 hours 48 min ago
The United States said Wednesday that it was expanding visa restrictions on individuals responsible for "anti-democratic" actions in the run-up to Cambodia's July 29 election. The State Department said the move followed on from its December 6 announcement that it would restrict entry to the United States by people involved in Cambodian government actions to undermine democracy, including the dissolution of the main opposition party and imprisonment of its leader, Kem Sokha. "The expanded entry restrictions may apply to individuals both within and outside the Cambodian government who are responsible for the most notable anti-democratic actions taken in the run-up to the flawed July 29 election," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a news briefing. The U.S. announcement came as electoral authorities in Cambodia announced that the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats in the election, a result the opposition called illegitimate. Nauert said that in certain circumstances the restrictions would also apply to immediate relatives of those responsible for undermining democracy. But she declined to give names of anyone who might be affected by the expanded visa ban. "We reiterate our call for the Cambodian government to take tangible actions to promote national reconciliation by allowing independent media and civil society organizations to fulfill their vital roles," she said. Nauert repeated U.S. calls for the release of Kem Sokha and other political prisoners and for an end to a ban on the political opposition. She described the election as "neither free nor fair."

US Sanctions Chinese, Russian, Singaporean Firms for North Korea Trading

17 hours 29 min ago
The U.S. on Wednesday sanctioned companies in China, Russia and Singapore it says were violating the trade embargo with North Korea, Washington's latest effort to keep pressure on Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons development. The U.S. Treasury accused China's Dalian Sun Moon Star International Logistics Trading Co., along with its Singapore-based affiliate, SINSMS Ltd., of falsifying documents to ease "illicit" shipments of alcohol and cigarettes into North Korea that netted the companies more than $1 billion a year. The U.S. also said that Profinet Ltd. in Russia violated United Nations sanctions by providing port services to already-sanctioned North Korean-flagged ships involved in oil shipments at three eastern Russia ports. The company's director general was also blacklisted. The sanctions freeze any assets they may have in the U.S. and blocks Americans from doing business with them. In announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, "Treasury will continue to implement existing sanctions on North Korea, and will take action to block and designate companies, ports and vessels that facilitate illicit shipments and provide revenue streams" to North Korea. "Consequences for violating these sanctions will remain in place until we have achieved the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea." North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed at a June summit in Singapore with U.S. President Donald Trump to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, but there were no details about when and how that would occur. Since then, the U.S. and North Korea have engaged in further talks about ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, but no agreements have been reached.  

Putin says China's Xi to visit Russia in September

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 23:50
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Chinese President Xi Jinping would visit Russia in September, Russian news agencies RIA and Tass reported on Wednesday. Xi will visit eastern Russian city of Vladivostok where he will take part in an economic forum, Putin was quoted as saying.

Japanese Emperor Expresses 'Deep Remorse' for World War II

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 21:40
Japan's Emperor Akihito expressed his "deep regret" Wednesday for his country's actions during World War II. The 84-year-old emperor revealed his remorse during a ceremony at Tokyo's Budokan Hall to mark the 73rd anniversary of Japan's surrender to Allied forces, following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just days before. "Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated," Akihito said, accompanied by his wife, Empress Michiko.  It was the final appearance at the annual ceremony for Akihito, who will abdicate the throne next year. Emperor Akihito has spent much of his reign visiting many places in the Pacific region that were invaded by wartime Japanese forces and expressed his regret for their actions carried out in the name of his father, Hirohito.   The emperor's statements of remorse contrast with that of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has pushed to revise Japan's post-war pacifist constitution and strengthen the country's self-defense forces.   Abe also spoke at Wednesday's ceremony, pledging to never again repeat the devastation of war. Abe stayed away from the controversial Yasukuni shrine that honors millions of Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals, sending a religious offering instead.  His last visit to the shrine in 2013 angered China and South Korea, which considers the landmark a celebration of Japan's 20th century military aggression.    

Analysts: China to Gain from South China Sea Compromise

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 21:36
A proposed 60-40 split favoring the Philippines over China in rights to any oil or gas discovered together in a contested sea helps Beijing protect an iffy but valuable diplomatic relationship with Manila and prove its neighborly credentials in other parts of Asia, analysts say. The foreign minister under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was quoted saying July 31 Beijing is willing to take the minority stake in any fossil fuel discoveries found under a tract of the South China Sea where the two countries have competing sovereignty claims. A minority stake for China would help Beijing prove itself to a skeptical Philippine public, analysts say. Philippine President Duterte has sought strong relations with China since he took office in 2016 by laying aside their maritime sovereignty dispute. China has offered aid and investment in return. But polls have shown many Filipinos still do not trust China. The two countries once vied bitterly over the South China Sea, culminating in Manila’s victory in a world arbitration case two years ago. “This plan for the government has received a lot of criticisms, because others would argue if these areas are in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, that belongs to the Philippines and it should not be shared,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Unsettled dispute, Chinese military strength Duterte advocates friendly ties with China because, he says, the Philippines could not win a war with the country. China, which commands Asia’s strongest armed forces, has built military installations on three islets in the Spratly Islands, a South China Sea archipelago that each side claims as its own. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also dispute rights to the Spratlys. ​Chinese vessels pushed Filipino fishing boats out of Scarborough Shoal near the Philippine island Luzon in 2012, plunging relations and leading to the arbitration case that wrapped up in 2016. Some Filipinos cite constitutional issues with letting China explore for fuel under a sea that the Philippines calls its own. Others point to private oil firms, for example from Japan, that are willing to develop undersea gas and oil without a sovereignty hassle, Atienza said. Goodwill toward the Philippines China, if it inks the deal, would be taking 40 percent to show goodwill toward the Philippines, which might otherwise tap China’s geopolitical rival the United States for help, experts say. “Joint development in the Philippines is a contentious issue with respect to provisions in the Constitution,” said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “By agreeing to a lesser portion, China seeks to disarm domestic opposition by Filipinos,” he said. “President Duterte has taken a more conciliatory stance and China is eager to capitalize on this, hoping to pressure other states to follow suit.” A deal to explore off the coast of the Philippine island Palawan with a consortium of private firms would also give the government a 60 percent share of revenues. A message for other Asian countries China wants to placate not just the Philippine but also other Southeast Asian countries with competing maritime claims, analysts believe. Shows of goodwill could mute impacts of the arbitration ruling, which rejected the legal basis for Chinese maritime claims, and stop other countries from seeking aid from the United States, they argue. A conciliatory oil deal could resonate around Asia where China is developing infrastructure as part of its $1 trillion, 5-year-old Belt and Road initiative, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Beijing wants to keep favor with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the two sides discuss a code of conduct for avoiding accidents in the disputed sea, he added. “I think this is one way of signaling that China is willing to be different kind of aid giver,” Chong said. “And then I think China wants to help Rodrigo Duterte a little, because he’s facing a lot of criticism from his own countrymen about selling out to China, ‘you’re being cozy with China, and you’re not getting very much in return.’” China’s end of the deal China might not go for a 60-40 deal requiring that a Chinese drilling company get a license from the Philippines under Philippine law, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. But a purely commercial license could eliminate political disputes, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in China. China might not come through on its pledge, he warned. “China sometimes does not have the good reputation of fulfilling its capital commitment,” he said. “From the very beginning there are many reports, but sometimes the funding [is] not met.”    

Cambodian Election Results Give Ruling Party Sweep of Seats

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 21:14
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party has won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, official results released Wednesday by the state election board confirmed. An announcement by the state National Election Committee showed that the Cambodian People's Party had swept the polls, ensuring that Hun Sen, who has held power for 33 years, will receive another five-year term.   Both the legitimacy and the results of the polls had already been challenged by Hun Sen's opponents, who say the July 29 vote was not fair because the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only credible opposition force, was disbanded last year by court order after a complaint by the government.   Critics also were skeptical about the July 29 vote itself. The former leaders of the opposition CNRP called for a voter boycott of the election, but the official turnout was a high 83 percent. Hun Sen's party also won more than two-thirds of the vote in every province.   Nineteen parties had competed against Hun Sen's CPP, but almost all were vanity vehicles or groups serving as window-dressing to give the illusion of democratic choice.   The new parliament is to convene on Sept. 5, and the next government is to be installed on Sept. 6.   "This result shows that our compatriots fully believed in the right leadership of the Cambodian People's Party which is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen," Hun Sen said on his Facebook page after the announcement of the official results, adding that voting for his party meant voting for peace and development for the entire country.   He called the July 29 election free and fair and said it was conducted according to the principle of democracy.   In a speech earlier Wednesday to thousands of garment workers, Hun Sen said he wanted to hold a meeting with the leaders of the 19 other parties that contested the election, and was considering offering them positions as government advisers or senior posts in various ministries.   Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled founder of the opposition CNRP and Hun Sen's chief political nemesis, said the official voting results were fraudulent.   On his Facebook page, he said Wednesday that the vote totals were inflated by 2 million — purportedly cast in the names of people who did not go to the polls — and that all those votes were counted as being for the ruling CPP.   He said the National Election Committee "was able to play all sorts of tricks because, after the forceful dissolution of the CNRP, the election body was placed under the absolute control of the CPP. There were no independent and credible observers and no CNRP representatives to monitor this election."   Several established poll-watching groups — as well as national contingents from the United States and the European Union — declined to take part because they felt the polls were not legitimate. One of the bigger Cambodian groups participating in poll-watching was led by one of Hun Sen's sons.   Hun Sen's party was alarmed by the results of the last general election in 2013, when the race was close enough for the opposition to claim that it would have won had it not been for manipulation of the voter registration process.   Cambodia's Supreme Court last November ordered the opposition CNRP dissolved on the pretext that it had conspired with the United States to overthrow the government. It banned its leaders from holding office for five years and expelled its members from the elective positions they held. Sam Rainy already was in exile and the other party founder was in jail awaiting trial on the treason charge.   Hun Sen's government also silenced critical voices in the media. Over the past year, about 30 radio stations shut down and two English-language newspapers that provided serious reporting were gutted, one forced to close and the other put under ownership friendly to the government.   After initial election results were earlier announced, the United States said it regretted the "flawed elections" and would consider its response, including expanding visa restrictions that were announced in December.   A statement from the White House press secretary's office said the U.S. was disappointed in the government's decision to disenfranchise voters, citing the exclusion of the principal opposition party, the jailing and banning of its officials, and threats to punish nonvoters.    

Mattis Criticizes Chinese Aggression During South American Tour

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 16:49
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has cautioned South American allies against Chinese aggression, slamming what he called China’s “predatory economics” and its militarization of increasingly important areas in both sea and space. Speaking to a group of military students in Rio de Janeiro, Mattis called for partnering with Brazilians to defend American assets in space, adding that steps toward building a U.S. Space Force were reactionary based on Chinese and Russian attack capabilities. He provided the example of when China used a missile to destroy one of its satellites in space in 2007. “We understand the message China was sending, that they could take out a satellite in space,” Mattis told the group. “We don’t intend to militarize space. However, we will defend ourselves in space, if necessary.” U.S. satellites are used for communications, weather forecasting and GPS. They also bring in trillions of dollars of economic output, according to Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. China has shown growing interest in boosting Latin American space efforts, even financing and operating a space center in Argentina.  American space firms are enthusiastic about the possibility of launching satellites out of Brazil's new space center in the city of Alcântara, on the country's northern Atlantic coast. South China Sea Mattis also criticized China’s placement of weapons and other defense assets in the disputed South China Sea, home to one of the world’s most important trade routes. “China is shredding the trust of the nations in the area by its muscular militarization,” Mattis said. Earlier this year, the defense secretary disinvited China from biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises involving more than 20 countries. He said he came to that decision after China acted contrary to what their president had publicly promised by moving weapons into the Spratly islands.  “There is no need for militarization of those islands,” he said. “China benefited in its economic rise from the freedom of navigation that all nations large and small enjoy, so we want to return it to that status.” ‘Predatory economics’ Experts say the Chinese have increased their interest in South America mostly for commercial reasons. However, Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, told VOA that Beijing has also been trying to develop greater defense cooperation in order “to ensure the security of getting products to market.” Mattis cautioned against Chinese deals in the Americas, citing last December when Sri Lanka had to handover a port to Beijing for 99 years, after failing to make its payments on loans from China. “The respect for each other comes first,” Mattis said. “You can’t use predatory economics and pile massive debt on a country and then remove its sovereignty over its port like in Sri Lanka.” The Pentagon says U.S. military equipment sales across the globe are up $5 billion compared to last year. Officials hope competition from China won't affect future U.S. sales to Latin America.

S. Korea Plans to Start Railway Project With North This Year

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 16:04
South Korea President Moon Jae-in says his government plans to begin a joint railway project with North Korea this year, while also linking “full-scale” inter-Korean economic cooperation with denuclearization progress in the North.  During a speech on Wednesday commemorating the liberation of Korea at the end of World War II, Moon said, “It is the goal to hold groundbreaking ceremonies within this year for the reconnection of railroads and roads as agreed to in the Panmunjom Declaration. The reconnection of railroads and roads is the beginning of mutual prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.” Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to pursue increased economic cooperation when they met in April in the Panmunjom village located in demilitarized zone (DMZ) of the inter-Korean border area. At the Panmunjom summit, Kim also agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The progressive South Korean president also played a key role in facilitating a historic summit in June between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump, where Kim reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearization. However subsequent bilateral talks to implement the denuclearization agreement have floundered over Washington’s insistence that Pyongyang completely dismantle its nuclear and missile arsenals before any economic concessions are granted. North Korea wants concessions tied to incremental progress. Sanctions enforcement Currently international sanctions imposed on North Korea for its provocative nuclear and ballistic missile tests prohibit the estimated $35 billion joint Korean railway project to link not only South and North Korea with high speed train service, but also provide South Korean industries an overland rail connection to China, Russia and even Europe. The tough international restrictions block most financial transactions and 90 percent of all trade with North Korea. President Moon did not say if he would seek an exemption from sanctions to proceed with the railway project.  This week U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris reiterated the Trump administration’s position that denuclearization progress must precede any easing of the sanctions. “Sanctions will remain in place until North Korea takes concrete and verifiable steps towards denuclearization,” said Harris during an address at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. The Trump administration maintains there is no timeline for implementing the denuclearization agreement. But North Korea has called for early sanctions relief and there is concern that China and Russia are already easing economic pressure on the North, in violation of the sanctions. The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that no official meetings or negotiations are currently planned between Washington and Pyongyang, but that informal talks continue on a regular basis.  Economic ties President Moon also stressed that improved inter-Korean relations will foster denuclearization progress, during his speech to mark the 73rd anniversary of the end of WWII, and the 69th anniversary of the founding of South Korea. “Developments in inter-Korean relations are not the byproducts of progress in the relationship between the North and the United States. Rather advancement in inter-Korean relations is the driving force behind denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. Moon said he intends to play an active role in moving the denuclearization progress forward. He will visit Pyongyang in September to hold another summit with Kim.  Moon held out the promise that restored economic ties could generate $149 billion for North Korea over 30 years. Reopening the jointly run Kaseong industrial complex, which was shut down in 2016 due to a North Korean nuclear test, could bring back over 100,000 jobs. Nearly 9,000 more jobs in the North could be created by restarting the Kumgang mountain tourism project, that ended in 2008 after a visitor was shot by a North Korean soldier. Unified economic zones in the border regions could further expand economic growth for both Koreas. Peace treaty The South Korean leader also voiced support for a peace declaration to formally end the Korean War, to replace the armistice in place since 1953 that suspended hostilities. There has been speculation in South Korean media that the U.S. South Korea, China and North Korea may issue a peace statement at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September. North Korea has called for a peace declaration before moving forward with nuclear talks. The U.S. wants denuclearization progress first, and there are concerns that a peace declaration would undermine the justification for the American military presence in Asia.  Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.

Mattis Criticizes Chinese Aggression During South American Tour

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 14:48
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is touring South American nations this week to assure allies that the United States wants to continue to be their security “partner of choice.” But as our Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Mattis took time Tuesday to criticize China for its aggressive actions in the South China Sea and space.

S. Korean President Pledges 'Bold Step' with N. Korea's Kim in Ending War

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 14:04
South Korean President Moon Jae-in says he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take a "bold step" in their upcoming summit to formally ending the six-decade old war that split the two sides. President Moon made the declaration Wednesday during a ceremony in Seoul marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese colonial rule. The two Koreas announced earlier this week that Moon and Kim will meet in Pyongyang sometime next month. The two leaders have already met twice this year, both times in Panmunjom, the truce village in the border zone that separates the autocratic North from the democratic South. During their first summit in April, Moon and Kim agreed to seek a formal end to 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce rather than a peace treaty, leaving the sides in a technical state of war. Those efforts have been complicated by an impasse between the North and the United States over the pace of North Korea ending its nuclear and missile development programs, which the two sides agreed to during the historic meeting in April between Kim and President Donald Trump in Singapore. President Moon said ending the "deep-rooted distrust" between the North and the United States would be necessary in carrying out the agreement. But he added that any improvement of inter-Korean ties was not dependent on relations between Pyongyang and Washington.  Moon said that even if "political unification" between the North and South is a long way off, establishing peace, allowing travel between the North and South and forming a joint economic community "will be true liberation for us."

NZ Teachers Strike for First Time in 20 years, Challenge Government's Fiscal Plan

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 10:22
New Zealand school teachers went on strike on Wednesday for the first time in more than 20 years, challenging the Labor government's plans to balance promised fiscal responsibility against growing demands to increase public sector salaries. The government's first budget in May was stretched to fulfill its promise to juggle investing in much-needed infrastructure with a self-imposed rule to pay down debt and insulate the economy from potential shocks. Almost 30,000 primary school teachers did not turn up to work on Wednesday and held protests across the country, leaving parents of children aged 5 to 13 at public schools scrambling to find childcare. "Teachers and principals voted for a full day strike...to send a strong message to the Government that the current collective agreement offers from the Ministry of Education would not fix the crisis in teaching," said Louise Green, lead negotiator at NZEI, the union that represents teachers, in a statement. NZEI said it has asked for a 16 percent pay increase for teachers over two years, whereas the government has offered between 6.1 and 14.7 percent pay rises, depending on experience, over three years. "Our view is that we need to have those discussions around the negotiating table but...there isn't an endless amount that we have available to us in order to meet those expectations," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at her weekly news conference on Monday. ​The action comes in the wake of a one-day nationwide nurses' strike in July and a series of smaller actions by government workers, challenging Ardern's center-left government, which ended almost a decade of center-right National Party rule in October. The stand-off with its traditional union support base comes nine months after Labor formed a coalition government, promising to pour money into social services and rein in inequality, which has increased despite years of strong growth. Wage growth has remained sluggish in the island nation for years, despite soaring housing costs, which labour groups and economists say has left workers struggling despite robust growth. The government is also struggling with gloomy business confidence, which has sunk to decade lows and contributed to a surprise signal from the central bank on Thursday that it planned to keep rates on hold into 2020 and saw downside risks to its growth forecasts.

Tonga PM Calls on China to Write-off Pacific Debt

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 09:15
Tonga Prime Minister Akalisi Pohiva has called for China to write-off debts owed by Pacific island countries, warning that repayments impose a huge burden on the impoverished nations. Chinese aid in the Pacific has ballooned in recent years with much of the funds coming in the form of loans from Beijing's state-run Exim Bank. Tonga has run-up enormous debts to China, estimated at more than US$100 million by Australia's Lowy Institute think tank, and Pohiva said his country would struggle to repay them. He said the situation was common in the Oceania region and needed to be addressed at next month's Pacific Island Forum summit in Nauru. "We need to discuss the issue," he told the Samoa Observer in an interview published on Tuesday. "All the Pacific Island countries should sign this submission asking the Chinese government to forgive their debts." "To me, that is the only way we can all move forward, if we just can't pay off our debts." Tonga took out the Chinese loans to rebuild in the wake of deadly 2006 riots that razed the center of the capital Nuku'alofa. Beijing has previously refused to write-off the loans by turning them into aid grants but did give Tonga an amnesty on repayments. Pohiva said China now wanted the debts repaid. "By September 2018, we anticipate to pay $14 million, which cuts away a huge part of our budget," he said. Tonga's ability to pay has been further dented this year by another massive rebuilding effort in Nuku'alofa, this time after a category five cyclone slammed into the capital in February. "If we fail to pay, the Chinese may come and take our assets, which are our buildings," Pohiva said. "That is why the only option is to sign a submission asking the Chinese government to forgive our debts." His comments come as Australia and New Zealand ramp up aid efforts in the Pacific to counter China's growing presence in the region. Australia has raised fears in recent months Pacific nations' debts to China leaves them susceptible to Beijing's influence. It has resulted in a race to win hearts and minds in the region. Canberra recently announced plans to negotiate a security treaty with Vanuatu, while also funding and building an underseas communications cable to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, Chinese company Huawei has agreed to build PNG's domestic internet network with funds supplied by Exim Bank.

Japan's Abe Sends Offering to Controversial Shrine on World War II Anniversary

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 08:45
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine II surrender, but did not visit in person. Past visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni have outraged China and South Korea because the shrine honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, along with war dead. Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Masahiko Shibayama, who made the offering on Abe's behalf, said the prime minister asked him to pray for the souls of the departed and that Abe regretted being unable to pay his respects in person. Abe has only visited the shrine in person once since taking office in 2012 but has previously sent offerings. China's relations with Japan have long been haunted by what Beijing sees as Tokyo's failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China before and during World War II, although ties have thawed somewhat recently. Japan occupied Korea from 1910-1945 and bitter memories still rankle. Abe was due to speak at a separate annual memorial ceremony for war dead later on Wednesday that will also be attended by Emperor Akihito - the last time he will take part in the event before abdicating next year. Akihito, 84, has carved out an active role as a symbol of peace, democracy and reconciliation during his three decades on the throne, visiting wartime battlefields to pray for the war dead of all nationalities. Akihito expressed "deep remorse" over the war on the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in 2015. That departure from his annual script - repeated on subsequent anniversaries - was seen by many liberals and moderate conservatives as a subtle rebuke to the conservative Abe, who has said future generations of Japanese should not have to keep apologizing for the conflict. Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japanese fought World War II, stopped visiting Yasukuni after the wartime leaders were first honored by the shrine in 1978, and Akihito does not pay his respects there.

Warming US-Taiwan Ties on Display as President Tsai Visits LA

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 03:55
This week Taiwan's president is in Los Angeles, marking the first time in 15 years that a Taiwanese leader is speaking publicly in the United States, in another sign of growing ties between Washington and Taipei.  President Tsai Ing-Wen met with U.S. lawmakers and Taiwanese Americans on Monday and Tuesday, drawing an official protest from China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.   The division between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan sharpened this year when the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows U.S. officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan and for high-ranking Taiwanese officials to visit the United States.  Tsai Ing-Wen’s trip to the U.S. this week is the first since the Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump, and there is support for greater engagement.  Rep. Brad Sherman, Ranking Member of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, told VOA that he looks forward to welcoming Tsai in Washington in the future. “There may be a time when the president of Taiwan addresses to the joint session of congress but I think that will be a willing in the next decade,” Sherman, who called himself a “strong advocate for U.S.-Taiwan alliance,” said.  “It will begin not with the presidential visit but perhaps at the foreign ministerial level.” China routinely objects to U.S. support for Taiwan and meetings with its leaders, but many U.S. lawmakers champion support for the democracy as a key American foreign policy priority. On Tuesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs office reiterated its opposition to any attempt to promote Taiwan’s independence.  “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. We firmly oppose any attempt to create ‘two Chinas,’ ‘one China, one Taiwan’ and ‘Taiwan independence’ in the international arena,” it said in a statement responding to a question from AFP. Championing democracy  During a brief speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library during her two-day stopover in Los Angeles, Tsai vowed to defend the values of freedom and democracy. “Everything was negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future,” Tsai quoted from former U.S. President Reagan’s remarks in her talk, adding that this is also how Taiwanese people feel at the moment. “We will keep our pledge that we are willing to jointly promote regional stability and peace under the principles of national interests, freedom and democracy,” she said. Although there are no official diplomatic ties between the governments of the U.S. and Taiwan, the U.S. sees the island as a strategic partner in the region, and Washington has long been Taipei’s strongest informal ally and chief arms supplier.  “I’m excited to welcome President Tsai to the U.S.  It’s a great opportunity to continue to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan,” Senator Cory Gardner, Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, told media before his meeting with Tsai. Besides Senator Gardner, three U.S. Congress members from California also met with Tsai during her short visit to Los Angeles, including Ed Royce, Brad Sherman and Judy Chu.  ‘Bullying tactics'  Recently China has stepped up a pressure campaign against Taiwan as it tries to assert Chinese sovereignty. Beijing has ordered foreign companies, including U.S. airlines companies, to label Taiwan as a part of China on their websites and is excluding Taiwan from many international forums. “I think the U.S. needs to be extremely tough when it comes to China’s bullying tactics,”Senator Gardner said, "I think it's unacceptable for U.S. companies to be bullied by China and I have encouraged along with my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats to stand up against China’s bullying behavior and tactics that try to intimidate U.S. companies over the way they recognize Taiwan.” Rep. Ed Royce, Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA that the focus of his work has been to develop policy to deepen U.S.-Taiwan economic relations.  “What we have tried to do is to have policies that will strengthen Taiwan Travel Act, and at the same time keep up the security in peace in strength,” Royce, who announced his retirement next January, said.  “Most of my focuses have been what we can do to keep Taiwan economically strong.  So we are working on a lot of trade initiatives, more investments, investments between the US and Taiwan.  We think that is the right focus in terms of long term security.” Tsai arrived in Los Angeles on Sunday for a transit stop on the way to a state visit to Paraguay and Belize, two of 18 nations that still have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. She is expected to make another U.S. stopover in Houston on her way back on Aug. 18.

Duterte: China Should Temper Its Behavior in Disputed Waters

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 23:26
The Philippine president said Tuesday that China's claim to airspace above newly built islands and surrounding waters in the disputed South China Sea “is wrong” and Beijing should not tell others to leave those areas to avoid possible clashes. President Rodrigo Duterte's remarks in a speech to an audience that included the American ambassador and other foreign guests were a rare public criticism of China, which he has refused to antagonize to nurture closer relations. “They have to rethink that, because that would be a flashpoint someday and even, you know, warning others,” Duterte said of China's actions to uphold its claims in the disputed waters. “You cannot create an island, it's man-made, and you say that the air above these artificial islands is yours.” “That is wrong because those waters are what we consider international sea,” the president said. He added that “the right of innocent passage is guaranteed. It does not need any permission to sail through the open seas.” The Associated Press reported two weeks ago that the Philippines has expressed concern to China over an increasing number of Chinese radio messages warning Philippine aircraft and ships to stay away from Beijing-held artificial islands in the disputed waters. CNN journalists reported last week that the Chinese military repeatedly warned a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon plane, which they were allowed to board, to “leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding” while the reconnaissance aircraft flew close to some of the man-made islands. “I hope that China would temper ... its behavior,” Duterte said, warning that in the disputed sea, “one of these days a hothead commander there will just press a trigger.” During the rambling speech, Duterte nevertheless praised Beijing for its readiness to provide help. A Philippine government report seen by the AP showed that in the second half of last year, Philippine military aircraft received Chinese radio warnings at least 46 times while patrolling near the artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea's Spratly archipelago. Philippine officials have raised their concerns twice over the radio transmissions, including in a meeting with Chinese counterparts in Manila earlier this year that focused on the Asian countries' long-unresolved territorial disputes, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. China transformed seven disputed reefs into islands using dredged sand. The new islands stand in close proximity to islands occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Malaysia and Brunei are the other claimants to the chain of islands and barren islets and atolls. The messages used to originate from Chinese coast guard ships, but military officials suspect the transmissions now also come from the Beijing-held artificial islands, where far more powerful communications and surveillance equipment has been installed along with weapons such as surface-to-air missiles. “Our ships and aircraft have observed an increase in radio queries that appear to originate from new land-based facilities in the South China Sea,” Commander Clay Doss, public affairs officer of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP by email in response to questions about the Chinese messages. “These communications do not affect our operations,” Doss said. Although the U.S. lays no claims to the strategic waterway, its Navy has deployed ships and aircraft in operations to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, but which China protests as foreign meddling in an Asian dispute. A Philippine air force plane on patrol near the Chinese-held islands received a particularly offensive radio message in late January when it was warned by Chinese forces that it was “endangering the security of the Chinese reef. Leave immediately and keep off to avoid misunderstanding,” according to the Philippine government report. Shortly afterward, the plane received a veiled threat: “Philippine military aircraft, I am warning you again, leave immediately or you will pay the possible consequences.” The Filipino pilot later “sighted two flare warning signals from the reef,” said the report, which identified the Chinese-occupied island as Gaven Reef. China has repeatedly said it has the right to build on what it says is its territory and defend its sovereignty at all costs. Philippine air force chief Lt. Gen. Galileo Gerard Rio Kintanar Jr. said Filipino pilots respond calmly to the Chinese radio messages and proceed with their mission as planned, adding that the higher number of reported radio challenges reflects the Philippine military's commitment to protect the country's territorial interests through intensified patrols.