Archive for category Asian Politics
China has deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of the disputed islands it controls in the South China Sea, Taiwan and U.S. officials said, ratcheting up tensions even as U.S. President Barack Obama urged restraint in the region.
Taiwan defense ministry spokesman Major General David Lo said on Wednesday the missile batteries had been set up on Woody Island. The island is part of the Paracels chain, under Chinese control for more than 40 years but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. A U.S. defense official also confirmed the “apparent deployment” of the missiles.
China’s foreign minister said the reports were created by “certain Western media” that should focus more on China’s building of lighthouses to improve shipping safety in the region. “As for the limited and necessary self-defense facilities that China has built on islands and reefs we have people stationed on, this is consistent with the right to self-protection that China is entitled to under international law so there should be no question about it,” Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year, and has been building runways and other infrastructure on artificial islands to bolster its title.
The United States has said it will continue conducting “freedom of navigation patrols” by ships and aircraft to assure unimpeded passage through the region, where Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the deployment of missiles to the Paracels would not be a surprise but would be a concern, and be contrary to China’s pledge not to militarize the region.
“We will conduct more, and more complex, freedom of navigation operations as time goes on in the South China Sea,” Harris told a briefing in Tokyo. “We have no intention of stopping.”
News of the missile deployment came as Obama and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded a summit in California, where they discussed the need to ease tensions in the South China Sea but did not include specific mention of China’s assertive pursuit of its claims there.
China’s increasing military presence in the disputed sea could effectively lead to a Beijing-controlled air defense zone, analysts
A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels last month, a move China condemned as provocative.
China last month said it would not seek militarization of its South China Sea islands and reefs, but that did not mean it would not set up defenses.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen said tensions were now higher in the region.
“We urge all parties to work on the situation based on principles of peaceful solution and self-control,” Tsai told reporters.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a rare move, the country’s prime minister on Monday pressed Obama for a greater U.S. role in preventing militarization and island-building in the South China Sea.
Images from civilian satellite company ImageSat International show two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers on Woody Island, as well as a radar system.
The missiles arrived over the past week and, according to a U.S. official, appeared to show the HQ-9 air defense system, which has a range of 125 miles (200 km) and would pose a threat to any airplanes flying close by, the report said.
In November, two U.S. B52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the Spratly Islands.
Asked about the report, Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “While I cannot comment on matters related to intelligence, we do watch these matters very closely.”
After months of ferocious fighting, Afghan army units battling the Taliban in southern Helmand province are facing major restructuring and leadership changes, with several key commanders being replaced, a U.S. military official said.
Helmand has been a fierce battleground since last Autumn, with fighting taking place in 10 districts. At times, the insurgents have laid siege on army bases and threatened to overrun large chunks of territory. Local officials have called for help from central authorities and complained publicly over corruption that includes syphoning off salaries, food, fuel and equipment.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the head of public affairs for the U.S.-NATO mission, said that the Afghan army corps in Helmand is now being “rebuilt” and that senior officers are being replaced.
The reasons for the changes in the Afghan army’s 215 Maiwand Corps “are a combination of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness,” Shoffner said. The corps’ commander has been replaced, along with “some brigade commanders and some key corps staff up to full colonel level,” he said.
Helmand is a strategic region for the Taliban, as it as it shares a border of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles) with Pakistan. It grows large quantities of opium, used to produce most of the world’s heroin. The harvest is worth up to $3 billion a year, and helps fund the insurgency.
The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed the changes in Helmand. It said veteran army Gen. Moheen Faqiri was appointed to lead the corps and took over two months ago.
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the ministry’s spokesman, said brigade commanders have also been rotated out and replaced.
“Soon, other army units will have new commanders there,” Waziri said.
In October, a meeting of the National Security Council discussed the worsening situation on the ground. In the presence of President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the NSC heard that Afghan security forces were badly led, poorly equipped and in the previous three months had suffered 900 casualties, including 300 dead.
Minutes of the Oct. 29 meeting, show that Helmand was described by the former head of the intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, as “the biggest recruiting pool for the Taliban” and the insurgents’ “primary source of revenue” from poppy for heroin and marble smuggling.
Another concern is the Afghan police who are fighting on the front-lines across Helmand, often without the equipment and backup of the army, which means casualties are higher.
Last Wednesday, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sarjang, the Helmand provincial police chief, said the Afghan security forces were “exhausted” and in dire need of reinforcements. He also said that a lack of coordination between the army and police was hampering progress in the fight.
The Taliban have made serious stands in seven Helmand districts Sangin, Gereshk, Khanashin, Musa Qala, Nawzad, Washer and Marjah and at least three districts of Lashkar Gah are also under threat, Sarjang said.
The changes in Helmand reflect that Afghanistan’s civilian and military leaders are learning the limitations of the security forces as they take on the Taliban alone following the drawdown of the international combat mission at the end of 2014. The U.S. and NATO maintain 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in an advisory and training capacity.
In a most serious illustration of the dire battlefield situation in Helmand, the district of Sangin was besieged for weeks and in late December fears escalated that it would completely fall to the insurgents. The United States conducted airstrikes on Taliban positions, the British rushed special forces advisers to the area, and the Afghan military dropped food and ammunition to soldiers and police who were surrounded in their base.
Nabil told the NSC meeting there were about 12,000 Taliban fighters in Helmand, up to 60 percent of them from other parts of the country, evidence the insurgents had reinforced their numbers for the fight. Nabil also said Afghan forces’ morale was “extremely low” and discipline had broken down with “junior commanders openly defying their superiors.”
“Helmand is in a crisis,” Nabil told the meeting.
Shoffner, the U.S. general, said troops had been moved from other parts of the country to reinforce Helmand and that strategies have to change.
The notion that there is a “fighting season is outdated,” he said, as the Taliban offensives which in the past occurred in the warmer, summer months have escalated even in colder weather.
Afghan authorities do not release the casualty tolls for their combat forces. In 2014 that figure was estimated to have been about 5,000.
Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has been seriously wounded in Pakistan in a shootout between senior members of the Islamist movement, Taliban sources said on Wednesday, but the group’s main spokesman dismissed their report as “baseless”.
The conflicting accounts deepen the confusion over the already opaque leadership situation in the Taliban following the death of the movement’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and cloud prospects for any resumption of stalled peace talks.
Two Taliban commanders said Mansour, whose authority is disputed by rival factions in the Islamist movement, was wounded when fighting broke out over strategic issues in the house of a senior Taliban leader called Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi outside Quetta in western Pakistan.
“During the discussion, some senior people developed differences and they opened fire on each other,” one of the commanders said.
He said five senior Taliban members had died on the spot and more than a dozen, including Mullah Mansour, had suffered serious bullet injuries. Mansour was being treated in a private hospital after being hit four times by bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle, the Taliban commander said.
However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the incident ever took place and said Mansour was in Afghanistan.
“This is a rumor which is completely baseless. Akthar Mohammad Mansour is totally fine and nothing has happened to him,” he told Reuters.
“This is the act of Afghan intelligence agencies. They spread these rumors about a clash between Taliban leaders. Nothing happened like this even in that area”.
The Taliban has faced serious internal divisions since it was confirmed in July that Mullah Omar had actually died two years earlier.
Mansour, Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy, was immediately named leader but some sections of the Islamist group quickly rejected his claim, accusing him of covering up Omar’s death and saying that Pakistan had steered his appointment.
His grip on the leadership appeared to have been tightened by the capture of the northern city of Kunduz in late September, which insurgents held for several days before government forces could regain control.
What the latest incident may mean for the Afghan peace process remains unclear for now.
There were varying accounts of exactly what may have happened in the incident, with some sources saying it took place in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar near the border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
According to the first Taliban commander, the meeting on Tuesday was to discuss the future of any peace talks with the United States and the Kabul government as well as the strategy for dealing with a rival splinter group headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which rejects Mansour’s authority.
A second source said the dispute had broken out over ways of dealing with the rival faction, following heavy fighting in the southeastern province of Zabul last month in which dozens of people were killed.
“We have no access to Mullah Mansour after the incident last night. We have been hearing that he had succumbed to his injuries but we can neither confirm nor deny it,” said the second Taliban commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said this week that he was ready to talk to Taliban members but he cautioned that since the death of Mullah Omar there was “no such thing as the Taliban There are groups of Taliban…”
According to some officials in the Kabul government, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, a senior commander in the group that opposes Mansour, was killed in last month’s fighting, although the claim has been denied by a spokesman for his faction.
President Barack Obama said Sunday that the United States and its international partners “will not relent” in the fight against the Islamic State group and that the world would not accept the extremists’ attacks on civilians in Paris and elsewhere as the “new normal.”
“The most powerful tool we have is to say we are not afraid,” Obama said as he wrapped up a nine-day trip to Turkey and Asia that was shadowed by terrorist attacks.
The president also pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to align himself with the U.S.-led coalition, noting that IS has been accused of bringing down a Russian passenger jet last month, killing 224 people.
“He needs to go after the people who killed Russian citizens,” he said of Putin.
The president spoke in Malaysia shortly before departing for Washington. His trip also took him to the Philippines and Turkey, where he met with Putin on the sidelines of an international summit.
While Russia has stepped up its air campaign in Syria, Obama said Moscow has focused its attention on moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Russian ally. He called on Russia to make a “strategic adjustment” and drop its support for Assad, insisting the violence in Syria cannot be stopped as long as Assad is in office.
“It will not work to keep him in power,” Obama said. “We can’t stop the fighting.”
Nearly five years of fighting between the Assad government and rebels has created a vacuum that allowed IS to thrive in both Syria and Iraq. The militant group is now setting its sights on targets outside its stronghold, including the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.
French President Francois Hollande is due to meet with Obama at the White House on Tuesday to discuss ways to bolster the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. Hollande then heads to Russia for talks with Putin.
“Our coalition will not relent. We will not accept the idea that terrorist assaults on restaurants and theaters and hotels are the new normal, or that we are powerless to stop them,” Obama said.
The discussions about a military coalition to defeat IS come amid parallel talks about a diplomatic solution to end Syria’s civil war. The violence has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions, sparking a refugee crisis in Europe.
Foreign ministers from about 20 nations agreed last week to an ambitious yet incomplete plan that sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad’s government and opposition groups. Within six months, the negotiations are to establish a “credible, inclusive and nonsectarian” transitional government that would set a schedule for drafting a new constitution and holding a free and fair U.N.-supervised election within 18 months.
The Paris attacks have heightened fears of terrorism in the West and also sparked a debate in the U.S. about accepting refugees from Syria. It’s unclear whether any of the terrorists in the Paris attacks exploited the refugee system to enter Europe, though Obama has insisted that’s not a legitimate security threat in the United States.
“Refugees who end up in the United States are the most vetted, scrutinized, thoroughly investigated individuals that ever arrive on American shores,” Obama said.
Still, the U.S. House passed legislation last week essentially blocking Syrian and Iraqi refugees from the U.S. Democrats in large numbers abandoned the president, with 47 voting for the legislation. Having secured a veto-proof majority in the House, supporters are now hoping for a repeat in the U.S. Senate, while Obama works to shift the conversation to milder visa waiver changes that wouldn’t affect Syrian refugees.
Obama has focused his ire on Republicans throughout the trip, harshly criticizing GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates for acting contrary to American values. He took a softer tone Sunday, saying he understands Americans’ concerns but urging them not to give into fear.
He said IS “can’t beat us on the battlefield so they try to terrorize us into being afraid.” The president declared, “We will destroy this terrorist organization.”
Speaking dismissively of IS’ global prowess, Obama said, “They’re a bunch of killers with good social media.”
The president also paid tribute to Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old from California who was killed in the Paris attacks, and Anita Ashok Datar, a 41-year-old from Maryland who died in Friday’s attack in Mali. He said the women reminded him of his teenage daughters and his late mother.
“It is worth us remembering when we look at the statistics that there are beautiful, wonderful lives behind the terrible death tolls we see in these places,” he said.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Saturday accused Russia of endangering world order, citing its incursions in Ukraine and loose talk about nuclear weapons, and said the U.S. defense establishment is searching for creative ways to deter Russian aggression and protect U.S. allies.
In remarks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library after eight days of travel in Asia, Carter also expressed concern about China’s expanding influence and growing military might. But he reserved his stronger words for Russia.
Carter said Russia is undertaking “challenging activities” at sea, in the air, in space and in cyberspace.
“Most disturbing, Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises questions about Russian leaders’ commitment to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to the brandishing of nuclear weapons,” he said.
His remarks were perhaps the strongest he has expressed about America’s former Cold War foe.
“We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia,” he said. “We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake; the United States will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.”
The backdrop to Carter’s remarks is the reality that after more than two decades of dominating great-power relations, the United States is seeing Russia reassert itself and China expand its military influence beyond its own shores. Together these trends are testing American preeminence and its stewardship of the world order.
Carter cited several pillars of the international order that he argued should be defended and strengthened: peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom from coercion, respect for state sovereignty, and freedom of navigation.
“Some actors appear intent on eroding these principles and undercutting the international order that helps enforce them,” he said. “Terror elements like ISIL, of course, stand entirely opposed to our values. But other challenges are more complicated, and given their size and capabilities, potentially more damaging.”
“Of course, neither Russia nor China can overturn that order,” he said. “But both present different challenges for it.”
He accused Russia of stirring trouble in Europe and the Middle East.
“In Europe, Russia has been violating sovereignty in Ukraine and Georgia and actively trying to intimidate the Baltic states,” he said. “Meanwhile, in Syria, Russia is throwing gasoline on an already dangerous fire, prolonging a civil war that fuels the very extremism Russia claims to oppose.”
Carter made clear that Russia is at the forefront of Washington’s concern about evolving security threats.
“We are adapting our operational posture and contingency plans as we – on our own and with allies – work to deter Russia’s aggression, and to help reduce the vulnerability of allies and partners,” he said.
Russia under President Vladimir Putin is challenging the U.S. in many arenas, including the Arctic, where last year Moscow said it was reopening 10 former Soviet-era military bases along the Arctic seaboard that were closed after the Cold War ended in 1991. Russia also is flying more long-range air patrols off U.S. shores.
Carter left open the possibility that Russia’s role in Syria could evolve into one the U.S. can embrace.
“It is possible, we’ll see Russia may play a constructive role in resolving the civil war,” he said.
In a question-and-answer session with his audience, Carter said he believes Putin “hasn’t thought through very thoroughly” his objectives in Syria. He called the Russian approach there “way off track.”
In his speech, Carter said the U.S. will take a balanced approach by working with Moscow when productive and appropriate.
As Russia makes what Carter characterized as threatening statements about its potential use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is modernizing its entire nuclear arsenal, not only the submarines, bomber aircraft and land-based missiles that are armed with long-range nuclear weapons, but also the weapons themselves.
“We’re investing in the technologies that are most relevant to Russia’s provocations, such as new unmanned systems, a new long-range bomber, and innovation in technologies like the electromagnetic railgun, lasers and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones I really can’t describe here,” he said.
Carter said China is the single most influential player in Asia’s future, and he noted that earlier this week he went aboard an American aircraft carrier in the South China Sea to demonstrate U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation. The U.S. objects to China’s claims of territorial limits around disputed artificial islands there.
“As a rising power, it’s to be expected that China will have growing ambitions and a modernizing military,” he said. “But how China behaves will be the true test of its commitment to peace and security.”
He said the U.S. has been shifting its focus toward the Asia-Pacific, including sending its best naval and other military weapons, ships and equipment to that region.
“We are also changing fundamentally our operational plans and approaches to deter aggression, fulfill our statutory obligations to Taiwan, defend allies, and prepare for a wider range of contingencies in the region than we have traditionally,” he said.
Negotiations over the complex trade deal took more than five years. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama began what may be a similarly difficult task, selling the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to Congress and the American public.
Obama met with business and agricultural leaders at the Department of Agriculture. The site of the meeting reflects the urgency that farm groups have attached to the deal to remove tariffs and other trade barriers that would increase exports ranging from meat and poultry to grains and cotton.
Obama emphasized that the deal would eliminate or reduce more than 18,000 tariffs that participating countries impose on U.S. exports.
“We are knocking down barriers” and providing American businesses and workers with access to new markets,” Obama told reporters at the conclusion of the closed-door meeting. He also said the pact has strong labor standards that will, among other things, prohibit child labor.
Leaders of trade groups representing the film, travel and technology industries were among those who attended the meeting with Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“Under this agreement, rather than places like China, we’re rewriting the rules for the global economy,” Obama said.
It will be weeks before the full scope of the agreement announced Monday is known, but several labor groups are worried that it will result in American jobs being sent to countries with lower wages and less stringent labor and environmental standards. A congressional vote on the pact is not expected to occur until well into next year, providing the unions with the chance to maximize leverage with lawmakers coveting their support.
The president has to wait 90 days before signing the pact, and only then will Congress begin the process of voting on it. Approval of the deal would give Obama a legacy-defining victory. To achieve such a win, Obama will need help from Republicans and will need to overcome doubts from a key Democratic constituency. In the hours after the trade deal was announced, some union leaders made clear that a candidate’s stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership will determine whether he or she can expect support. While unions have lost political clout as their numbers have declined, their political action committees donated more than $60 million to campaigns during the 2012 elections. About 90 percent of that money went toward Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America, whose members include customer service reps and computer technicians, said the union will “hold accountable those members of Congress who support this giveaway to the 1 percent.”
Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said, “This is a very, very serious and dangerous proposal, and those who would see fit to simply fall for another trade deal, thinking it is good for America, they will incur our dedicated effort to unseat them.”
Buffenbarger said his comments applied to the congressional races. In the presidential race, his union has already endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton. It’s unclear where Clinton will come down on the trade agreement, but Buffenbarger said the endorsement stands.
Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., moved quickly to voice his opposition.
“Wall Street and other big coporations have won again. In the Senate, I will do all that I can to defeat the #TPP agreement,” Sanders tweeted.
Another Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has been highly critical of the trade pact in recent months.
The TPP is designed to encourage trade among the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The pact would reduce tariffs in the participating nations in a bid to open markets.
Democratic lawmakers representing major manufacturing districts voiced skepticism that the pact would help their constituents.
“American workers should be skeptical of the specifics of this new trade agreement. Past trade deals like NAFTA have hollowed out America’s manufacturing base and shipped thousands of American jobs overseas,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.
As some of the expected opponents quickly objected, others needed to advance the deal voiced some caution. Members of the House Agriculture Committee have said they’re concerned about a lack of access for rice farmers and the dairy industry.
“While I am encouraged to hear that U.S. livestock products such as beef and pork will see significant gains in market access, it will take a coalition of many to move TPP over the coming months,” said committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas. “At this time, I am skeptical that these concerns were sufficiently addressed but will remain open-minded.”