NATO beefs up eastern part of Alliance

Revelations 6:3-4 “when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

Important Takeaways:

  • NATO will enhance its battle groups in the eastern part of the alliance up to brigade levels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced Monday.
  • “We will increase the number of high readiness forces to well over 300,000” he said at a news conference in Brussels.
  • This includes “more pre-positioned equipment and stockpiles of military supplies; more forward-deployed capabilities, like air defense; strengthened command and control, and upgraded defense plans with forces pre-assigned to defend specific allies,” Stoltenberg added.

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Why is Saudi halting oil shipments through the Red Sea?

FILE PHOTO: General view of Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia May 21, 2018. Picture taken May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia announced last week it was suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandeb strait after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two ships in the waterway.

To date, no other exporters have followed suit. A full blockage of the strategic waterway would virtually halt shipment to Europe and the United States of about 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

Western allies backing a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen expressed concern about the attacks, but have not indicated they would take action to secure the strait. That would risk deeper involvement in a war seen as a proxy battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

THE YEMEN WAR

The threat to shipping in Bab al-Mandeb has been building for some time, with the Houthis targeting Saudi tankers in at least two other attacks this year. It is not unusual to reevaluate security after such an incident, but Riyadh’s announcement also carries a political dimension.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is trying to encourage its Western allies to take more seriously the danger posed by the Houthis and step up support for its war in Yemen, where thousands of air strikes and a limited ground operation have produced only modest results while deepening the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“Rather than allowing these hostile maneuvers to go unnoticed in the eyes of the world, the Saudi (energy) minister has placed Iran’s subversions of the whole global economy under the spotlight for everyone to see,” said energy consultant Sadad al-Husseini, a former senior executive at Saudi Aramco. “The capture of the port of Hodeidah will go a long way towards putting an end to these disruptions.”

Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port, is the target of a coalition offensive launched on June 12 in a bid to cut off the Houthis’ primary supply line. After failing to make major gains, the coalition halted operations on July 1 to give the United Nations a chance to resolve the situation, though some fighting has continued.

The suspension of Saudi shipments – with the implied threat of higher oil prices – may also be aimed at pressuring European allies, who have continued to support the nuclear deal with Iran following the U.S. withdrawal in May, to take a stronger stance against Tehran’s ballistic missiles program and support for armed groups across the region.

There was no official confirmation that the move was coordinated with Washington but one analyst said it would be astonishing if it were not, given the strategic alliance between the two countries.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi soldiers walk by oil tanker trucks delivered by Saudi authorities to support charities and NGOs in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser /File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Saudi soldiers walk by oil tanker trucks delivered by Saudi authorities to support charities and NGOs in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser /File Photo

RAISE THE STAKES

No party has much appetite for an all-out conflict, but the situation can easily deteriorate. Both the Saudis and the Houthis appear to want to raise the stakes – with different goals in mind.

“The Houthis are trying to provoke a situation where there’s a great effort to negotiate an end to the war in Yemen,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The Saudis are trying to create a situation in which the U.S. would in one form or another significantly step up support … so that they can claim military victory.”

The risk is that one side miscalculates, eliciting a response that is stronger than anticipated.

“We’re just one missile away somewhere from getting into a more direct confrontation,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

OPTIONS FOR SAUDI OIL

Saudi Arabia announced it was halting oil shipments through the Red Sea “until the situation becomes clearer and maritime transition through Bab al-Mandeb is safe”.

It is unclear when that will be. But there may not be a big rush as the world’s top oil exporter has other ways to supply European and U.S. markets.

Redirecting ships around the southern tip of Africa would cost a lot more in time and money, making it an unlikely alternative.

Instead, Saudi Arabia will probably use the Petroline, or East-West Pipeline, through which it transports crude from fields in its Eastern Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu for export to Europe and North America.

It could also charter non-Saudi ships to carry its oil through Bab al-Mandeb, as it does with Asian customers using different routes, industry and trading sources say.

POLITICAL SOLUTION NEEDED

Even before last week’s attack, shipping companies had taken extra precautions, including armed guards, more lookouts at sea, sailing faster and increased contact with international navies.

A January United Nations report said existing measures would not protect ships against attacks involving waterborne improvised explosive devices, anti-ship missiles, land based anti-tank guided missiles or sea mines.

Experts say the United States and other partners could provide naval escorts to tankers and take more steps to reduce the Houthis’ capacity to target shipping, including arms supplies and help with logistics, intelligence and targeting.

Increased naval patrols helped curb pirate attacks in the nearby Gulf of Aden a decade ago, but Western allies are less likely to get directly involved this time to avoid being dragged into the Yemen war.

While a military approach might deal with the threat to shipping, Elizabeth Dickinson at the International Crisis Group says the only real solution is a settlement to the war in Yemen, which remains elusive.

HOW MIGHT IRAN RESPOND?

After withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, Washington is now pushing countries to end imports of Iranian oil from November. Tehran has warned of counter-measures and threatened to block Gulf oil exports if its own exports are halted.

Despite exchanging bellicose threats with President Donald Trump, Iranian officials consider the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States “very low”. Some still believe in the possibility of direct negotiations, but several contacted by Reuters warned that Tehran’s response to a U.S.-initiated war would be costly.

“Our military power might not be equal to America’s but Iran’s non-conventional capabilities can and will be a blow to Americans, which will drag them into another quagmire in the region,” said a senior official who asked not to be named.

Besides disrupting the flow of oil in the Gulf, insiders say that in a direct confrontation, Iran could target U.S. interests from Jordan to Afghanistan, including troops in Syria and Iraq.

TANKER WAR UNLIKELY

During the “tanker war” of the mid-1980s, Gulf waters were mined as Iran and Iraq attacked oil shipments. U.S., British and other foreign forces escorted other nations’ tankers – with some Kuwaiti ships reflagging with the U.S. banner – and conducted limited strikes on Iranian maritime targets.

While the Saudis could fly different flags now to try to avoid Houthi attacks, analysts say that would undermine their efforts to project power in the region.

(For a graphic on ‘Oil transit chokepoints’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2K3HPVf)

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Stephen Kalin)

When to end the war? North Korea, U.S. at odds over path to peace

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shows the document, that he and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signed acknowledging the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. At right is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Washington’s reluctance to declare an end to the Korean War until after North Korea abandons its nuclear arsenal may put it at odds not only with Pyongyang, but also with allies in South Korea.

The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the U.S.-led United Nations forces technically still at war with North Korea.

Friday marks 65th anniversary of the truce, which will be commemorated by the United Nations Command in a ceremony in the fortified demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the war. North Korean veterans of the war, which left more than 1.2 million dead, will gather in Pyongyang for a conference.

In their April summit, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to work this year with the United States and China, which also played a major role in the war, to replace the armistice with a peace agreement.

In June, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a statement saying they would seek “to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity,” using the initials of the North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim has broadly committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” if the United States and its allies drop their “hostile” policies and the North has made clear it sees an official end to the state of war as crucial to lowering tensions.

Many experts and officials in Washington, however, fear signing a peace deal first could erode the international pressure they believe led Kim to negotiate. It could also endanger the decades-long U.S. military alliance with South Korea, and may undermine the justification for the U.S. troops based on the peninsula.

“Broadly speaking, one side wants denuclearization first, normalization of relations later, and the other wants normalization of relations first, then denuclearization later,” said Christopher Green, a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group.

North Korea says it has taken steps to halt its nuclear development, including placing a moratorium on missile and nuclear bomb testing, demolishing its only known nuclear test site, and dismantling a rocket facility.

American officials have praised those moves, but remain skeptical. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress on Wednesday North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said while “peace on the Korean Peninsula is a goal shared by the world,” the international community would not accept a nuclear armed North Korea.

“As we have stated before, we are committed to building a peace mechanism with the goal of replacing the Armistice agreement when North Korea has denuclearized,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

DOUBTS ON BOTH SIDES

In recent weeks Pyongyang has renewed calls for a declaration of the end of the war, calling it the “first process for peace” and a key way the United States can add heft to its guarantees of security.

“The adoption of the declaration on the termination of war is the first and foremost process in the light of ending the extreme hostility and establishing new relations between the DPRK and the U.S.,” North Korean state media said in a statement on Tuesday.

After Pompeo visited Pyongyang in June for talks, state media quoted a spokesman for the North’s Ministry of the Foreign Affairs criticizing the U.S. delegation for not mentioning the idea of a peace regime.

“It seems quite obvious that even if North Korea is negotiating sincerely, they aren’t going to be willing to give up their nuclear capacity in the absence of a peace system that gives them regime security,” Green said.

Many officials in Washington appeared concerned that an early declaration of peace could lead to the collapse of the U.S.-South Korea alliance with calls for U.S. troops to leave the Korean peninsula, he added.

OTHER PLAYERS

South Korean leaders in 1953 opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided, and were not signatories to the armistice. The treaty was signed by the commander of North Korea’s army, the American commander of the U.N. Command, and the commander of the “Chinese People’s volunteers”.

While South Korean officials say they are committed to the full denuclearization of North Korea, they have shown more flexibility in the timing of a peace agreement than their U.S. allies.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said on Tuesday it is possible to declare an end to war this year.

“We are in consultations with the North and the United States in that direction,” he told a parliamentary session, adding that a three-way declaration would be part of an initial phase of denuclearization.

China says it is open to participating in the process.

Meeting North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Pyongyang on Thursday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said China supported the reconciliation process between the North and the United States, China’s Foreign Ministry said.

China is willing to work hard with all sides to promote the process of establishing a “peace mechanism” for the Korean peninsula, Kong added, without elaborating.

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)

Turkey says could act in Syria unless U.S. withdraws support for Kurdish force

A Turkish military tank arrives at an army base in the border town of Reyhanli near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 17, 2018.

By Dominic Evans and Tuvan Gumrukcu

HATAY, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey said on Wednesday it would not hesitate to take action in Syria’s Afrin district and other areas unless the United States withdrew support for a Kurdish-led force there, but Washington denied such plans and said “some people misspoke”.

Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly warned of an imminent incursion in Afrin after Washington said it would help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG militia, set up a new 30,000-strong border force.

The plan has infuriated Turkey, which considers the Syrian YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group, which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the European Union, Turkey and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesman Bekir Bozdag told reporters after a Cabinet meeting the planned U.S.-backed force posed a threat to Turkey’s national security, territorial integrity and the safety of its citizens.

“We emphasized that such a step was very wrong,” he said. “Turkey has reached the limits of its patience. Nobody should expect Turkey to show more patience.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that the United States had any intention of building a Syria-Turkey border force and said the issue had been “misportrayed, misdescribed”.

“Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson told reporters on board an aircraft taking him back to Washington from Vancouver, where he had attended a meeting on North Korea.

“I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression,” he said, without giving details. “That is not what we’re doing.”

He said Turkish officials had been told U.S. intentions were only “to ensure that local elements are providing security to

liberated areas”.

The Pentagon said in an earlier statement it was training “internally focused” Syrian fighters with a goal of preventing the Islamic State group’s resurgence and ensuring Syrians displaced by the war could return to their communities.

“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally. Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate,” it said.

TANKS DEPLOYED

Some Turkish troops have been in Syria for three months after entering northern Idlib province following an agreement with Russia and Iran to try to reduce fighting between pro-Syrian government forces and rebel fighters.

The observation posts which the Turkish army says it has established are close to the dividing line between Arab rebel-held land and Kurdish-controlled Afrin.

Turkey’s National Security Council said earlier on Wednesday Turkey would not allow the formation of a “terrorist army” along its borders.

As the council met, a Reuters reporter witnessed the Turkish army deploying nine tanks to a military base just outside the city of Hatay, near the border with Afrin, to the west of the area where the border force is planned. That followed earlier reports of a military buildup in the area.

“When the Turkish people and Turkish state’s safety is in question, when it is necessary to remove risks and destroy threats, Turkey will do so without hesitation,” Bozdag said.

On Monday, with relations between the United States and Turkey stretched close to breaking point, Erdogan threatened to “strangle” the planned U.S.-backed force in Syria “before it’s even born”.

Turkey and the United States, both allies in NATO, were on the same side for much of Syria’s civil war, both supporting rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But a decision by Washington to back Kurdish forces fighting against Islamic State in recent years has angered Ankara.

The United States has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.

Bozdag reiterated Ankara’s demand that Washington cease its “inexplicable” and “unacceptable” support of the YPG.

“In the case that Turkey’s demands are not met, we will take determined steps in Afrin and other regions to protect our interests. We will take these steps without considering what anyone can say,” Bozdag said. “When will this happen? Suddenly.”

The Cabinet also agreed to extend a state of emergency imposed after a failed 2016 coup attempt from Jan. 18, Bozdag said, in a move likely to prolong a post-putsch crackdown that saw more than 50,000 people arrested and 150,000 others sacked or suspended from their jobs.

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and David Brunnstrom on board a U.S. government aircraft; Editing by Peter Graff, James Dalgleish and Paul Tait)

U.S. envoy says North Korean leader ‘begging for war’ as U.N. mulls sanctions

Secretary of Defense James Mattis (L) makes a statement outside the West Wing of the White House in response to North Korea's latest nuclear testing, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford listens, in Washington, U.S., September 3, 2017

By Christine Kim and Michelle Nichols

SEOUL/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States on Monday said countries trading with North Korea were aiding its “dangerous nuclear intentions” as the United Nations Security Council mulled tough new sanctions and the isolated regime showed signs of planning more missile tests.

South Korea said it was talking to Washington about deploying aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to the Korean peninsula following the North’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sunday.

At a Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was “begging for war” and urged the 15-member group to adopt the strongest possible measures to deter him.

“War is never something the United States wants. We don’t want it now. But our country’s patience is not unlimited. We will defend our allies and our territory,” Haley said.

“The United States will look at every country that does business with North Korea as a country that is giving aid to their reckless and dangerous nuclear intentions,” she said.

Haley said the United States will circulate a new Security Council resolution on North Korea this week and wants a vote on it next Monday.

China, a top trading partner with North Korea, and Russia called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

“China will never allow chaos and war on the (Korean) Peninsula,” said Liu Jieyi, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations.

Russia said peace in the region was in jeopardy.

“A comprehensive settlement to the nuclear and other issues plaguing the Korean peninsula can be arrived at solely through political diplomatic channels,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Typically, China and Russia only view a test of a long-range missile or a nuclear weapon as a trigger for further possible U.N. sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump had asked to be briefed on all available military options, according to his defense chief.

Officials said activity around missile launch sites suggested North Korea planned more missile tests.

“We have continued to see signs of possibly more ballistic missile launches. We also forecast North Korea could fire an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Jang Kyoung-soo, acting deputy minister of national defense policy, told a parliament hearing on Monday.

North Korea tested two ICBMs in July that could fly about 10,000 km (6,200 miles), putting many parts of the U.S. mainland within range and prompting a new round of tough international sanctions.

 

MILITARY EXERCISES

South Korea’s air force and army conducted exercises involving long-range air-to-surface and ballistic missiles on Monday following the North’s nuclear test on Sunday, its joint chiefs of staff said in a statement.

In addition to the drill, South Korea will cooperate with the United States and seek to deploy “strategic assets like aircraft carriers and strategic bombers”, Jang said.

South Korea’s defense ministry also said it would deploy the four remaining launchers of a new U.S. missile defense system after the completion of an environmental assessment by the government.

The rollout of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system at a site south of the South Korean capital, Seoul, which is vehemently opposed by neighboring China and Russia, had been delayed since June.

At the Security Council, neither Russia nor China mentioned their long-held opposition to THAAD or the prospect of further U.N. sanctions in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test.

North Korea said it tested an advanced hydrogen bomb for a long-range missile on Sunday, prompting a warning from U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis of a “massive” military response from the United States if it or its allies were threatened.

People walk past a street monitor showing a news report about North Korea's nuclear test in Tokyo, Japan, September 3, 2017.

People walk past a street monitor showing a news report about North Korea’s nuclear test in Tokyo, Japan, September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Trump has previously vowed to stop North Korea developing nuclear weapons and said he would unleash “fire and fury” if it threatened U.S. territory

Despite the tough talk, the immediate focus of the international response was on tougher economic sanctions.

Diplomats have said the Security Council could now consider banning North Korean textile exports and its national airline, stop supplies of oil to the government and military, prevent North Koreans from working abroad and add top officials to a blacklist to subject them to an asset freeze and travel ban.

Asked about Trump’s threat to punish countries that trade with North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China has dedicated itself to resolving the North Korean issue via talks, and China’s efforts had been recognized.

“What we absolutely cannot accept is that on the one hand (we are) making arduous efforts to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, and on the other hand (our) interests are being sanctioned or harmed. This is both not objective and not fair,” he told a regular briefing.

On possible new U.N. sanctions, and whether China would support cutting off oil, Geng said it would depend on the outcome of Security Council discussions.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said in an editorial that North Korea was “playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship” and it should wake up to the fact that such a tactic “can never bring security it pursues”.

 

SKEPTICISM

While South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on Monday to work with the United States to pursue stronger sanctions, Russia voiced scepticism.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said sanctions on North Korea had reached the limit of their impact. Any more would be aimed at breaking its economy, so a decision to impose further constraints would become dramatically harder, he told a BRICS summit in China.

South Korea says the aim of stronger sanctions is to draw North Korea into dialogue. But, in a series of tweets on Sunday, Trump also appeared to rebuke South Korea for that approach.

“South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” Trump said on Twitter.

Still, Trump’s response was more orderly and less haphazard than he had offered after North Korea’s previous hostile actions.

His handling of its latest nuclear test reflected a more traditional approach to crisis management, which U.S. officials said illustrated the influence of Mattis and the new White House chief of staff, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly.

Japanese and South Korean stock markets both closed down about 1 percent on Monday, while safe-haven assets including gold and sovereign bonds ticked higher, but trade was cautious. U.S. stock markets were closed for the Labor Day holiday.

“Assuming the worst on the Korean peninsula has not proven to be a winning trading strategy this year,” said Sean Callow, a senior foreign exchange strategist at Westpac Bank.

“Investors seem reluctant to price in anything more severe than trade sanctions, and the absence of another ‘fire and fury’ Trump tweet has helped encourage markets to respond warily.”

South Korea’s finance minister vowed to support financial markets if instability showed signs of spreading to the real economy.

(Additional reporting by Shin-hyung Lee, Hyunjoo Jin and Cynthia Kim in SEOUL, Steve Holland, David Brunnstrom, Tim Ahmann, David Shepardson and John Walcott in WASHINGTON, John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI, Wayne Cole and Swati Pandey in SYDNEY; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Jeff Mason; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Simao)

 

Japan defense minister backs all U.S. options on North Korea, seeks deeper alliance

Japan's Defence Minister Tomomi Inada speaks at the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 3, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Japan’s defense minister on Saturday backed the United States using any option to deal with North Korea, including military strikes, and said Tokyo wanted to build a deeper alliance with Washington that could play a regional security role.

“The United States is making clear through both words and deeds that all options are on the table. I strongly support the U.S. position,” Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada said during a speech at a regional security conference in Singapore.

Pyongyang’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs are stoking fear in nearby Japan and prompting a harder line on North Korea from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

A Japanese helicopter carrier and destroyer are concluding three days of drills with two U.S. aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan that also included simulated combat sorties between U.S. Navy F-18s and Japanese air force F-15s.

The exercise followed three ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang in as many weeks. The latest on Monday reached an altitude of 120 km (75 miles) before falling into international waters in the Sea of Japan, but inside an exclusive economic zone where Japan has jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of maritime resources.

Apart from using the U.S. alliance to tackle its belligerent neighbor, Japan also wants the military partnership to exert influence on other parts of Asia, including the highly contested South China Sea, Inada said.

China claims almost all the disputed waters, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West.

“The robust, long-standing Japan-U.S. alliance now functions as a public good that contributes to the peace and stability of the region,” she said.

Beijing often rails against the United States, Japan and other countries for what it sees as interference in the South China Sea, insisting it is for claimant countries involved in disputes to work them out.

Inada also called on European navies to provide “a regular and visible presence” in the region.

A French amphibious assault carrier visited Japan in April after sailing through the South China Sea. Japan’s military later trained with the French force alongside U.S. and British contingents in what sources earlier told Reuters was meant as a show of force aimed at China.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Masayuki Kitano; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lincoln Feast)

Syrian rebels say U.S., allies sending more arms to fend off Iran threat

FILE PHOTO: Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) ride on a tank during a battle with Islamic State militants, at Um Jaris village on the Iraqi border with Syria, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

By Tom Perry, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Maher Chmaytelli

BEIRUT/AMMAN/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Syrian rebels say the United States and its allies are sending them more arms to try to fend off a new push into the southeast by Iran-backed militias aiming to open an overland supply route between Iraq and Syria.

The stakes are high as Iran seeks to secure its influence from Tehran to Beirut in a “Shi’ite crescent” of Iranian influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Sunni Arab states have lost out in power struggles with Iran.

Tensions escalated in the southeastern region of Syria, known as the Badia, this month when government forces supported by Iraqi Shi’ite militias deployed in a challenge to rebels backed by President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies.

This has coincided with a march toward the Syrian border by Shi’ite militias from Iraq. They reached the frontier adjoining northern Syria on Monday. A top Iraqi militia commander said a wider operation to take the area from Sunni jihadist Islamic State would start on Tuesday and this would help Syria’s army.

While in Iraq the United States has fought alongside Iranian-backed Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite militias against Islamic State, in Syria Washington has lined up against Assad’s Iranian-backed government and wants to block a further expansion of Iranian influence, with its regional allies.

The sides are vying for pole position in the next major phase of the fight against Islamic State: the battle to dislodge it from the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor where many of the jihadists have relocated from Raqqa and Mosul.

Several rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner operate in the sparsely populated Badia, where they captured swathes of territory from Islamic State this year. U.S. air strikes on May 18 targeted Iran-backed fighters who had moved into the area.

Also in May, Damascus declared both the Badia and Deir al-Zor priorities of its campaign to re-establish its rule over Syria, which has been shattered by six years of war that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The government is being helped by both Iran and Russia, while the opposition has been helped by the West and regional states which oppose Assad.

Rebels said military aid has been boosted through two separate channels: a program backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), known as the MOC, and regional states including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and one run by the Pentagon.

“There has been an increase in the support,” said Tlass Salameh, head of the Jaish Usoud al-Sharqiya, one of the FSA groups backed via the CIA-backed program. “There’s no way we can let them open the Baghdad-Damascus highway,” he said.

A senior commander of a Pentagon-backed group, Maghawir al-Thawra, told Reuters a steady flow of weapons had arrived at their base near the Iraqi border since the pro-Damascus forces began deploying this month.

He said efforts to recruit and train local fighters from Deir al-Zor had accelerated at their garrison at Tanf, on the highway some 20 km (12 miles) from the Iraqi border.

“The equipment and reinforcements come and go daily … but in the last few weeks they have brought in more heavy military vehicles, TOW (missiles), and armored vehicles,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Two armored vehicles newly delivered to the Tanf garrison were shown in photos sent to Reuters from a rebel source. A video showed fighters unpacking mortar bombs.

In a written response to emailed questions from Reuters, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition did not say if coalition support to Maghawir al-Thawra had increased.

Colonel Ryan Dillon said coalition forces were “prepared to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate” a de-confliction zone around Tanf.

“The coalition has observed pro-regime forces patrolling in the vicinity of the established de-confliction zone around the Tanf training site in Syria … Pro-regime patrols and the continued armed and hostile presence of forces inside the … zone is unacceptable and threatening to coalition forces.”

U.S. jets this week dropped leaflets on pro-government forces instructing them to pull out of the Tanf area to the Zaza junction further from the border. The leaflets were obtained by Hammurabi Justice, a Maghawir-linked website.

The Syrian army could not be reached for comment.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad told Reuters the deployment of government forces and pro-Damascus Iraqi fighters in the Badia would “obstruct all the plans of the MOC, Jordan and America”.

The commander, a non-Syrian, said Assad’s enemies were committed to blocking “what they call the (Shi’ite) Crescent”. But, he said, “Now, our axis is insistent on this matter and it will be accomplished.”

The Iraqi Badr militia said its advance to the Syrian border would help the Syrian army reach the border from the other side. “The Americans will not be allowed to control the border,” its leader, Hadi al-Amiri, told al-Mayadeen TV.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Louise Ireland)

New ferry links North Korea and Russia despite U.S. calls for isolation

The North Korean ferry, the Mangyongbong, is docked in the port of the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev

By Valeria Fedorenko

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) – A new ferry between isolated North Korea and Russia docked for the first time at the Pacific port of Vladivostok on Thursday, in spite of U.S. calls for countries to curtail relations with Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

The launch of the weekly service linking Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin also came despite North Korea’s test-firing of a new type of ballistic missile on Sunday that landed in the sea near Russia.

The ferry’s Russian operators say it is purely a commercial venture, but the service’s launch coincides with what some experts say is a drive by North Korea to build ties with Moscow in case its closest ally China turns its back.

The service is pitched at Chinese tourists wanting to travel by sea to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, according to the operators.

China has no ports on the Sea of Japan, so traveling to North Korea and on to Vladivostok is the quickest way of reaching Vladivostok by sea.

“It’s our business, of our company, without any state subsidies, involvement and help,” Mikhail Khmel, the deputy director of Investstroytrest, the Russia firm operating the ferry, told reporters.

The new ferry link comes in spite of recent calls by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions and review their ties with North Korea to pressure it to give up its weapons programs.

“We call on all nations to fully implement U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and sever or downgrade diplomatic and commercial relations with North Korea,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Katina Adams, said when asked about the new ferry service.

Adams noted Russia’s “obligation” under U.N. Security Council resolutions, “to inspect all cargo, including personal luggage, of any individual traveling to or from” North Korea.

Journalists were unable to see passengers disembarking from the North Korean-flagged vessel Mangyongbong at Vladivostok because Russian officials kept them away from the quayside, citing unspecified security reasons.

But Reuters television was able to speak to three passengers, who said they were representatives of Chinese tourism agencies.

One of the passengers showed a photograph on her smartphone she said had been taken on board. It showed a plaque with an inscription in Korean which, she said, bore the name of North Korea’s long-dead founder Kim Il Sung.

The United States has been discussing possible new U.N. sanctions on North Korea with China, which disapproves of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them, but remains its main trading partner.

Washington is looking to toughen U.N. sanctions to cut off Pyongyang’s sources of funding and to block smuggling of materials needed for its weapons programs.

Russia, especially the port of Vladivostok, is home to one of the largest overseas communities of North Koreans, who send home much-needed hard currency.

To date, there are no signs of a sustainable increase in trade between Russia and North Korea, but Russia has taken a more benign stance toward Pyongyang that other major powers.

Speaking in Beijing this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was against North Korea’s nuclear program, but that the world should talk to Pyongyang instead of threatening it.

Asked about the ferry, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday she “didn’t see a connection” between the new service and political issues.

(Reporting by Valeria Fedorenko; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

U.S. needs to balance foreign alliances: Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks to the employees at the State Department in Washington, U.S., May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday outlined for his staff how an “America First” agenda translates into foreign policy, but did not address the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, which worry many diplomats.

It was the first time Tillerson had addressed all employees since his first day on the job on Feb. 2, when he spoke to hundreds of State Department officials in the building’s lobby, and the most thorough explanation yet of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

Some allies and even some U.S. officials have interpreted Republican President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, which puts Americans’ interests at home ahead of those of its partners overseas, as a threat to retreat from the world.

Tillerson said U.S. foreign policy priorities had gotten “a little bit out of balance” in the previous decades, with the United States too focused on promoting economic activity and trade with emerging economies.

“These are really important relationships to us, and they’re really important alliances, but we’ve got to bring them back into balance,” he said, speaking without notes and walking around the stage in a packed State Department auditorium.

He also signaled that the United States would de-emphasize human rights concerns in some of its interactions with other countries, saying that while U.S. values remain constant, its policies can adapt.

“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” Tillerson said.

TILLERSON’S WORLD TOUR

Tillerson gave a tour of U.S. priorities around the world, including in East Asia, Russia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere, omitting Europe.

With regard to North Korea’s nuclear program, Tillerson said the administration is willing to use so-called secondary sanctions to target foreign companies that continue to do business with Pyongyang in contravention of United Nations sanctions.

The pressure campaign on North Korea is “at about dial setting 5 or 6 right now,” Tillerson said.

On China, Tillerson said the United States has a “tremendous opportunity” to define its relationship with the superpower for the next several decades, and that he sensed great interest by the Chinese leadership to do that as well.

He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will chair a dialogue with their Chinese counterparts in June, in addition to a dialogue focused on economics and trade and led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Tillerson said he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Moscow last month that U.S.-Russia relations were at their lowest point since the Cold War.

“He did not disagree,” Tillerson said. “He shrugged his shoulders and nodded in agreement.”

But in remarks lasting nearly 40 minutes, Tillerson did not address the administration’s proposed 28 percent budget cut for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid, which would reduce funding for the United Nations, climate change and cultural exchange programs. That proposal has made many American diplomats and aid workers anxious.

The Trump administration also has not named candidates for the vast majority of State Department positions requiring Senate confirmation, and many are being filled by career diplomats in “acting” positions. Tillerson began his remarks by thanking those officials, to applause from the crowd.

One veteran official who watched the speech criticized Tillerson’s use of the “America First” slogan. The phrase was used in the 1930s by isolationists who sought to keep the United States out of World War Two.

“The fact that they still use ‘America First’ shows they know nothing about history, and what’s worse is they don’t care.

“It’s offensive,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

Tillerson’s remarks followed an invitation to State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development employees this week to participate in an online survey to help identify “efficiency improvements,” in line with a March directive from Trump to “reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies.” In his speech, the secretary urged employees to fill out the survey and give input on how to reform the agency.

Tillerson said the State Department, like many institutions, was built for the Cold War era.

He said he recognized that deep change to the State Department “is really stressful for a lot of people” and said the administration has “no preconceived notions on the outcome” of a review.

One State Department official faulted Tillerson for not talking in detail about the budget cuts, as well as for not taking questions from employees.

Previous secretaries of state, including Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, held question-and-answer sessions with State Department employees within weeks of taking office.

“They wanted to make this look like he was talking to us, but it was more about the appearance than any substance,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Two other State Department officials, however, spoke highly of Tillerson’s remarks, saying it was early to expect him to take questions from the rank and file and saying he provided guidance both on foreign policy and on the challenge of reorganizing the department.

“I can understand folks wanting more details. I just don’t think we are in a place where he can provide more details,” said one of these officials about the expected State Department budget cuts. “My big takeaway was put on your big-girl britches, and when you look back you will feel like you were part of making this reform happen.”

(Additonal reporting by Arshad Mohammad, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

China to gather friends for biggest summit of year on New Silk Road

China's President Xi Jinping during the official welcoming ceremony in front of the Presidential Palace, in Helsinki, Finland April 5, 2017. Lehtikuva/Martti Kainulainen/via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – China will gather its friends and allies together for its biggest diplomatic event of the year in May, a summit on its New Silk Road plan, with most Asian leaders due to attend but only one from a G7 nation, the Italian prime minister.

President Xi Jinping has championed what China formally calls the “One Belt, One Road” or OBOR, initiative to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, a landmark program to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids.

China has dedicated $40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and the idea was the driving force behind the establishment of the $50 billion China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced on Tuesday a list of those attending the conference, including some of China’s most reliable allies – Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo are coming too, all generally good partners of China.

“One Belt, One Road is to date the most important public good China has given to the world, first proposed by China but for all countries to enjoy,” Wang said.

“The culture and historical genes of One Belt, One Road come from the old Silk Road, so it takes Eurasia as its main region,” he said, adding that representatives of 110 countries would attend.

While China says the New Silk Road is not political, it has run into opposition from India due to a section of it in Pakistan, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where some projects run through the disputed Kashmir region.

Wang dismissed those concerns, saying the Pakistan project had no direct connection to the dispute and India was welcome to participate in the New Silk Road.

“Indian friends have said to us that One Belt, One Road is a very good suggestion,” he said.

Nevertheless, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not on the list of leaders attending.

Wang also made no mention of any attendance of officials from Japan, South Korea or North Korea, all countries with which China has strained ties. Nor was there mention of Australia, a strong U.S. ally that has close trade links with China.

The list included only one leader from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said China had hoped for at least some senior Western leaders to attend, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, to burnish the plan’s credentials and make it less China-centric.

British finance minister Philip Hammond will come as May’s representative, while Germany and France are having elections at the time and will send high-level representatives, Wang said.

Wang confirmed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as among 28 leaders coming, along with the Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Serb and Polish prime ministers and Swiss and Czech presidents.

“This is a positive, cooperative agreement, and we don’t want to politicize it,” Wang told reporters when asked if China was upset at the absence of most major Western leaders.

“This is an economic cooperation forum, an international cooperation platform that everyone is paying attention to, supports and hopes to participate in,” he said.

GLOBAL FRIEND

China is sensitive to any suggestion that what it sees as its benign intentions do not have a receptive global audience, especially in Western capitals.

China was privately upset in 2015 after most Western leaders rebuffed invitations to attend a big military parade marking 70 years since the end of World War Two. Western leaders were unhappy that the guest list that included Putin and wary of the message China would send with the show of strength.

While China has portrayed the New Silk Road as a genuine effort to share the bounty of China’s economic development and to fund infrastructure gaps, many Western countries are concerned about a lack of detail and transparency in the project and are suspicious about China’s broader political intents.

Diplomatic sources said the presence of Putin and other leaders from countries with dubious human rights records, like the Philippines and Central Asian states, had contributed to a reluctance among Western leaders to attend.

Still, at a time of uncertainty about the U.S. place in the world following President Donald Trump’s pledges to put America first, China sees an opportunity to become more of a global leader and has found a receptive audience for its New Silk Road.

Leaders from countries that would appear to have little, if any, connection so far to the plan are coming to the summit, including Chile and Argentina.

“Everyone wants to be China’s friend now with Trump in office,” said a senior Asian diplomat in Beijing.

A senior Indonesian government official said China was aiming for a “spectacular” summit.

“The Chinese are gunning for … global leadership so I think this OBOR summit is going to be huge,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Jakarta; Editing by Robert Birsel)