U.S. concerned about some Hong Kong protest tactics, heavier China hand: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The senior U.S. defense official for Asia said on Tuesday that the United States has some concerns about some of the tactics used by demonstrators in Hong Kong but was also concerned about the heavier hand Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have used against protests in the territory.

Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said the United States was “100 percent” behind those in Hong Kong who were speaking out for respect for fundamental rights guaranteed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

“Certainly we have some concern about some of the tactics that the protesters have been using and may use, and I think in single instances where that becomes a real problem we would point that out,” he told a conference organized by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute.

“But I think in general, we are concerned about the heavier hand that Beijing has taken and the Hong Kong authorities have taken with what we regard as legitimate activities on the part of the people of Hong Kong,” Schriver added.

He said the Hong Kong police and authorities had historically acted to uphold the law and the territory had a very good judicial system.

“What we are concerned about is the heavier hand from Beijing and how that can be distorted and turned into something more repressive,” Schriver said

“The general trend is concerning, that we’re seeing less autonomy, more influence from Beijing, heavier hand from the authorities there, and in general an erosion of the things that were promised the people of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong has been rocked by four months of unrest, with massive marches and at times violent protests involving tear gas, petrol bombs and live rounds, over concerns Beijing is tightening its grip on the city and eroding democratic rights.

Earlier on Tuesday, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam ruled out making any concessions to pro-democracy protesters in the face of escalating violence, which police said was now “life threatening,” citing the detonation of a small bomb.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sandra Maler)

China wants tariffs cut to enable $50 billion imports from U.S.: Bloomberg

China wants tariffs cut to enable $50 billion imports from U.S.: Bloomberg
(Reuters) – China will struggle to buy $50 billion of U.S. farm goods annually unless the United States removes retaliatory tariffs on American products, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

China would make the purchases only if U.S. President Donald Trump rolls back levies put in place since the trade war began, Bloomberg said https://bloom.bg/2OR9dvt, citing people familiar with the matter.

Trump said on Friday that China had agreed to purchase $40 billion to $50 billion worth of agricultural goods from the U.S. in a first phase of an agreement to end the trade war.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Special Report: The hunt for Asia’s El Chapo

By Tom Allard

BANGKOK (Reuters) – He is Asia’s most-wanted man. He is protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers. He flies by private jet. And, police say, he once lost $66 million in a single night at a Macau casino.

Tse Chi Lop, a Canadian national born in China, is suspected of leading a vast multinational drug trafficking syndicate formed out of an alliance of five of Asia’s triad groups, according to law enforcement officials. Its members call it simply “The Company.” Police, in a nod to one of Tse’s nicknames, have dubbed it Sam Gor, Cantonese for “Brother Number Three.”

Suspected Sam Gor drug syndicate kingpin Tse Chi Lop is pictured in this undated handout image taken at an unknown location. Supplied Image/Handout via REUTERS

The syndicate, law enforcers believe, is funneling tonnes of methamphetamine, heroin and ketamine to at least a dozen countries from Japan in North Asia to New Zealand in the South Pacific. But meth – a highly addictive drug with devastating physical and mental effects on long-term users – is its main business, they say.

In what it calls a conservative estimate, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the Sam Gor syndicate’s meth revenue in 2018 at $8 billion a year, but says it could be as high as $17.7 billion. The UN agency estimates that the cartel, which often conceals its drugs in packets of tea, has a 40% to 70% share of the wholesale regional meth market that has expanded at least fourfold in the past five years.

This unprecedented boom in meth production has triggered an unprecedented response, Reuters has learned. Tse, 55, is the prime target of Operation Kungur, a sprawling, previously unreported counter-narcotics investigation. Led by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Operation Kungur involves about 20 agencies from Asia, North America and Europe. It is by far the biggest ever international effort to combat Asian drug trafficking syndicates, say law enforcement agents involved in the investigation. It encompasses authorities from Myanmar, China, Thailand, Japan, the United States and Canada. Taiwan, while not formally part of the operation, is assisting in the investigation.

A document containing AFP profiles of the operation’s top 19 syndicate targets, reviewed by Reuters, identifies Tse as the leader of the syndicate. According to the document, the organization has “been connected with or directly involved in at least 13 cases” of drug trafficking since January 2015. The document does not provide specific details of the cases.

A Taiwanese law enforcement flow chart identifies Tse as the “Multinational CEO” of the syndicate. A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intelligence document shared with regional government agencies says Tse is “believed to be” the leader of the Sam Gor syndicate.

Police have not publicly identified Tse as the suspected boss of the trafficking group.

Some investigators say that the scope of the syndicate’s operation puts Tse, as the suspected leader, on par with Latin America’s most legendary narco-traffickers. “Tse Chi Lop is in the league of El Chapo or maybe Pablo Escobar,” said Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific representative for UNODC. “The word kingpin often gets thrown around, but there is no doubt it applies here.”

Reuters was unable to contact Tse Chi Lop. In response to questions from Reuters, the AFP, the DEA and Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau said they would not comment on investigations.

During the past year, Reuters crisscrossed the Asia-Pacific to uncover the story of Tse and his Sam Gor network. This included interviews with more than two dozen law enforcement officials from eight countries, and reviews of intelligence reports from police and anti-narcotics agencies, court filings and other documents. Reuters spoke to militia leaders in Myanmar’s Shan State, the heart of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, where the syndicate is suspected of mass producing drugs in so-called super-labs. Reuters reporters also visited the Thai compound of one of the syndicate’s alleged drug lords.

What emerges is a portrait of an organization that is truly transnational. Four of the 19 Sam Gor syndicate leaders on the AFP list are Canadian citizens, including Tse, whom police often refer to as “T1” – the top target. Others hail from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and mainland China.

The syndicate is enormously wealthy, disciplined and sophisticated – in many ways more sophisticated than any Latin American cartel, say anti-narcotics officials. Sam Gor supplies a bigger, more dispersed drug market and collaborates with a more diverse range of local crime groups than the Latin cartels do, including Japan’s Yakuza, Australia’s biker gangs and ethnic Chinese gangs across Southeast Asia.

The crime network is also less prone to uncontrolled outbreaks of internecine violence than the Latin cartels, police say. The money is so big that long-standing, blood-soaked rivalries among Asian crime groups have been set aside in a united pursuit of gargantuan profits.

“The crime groups in Southeast Asia and the Far East operate with seamless efficiency,” says one veteran Western anti-drugs official. “They function like a global corporation.”

Like most of the law enforcement agents Reuters interviewed, the investigator spoke on condition of anonymity.

In addition to the contrasts between their drug operations, there’s another, more personal, difference between Tse Chi Lop and Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman or Pablo Escobar. The jailed Mexican cartel boss and the deceased Colombian cocaine trafficker have been feted in song and on screen for their extravagant lifestyles and extreme violence. Precious little has been revealed about Tse’s life and career. Unlike the Latin drug lords, Tse is relatively discreet – and still free.

A TRIP, A TRAP

Tse Chi Lop was born in Guangdong Province, in southern China, and grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution. Amid the bloody purges, forced labor camps and mass starvation, a group of imprisoned members of Mao’s Red Guard in the southern city of Guangzhou formed a triad-like criminal enterprise called the Big Circle Gang. Tse later became a member of the group, say police, and like many of his Big Circle Gang brethren moved to Hong Kong, then further afield as they sought sanctuaries for their criminal activities. He arrived in Canada in 1988.

In the 1990s, Tse shuttled between North America, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia, said a senior AFP investigator based in Asia. He rose to become a mid-ranking member of a smuggling ring that sourced heroin from the Golden Triangle, the lawless opium-producing region where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos meet.

In 1998, according to court records, Tse was arraigned on drug-trafficking charges in the Eastern District Court of New York. He was found guilty of conspiracy to import heroin into America, the records show. A potential life sentence hung over his head.

Through a petition filed by his lawyer in 2000, Tse begged for leniency.

His ailing parents needed constant care, he explained. His 12-year-old son had a lung disorder. His wife was overwhelmed. If freed, vowed Tse, he would open a restaurant. He expressed “great sorrow” for his crime, court records show.

The entreaties appear to have worked: Tse was sentenced to nine years in prison, spent mostly at the federal correctional institution in Elkton, Ohio. But his remorse may have waned.

After he was freed in 2006, police say he returned to Canada, where he was supposed to be under supervised release for the next four years. It’s unclear when Tse returned to his old haunts in Asia. But corporate records show that Tse and his wife registered a business, the China Peace Investment Group Company Ltd, in Hong Kong in 2011.

Police suspect Tse quickly returned to the drug game. He “picked up where he left off,” said the senior AFP investigator. Tse tapped connections in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and the Golden Triangle, and adopted a business model that proved irresistible to his customers, say law enforcers. If one of his drug deliveries was intercepted by police, it was replaced at no extra cost, or deposits were returned to the buyers.

His policy of guaranteeing his drug deliveries was good for business, but it also put him on the radar of police. In 2011, AFP officers cracked a group in Melbourne importing heroin and meth. The amounts were not huge – dozens of kilos. So, rather than arrest the Australian drug dealers, police put them under surveillance, tapping their phones and observing them closely for more than a year. To the frustration of the Australian drug cell, their illicit product kept getting intercepted. They wanted the seized drugs replaced by the syndicate.

The syndicate bosses in Hong Kong were irate – their other drug rings in Australia were collecting their narcotics and selling them without incident. In 2013, as the patience of the syndicate leaders wore thin, they summoned the leader of the Melbourne cell to Hong Kong for talks. There, Hong Kong police watched the Australian meet two men.

One of the men was Tse Chi Lop. He had the center-parted hair and casual fashion sense of a typical middle-aged Chinese family man, said one AFP agent. However, further surveillance showed Tse was a big spender with a keen regard for his personal security. At home and abroad, he was protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers, said three AFP investigators. Up to eight worked for him at a time, and they were regularly rotated as part of his security protocol.

Tse would host lavish birthday parties each year at resorts and five-star hotels, flying in his family and entourage in private jets. On one occasion, he stayed at a resort in Thailand for a month, hosting visitors poolside in shorts and a T-shirt, according to a member of the task force investigating the syndicate.

Tse was a frequent visitor to Asia’s casinos and fond of betting on horses, especially on English races. “We believe he lost 60 million euros (about $66 million) in one night on the tables in Macau,” said the senior Asia-based AFP investigator.

As the investigation into Tse deepened, police suspected that the Canadian was the major trafficker supplying Australia with meth and heroin, with a lucrative sideline in MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. But the true scale and breadth of the Sam Gor syndicate only became apparent in late 2016, police say, when a young Taiwanese man entered Yangon airport with a bag of white powder strapped to each of his thighs.

‘ALADDIN’S CAVE OF INTEL’

Cai Jeng Ze was heading home to Taiwan, walking through the airport with a Jimmy Choo leather bag and two mobile phones. It was the morning of November 15, 2016, and Cai seemed nervous, picking at his blistered hands. This tic aroused suspicion, said a former Myanmar police commander who oversaw the investigation. “His hands were bad because he had been handling the drugs,” the commander told Reuters. “Methamphetamine is very toxic.”

Cai was stopped and searched. Taped to each of his thighs was a small bag containing 80 grams of ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer that doubles as a party drug. “We were very fortunate to arrest him. Actually, it was an accident,” the commander said. Myanmar police, tipped off by the DEA, had been monitoring Cai. But they had lost track of him. Airport police had no idea who he was.

Cai told airport police the bag on his thigh contained a “pesticide or vitamin for flowers and plants,” according to Myanmar court records from his trial for ketamine trafficking. A friend, said Cai, had given it to him to pass on to his father. Cai’s flight was about to leave and there was no drug test for ketamine at the airport, the commander said.

Unimpressed with the explanation, police held him overnight. The next day, anti-narcotic officers turned up at the airport. One recognized him from surveillance work he’d been conducting.

Still, Cai refused to talk. Police say that videos they later found on one of his phones might have explained his silence. The videos showed a crying and bound man, and at least three assailants taking turns burning his feet with a blowtorch and electrocuting him with a cattle prod. In the videos, said one investigator, a sign can be seen with Chinese calligraphy saying “Loyalty to the Heavens.” The banner was a “triad-related sign,” he added.

The tortured man, according to two AFP officers who viewed the video, claimed to have thrown 300 kg of meth from a boat because he mistakenly believed a fast-approaching vessel was a law enforcement boat. The torturers were testing the veracity of the victim’s claims. By filming and sharing the videos, triad members were sending a message about the price of disloyalty, the officers said. Reuters has not seen the video.

The torture videos were just one of the items allegedly found in Cai’s two iPhones. The alleged Taiwanese trafficker was a diligent chronicler of the drug syndicate’s activities, but sloppy when it came to information security. Inside the phones, police say, was a huge photo and video gallery, social media conversations, and logs of thousands of calls and text messages.

They were “an Aladdin’s Cave of intel,” said one AFP commander based in North Asia.

For at least two months prior to his arrest, Cai allegedly traveled around Myanmar cobbling together a huge meth deal for the syndicate, according to a PowerPoint presentation by the Drug Enforcement Division of the Myanmar police outlining its investigation. One telling discovery: a screenshot of a slip from an international courier company recording the delivery of two consignments of packaging, manufactured to hold loose-leaf Chinese tea, to a Yangon address. Since at least 2012, tea packets, often containing one kilo of crystal meth each, had been cropping up in drug busts across the Asia-Pacific region.

Two days after Cai’s arrest, Myanmar police raided a Yangon address, where they seized 622 kilograms of ketamine. That evening, they captured 1.1 tonnes of crystal meth at a Yangon jetty. The interception of the drugs was a coup. Even so, Myanmar police were frustrated. Nine people were arrested, but other than Cai they were lower-level members of the syndicate, including couriers and a driver. And Cai still wasn’t talking.

Then came a major breakthrough. Swiping through the gallery of photos and videos on Cai’s phones, an AFP investigator based in Yangon noticed a familiar face from an intelligence briefing he had attended on Asian drug traffickers about a year earlier. “This one stuck out because it was Canadian,” he recalled. “I said: ‘Fuck, I know who you are!’”

It was Tse Chi Lop.

The Myanmar police invited the AFP to send a team of intelligence analysts to Yangon in early 2017. They went to work on Cai’s phones.

Australia had been a profitable drug market for Asian crime gangs since the end of the Vietnam War. For at least a decade, the AFP had fed all its historic files on drug cases, large and small, into a database. A senior Chinese counter-narcotics agent described the database, which includes a trove of names, chemical signatures of seized drugs, phone metadata and surveillance intel, as the most impressive cache of intelligence on Asian drug trafficking groups in the region.

The AFP analysts cross-referenced the contents of Cai’s phones with the database. They discovered photos related to three big consignments of crystal meth that were intercepted in China, Japan and New Zealand in 2016, according to investigators and Myanmar police documents. Later, a team of Chinese anti-narcotics officials connected photos, telephone numbers and addresses in Cai’s phones to other meth busts in China.

For regional counter-narcotics police, the revelations upended their assumption that the drugs were being trafficked by different crime groups. It became clear the shipments were the work of just one organization. A senior Chinese anti-narcotics agent said they believed Cai was “one of the members of a mega-syndicate,” which had been involved in multiple “drugs cases, smuggling and manufacturing, within this region.”

Cai was found not guilty in the ketamine case, but is still in jail in Yangon, where he is on trial for drug trafficking charges related to the meth seizures. Reuters was unable to contact Cai’s lawyer.

METH PARADISE

During his time in Myanmar, Cai is suspected of traversing the country, testing drug samples, organizing couriers and obtaining a fishing boat to transport the illicit cargo to a bigger vessel in international waters, according to police and the Myanmar PowerPoint document. His phones contained pictures of the vehicles to be used to transport the meth, the spot where the meth was to be dropped off, and the fishing boat.

The police reconstruction of Cai’s dealings in Myanmar led to another major revelation: The epicenter of meth production had shifted from China’s southern provinces to Shan State in Myanmar’s northeastern borderlands. Operating in China had provided the Sam Gor syndicate with easy access to precursor ingredients, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, that were smuggled out of pharmaceutical, chemical and paint factories in the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone. Shan gave Sam Gor the freedom to operate largely unimpeded by law enforcement.

Armed rebel groups in semi-autonomous regions like Shan State have long controlled large tracts of territory and used drug revenues to finance their frequent battles with the military. A series of detentes brokered by the Myanmar government with rebel groups over the years has brought relative calm to the region – and allowed illicit drug activities to flourish.

“Production facilities can be hidden from law enforcement and other prying eyes but insulated from disruptive violence,” analyst Richard Horsey wrote in a paper this year for the International Crisis Group. “Drug production and profits are now so vast that they dwarf the formal sector of Shan state.”

The Myanmar government and police did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Along the road to the village of Loikan in Shan State, there is evidence of drug-fueled prosperity. The two-lane road skirts a deep ravine known as the “Valley of Death,” where ethnic Kachin rebels from the Kaung Kha paramilitary group clashed for decades with Myanmar’s army. Now, high-end SUVs thunder past trucks carrying building materials and workers.

The Kaung Kha militia’s immaculate and expansive new headquarters sits on a plateau nestled between the steep green hills of the jagged Loi Sam Sip range. About six kilometers away, near Loikan village, was a sprawling drug facility carved out of thick forest. Police and locals say the complex churned out vast quantities of crystal meth, heroin, ketamine and yaba tablets – a cheaper form of meth that is mixed with caffeine. When it was raided in early 2018, security forces seized more than 200,000 liters of precursor chemicals, as well as 10,000 kg of caffeine and 73,550 kg of sodium hydroxide – all substances used in drug production.

The Loikan facility was “very likely” to have been the source of much of the Sam Gor syndicate’s meth, said the Yangon-based AFP officer.

“Some militia were involved in the lab,” said Oi Khun, a communications officer for the 3,000-strong Kaung Kha militia, in an interview. He paused, then added: “But not with the knowledge of senior members” of the militia.

One person in Loikan described how workers from the lab would come down from the hills. The men, like most of the villagers, were ethnic Chinese. But they dressed better than the locals, had foreign accents, and had a foul smell about them.

“I asked them once. ‘Why don’t you bathe?’” the person said. “They said they did, but there was nothing they could do about the smell.”

The rank chemicals used to cook the meth had seeped into the skin of the men, who seemed unperturbed that the signature stench might reveal their illicit activities. “We all knew,” the person said. “We just didn’t talk about it. That just brings you danger.”

Meth lab managers and chemists are mostly Taiwan nationals, say Thai police. So, too, are many of the crime network’s couriers and boat crews who transport the drugs across the Asia-Pacific.

Shan’s super-labs produce the purest crystal meth in the world, the senior Chinese counter-narcotics official told Reuters. “They can take it slow and spread (the meth) out on the ground and let it dry.”

The UNODC estimates the Asia-Pacific retail market for meth is worth between $30.3 and $61.4 billion annually. The business model for meth is “very different” to heroin, said the UNODC’s Douglas. “Inputs are relatively cheap, a large workforce is not needed, the price per kilo is higher, and profits are therefore far, far higher.”

The wholesale price of a kilo of crystal meth produced in northeastern Myanmar is as little as $1,800, according to a UNODC report citing the China National Narcotics Control Commission. Average retail prices for crystal meth, according to the UN agency, are equivalent to $70,500 per kilo in Thailand, $298,000 per kilo in Australia and $588,000 in Japan. For the Japanese market, that’s more than a three-hundred-fold mark-up.

The money the syndicate is making “means that if they lose ten tonnes and one goes through, they still make a big profit,” said the Chinese counter-narcotics official. “They can afford failure. It doesn’t matter.”

‘MONEY, MONEY’

The analysis of Cai’s phones was continuing to provide leads. On them, police say they found the GPS coordinates of the pick-up point in the Andaman Sea where fishing boats laden with Myanmar meth were meeting drug motherships capable of being at sea for weeks.

One of the motherships was a Taiwanese trawler called the Shun de Man 66, according to the Taiwanese law enforcement document reviewed by Reuters. The vessel was already at sea when, in early July 2017, Joshua Joseph Smith walked into a marine broker in the Western Australian capital of Perth and paid $A350,000 (about $265,000 at the time) for the MV Valkoista, a fishing charter boat. Smith, who was in his mid-40s and hailed from the east coast of Australia, inquired about sea sickness tablets. According to local media, he didn’t have a fishing license at the time.

After buying the boat on July 7, Smith set the Valkoista on a course straight from the marina to meet the Shun De Man 66 in the Indian Ocean, an AFP police commander said. After the rendezvous, the Valkoista then sailed to the remote Western Australian port city of Geraldton on July 11, where its crew was seen “unloading a lot of packages” into a van, the commander said.

“We knew we had an importation. We know the methodology of organized crime networks. We know if a ship leaves empty and comes back with some gear on it, that it hasn’t just dropped from the sky in the middle of the ocean.”

Investigators checked CCTV footage and hotel, plane and car hire records. The phones of some of the Australian drug traffickers were tapped. It soon became apparent, police say, that some of Smith’s alleged co-conspirators were members of an ethnic Lebanese underworld gang, as well as the Hells Angels and Comanchero motorcycle gangs, known as “bikies” in Australia.

As they put together their deal to import 1.2 tonnes of crystal meth into Australia, Smith’s associates met with Sam Gor syndicate members in Bangkok in August 2017, according to a copy of an AFP document reviewed by Reuters. The Australians reconvened in Perth a month later.

Bikers may have a reputation for wild clubhouse parties and a self-styled mythology as outsiders, but these Australians had refined tastes. They flew business class, stayed in five-star hotels and dined at the finest restaurants, according to police investigators and local media reports. One of those restaurants, said the AFP commander, was the Rockpool Bar & Grill in Perth. The restaurant offered a 104-page wine list and a menu that included caviar with toast at about $185 per serving.

On November 27, 2017, the Shun De Man 66 set sail again, this time from Singapore. The vessel headed north into the Andaman Sea to rendezvous with a smaller boat bringing the meth from Myanmar. The Shun De Man then sailed along the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and dropped down to the Indian Ocean.

The Indonesian navy watched and the AFP listened.

When the Shun De Man finally met again with the Valkoista in international waters off the West Australian coast on December 19, an Asian voice could be heard shouting “money, money,” according to the commander and local media reports. The Shun De Man’s crew had one half of a torn Hong Kong dollar bill. Smith and his crew had the other half. The Australian buyers proved their identity by matching their portion to the fragment held by the crew of the Shun De Man, who then handed over the meth.

The Valkoista arrived in the Australian port city of Geraldton following a two-day return journey in rough seas. The men unloaded the drugs in the pre-dawn dark. Masked members of the AFP and Western Australian police moved in with assault weapons and seized the drugs and the men. Smith pleaded guilty to importing a commercial quantity of an illegal drug. Some of his alleged associates are still on trial.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau said it had “worked together with our counterparts on the investigation” of the Shun De Man 66 and that this had led to the “substantial seizure of illicit narcotics” by the Australian authorities in December 2017. The bureau said it was “aware that Taiwanese syndicates have participated in maritime drug trafficking in (the) Asia-Pacific region,” and was working “collaboratively and closely with our counterparts to disrupt these syndicates and cross-border drug trafficking.”

NIMBLE, ELUSIVE, UNFAZED

As the investigation into the syndicate deepened, police concluded that crime groups from across the region had undergone a kind of mega-merger to form Sam Gor. The members include the three biggest Hong Kong and Macau triads, who spent much of the 1990s in open warfare: 14K, Wo Shing Wo and Sun Yee On. The other two are the Big Circle Gang, Tse’s original triad, and the Bamboo Union, based in Taiwan. In the words of one investigator, the syndicate’s supply chain is so complex and expertly run that it “must rival Apple’s.”

“The syndicate has a lot of money and there is a vast market to tap,” said Jay Li Chien-chih, a Taiwanese police senior colonel who has been stationed in Southeast Asia for a decade. “The power this network possesses is unimaginable.”

Investigators have had wins. In February last year, police busted the Loikan super-lab in Myanmar, where they found enough tea-branded packaging for 10 tonnes of meth. The Shun De Man 66 was intercepted that month by the Indonesian navy with more than one tonne of meth aboard. In March 2018, a key Sam Gor lieutenant was arrested in Cambodia and extradited to Myanmar. In December, the compound of Sue Songkittikul, a suspected syndicate operations chief, was raided in Thailand.

Located near the border with Myanmar, the moat-ringed compound had a small meth lab, which police suspected was used to experiment with new recipes; a powerful radio tower with a 100-km range; and an underground tunnel from the main house to the back of the property.

Sue wasn’t there, but property and money from 38 bank accounts linked to him and totaling some $9 million were seized during the investigation. Sue is still at large.

But the flow of drugs leaving the Golden Triangle for the wider Asia-Pacific seems to have increased. Seizures of crystal meth and yaba rose about 50% last year to 126 tonnes in East and Southeast Asia. At the same time, prices for the drugs fell in most countries. This pattern of falling prices and rising seizures, the UNODC said in a report released in March 2019, “suggested the supply of the drug had expanded.”

In the Sam Gor syndicate, police face a nimble and elusive adversary. When authorities had success stopping the drug motherships, police said, Sam Gor switched to hiding its product in shipping containers. When Thailand stopped much of the meth coming directly across the border from Myanmar by truck, the syndicate re-routed deliveries through Laos and Vietnam. This included deploying hordes of Laotians with backpacks, each containing about 30 kilos of meth, to carry it into Thailand on narrow jungle paths.

Over the years, police have had little success in taking down Asia’s drug lords. Some of the suspected syndicate leaders have been involved in drug trafficking for decades, according to the AFP target list. The last time a top-level Asian narcotics kingpin was successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for more than a short period was in the mid-1970s. That’s when Ng Sik-ho, a wily Hong Kong drug trafficker known as Limpy Ho, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for smuggling more than 20 tonnes of opium and morphine, according to court records.

So far, Tse has avoided Limpy Ho’s fate. He is being tracked, and all the signs are he knows it, say counter-narcotics agents. Despite the heat, some police say they believe he is continuing his drug operations, unfazed.

(Reporting by Tom Allard. Additional reporting by Reuters Staff. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)

China wants more talks before signing Trump’s ‘Phase 1’ deal: Bloomberg

(Reuters) – China wants more talks as soon as the end of October to hammer out the details of the “phase one” trade deal outlined by U.S. President Donald Trump before Chinese President Xi Jinping agrees to sign it, Bloomberg reported on Monday, citing people familiar with the matter.

Beijing may send a delegation led by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He to finalize a written deal that could be signed by the two leaders at the Asia-Pacific Cooperation summit next month in Chile, Bloomberg said.

China wants Trump to also scrap a planned tariff hike in December in addition to the hike scheduled for this week, the report added.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. company supplying tear gas to Hong Kong police faces mounting criticism

By Rajesh Kumar Singh

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Another U.S. senator has joined a chorus against Pennsylvania-based NonLethal Technologies Inc for selling riot gear to Hong Kong that is being used against pro-democracy protesters.

The privately held company, which makes and exports a wide range of riot and crowd control equipment for military and law enforcement agencies, has been in the spotlight ever since it was discovered that Hong Kong police are employing its tear gas canisters to disperse anti-government demonstrations.

In one photo that has been widely shared on social media, NonLethal’s name is stamped on the casing of a spent tear gas canister.

The use of U.S.-made gear to quell protests has prompted several lawmakers to call for halting and even banning tear gas exports to the city. In July, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, proposed in a tweet that the United States consider banning exports of tear gas to Hong Kong if the attacks on the protesters were not stopped.

Similarly, in August, U.S. Representatives Chris Smith, a Republican, and James McGovern, a Democrat, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilber Ross, asking them to suspend future sales of crowd and riot control equipment to Hong Kong police.

They followed up their letter with a bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives last month, which seeks to prohibit commercial exports of certain nonlethal crowd control items and defense articles and services to the city. If passed, the ban would take effect within 30 days.

U.S. Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, on Thursday became the latest to raise concerns about the exports.

In a letter to NonLethal’s president shared on Twitter, Scott said the sales were equivalent to supporting efforts of the Chinese president to “harm ordinary citizens and peaceful protesters.” He urged the manufacturer of tear gas to “put human rights above profits.”

The protests have plunged the city, an Asian financial hub, into its worst crisis since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

What began as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has evolved into a pro-democracy movement fanned by fears that China is stifling Hong Kong’s freedoms, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula introduced in 1997.

China denies the accusations and says foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, are fomenting unrest.

In his Oct. 10 letter, Scott said during a recent trip to the city he saw firsthand how the company’s products were used in a “dangerous and malicious manner to intentionally harm protesters.”

He requested to meet with the company’s president, Scott Oberdick, to discuss his concerns.

Oberdick, however, told Reuters on Friday that he had not seen Scott’s letter. When asked about the criticism his company has been facing for selling tear gas to Hong Kong police, Oberdick hung up the phone.

NonLethal does not share its financial details with public. However, in 2017, it was listed as one of the top 10 companies in the world producing riot-control systems, according to London-based market research firm Visiongain.

According to its website, the company provides “a full range of less lethal grenades and less lethal ammunition to allow the most effective level of force to be used for various situations.” However, for overseas sales, most of its products require an export license from the United States Department of Commerce.

An online petition, urging the White House to suspend any export application of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong, has garnered more than 110,000 signatures.

Amnesty International has also called on countries including the United States to halt all transfers of less lethal “crowd control” equipment – including water cannon vehicles, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, projectile launchers and parts and components – to Hong Kong.

(Reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

With U.S. tariffs looming, China drums up hope for a partial trade deal

By Yawen Chen and Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese state newspaper said on Friday that a “partial” trade deal would benefit China and the United States, and Washington should take the offer on the table, reflecting Beijing’s aim of cooling the row before more U.S. tariffs kick in.

Both sides have slapped duties on hundreds of billions of dollars of goods during the 15-month trade dispute, which has shaken financial markets and uprooted global supply chains as companies move production elsewhere.

As top U.S. and Chinese negotiators wrapped up a first day of trade talks in more than two months on Thursday, business groups expressed optimism the two sides might be able to ease the conflict and delay a U.S. tariff hike scheduled for next week.

China’s top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, said on Thursday that China is willing to reach agreement with the United States on matters that both sides care about so as to prevent friction from leading to any further escalation.

He stressed that “the Chinese side came with great sincerity”.

Adding to that, the official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial in English: “A partial deal is a more feasible objective”.

“Not only would it be of tangible benefit by breaking the impasse, but it would also create badly needed breathing space for both sides to reflect on the bigger picture,” the paper said.

Hours ahead of an expected meeting between China’s Liu and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, China’s securities regulator unveiled a firm timetable for scrapping foreign ownership limits in futures, securities and mutual fund companies for the first time.

China previously said it would further open up its financial sector on its own terms and at its own pace, but the timing of Friday’s announcement suggests Beijing is keen to show progress in its plan to increase foreigners’ access to the sector, which is among a host of demands from Washington in the trade talks.

Chinese officials are offering to increase annual purchases of U.S. agricultural products as the two countries seek to resolve their trade dispute, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing unidentified sources.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Thursday confirmed net sales of 142,172 tonnes of U.S. pork to China in the week ended Oct. 3, the largest weekly sale to the world’s top pork market on record.

A U.S.-China currency agreement is also being floated as a symbol of progress in talks between the world’s two largest economies, although that would largely repeat past pledges by China, currency experts say, and will not change the dollar-yuan relationship that has been a thorn in the side of Trump.

PESSIMISM ‘STILL JUSTIFIED’

Analysts have noted China sent a larger-than-normal delegation of senior Chinese officials to Washington, with commerce minister Zhong Shan and deputy ministers on agriculture and technology also present.

The sudden optimism about a potential de-escalation is in stark contrast to much more gloomy predictions in business circles just days ago on the heels of a series of threatened crackdowns on China by the Trump administration.

On Tuesday, the U.S. government widened its trade blacklist to include Chinese public security bureaus and some of China’s top artificial intelligence startups, punishing Beijing for its treatment of Muslim minorities.

Surprised by the move, Chinese government officials told Reuters on the eve of talks that they had lowered expectations for significant progress.

Friday’s China Daily editorial also warned that “pessimism is still justified”, noting that the talks would finish just three days before Washington is due to raise tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports.

The negotiations were the “only window” to end deteriorating relations, it added.

Trump, said on Thursday that the talks had so far gone very well. But he has previously insisted he would not be satisfied with a partial deal to resolve his two-year effort to change China’s trade, intellectual property and industrial policy practices, which he argues cost millions of U.S. jobs.

There have also been reports that the Trump administration is readying additional measures aimed at China, with unknown consequences for trade negotiations.

Such wildly shifting expectations have been a persistent feature of the trade war, and observers remained cautious over what might emerge from this week’s talks.

“China wants peace, but I don’t think China will give more,” one Chinese trade expert said on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Michael Martina; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore & Kim Coghill)

U.S., China resume high-level talks to end grueling trade war

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. and Chinese negotiators met on Thursday for the first time since late July to try to find a way out of a 15-month trade war as new irritants between the world’s two largest economies threatened hopes for progress.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer greeted Chinese Vice Premier Liu He on the steps of the USTR office before a meeting in which they will seek to narrow differences enough to avoid an escalation of tit-for-tat tariffs that have roiled financial markets and stoked fears of a global recession.

The mood surrounding the talks soured this week when the U.S. government blacklisted 28 Chinese public security bureaus, technology and surveillance firms and imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials over allegations of abuses of Muslim minorities in China.

Beijing is planning to tighten visa restrictions for U.S. nationals with ties to anti-China groups, sources said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods on Oct. 15 if no progress is made in the on-again, off-again negotiations.

That would make nearly all Chinese goods imports into the United States – more than $500 billion – subject to tariffs.

“Big day of negotiations with China,” Trump said on Twitter. “They want to make a deal, but do I?” He added that he would be meeting with Liu at the White House on Friday.

Chinese officials indicated more willingness to negotiate. “The Chinese side came with great sincerity, willing to cooperate with the U.S. on the trade balance, market access and investor protection,” Xinhua quoted Liu as saying on Thursday.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce official said there was a possibility U.S. and Chinese negotiators would reach a currency agreement in exchange for a delay of the tariff hikes.

Major U.S. stock exchanges were trading higher on hopes of progress in the talks.

Although some media reports suggested both sides are considering an “interim” deal that would suspend the planned further U.S. tariffs in exchange for additional purchases of American farm products, Trump has repeatedly dismissed this idea, insisting he wants a “big deal” with Beijing that addresses core intellectual property issues.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said on Thursday that private exporters reported a snap sale of 398,000 tonnes of soybeans to China, part of a flurry of purchases the top buyer of the oilseed has made since granting waivers to some importers to buy U.S. soy exempt from tariffs as a goodwill gesture.

Chinese firms have bought more than 3.5 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans since the beginning of September. Soybeans, the most valuable U.S. agricultural export, have been among the products hardest hit by China’s retaliatory tariffs.

LOWERED EXPECTATIONS

The two sides have been at loggerheads over U.S. demands that China improve protections of American intellectual property, end cyber theft and the forced transfer of technology to Chinese firms, curb industrial subsidies and increase U.S. companies’ access to largely closed Chinese markets.

But Chinese officials, surprised by the U.S. blacklisting of Chinese companies, including video surveillance gear maker Hikvision, along with the suspension of U.S. visas for some Chinese officials, told Reuters that Beijing had lowered expectations for significant progress from the talks.

“I’ve never seen China respond with concessions to someone throwing down the gauntlet in this manner,” said Scott Kennedy, a China trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It suggests to me that the U.S. may have determined that progress was impossible, so everyone is just going through the motions.”

Other flashpoints that have cropped up in recent days include China’s swift action to cut corporate ties to the National Basketball Association over a team official’s tweet in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in Sydney on Thursday that the tariffs were working, forcing Beijing to pay attention to American concerns about its trade practices.

“We do not love tariffs – in fact we would prefer not to use them – but after years of discussions and no action, tariffs are finally forcing China to pay attention to our concerns,” Ross said in remarks prepared for delivery on an official visit to Australia.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Simao)

Taiwan leader rejects China’s ‘one country, two systems’ offer

By Yimou Lee

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan’s president rejected on Thursday a “one country, two systems” formula that Beijing has suggested could be used to unify the island and the mainland, saying such an arrangement had set Hong Kong “on the edge of disorder”.

President Tsai Ing-wen also vowed in a National Day speech to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, saying her government would safeguard freedom and democracy as Beijing ramps up pressure on the self-ruled island it considers a wayward province.

Tsai, who is seeking re-election in January amid criticism of her policy towards China, referred to the arrangement for the return of the former British colony of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 as a failure.

Hong Kong has been hit by months of anti-government protests triggered by widespread resentment of what many city residents see as relentless efforts by Beijing to exert control of their city despite the promises of autonomy.

China has proposed that Taiwan be brought under Chinese rule under a similar arrangement, but Tsai said Beijing’s policies towards the island were a danger to regional stability.

“China is still threatening to impose its ‘one country, two systems’ model for Taiwan. Their diplomatic offensives and military coercion pose a serious challenge to regional stability and peace,” Tsai said.

“When freedom and democracy are challenged, and when the Republic of China’s existence and development are threatened, we must stand up and defend ourselves,” Tsai said, referring to Taiwan by its official name.

“The overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people is our rejection of ‘one country, two systems,’ regardless of party affiliation or political position.”

Taiwan’s National Day, marking the anniversary of the start of a 1911 uprising that led to the end of dynastic rule in China and the founding of a republic, was celebrated in Taipei with singing, dancing and parades.

Cold War hostility between the island and the mainland had eased over the past decade or so as both sides focused more on expanding business ties, but relations have cooled considerably since Tsai took office in 2016.

China suspects Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party of pushing for the island’s formal independence, and this year threatened it with war if there was any such move.

Tsai denies seeking independence and reiterated that she would not unilaterally change the status quo with China.

FLASHPOINT

Despite her assurances, Beijing has stepped up pressure on the island to seek “reunification” and backed up its warnings by flying regular bomber patrols around it.

Beijing also says Taiwan does not have the right to state-to-state relations and is keen to isolate it diplomatically.

Seven countries have severed diplomatic ties with the Taiwan and switched allegiance to Beijing since Tsai coming to power. It now has formal diplomatic ties with just 15 nations.

But Tsai said Taiwan was undaunted.

“The determination of the Taiwanese people to embrace the world has never wavered,” she said, adding that Taiwan must work with “like-minded countries” to ensure peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Tsai said under her watch Taiwan has boosted its combat capabilities with the purchase of advanced weapons and development of home-made aircraft.

Taiwan unveiled its largest defense spending increase in more than a decade in August, aiming to purchase more advanced weapons from overseas.

The island has long been a flashpoint in the U.S.-China relationship.

In July, the United States approved the sale of an $2.2 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, angering Beijing.

The United States has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself.

(Reporting by Yimou Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robeert Birsel)

Apple pulls police-tracking app used by Hong Kong protesters after consulting authorities

By Stephen Nellis and John Ruwitch

SAN FRANCISCO/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Apple Inc has removed an app that helped Hong Kong protesters track police movements, saying it was used to ambush law enforcement – a move that follows sharp criticism of the U.S. tech giant by a Chinese state newspaper for allowing the software.

The decision to bar the HKmap.live app, which crowdsources the locations of both police and protesters, from its app store plunges Apple into the increasingly fraught political tension between China and the protesters that has also ensnared other U.S. and Hong Kong businesses.

Apple had only just last week approved the app after rejecting it earlier this month. The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper on Tuesday called the app “poisonous” and decried what it said was Apple’s complicity in helping the Hong Kong protesters.

Apple said in a statement on Wednesday it had begun an immediate investigation after “many concerned customers in Hong Kong” contacted the company about the app and Apple found it had endangered law enforcement and residents.

“The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement,” it said.

Apple did not comment beyond its statement. The company also removed BackupHK, a separate app that served as a mirror of the HKmap.live app.

On Twitter, an account believed to be owned by the HKmap.live app’s developer said it disagreed with Apple’s decision and there was no evidence to support the Hong Kong police’s claims via Apple that the app had been used in ambushes.

“The majority of user review(s) in App Store … suggest HKmap IMPROVED public safety, not the opposite,” it said.

The app consolidates content from public posts on social networks and moderators delete content that solicited criminal activity and would ban repeated attempts to post such content in the app, it added.

Neither China’s foreign ministry nor the information office of the State Council had an immediate comment when asked about the HKmap.live app removal. Hong Kong police also had no immediate comment.

In a separate move, Apple also removed the Quartz news app from its App Store in China because Chinese authorities said the app violated local laws.

Quartz Chief Executive Zach Seward told technology publication The Verge in a statement: “We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world.”

ANGER IN HONG KONG

The People’s Daily newspaper on Tuesday blasted Apple, saying it did not have a sense of right and wrong, and ignored the truth. Making the app available on Apple’s Hong Kong App Store at this time was “opening the door” to violent protesters in the former British colony, the newspaper wrote.

The HKmap.live app was taken down from Apple’s app store globally on Wednesday but continued to work for users who had previously downloaded it in Hong Kong, Reuters found. A web version was also still viewable on iPhones.

Word of the its removal spread quickly in Hong Kong, where residents have been campaigning for months in sometimes violent demonstrations – first to protest a now-withdrawn extradition bill and currently in a broader push for democratic rights.

“Does the entire world have to suck up to the garbage Communist Party?” one commentator called Yip Lou Jie said in an online forum, LIHKG, which is used by protesters in Hong Kong.

But Simon Young, associate dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, said Apple seemed to have a case given the circumstances.

“It sounds like they are being responsible. To do nothing when it’s being used for a specific purpose that actually facilitates these protests, to do nothing would be rather irresponsible,” he said.

Apple’s action has come amid a furor surrounding the National Basketball Association after a team official tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong and which has led Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the NBA.

Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, has also felt the wrath of China’s aviation regulator, which has called for the suspension of staff who have taken part in the protests or expressed support.

Under Apple’s rules and policies, apps that meet its standards to appear in the App Store have sometimes been removed after their release if they were found to facilitate illegal activity or threaten public safety.

In 2011, Apple modified its app store to remove apps that listed locations for drunken driving checkpoints not previously published by law enforcement officials.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis and John Ruwitch; Additional reporting by Greg Mitchell in San Francisco; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

EU warns of 5G cybersecurity risks, stops short of singling out China

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union warned on Wednesday of the risk of increased cyber attacks by state-backed entities but refrained from singling out China and its telecoms equipment market leader Huawei Technologies as threats.

The comments came in a report prepared by EU member states on cybersecurity risks to next-generation 5G mobile networks seen as crucial to the bloc’s competitiveness in an increasingly networked world.

The authors chose to ignore calls by the United States to ban Huawei’s equipment, drawing a welcome from the Shenzen-based company after it faced U.S. accusations that its gear could be used by China for spying.

“Among the various potential actors, non-EU states or state-backed are considered as the most serious ones and the most likely to target 5G networks,” the European Commission and Finland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said in a joint statement.

“In this context of increased exposure to attacks facilitated by suppliers, the risk profile of individual suppliers will become particularly important, including the likelihood of the supplier being subject to interference from a non-EU country,” they said.

Huawei, which competes with Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson, said it stood ready to work with its European partners on 5G network security. It has always denied its equipment can be used for spying.

“This exercise is an important step toward developing a common approach to cybersecurity and delivering safe networks for the 5G era,” a Huawei spokesman said.

“We are pleased to note that the EU delivered on its commitment to take an evidence-based approach, thoroughly analyzing risks rather than targeting specific countries or actors.”

Tom Ridge, a former U.S. secretary of homeland security, took a different view of the report. He said Huawei’s close ties to the Chinese government meant it would have to comply with legislation requiring it to assist with intelligence gathering.

“If countries needed more reason to implement stricter security measures to protect 5G networks, this comprehensive risk assessment is it,” said Ridge, a member of the advisory board of Global Cyber Policy Watch.

Fifth-generation networks will hook up billions of devices, sensors and cameras in ‘smart’ cities, homes and offices. With that ubiquity, security becomes an even more pressing need than in existing networks.

“5G security requires that networks are built leveraging the most advanced security features, selecting vendors that are trustworthy and transparent,” a Nokia spokesperson said, adding that the company was the only global vendor capable of providing all the building blocks for secure 5G networks.

EU members have differed on how to treat Huawei, with Britain, a close U.S. ally, leaning toward excluding it from critical parts of networks. Germany is meanwhile creating a level playing field in which all 5G vendors should prove they are trustworthy.

OVER-DEPENDENCE

The report warned against over-dependence on one telecoms equipment supplier.

“A major dependency on a single supplier increases the exposure to a potential supply interruption, resulting for instance from a commercial failure, and its consequences,” it said.

European network operators, including Germany’s Deutsche Telekom typically have multi-vendor strategies that they say reduce the security risks that might arise from relying too heavily on a single provider.

“The Commission’s 5G assessment recognizes security isn’t just a supplier issue,” said Alex Sinclair, chief technology officer of the GSMA, a global mobile-industry trade group.

“We all have a role to play – from manufacturers to operators to consumers – and we are taking responsibility for our part in the security chain seriously.”

The EU will now seek to come up with a so-called toolbox of measures by the end of the year to address cyber security risks at national and bloc-wide level.

The European Agency for Cybersecurity is also finalizing a map of specific threats related to 5G networks.

(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Berlin and Anne Kauranen in Helsinki; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Elaine Hardcastle)