U.S. says ready to talk Mideast peace; Abbas calls for conference

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner seen with United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, and lawyer Jason Greenblatt (R) before a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States is “ready to talk” Middle East peace with the Palestinians, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday in remarks directed at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are working on a new peace plan, sat behind Haley. Speaking after Abbas made a rare address to the 15-member council, Haley gave no details of the U.S. plan.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours,” Haley said. Abbas did not stay in the council chamber to listen to her.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel said Washington would present a peace plan “when it is done and the time is right.”

The Palestinians no longer view the United States as a neutral negotiator, and Abbas on Tuesday called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened later this year.

The Palestinians are furious over the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and its decision to cut U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

“It has become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or international conflict,” Abbas said. “It is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference.”

Abbas, who shunned a visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to the region last month, said the conference should include the Palestinians, Israel, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – the European Union and the United Nations.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council: “We are open to studying the development of the ways of international accompaniment for the peace process.” Deputy British U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen described U.S. leadership on the issue as “indispensable.”

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon told the Security Council that Abbas was part of the problem, not the solution, and that the “only way to move forward is direct negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the so-called Quartet – made up of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the EU – and the League of Arab States could play a role in kick-starting the stalled peace process.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the dedication ceremony of a new concourse at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

By Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could act against Iran itself, not just its allies in the Middle East, after border incidents in Syria brought the Middle East foes closer to direct confrontation.

Iran mocked Netanyahu’s tough words, saying Israel’s reputation for “invincibility” had crumbled after one of its jets was shot down following a bombing run in Syria.

In his first address to the annual Munich Security Conference, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu held up a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace this month.

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

For his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif, who addressed the conference hours after Netanyahu, said, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after a strike on Syrian air defenses.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said, accusing Israel of using “aggression as a policy against its neighbors” by regularly carrying out incursions into Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military foothold in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in civil war entering its eighth year.

Netanyahu said that as the Islamic State militant group has lost ground, Iran and its allies were surging into territory, “trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.”

The tough words on both sides at the international event come as Israel is increasingly seeking to cooperate with Sunni Arab states that share its worries about Shi’ite Iran. For months, Netanyahu has touted what he describes as unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

“The fact that we have this newfound relationship with the Arab countries – something that … I would not have imagined in my lifetime – this is not what they call a spin,” Netanyahu said, during a question and answer session after his speech.

“This is real, it’s deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians – so the two are linked,” he added.

Israel has formal peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Others have said a pre-condition of any such treaty is an Israeli deal with the Palestinians.

“WE HAVE FRIENDS”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased as Hezbollah has gained strength fighting in Syria, and the two countries also have a maritime border dispute.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and has accused Tehran of planning to build missile factories in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, warned against intervention: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord is working and Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace. John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

Malicious cyber activity cost U.S. economy $57 billion – $109 billion in 2016: White House report

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration -

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House report estimated on Friday that malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016.

The estimate was contained in a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers on the economic costs of cyber threats.

The report quoted the U.S. intelligence community as saying the main foreign culprits responsible for much cyber activity are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

(Reporting By Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Philippines may turn to China, Russia after scrapping Canada helicopter deal

FILE PHOTO - Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana listens to questions during a news conference inside the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines March 14, 2017

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines may turn to non-Western defense manufacturers, including China and Russia, to acquire 16 helicopters after it had to scrap a $233 million deal with Canada, its defense minister said on Monday.

Francois-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s trade minister, has ordered a review of the contract over concerns about Manila’s intended use for the helicopters.

“We are looking at Korea, Russia, China, Turkey and other countries for the medium-lift helicopters in lieu of the Bell 412EPI,” Philippines’ Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana told reporters.

“We’re back to square one in the procurement process.”

It took about two years to negotiate the deal. The contract for the 16 combat utility helicopters was a repeat order, he said, after Canada delivered eight Bell 412 helicopters worth 4.8 billion pesos ($92.8 million) in 2014.

Lorenzana signed the Canadian helicopter deal last week at the Singapore Air Show last week, but Canada ordered a review after learning the aircraft would be used in anti-rebel operations.

“I think there is malice in the way it is being raised,” Lorenzana told reporters.

“It is not an attack helicopter but a medium-lift, meaning for transport of personnel and supplies. We are not asking these for free but we’re buying them. We do not have to justify how we will use these equipment.”

President Rodrigo Duterte scrapped the deal on Friday night because of conditions imposed by Canada, telling his generals not to buy from the United States and Canada because of conditions imposed on arms sales.

Air Force officials said Russia’s Kamov and China’s Z-series helicopters are comparable models to Bell’s 412 medium lift. South Korean’s Surions are also an option.

($1 = 51.7300 Philippine pesos)

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Unholy war of words breaks out over Vatican rapprochement with China

A believer prays during a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin in November 10, 2013.

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – An unholy war of words has broken out among Vatican and Catholic officials over the Holy See’s rapprochement with Communist China, with cardinals, archbishops and priests caught in an undiplomatic crossfire.

In the past few days, one cardinal has accused another of spouting “nonsense” and a priest accused an archbishop of being so naive about China that he was like Alice in Wonderland.

The exchanges came as the Vatican and China moved closer to an accord on the appointment of bishops in what would be an historic breakthrough and a precursor to a resumption in diplomatic relations after 70 years.

Any deal was bound to be controversial because of concessions the Vatican would have to make to a government that has kept religion under its thumb. But the accusations have become exceptionally shrill as diplomacy has collided with passion.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of the AsiaNews agency, which specializes in China, accused Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, of being “naive”.

In an interview this week, Sanchez Sorondo praised China, saying that Chinese today were those who are perhaps best implementing Church teachings on social issues, such as concern for the environment and human dignity.

“We can understand that in the heat of desire for relations between China and the Vatican one can be doting and exalt Chinese culture … but adulating China is an ideological affirmation that makes a laughingstock of the Church,” Cervellera wrote in an editorial headlined “Sanchez Sorondo in Wonderland”.

Catholics in China are split between “underground” communities that recognize the pope and a state-controlled group where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities. Critics have blasted the deal because it would involve accepting the legitimacy of bishops appointed by the government.

The war of words also reached the stratosphere of Church hierarchy, cardinal versus cardinal.

The Vatican rebuked Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, after he accused it of “selling out” China’s underground Catholics to the communists. Zen, known for his feistiness, did not take it lying down.

He accused the Vatican’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, of speaking “nonsense,” after Parolin said in an interview that the aim of dialogue was the greater good and that the Vatican understood the “pain” of Chinese Catholics.

Zen retorted in his blog on Monday: “Oh! This man who lacks faith, how would he understand what is real pain?!”

A Vatican source has said the deal could be signed in the next few months. The clerical gloves are expected to stay off at least until then.

(Additional reporting By Venus Wu in Hong Kong, editing by Larry King)

Earthquake-hit Taiwan city still on edge as rescuers hunt survivors

A rescuer speaks on the radio as he searches for survivors at collapsed building after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 8, 2018.

By Yimou Lee

HUALIEN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Scores of aftershocks hampered rescue efforts on Thursday as emergency personnel combed through collapsed buildings in search of survivors after a powerful earthquake killed at least 10 people near Taiwan’s tourist city of Hualien.

The coastal city was hit on Tuesday by a magnitude 6.4 quake just before midnight (11.00 a.m ET) that injured 270 people. Four buildings collapsed, officials said, and seven people were still missing.

Volunteers pray outside a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 8, 2018.

Volunteers pray outside a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Rescuers stepped up efforts at one of the worst-hit structures, a 12-storey building that housed apartments and a small hotel, where authorities believe most of those still missing to have been, including several foreigners.

Thick steel girders propped up the heavily leaning structure to keep it from collapsing further, with the lower floors having already caved in.

“Everyone was surprised,” said Huang Chang Po, the 58-year-old owner of a unit in the building, built in 1994.

“We have strong earthquakes all the time in Hualien and it’s really bizarre that our building collapsed,” he told Reuters.

Up to 100 soldiers, rescuers, police, aid workers and volunteers scrambled in the cold and rain outside to find survivors, as excavators cleared away debris.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday, other residents and owners raised concerns about possible recent modifications and demanded a structural check by engineers to determine the cause of the collapse.

It was too early to ascertain the cause, however, said Chang Cheng Chen, an engineer from a regional architects’ association.

“It requires a thorough technical inspection, which may take two to three months,” he said, adding that factors such as the nature of the soil and how quake waves passed through the building could have played a part.

More than 220 aftershocks followed the main quake, including a 5.7 quake late on Wednesday. A Reuters witness said people rushed out of a residential building and rescue workers looked up from piles of debris after one such quiver.

Authorities “would not give up” on disaster relief efforts, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said during her second visit to the quake-hit area on Thursday.

“I didn’t really dare stay at home,” said Hualien resident Yang Yantin. “The area around my house is actually not that bad, the houses are all OK but, because of the aftershocks, I don’t really want to stay there.”

A damaged building is seen after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 8, 2018.

A damaged building is seen after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Lin Tzu Wei, an official at the Central Weather Bureau, said continued vigilance of seismic activity was needed.

“We have not seen a sign of a slowdown yet,” he told Reuters by telephone. “We need to continue to monitor the situation for one to two days…this is quite a rare event.”

As many as 150 people were initially feared missing in the rubble.

More than 600 soldiers and 1,300 police spread out to help the rescue effort, along with a team from Japan. The government said three mainland Chinese were among the dead.

Chen Deming, president of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, said the mainland was willing to help with relief efforts, such as sending teams to the island. Taiwan authorities declined, however.

More than 800 people sought refuge in shelters overnight, many too scared to stay home as aftershocks fueled panic.

Hualien, whose rugged Pacific coastline and picturesque Taroko Gorge National Park are a major tourist draw, is home to about 100,000 people. Its streets were buckled by the quake, leaving large cracks in major roads.

“I’ve never experienced an earthquake but I’d heard people say there were often earthquakes here, so at first I didn’t react,” said tourist Zhang Hongcong.

“But later when all the lights started smashing – the floor was covered in glass – that is when I realized it was serious.”

Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers its own, lies near the junction of two tectonic plates and is prone to earthquakes. An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.1struck nearby on Sunday.

More than 100 people were killed in a quake in southern Taiwan in 2016, and in 1999, a quake of magnitude 7.6 killed more than 2,000 people.

(Additional reporting by Jess Macy Yu in TAIPEI, and Natalie Thomas in HUALIEN; John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by James Pomfret and Clarence Fernandez)

At least two dead in magnitude 6.4 quake in Taiwan

The aftermaths of earth quake are seen in Hualien, Taiwan, February 6, 2018, in this picture grab obtained from social media video.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – A magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck near the coastal city of Hualien in Taiwan late on Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said, killing at least two people and causing several buildings to collapse.

The quake struck about 22 km (14 miles) northeast of Hualien shortly before midnight, and the epicenter was very shallow at just 1km, the USGS said.

“Two people were unfortunately killed, and 114 have suffered light or severe injuries,” Taiwan’s Premier William Lai told an emergency government meeting.

A number of aftershocks hit the area, but there was no word of any tsunami warning.

Hualien is a popular tourist destination on Taiwan’s eastern coast and home to about 100,000 people.

“The president has asked the cabinet and related ministries to immediately launch the ‘disaster mechanism’ and to work at the fastest rate on disaster relief work,” President Tsai Ing-wen’s office said in a statement.

Lai said the government was urgently repairing a major highway damaged by the quake. He said the government would provide further updates on the situation later on Wednesday morning.

Among the buildings toppled in the quake was the Marshal Hotel in Hualien, where three people were trapped inside, the government said.

Four other buildings, including two hotels and a military hospital, also tilted during the quake in Hualien, which is located about 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the capital, Taipei.

The government said two bridges in the city were either cracked or could not be used due to the quake.

On Sunday an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.1 struck nearby.

Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers part of its territory, is prone to earthquakes.

More than 100 were killed in a quake in southern Taiwan in 2016, and some Taiwanese remain scarred by a 1999 earthquake with 7.6 magnitude whose impact was felt across the island and in which more than 2,000 people died.

(Reporting by Jess Macy Yu and Taipei bureau; Editing by Tony Munroe and Gareth Jones)

North Korea ‘months away’ from ability to hit U.S. with nuclear weapon: U.S. envoy

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (R) waits next to U.S. Army Captain Murzban Morris of the Departement of Defense Joint Staff before their address on North Korea to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland August 30, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon and must be disarmed, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, dismissing Pyonyang’s diplomatic thaw with South Korea as a “charm offensive” that fooled no one.

In a diplomatic showdown at a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, North Korea responded by blaming Washington for escalating confrontation, saying it was deploying nuclear assets including aircraft carriers near the divided peninsula and was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

“North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the Geneva forum.

“North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.

A new U.S. nuclear policy review outlined last week “reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Asked later what the basis was for the assessment that North Korea would soon be able to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, he said he had “no new information to share”.

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice last July. In November it tested the Hwasong-15, believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States. It is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

North Korea is under tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions for its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But recent weeks have seen a thaw with South Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to send athletes to compete in the Olympic Games opening on Feb. 9 in the south.

“CHARM OFFENSIVE”

“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told the talks.

He also said arsenals in China and Russia were expanding, drawing rebukes from their respective delegations.

“Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and – in some cases – pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations,” Wood said.

“We are not going to stick our head in the sand, we are going to respond to these growing challenges,” he later told reporters.

North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby, laying the ground for a possible pre-emptive strike against it.

“In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol told the talks, referring to his country’s official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“U.S. officials including the defense secretary and the CIA director repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose’, a limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” Ju said.

He said President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine and U.S. nuclear superiority would endanger global peace and security and “trigger off a new nuclear arms race and could bring the whole world close to a horrible catastrophe”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff)

Heavenly show to feature trifecta of super blue moon, eclipse

The super moon appears in the sky in Cairo, Egypt, in this file photo taken October 17, 2016.

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The moon will stage a rare triple show on Wednesday when a blue super moon combines with a total lunar eclipse that will be visible from western North America to eastern Asia, U.S. astronomers say.

The overlap of a blue moon – the second full moon in a calendar month – with a lunar eclipse while the moon is at its closest approach to the earth is the first such celestial trifecta since 1982, said Noah Petro, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington.

“Just having these three things simultaneously occur is unusual,” Petro said in a telephone interview. “A blue moon is not extremely rare but it’s a nice coincidence that it happens in conjunction with these other two.”

The moon will reach its fullest on Wednesday at 8:27 a.m. EST (1327 GMT).

A blue moon normally occurs about once every 2-1/2 years. This month’s first full moon was on Jan. 1.

The blue moon also will be a super moon, which occurs when it is at or near its closest point to the earth, or perigee. A super moon is about 14 percent brighter than usual, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

Wednesday’s moon will be the second closest of 2018 after the one on Jan. 1.

The lunar eclipse, which takes place when the moon passes in the earth’s shadow, will last almost 3-1/2 hours. It will start at 6:48 a.m. EST (1148 GMT) and peak at 8:29 a.m. EST (1329 GMT), NASA said.

The total eclipse will be visible from the western United States and Canada across the Pacific Ocean to most of Australia and China, as well as northern polar regions. The eclipse will give the moon a reddish color known as a blood moon.

“I’m calling it the purple eclipse because it combines the blue moon and a red eclipse,” Rich Talcott, a senior editor at Astronomy magazine, said by telephone.

Petro said the eclipse is also a scientific opportunity for researchers in Hawaii, who will study what happens to the moon’s surface when it quickly drops from 212 Fahrenheit (100 Celsius) in sunlight to minus 279 F (minus 153 C) in darkness.

The speed of cooling can show what the surface is made of, such as rock or dust, he said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)

As U.S. goes quiet on close naval patrols, China speaks out

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015.

By Greg Torode and Philip Wen

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – While the Pentagon plays down patrols close to Chinese-controlled reefs and islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is sounding the alarm about them, seeking to justify what experts say will be an even greater presence in the disputed region.

Chinese officials publicized the latest U.S. “freedom of navigation patrol”, protesting the deployment last week of the destroyer USS Hopper to within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, an atoll west of the Philippines which Beijing disputes with Manila.

It was the second time in recent months that confirmation of a patrol came from Beijing, not Washington, which had previously announced or leaked details.

Bonnie Glaser, a security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said while the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had a policy of keeping the patrols regular but low key, China was willing to publicly exploit them to further their military ends.

“It is difficult to conclude otherwise,” she said. “Even as it pushes ahead with these (patrols), I don’t think the Trump administration has really come to terms with what it will tolerate from China in the South China Sea, and what it simply won’t accept, and Beijing seems to grasp this.”

In official statements, Chinese foreign ministry official Lu Kang said China would take “necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty” in the resource-rich sea.

Some regional diplomats and security analysts believe that will involve increased Chinese deployments and the quicker militarization of China’s expanded facilities across the Spratlys archipelago.

While U.S. officials did not target China in their comments, couching freedom-of-navigation patrols as a “routine” assertions of international law, Beijing was quick to cast Washington as the provocateur.

The Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper on Monday accused the U.S. of upsetting recent peace and co-operation and “wantonly provoking trouble”, saying China had must now strengthen its presence in the strategic waterway.

CONSTRUCTION AND MILITARIZATION

In recent years, China has built up several reefs and islets into large-scale airstrips and bases as it seeks to assert and enforce its claims to much of the sea, through which some $3 trillion in trade passes annually. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, hold rival claims.

Chinese coastguard and People’s Liberation Army navy ships patrol vast swathes of the South China Sea, routinely shadowing U.S. and other international naval deployments, regional naval officers say.

Zhang Baohui, a mainland security analyst at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, told Reuters he believed Beijing was rattled by Trump’s sharpening Asia strategy and they might be tempted to react in the South China Sea, even after months of relative calm.

“We can perhaps expect the Chinese to push ahead with militarization as retaliation,” he said.

A new U.S. national defense strategy unveiled last week stressed the need to counter the rising authoritarian powers of China and Russia, outlining a need to better support allies and newer partners against coercion.

While most analysts and regional envoys believe China remains keen to avoid an actual conflict with the significantly more powerful U.S. navy in the South China Sea, it is working to close the gap.

China has added bunkers, hangars and advanced radars on its new runways in the Spratlys, although it has not fully equipped them with the advanced surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles they use to protect the Paracels grouping further north.

Similarly, Beijing has yet to land jet fighters in the Spratlys – test flights some experts are expecting this year.

POTENTIAL FLASHPOINT

The latest patrol was at least the fifth such patrol under the Trump administration and the first to Scarborough – one of the more contentious features in the region.

Scarborough, once a U.S. bombing range, was blockaded by the Chinese in 2012, prompting the Philippines to launch its successful legal case in the Hague against China’s excessive territorial claims.

China allowed Filipino fishermen back to Scarborough’s rich waters last year, but it remains a potential flashpoint as both sides claim sovereignty and China maintains a steady presence of ships nearby.

While experts and regional envoys expect China to ramp up operations from the Spratlys, none expect it to build on Scarborough – something widely believed to be a red line that would provoke the United States, given its long-standing security treaty with the Philippines.

Shi Yinhong, who heads the Center for American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, said China had “lived with” U.S. patrols for several years but the key facts on the ground remained in China’s favor and broader tensions had “improved remarkably”.

“These islands, especially those with reclaimed land and military capability already deployed, they’re still in Chinese hands,” Shi, who has advised the Chinese government on diplomacy, told Reuters.

“I don’t think Trump has the stomach and the guts to change this fundamental status quo.”

 

(Reporting By Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Philip Wen in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast)