North Korea bolsters defenses after flight by U.S. bombers as rhetoric escalates

North Korea bolsters defenses after flight by U.S. bombers as rhetoric escalates

By Christine Kim and Christian Shepherd

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – North Korea has boosted defenses on its east coast, a South Korean lawmaker said on Tuesday, after the North said U.S. President Donald Trump had declared war and that it would shoot down U.S. bombers flying near the peninsula.

Tensions have escalated since North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3, but the rhetoric has reached a new level in recent days with leaders on both sides exchanging threats and insults.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Trump’s Twitter comments, in which the U.S. leader said Ri and leader Kim Jong Un “won’t be around much longer” if they acted on their threats, amounted to a declaration of war and that Pyongyang had the right to take countermeasures.

South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol-uoo, briefed by the country’s spy agency, said the reclusive North was in fact bolstering its defenses by moving aircraft to its east coast and taking other measures after U.S. bombers flew close to the Korean peninsula at the weekend.

Lee said the United States appeared to have disclosed the flight route of the bombers intentionally because North Korea seemed to be unaware.

Ri, the foreign minister, said on Monday the North’s right to countermeasures included shooting down U.S. bombers “even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country”. (Graphics on ‘Kim’s latest act of defiance’ – http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010050KV1C3/index.html)

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” he told reporters in New York on Monday, where he had been attending the annual United Nations General Assembly.

“The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then,” he said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders denied on Monday that the United States had declared war, calling the suggestion “absurd”.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said war on the Korean peninsula would have no winner.

“We hope the U.S. and North Korean politicians have sufficient political judgment to realize that resorting to military force will never be a viable way to resolve the peninsula issue and their own concerns,” Lu told a daily news briefing.

“We also hope that both sides can realize that being bent on assertiveness and provoking each other will only increase the risk of conflict and reduce room for policy maneuvers. War on the peninsula will have no winner.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking on the sidelines of a U.N. meeting in New York, said the situation on the Korean peninsula was at a very dangerous stage, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The urgent task was to prevent North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs progressing, to avoid a further escalation in tensions and to especially prevent resorting to arms, Wang added.

While repeatedly calling for dialogue to resolve the issue, China has also signed up for increasingly tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

China’s fuel exports to North Korea fell in August, along with iron ore imports from the isolated nation, as trade slowed after the latest U.N. sanctions, but coal shipments resumed after a five-month hiatus, customs data showed on Tuesday.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged Kim Jong Un to resume military talks and reunions of families split by the 1950-53 Korean War to ease tension.

“Like I’ve said multiple times before, if North Korea stops its reckless choices, the table for talks and negotiations always remains open,” said Moon.

He was speaking at a event to mark an Oct.4, 2007, summit declaration promoting goodwill signed between then-South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father.

In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was working behind the scenes to find a political solution and that using sanctions against North Korea was almost exhausted.

During a visit to India, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said diplomatic efforts continued.

“You have seen unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions passed that have increased the pressure, economic pressure and diplomatic pressure, on the North, and at the same time, we maintain the capability to deter North Korea’s most dangerous threats,” he told reporters in the Indian capital.

RISK OF MISCALCULATION

U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighter jets flew east of North Korea in a show of force after a heated exchange of rhetoric between Trump and Kim.

North Korea has been working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, which Trump has said he will never allow.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.

The Sept. 3 nuclear test prompted a new round of sanctions on North Korea after the Security Council voted unanimously on a resolution condemning the test.

The North says it needs its weapons programs to guard against U.S. invasion and regularly threatens to destroy the United States, South Korea and Japan.

However, the rhetoric has been ratcheted up well beyond normal levels, raising fears that a miscalculation by either side could have massive repercussions.

Trump’s threat last week to totally destroy North Korea, a country of 26 million people, if it threatened the United States or its allies, prompted an unprecedented direct statement by Kim, calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and vowing to tame the U.S. threat with fire.

White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defended Trump’s rhetoric and said on Monday he agreed that the risk was that Kim might fail to realize the danger he and his country faced.

However, McMaster also acknowledged the risks of escalation with any U.S. military option.

“We don’t think there’s an easy military solution to this problem,” said McMaster, who believed any solution would be an international effort.

“There’s not a precision strike that solves the problem. There’s not a military blockade that can solve the problem.”

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS, Dmitry Solovyov in MOSCOW and Malini Menon in NEW DELHI; Writing by Paul Tait and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)

China’s military practices for ‘surprise attack’ over sea near Korea

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s air force has carried out exercises near the Korean peninsula, practicing to defend against a “surprise attack” coming over the sea, Chinese state media reported.

An anti-aircraft defense battalion carried out the exercises early on Tuesday, near the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea that separates China from the peninsula, an official military website www.81.cn reported.

Troops traveled to the site from central China before immediately beginning drills to fend off the “surprise attack” simulating real battle, it said.

“The troops rapid response capabilities and actual combat levels have effectively been tested,” it said.

It was the first time certain weapons, which it did not identify, had been used to shoot down low-altitude targets coming over the sea, www.81.cn said, without elaborating.

China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

The exercise came days after North Korea carried out its sixth and largest nuclear test of an advanced hydrogen bomb and there is mounting concern internationally that the country plans more weapons tests, possibly of a long-range missile.

After weeks of rising tension, South Korea and the United States have been discussing the deployment of aircraft carriers and strategic bombers to the Korean peninsula.

China is deeply suspicious of any U.S. backed military build up in the region and has repeatedly expressed anger at the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system in South Korea.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd)

U.S. bombers drill over Korean peninsula after latest North Korea launch

U.S. bombers drill over Korean peninsula after latest North Korea launch

By Jack Kim and Kaori Kaneko

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – South Korean and Japanese jets joined exercises with two U.S. nuclear-capable bombers above and near the Korean peninsula on Thursday, two days after North Korea fired a missile over Japan, sharply raising tension.

The drills, involving two supersonic U.S. B-1B bombers, four U.S. stealth F-35B jets as well as South Korean and Japanese fighter jets, came at the end of annual joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises focused mainly on computer simulations.

“North Korea’s actions are a threat to our allies, partners and homeland, and their destabilizing actions will be met accordingly,” said General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander, who made an unscheduled visit to Japan.

“This complex mission clearly demonstrates our solidarity with our allies and underscores the broadening cooperation to defend against this common regional threat. Our forward deployed force will be the first to the fight, ready to deliver a lethal response at a moment’s notice if our nation calls.”

North Korea has made no secret of its intention to develop the knowhow to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at the United States and has recently threatened the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. It denounced the U.S. exercises in traditionally robust fashion.

“The U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet forces do not hide their bellicose nature, claiming that the exercises are to ‘counter’ the DPRK’s ballistic rocket launches and nuclear weapons development,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

“But the wild military acts of the enemies are nothing but the rash act of those taken aback by the intermediate-to-long range strategic ballistic rocket launching drill conducted by the army of the DPRK as the first military operation in the Pacific.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has warned North Korea it would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States and that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” in case of any provocation.

Trump on Wednesday declared “talking is not the answer” to resolving the long-standing impasse.

“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” Trump, who last week said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “starting to respect” the United States, wrote on Twitter.

“Talking is not the answer!”

However, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, when asked by reporters just hours later if the United States had run out of diplomatic solutions with North Korea, replied: “No.”

“We are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said before a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon. “We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations and our interests.”

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera spoke to Mattis by telephone and agreed to keep putting pressure on North Korea in a “visible” form, Japan’s defense ministry said. Japanese Prime Shinzo Abe said he and visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to urge China, North Korea’s lone major ally, to do more to rein in the North.

They also discussed the possibility of adopting a new U.N. Security Council resolution over North Korea, a British government source said.

SANCTION OPTIONS

The 15-member Security Council on Tuesday condemned the firing of an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan as “outrageous” and demanded that North Korea halt its weapons program, but the U.S.-drafted statement did not threaten new sanctions.

Japan was pushing the United States to propose new U.N. Security Council sanctions, which diplomats said could target North Korea’s laborers working abroad, oil supply and textile exports.

Diplomats expected resistance from Russia and fellow veto-wielding power China, particularly given new measures were only recently imposed after North Korea staged two long-range missile launches in July.

A U.S. ban on travel to North Korea comes into effect on Friday, curbing one of its few remaining supplies of foreign currency.

China again urged restraint from all parties.

Defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a monthly briefing that China would never allow war or chaos on the Korean peninsula, its doorstep, and military means were not an option.

“China strongly demands all sides to exercise restraint and remain calm and not do anything to worsen tensions,” Ren said, adding that Chinese forces were maintaining a normal state of alert along the North Korean border.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the situation on the peninsula was serious.

“I also want to stress that the current tense situation on the peninsula isn’t a screenplay or a video game,” she told reporters.

“It’s real, and is an immense and serious issue that directly involves the safety of people from both the north and south of the peninsula, as well as peace and stability of the entire region.”

‘KEY MILESTONE’

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency and the crew of the guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones conducted a “complex missile defense flight test” off Hawaii on Wednesday, resulting in the intercept of a medium-range ballistic missile target, the agency said.

The agency’s director, Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, called the test “a key milestone” in giving U.S. Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships an enhanced capability, but did not mention North Korea.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

North Korea routinely says it will never give up its weapons programs, calling them necessary to counter perceived American hostility.

For an interactive on North Korea’s missile capabilities, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010041L63FE/index.html

For a graphic on North Korean missile trajectories, ranges, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010050CG0RT/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES.png

For a graphic on Kim’s new act of defiance, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010050KV1C3/index.html

(Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Linda Sieg, William James and Nubohiro Kubo in TOKYO, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel)

Russia gears up for major war games, neighbors watch with unease

Russia gears up for major war games, neighbors watch with unease

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is preparing to hold large-scale military exercises it says will be of a purely defensive nature, amid concerns in neighboring nations that the drills may be used as a precursor for an invasion.

A total of around 12,700 servicemen will take part in the war games, code named Zapad 2017, which will be held on Sept. 14-20 in western Russia, Belarus and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad. These will include around 5,500 Russian troops.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top general in Europe, told Reuters last month that U.S. allies in eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.

This week Russia’s Defence Ministry rejected what it said were false allegations it might use the drills as a springboard to launch invasions of Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine.

The following graphic shows the breakdown of the troops and military hardware, including warships and aircraft, to be used in the exercises, according to data provided by Russia’s Defence Ministry. It also shows the locations of the drills.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Mark Heinrich)

North Korea tests short-range missiles as South Korea, U.S. conduct drills

North Korea tests short-range missiles as South Korea, U.S. conduct drills

By Jack Kim and Phil Stewart

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea fired several short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast early on Saturday, South Korea and the U.S. military said, as the two allies conducted annual joint military drills that the North denounces as preparation for war.

The U.S. military’s Pacific Command said it had detected three short-range ballistic missiles, fired over a 20 minute period.

One appeared to have blown up almost immediately while two flew about 250 km (155 miles) in a northeasterly direction, Pacific Command said, revising an earlier assessment that two of the missiles had failed in flight.

The test came just days after senior U.S. officials praised North Korea and leader Kim Jong Un for showing restraint in not firing any missiles since late July.

The South Korean Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectiles were launched from the North’s eastern Kangwon province into the sea.

Later on Saturday, the South Korean Presidential Blue House said the North may have fired an upgraded 300-mm caliber multiple rocket launcher but the military was still analyzing the precise details of the projectiles.

Pacific Command said the missiles did not pose a threat to the U.S. mainland or to the Pacific territory of Guam, which North Korea had threatened earlier this month to surround in a “sea of fire”.

Tensions had eased somewhat since a harsh exchange of words between Pyongyang and Washington after U.S. President Donald Trump had warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un he would face “fire and fury” if he threatened the United States.

North Korea’s last missile test on July 28 was for an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to fly 10,000 km (6,200 miles). That would put parts of the U.S. mainland within reach and prompted heated exchanges that raised fears of a new conflict on the peninsula.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missiles did not reach its territory or exclusive economic zone and did not pose a threat to Japan’s safety.

MILITARY DRILLS

The South Korean and U.S. militaries are in the midst of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills involving computer simulations of a war to test readiness and run until Aug. 31.

The region where the missiles were launched, Kittaeryong, is a known military test site frequently used by the North for short-range missile drills, said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

“So rather than a newly developed missile, it looks to be short range missiles they fired as part of their summer exercise and also in response to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill,” he said.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with the North because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North routinely says it will never give up its weapons programs, saying they are necessary to counter perceived U.S. hostility.

Washington has repeatedly urged China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in Pyongyang.

China’s commerce ministry late on Friday banned North Korean individuals and enterprises from doing new business in China, in line with United Nations Security Council sanctions passed earlier this month.

TRUMP BRIEFED

The White House said Trump had been briefed about the latest missiles but did not immediately have further comment.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately comment about the Saturday launches. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this week credited the North with showing restraint by not launching a missile since the July ICBM test.

Tillerson had said he hoped that the lack of missile launches or other “provocative acts” by Pyongyang could mean a path could be opening for dialogue “sometime in the near future.”

Trump also expressed optimism earlier this week about a possible improvement in relations. “I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us,” Trump said of Kim.

North Korea’s state media reported on Saturday that Kim had guided a contest of amphibious landing and aerial strike by its army against targets modeled after South Korean islands near the sea border on the west coast.

The official KCNA news agency quoted Kim as telling its Army that it “should think of mercilessly wiping out the enemy with arms only and occupying Seoul at one go and the southern half of Korea.”

A new poster on a North Korean propaganda website on Saturday showed a missile dealing “a retaliatory strike of justice” against the U.S. mainland, threatening to “wipe out the United States, the source of evil, without a trace.”

On Wednesday, Kim ordered the production of more rocket engines and missile warheads during a visit to a facility associated with North Korea’s ballistic missile program.

Diagrams and what appeared to be missile parts shown in photographs published in the North’s state media suggested Pyongyang was pressing ahead with building a longer-range ballistic missile that could potentially reach any part of the U.S. mainland including Washington.

(For an interactive package on North Korea’s missile capabilities click http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010041L63FE/index.html)

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul, Nobuhiro Kubo and Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Christian Shepherd in Beijing and David Brunnstrom and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Michael Perry)

U.S., South Korea begin computer-simulated drills which North says are aimed at nuclear war

A U.S. Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady takes part in a drill at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, August 21, 2017.

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean and U.S. forces began computer-simulated military exercises on Monday amid tension over North Korea’s weapons programs, while a report it has earned millions of dollars in exports is likely to raise doubt about the impact of sanctions.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the joint drills, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, were purely defensive and did not aim to increase tension on the peninsula, but North Korea denounced the exercises as preparation for war.

“There is no intent at all to heighten military tension on the Korean peninsula as these drills are held annually and are of a defensive nature,” Moon told cabinet ministers.

“North Korea should not exaggerate our efforts to keep peace nor should they engage in provocations that would worsen the situation, using (the exercise) as an excuse,” he said.

The joint U.S.-South Korean drills last until Aug. 31 and involve computer simulations designed to prepare for war with a nuclear-capable North Korea.

The United States also describes them as “defensive in nature”, a term North Korean state media has dismissed as a “deceptive mask”.

“It’s to prepare if something big were to occur and we needed to protect ROK,” said Michelle Thomas, a U.S. military spokeswoman, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea.

North Korea views such exercises as preparations for invasion and has fired missiles and taken other actions to show its anger over military drills in the past.

“This is aimed to ignite a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula at any cost,” the North’s KCNA news agency said.

“The situation on the Korean peninsula has plunged into a critical phase due to the reckless north-targeted war racket of the war maniacs.”

North and South Korea are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

North Korea’s rapid progress in developing nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland has fueled a surge in regional tension and U.N.-led sanctions appear to have failed to bite deeply enough to change its behavior.

China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has urged the United States and South Korea to scrap the exercises. Russia has also asked for the drills to stop but the United States has not backed down.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said North and South Korea and the United States all needed to make more effort to ease tension.

“We think that South Korea and the United States holding joint drills is not beneficial to easing current tensions or efforts by all sides to promote talks,” she told a daily news briefing.

 

SANCTIONS UNDERMINED

Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that a confidential U.N. report found North Korea evaded U.N. sanctions by “deliberately using indirect channels” and had generated $270 million in banned exports since February.

The “lax enforcement” of existing sanctions and Pyongyang’s “evolving evasion techniques” were undermining the U.N. goal of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Kyodo quoted the report as saying.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Aug. 5 that could slash its $3 billion annual export revenue by a third. The latest sanctions were imposed after North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned North Korea this month it would face “fire and fury” if it threatens the United States.

The North responded by threatening to fire missiles towards the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam, but later said it was holding off while it waited to see what the United States would do next.

There will be no field training during the current exercise, according to U.S. Forces Korea.

The United States has about 28,000 troops in South Korea. About 17,500 U.S. service members are participating in the exercise this month, down from 25,000 last year, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday the reduction in the number of U.S. troops taking part reflected a need for fewer personnel and was not because of tension with North Korea.

Other South Korean allies are also joining this year, with troops from Australia, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand taking part.

 

(Writing by Linda Sieg; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

 

U.S., Philippine troops train for typhoon as Duterte puts war games on hold

Filipino soldiers, member of a decontamination unit, check a mock rescuers, as a part of a chemical scenario during the Philippines and United States annual Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) exercises inside the Fort Magsaysay military headquarters in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila, Philippines May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Martin Petty

FORT MAGSAYSAY, Philippines (Reuters) – Philippine soldiers crawl through narrow pipes to save civilians and haul casualties by ropes from atop a derelict building, coached by U.S. army teams in a simulation of a rescue after a ferocious typhoon.

Soldiers practice putting on protective overalls and drilling through collapsed rubble, in exercises part and parcel of “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder), the conventional warfare exercises that for decades have bolstered a treaty alliance and helped preserve a U.S. strategic foothold in Asia.

But this year’s edition is a shadow of what it was a year ago, involving only half the 11,000 troops, and stripped of all combat-related exercises at the behest of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte makes no secret of his disdain for an alliance with the United States that he sees as an obstacle to his rapprochement with China, and has tamed Balikatan to avoid provoking Beijing, and to hammer home his message that the Philippines is no U.S. lackey.

The 2016 exercises, which Duterte had said would be “the last”, featured live-fire drills, amphibious landings and a combat simulation of the re-taking of a South China Sea island from an unspecified enemy.

What’s left this year is largely Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR) training, seen on Friday’s at a military base in Nueva Ecija province, where forces practised for the scenario of a typhoon striking the capital Manila.

“It’s instruction-based, hands-on and practical and they’re doing pretty good,” said Sergeant First-class Jay Bal, a Filipino-American who is among 30 members of the Hawaii National Guard training Philippine army engineers and rescue teams.

The idea of Balikatan was to rehearse a joint defense plan under the old allies’ 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty, one of several agreements Duterte has threatened to abrogate, arguing the U.S. troop presence could make the Philippines a target for Chinese aggression.

Duterte, who holds talks in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, has reversed a Philippine foreign policy that prized close U.S. ties and saw China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea as a threat to its sovereignty.

Duterte has denounced Washington for “hypocrisy” and for treating the Philippines “like a dog”. He has shunned all U.S. activities in the Philippines, but made a point of touring visiting warships from China and Russia in recent weeks.

AVOIDING ANTAGONISM

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the training exercises were valuable but Duterte wanted no more “war games”.

“We are concentrating on HADR, counter-terrorism, and many things related to that,” he said last week.

“The president doesn’t want to antagonize some people in the neighborhood.”

Like many U.S. officials, Marine Lieutenant-General Lawrence Nicholson, the commander leading Balikatan, insists the alliance remains strong, and the removal of combat training did not devalue the exercises.

“These are skills that are pertinent to any type of military operation,” he said.

Many experts say that geopolitical realities mean ties are unlikely to take a permanent hit from Duterte’s hostility and say the Philippine military’s mistrust of China means it will not risk losing its U.S. support.

Richard Heydarian, an expert on politics and international affairs at Manila’s De La Salle University, said the bare-bones Balikatan indicated a “mitigated downgrade” in the U.S. relationship, but that was easily reversible and contingent on China’s actions and the foreign policy approach of the Trump administration.

“Duterte clearly respects his military, which is clear about its suspicions of China but unclear about America,” he said, referring to the uncertainty about U.S. priorities in the region.

“China is consolidating with its strategic objectives, but I don’t think China will forget those plans just because Duterte talks nice to them.”

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. criticizes Russian build-up near Baltic states

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in this file photo dated February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Andrius Sytas

PABRADE TRAINING AREA, Lithuania (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that a Russian missile deployment near the Baltic states was “destabilizing”, and officials suggested the United States could deploy a Patriot missile battery in the region for NATO exercises in the summer.

U.S. allies are jittery ahead of war games by Russia and Belarus in September that could involve up to 100,000 troops and include nuclear weapons training — the biggest such exercise since 2013.

The drills could see Russian troops near the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Russia has also deployed Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, its enclave on the Baltic Sea. It said the deployment was part of routine drills, but U.S. officials worry that it may represent a permanent upgrade.

Asked during a trip to Lithuania about the deployment, Mattis told a news conference: “Any kind of build-up like that is simply destabilizing.”

The United States is ruling out any direct response to the Russian drills or the Iskander deployment.

But at the same time, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, raised the possibility that a Patriot missile battery could be deployed briefly to the Baltic region during NATO exercises in July that focus on air defense, known as Tobruk Legacy.

The officials stressed that the Patriots, if deployed, would be withdrawn when the exercises were over. That would most likely happen before the Russian drills began, they said.

Mattis declined to comment directly on the possible Patriot deployment to reporters after talks in Vilnius.

“The specific systems that we bring are those that we determine necessary,” Mattis said, saying that NATO capabilities in the region were purely defensive.

BALTIC FEARS

It was Mattis’s first trip to the Baltic states, which fear Russia could attack them in the same way that it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. The states are concerned about their lack of air defenses and considering upgrading their military hardware.

Asked about Baltic air defenses on a visit to the Pabrade training ground, Mattis told reporters:

“We will talk to the leaders of each of the nations, and we will work this out in Brussels and we will work together if necessary.

“The reason for the deployment you see right now is the lack of respect for international law by a nation in the region, and so long as the nation shows respect, we would not have to deploy that,” Mattis told reporters, standing in front of a German Leopard tank.

A German-led battalion was deployed to Lithuania this year as part of a NATO effort to deter any Russian aggression.

Asked about any future Patriot deployment, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite, standing next to Mattis, said: “We need all necessary means for defense and for deterrence, and that’s what we’ll decide together.”

The scale of this year’s Russian “Zapad” (“West”) maneuvers, which date from Soviet times, when they were first used to test new weapon systems, is one of NATO’s most pressing concerns. Western diplomats say the exercises pose an unusual threat.

But Mattis told reporters: “It’s a routine exercise. I trust it will stay routine.”

Estonian Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna told Reuters last month that NATO governments had intelligence suggesting Moscow may leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the Zapad 2017 exercises are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway traffic to Belarus.

Moscow denies any plans to threaten NATO and says it is the U.S.-led alliance that is undermining stability in eastern Europe. It has not said how many troops will take part in Zapad 2017.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)

Chinese military conducts live-fire drills, weapons tests

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s military has conducted live-fire drills and weapons tests in the northeastern Bohai Sea close to the Korean peninsula, the country’s defense ministry said on Tuesday.

In a brief statement late on Tuesday, the ministry said the tests of new missiles and weapons were carried out by the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force “in recent days” and were designed to raise operational capability so as to effectively deal with national security threats. No further details were provided.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is overseeing a sweeping modernization of the country’s armed forces, with an emphasis on technological innovation and naval capability as it seeks to project greater power in the disputed South China Sea.

While no other country has claims in the busy Bohai Sea, the drills come amid heightened tension on the Korean peninsula, including Chinese anger at the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defense system THAAD in South Korea last month.

At a regular news briefing last month, China’s defense ministry responded to questions about the THAAD deployment by foreshadowing the weapons tests, saying they were necessary to safeguard its national security.

(Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by SImon Cameron-Moore)

North Korea says U.S. bomber flights push peninsula to brink of nuclear war

Kim Jong Un stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army Naval Unit 167 in this undated photo released June 16, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA

By Ju-min Park and Ben Blanchard

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – North Korea accused the United States on Tuesday of pushing the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war after a pair of strategic U.S. bombers flew training drills with the South Korean and Japanese air forces in another show of strength.

The two supersonic B-1B Lancer bombers were deployed amid rising tensions over North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of U.N. sanctions and pressure from the United States.

The flight of the two bombers on Monday came as U.S. President Donald Trump said he would be “honoured” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the right circumstances, and as his CIA director landed in South Korea for talks.

South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a briefing in Seoul that Monday’s joint drill was conducted to deter provocations by the North.

North Korea said the bombers conducted “a nuclear bomb dropping drill against major objects” in its territory at a time when Trump and “other U.S. warmongers are crying out for making a preemptive nuclear strike” on the North.

“The reckless military provocation is pushing the situation on the Korean peninsula closer to the brink of nuclear war,” the North’s official KCNA news agency said on Tuesday.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been high for weeks, driven by concerns that the North might conduct its sixth nuclear test in defiance of pressure from the United States and Pyongyang’s sole major ally, China.

The U.S. military’s THAAD anti-missile defence system has reached initial operational capacity in South Korea, U.S. officials told Reuters, although they cautioned that it would not be fully operational for some months.

China has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the system, whose powerful radar it fears could reach inside Chinese territory. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang again denounced THAAD on Tuesday.

“We will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our interests,” Geng said, without elaborating.

Asked about Trump’s suggestion he could meet Kim, Geng said China had noted U.S. comments that it wanted to use peaceful means to resolve the issue. Trump has been recently been full of praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to rein in its neighbour.

“China has always believed that using peaceful means via dialogue and consultation to resolve the peninsula’s nuclear issue is the only realistic, feasible means to achieve denuclearization of the peninsula and maintain peace and stability there, and is the only correct choice,” Geng told a daily news briefing.

It was widely feared North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear test on or around April 15 to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the North’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, or on April 25 to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army.

The North has conducted such tests or missile launches to mark significant events in the past.

Instead, North Korea conducted an annual military parade, featuring a display of missiles on April 15 and then a large, live-fire artillery drill 10 days later.

“VIGILANCE, READINESS”

Acting South Korean president Hwang Kyo-ahn called for stronger vigilance because of continuing provocation by North Korea and for countries such as China to increase pressure on the North.

The U.S. military said Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, visited South Korea and conducted detailed security discussions with his South Korean counterpart Lee Byung-ho and also visited Yeonpyeong island, which was bombed by North Korea in 2010.

Trump drew criticism in Washington on Monday when he said he would be “honoured” to meet North Korea’s young leader.

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg News.

Trump did not say what conditions would be needed for such a meeting to occur or when it could happen.

“Clearly conditions are not there right now,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

Trump warned in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible, while China said last week the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.

In a show of force, the United States has already sent an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, to waters off the Korean peninsula to conduct drills with South Korea and Japan.

North Korea test-launched a missile on Saturday that appeared to have failed within minutes, its fourth successive failed launch since March. It has conducted two nuclear tests and a series of missile-related activities at an unprecedented pace since the beginning of last year.

The North is technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, and regularly threatens to destroy the United States, Japan and South Korea.

(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)