Egypt’s military says kills 53 militants in week-long offensive

Egyptian Army's Armoured Vehicles are seen on a highway to North Sinai during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Ismailia, Egypt, in this undated handout picture made available by the Ministry of Defence February 9, 2018. Ministry of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

By Nadine Awadalla

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s military and police forces have killed a total of 53 Islamist militants and arrested 680 suspects in a week-long offensive to crush insurgents that is focused on the Sinai Peninsula, a military spokesman said on Thursday.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is seeking re-election in March, ordered the armed forces in November to defeat militants within three months after an attack on a mosque in Sinai killed more than 300 people.

The attack was the deadliest of its kind in Egypt, which is the Arab world’s most populous country and a main regional ally of the United States.

The security operation, which involves the army, navy, air force and police, began last Friday and targeted “terrorist and criminal elements and organizations” in north and central Sinai, parts of the Nile delta and the western desert, Colonel Tamer al-Rifai told a news conference broadcast on state television on Thursday.

He said forces have destroyed over 1000 kg (2205 lbs) of explosives, 378 militant hideouts and weapon storage facilities including a media center used by the militants.

He added that 680 people, some of them suspected militants or wanted criminals, were also detained in the operation.

The air force, which has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in northern and central Sinai since the operation began, has focused on militant hideouts outside residential areas to avoid hitting civilians, air force Brigadier General Alaa Dawara said.

Major General Yasser Abdel Aziz of the Military Operations Authority said the operation would end when Sinai was free of “terrorists”.

“It could be extended or shortened according to the situation and that is what will be determined in the coming days,” Abdel Aziz told journalists.

He said after the military operation, Egyptian authorities would push ahead with a comprehensive development plan for Sinai.

Outside the peninsula, the Egyptian military said the operation would cover parts of the Nile Delta and the Western Desert, where other militants have waged attacks, some believed to be staged out of neighboring Libya.

The insurgency poses the greatest challenge to the government in a country that is both the most populous in the Arab World and a main regional ally of the United States.

Islamist insurgents have been targeting security forces since 2013 when the army led by Sisi, then the army chief, ousted President Mohamed Mursi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, following mass protests against his rule.

Some local residents have raised concerns over food and medicine shortages in the peninsula after the army blocked all access to the area.

Rifai said the armed forces has cooperated closely with local authorities to coordinate the delivery of food, medical assistance and other supplies in compliance with local and international laws and human rights norms.

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Ahmed Tolba; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Turkey, Russia and Iran leaders to discuss Syria in Istanbul: Turkish source

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with his counterparts, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017.

ANKARA (Reuters) – The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed on Wednesday to meet in Istanbul to discuss the conflict in Syria, a Turkish presidential source said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the meeting in two phone calls on Wednesday with the Russian and Iranian presidents, the source said. The date of the summit would be set in coming weeks.

The three countries have worked together in recent months to try to reduce violence in Syria, even though they have backed rival sides in the nearly seven-year civil war and remain deeply involved in the conflict.

Iran-backed militias and Russian air power have supported a Syrian army offensive in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib since November, and Turkish forces last month launched an offensive in northern Syria’s Kurdish region of Afrin.

On Monday, Iran urged Turkey to halt the Afrin operation, saying it breached Syrian sovereignty and would increase tension. It was not immediately clear whether Erdogan and Rouhani discussed Afrin in their telephone call on Thursday.

Erdogan and Putin also agreed to speed up the establishment of military observation posts in Syria’s Idlib region under an accord reached by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow last year to reduce fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels.

After the phone call, the Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Erdogan agreed to strengthen coordination between the two countries’ military and security services in Syria in the fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Congress expected to vote on budget to avert government shutdown

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were expected to vote on a proposed budget deal on Thursday that would avert another government shutdown but that has angered fiscal conservatives who complain it would lead to a $1 trillion deficit.

The plan to keep the government operating and to increase spending over the next two years faced resistance from conservatives in the Republican Party, who favor less spending on domestic government programs. At the same time, many liberal Democrats wanted to withhold their support as leverage to win concessions on immigration policy.

That meant the bill’s passage was not assured in the House and would need some Democratic support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has backed the agreement, said on Thursday he believed the chamber will pass the budget deal.

“I think we will,” Ryan told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This is a bipartisan bill. It’s going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support.”

Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the deal “eye-popping and eyebrow-raising.”

“We took an official position last night to say we can’t support this,” he told CNN on Thursday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

The rare bipartisan deal reached by Senate leaders on Wednesday raises spending on military and domestic programs by almost $300 billion over the next two years.

It would allow for $165 billion in extra defense spending and $131 billion more for non-military programs, including health, infrastructure, disaster relief and efforts to tackle an opioid crisis in the country.

It would stave off a government shutdown before a Thursday night deadline and extend the federal government’s debt ceiling until March 2019, putting off for more than a year the risk of a debt default by the United States.

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION

The agreement, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, disappointed conservative House Republicans and outside groups.

“It’s not like Republicans aren’t concerned about disaster relief, or Republicans aren’t concerned about funding community health centers or dealing with the opioid crisis,” U.S. Representative Warren Davidson, a Republican, said in an interview with National Public Radio.

“But when you add them all up, it adds to an awful lot of spending. … It’s not compassionate to bankrupt America.”

Liberal Democrats meanwhile opposed the deal because it does not include an agreement to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” young people brought illegally to the United States as children.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday staged an eight-hour speech on the House floor in support of immigration legislation, including reading letters from Dreamers pleading to be allowed to stay in the United States.

A number of lawmakers who supported the bill acknowledged the deal was not perfect. “It’s not pretty,” Republican U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger said on CNN.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester said he hoped House Democrats would back the measure. “We don’t want the perfect to get in the road of the good,” he told the cable network.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said many lawmakers believe the defense spending in the bill was essential. “We’re going to get it through because most people will support it,” he told Fox News.

Senate Republicans planned a procedural vote on a stand-alone bill to increase military funding for the rest of the year to demonstrate support for Trump’s promised defense build-up.

Democrats will not support it because it does not contain similar spending increases for non-military programs. But the Senate’s failure to advance the bill will not damage the budget legislation, which is due for a vote later in the day.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News the agreement provides long-term certainty in the budget and funding for Trump priorities including infrastructure and military funding.

Failure to agree on spending led to a partial three-day shutdown of government agencies last month.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

Turkey orders detention of top doctors over criticism of Syrian offensive

Demonstrators scuffle with riot police during a protest against detention of the head of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) and 10 other leaders of theÊdoctors' union, in Ankara, Turkey January 30, 2018.

ANKARA (Reuters) – A Turkish prosecutor ordered the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) on Tuesday, including its chairman, after the body criticized Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.

The prosecutor said police in Ankara had started legal proceedings on Tuesday morning and search-and-detention operations were carried out in several provinces. Media reports said nine of the medics had been detained.

Turkish authorities have cracked down on any expression of dissent over the air and ground offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s Afrin region. More than 300 people have been detained for social media posts criticizing the campaign since it began 10 days ago.

The association’s lawyer Ziynet Ozcelik said that the doctors faced accusations of “propaganda in support of a terrorist organization, and provoking the public”. Ozcelik said it was the first time in the association’s history that all its executive members had been ordered detained.

The association had denounced the cross-border operation into Syria’s Afrin last week, saying: “No to war, peace immediately”. That prompted President Tayyip Erdogan to accuse the union of treason.

“Believe me, they are not intellectuals at all, they are a gang of slaves. They are the servants of imperialism,” he told AK Party members in the northern province of Amasya on Sunday.

“This ‘No to war’ cry by this mob … is nothing other than the outburst of the betrayal in their souls … This is real filth, this is the honorless stance that should be said ‘no’ to,” he said.

Turkey’s Health Minister Ahmet Demircan was quoted by Hurriyet newspaper as saying the union had no right to make such a statement and added that the health ministry had filed a lawsuit to have the union’s administration removed.

“It (TTB) has made a big mistake. The necessary actions will be taken in accordance with the law,” Demircan was quoted as saying.

CALL FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The crackdown on top medics drew swift criticism from an international medical organization and rights group Amnesty International, who called for protection for the members and an immediate end to the legal proceedings.

The World Medical Association (WMA) said its President Yoshitake Yokokura condemned the detentions as well as threats of violence made against the doctors.

“We call on the Turkish authorities to immediately release the physician leaders and to end the campaign of intimidation,” the WMA, which represents 111 national medical associations across the world, said in a statement.

Amnesty said members of the TTB were “subjected to threats of violence”, and called on people to submit appeals to the Ankara governor’s office to provide additional security measures for the union and its members.

Separately, the Furkan Education and Service Foundation, a group that runs Islamic schools, said several of its members had been arrested. Those detained included the group’s Chairman Alparslan Kuytul, who had made remarks deemed to be criticizing Turkey’s military offensive.

(Reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ezgi Erkoyun, Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Ece Toksabay and Peter Graff)

South Korea minister says military option ‘unacceptable’ on North Korea crisis

Kang Kyung-Wha, South Korea's Foreign Minister, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018.

By Soyoung Kim

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – South Korea’s foreign minister said on Thursday the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear programme must be resolved diplomatically, and she was certain Washington would consult her government first if a military option were to be considered.

“The nuclear issue has to be solved through negotiations and diplomatic endeavours. This idea of a military solution is unacceptable,” Kang Kyung-wha said at a news briefing on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The Trump administration has said all options are on the table in dealing with North Korea, and officials say the president and his advisers have discussed the possibility of a limited strike. But debate on military options has lost some momentum in recent weeks after North and South Korea resumed talks ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in the South.

“I’m assured that anything the U.S. administration does on this front is done in close consultation with us,” Kang said.

She declined to comment if Washington had given Seoul clear assurance but added: “This is our fate that is at stake. Any option that is to be taken on the Korean peninsula, cannot be implemented without us going along.”

In an earlier interview with Reuters, Kang said South Korea was prepared for “all contingency scenarios” in case North Korea stages another weapons test, even as the two countries conduct talks and mutual visits relating to the Olympics.

“We go into these discussions with a clear understanding of what might be possible,” Kang said, adding, “another provocation is always a possibility.”

Kang, who was in Davos to discuss recent progress in inter-Korean talks and to boost awareness of the Olympics, did not discuss details of the scenarios that South Korea was prepared for.

OLYMPICS

After their first formal talks in more than two years this month, officials from the two Koreas have been visiting each other to facilitate the North’s participation in the Olympics, to be held in the South’s alpine resort town of Pyeongchang.

North Korea has waged a publicity campaign around its attendance, calling on Thursday for “all Koreans at home and abroad” to promote inter-Korean cooperation.

Kim Jong Un’s regime has also set a new anniversary to mark the formation of its military on Feb. 8 – the day before the start of the Games – and analysts say the nation may observe the day with a large military parade.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who will represent the United States at the Olympics, said on Tuesday he would seek to counter what he described as an effort by North Korea to “hijack” the Games with a propaganda campaign.

Seoul has rejected that criticism, saying the Olympics will help defuse tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

“This is an opportunity for engagement and a peaceful engagement around the Olympic Games, and we just need to make the best of it,” Kang said in the interview on Wednesday.

But she cautioned that sustained improvement in bilateral ties cannot take place apart from the nuclear issue: “There have to be advances on this front as well.”

MISSILE LAUNCHES

Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as it raced towards its goal of developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.

Another test or similar provocation “would be not acceptable,” Kang said. “And further provocations will only lead to further pressure and sanctions”.

Kang said she was “very disappointed” with the U.S. government’s decision this week to impose steep tariffs on washing machines imported from South Korea, but said that the trade dispute should not affect a “very strong security alliance” between the two countries.

With the North joining the Games, South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in tackled his immediate goal of curbing tensions and reopening cross-border dialogue.

But analysts say turning the thaw into a longer-term detente will be far more daunting, as the North rejected discussing its nuclear weapons programme with the South in earlier talks.

“The period of non-engagement with North Korea has been too long,” Kang said, hoping that discussions “will create the momentum for dialogue on the North Korean nuclear issue as well.”

‘REHEARSAL FOR WAR’

In an apparent bid to court the North, which describes joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises as a “rehearsal for war,” Seoul had proposed a delay in the drills during the Olympics.

The proposal was based on the “spirit of the Olympic Games,” Kang said, but declined to elaborate on whether the South would resume the drills after the event.

“We’re on the same page on all fronts (with the United States),” she said. “So we will see how the next two months will unfold.”

China and Russia can “do more” to improve the enforcement of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against North Korea in areas such as the interdiction of ships suspected of conducting illegal transfers of oil and coal at sea, she said.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday blacklisted nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean vessels it accused of helping the North’s weapons programmes.

“This is now mandatory by the latest UNSC resolution, if you have information that illicit transfers are being done ship-to-ship, that’s a clear violation and you have to stop that,” Kang said.

“China and Russia are members of the Security Council – they have in fact the primary responsibility to see their decisions on the sanctions are implemented.”

(Reporting by Soyoung Kim in DAVOS, Switzerland, Writing by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Bernadette Baum)

Taiwan president says does not exclude possibility of China attack

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the end-of-year news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 29, 2017.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said that she does not exclude the possibility of China attacking the self-ruled island, amid heightened tensions between the two sides including an increasing number of Chinese military drills near Taiwan.

Beijing has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, since the election two years ago of Tsai of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

China suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing, though she has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

In recent months, China has stepped up military drills around Taiwan, alarming Taipei. China says the exercises are routine, but that it will not tolerate any attempt by the island to declare independence.

“No one can exclude this possibility. We will need to see whether their policymakers are reasonable policymakers or not,” Tsai said in an interview on Taiwan television broadcast late on Monday, when asked whether China could attack Taiwan.

“When you consider it (Taiwan-China relationship) from a regional perspective, any reasonable policymaker will have to very carefully deliberate as to whether launching war is an option,” Tsai said.

“When our government faces resistance and pressure from China, we will find our method to resist this. This is very important,” she added.

“In terms of China circulating around Taiwan or carrying out other military activities, our military is carefully following every action and movement in the scope of its monitoring,” Tsai said. “Our military is very confident to face these situations.”

China considers proudly democratic Taiwan to be its sacred territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Chinese control.

Taiwan and China have also traded accusations this month about China’s opening of new civilian aviation routes close to Taiwan-controlled islands in the Taiwan Strait.

Although China has cut off a formal dialogue mechanism with Taiwan, Tsai acknowledged that both sides currently have a method for communications to avoid misunderstanding.

Taiwan has been pressing for the United States, its main source of arms, to provide more advanced equipment, but has also been trying to bolster its own weapons programs, to avoid what Tsai termed “certain political difficulties” that come with buying weapons overseas in the teeth of Chinese opposition.

Tsai said she believed one day Taiwan would be able to produce its own submarines, an item Taipei has long pressed for to face China’s navy.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tsai’s remarks.

(Reporting by Jess Macy Yu; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Pentagon puts countering China, Russia at center of U.S. defense strategy

: Three F/A-18E Super Hornets fly in formation over the aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and their strike groups along with ships from the Republic of Korea Navy as they transit the Western Pacific, November 12, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military has put countering China and Russia at the heart of a new national defense strategy unveiled on Friday, the latest sign of shifting American priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on the fight against Islamist militants.

The strategy document, the first of its kind since at least 2014, sets priorities for the U.S. Defense Department that are expected to be reflected in future defense spending requests. The Pentagon released an unclassified, 11-page version of the document on Friday.

The so-called “National Defense Strategy” represents the latest sign of hardening resolve by President Donald Trump’s administration to address challenges from Russia and China, despite Trump’s calls for improved ties with Moscow and Beijing.

“It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions,” the document said.

Elbridge Colby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, said at a briefing with reporters that Russia was far more brazen than China in its use of military power.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and intervened militarily in Syria to support its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Still, Moscow was limited by its economic resources, Colby said.

China, on the other hand, was described as economically and militarily ascendant by the document. It has embarked on far-reaching military modernization that Colby said was in “deep contravention to our interests.”

“This strategy really represents a fundamental shift to say, look, we have to get back, in a sense, to the basics of the potential for war and this strategy says the focus will be on prioritizing preparedness for war, in particular major power war,” he added.

The document also listed North Korea among the Pentagon’s top priorities, citing the need to focus U.S. missile defenses against the threat from Pyongyang, which beyond its nuclear weapons has also amassed an arsenal of biological, chemical, and conventional arms.

It said that while state actors would have to be countered, non-state actors like Islamist militants would continue to pose a threat.

The document said that international alliances would be critical for the U.S. military, by far the world’s best-resourced. But it also stressed a need for burden-sharing, an apparent nod to Trump’s public criticism of allies who he says unfairly take advantage of U.S. security guarantees.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

South Korea’s Moon says Trump deserves ‘big’ credit for North Korea talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during his New Year news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, January 10,

By Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday for helping to spark the first inter-Korean talks in more than two years, and warned that Pyongyang would face stronger sanctions if provocations continued.

The talks were held on Tuesday on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone, which has divided the two Koreas since 1953, after a prolonged period of tension on the Korean peninsula over the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

North Korea ramped up its missile launches last year and also conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, resulting in some of the strongest international sanctions yet.

The latest sanctions sought to drastically cut the North’s access to refined petroleum imports and earnings from workers abroad. Pyongyang called the steps an “act of war”.

Seoul and Pyongyang agreed at Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, to resolve all problems between them through dialogue and also to revive military consultations so that accidental conflict could be averted.

“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon told reporters at his New Year’s news conference. “It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged threats and insults over the past year, raising fears of a new war on the peninsula. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

‘BASIC STANCE’

Washington had raised concerns that the overtures by North Korea could drive a wedge between it and Seoul, but Moon said his government did not differ with the United States over how to respond to the threats posed by Pyongyang.

“This initial round of talks is for the improvement of relations between North and South Korea. Our task going forward is to draw North Korea to talks aimed at the denuclearization of the North,” Moon said. “(It’s) our basic stance that will never be given up.”

Moon said he was open to meeting North Korea’s leader at any time to improve bilateral ties, and if the conditions were right and “certain achievements are guaranteed”.

“The purpose of it shouldn’t be talks for the sake of talks,” he said.

However, Pyongyang said it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were only aimed at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea, nor Russia or China, showing that a diplomatic breakthrough remained far off.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said all problems would be resolved through efforts by the Korean people alone.

“If the North and South abandon external forces and cooperate together, we will be able to fully solve all problems to match our people’s needs and our joint prosperity,” it said.

Washington still welcomed Tuesday’s talks as a first step toward solving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The U.S. State Department said it would be interested in joining future talks, with the aim of denuclearizing the North.

The United States, which still has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings. Trump later called them “a good thing” and said he would be willing to speak to Kim.

Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was wise of Moon to praise Trump, his sanctions and pressure campaign.

“By doing that, he can help the U.S. build logic for moving toward negotiations and turning around the state of affairs in the future, so when they were ready to talk to the North, they can say the North came out of isolation because the sanctions were effective.”

The United States and Canada are set to host a conference of about 20 foreign ministers on Jan. 16 in Vancouver to discuss North Korea, without the participation of China, Pyongyang’s sole major ally and biggest trade partner.

China would not attend the meeting and is resolutely opposed to it, said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

“It will only create divisions within the international community and harm joint efforts to appropriately resolve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue,” he told a regular briefing on Wednesday.

LARGE OLYMPICS DELEGATION

Pyongyang also said it would send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Washington agreed with Seoul last week to postpone until after the Olympics joint military exercises that Pyongyang denounces as rehearsals for invasion. But it also said the apparent North-South thaw had not altered the U.S. intelligence assessment of the North’s weapons programs.

The United States has also warned that all options, including military, are on the table in dealing with the North.

“We cannot say talks are the sole answer,” Moon said. “If North Korea engages in provocations again or does not show sincerity in resolving this issue, the international community will continue applying strong pressure and sanctions.”

Seoul said on Tuesday it was prepared to offer financial assistance and lift some unilateral sanctions temporarily so North Koreans could attend the Olympics. North Korea said its delegation would include athletes and officials, among others.

However, Moon said on Wednesday South Korea had no plans for now to ease unilateral sanctions against North Korea, or revive economic exchanges that could run foul of United Nations sanctions.

Moon also said his government would continue working toward recovering the honor and dignity of former “comfort women”, a euphemism for those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

But historical issues should be separated from bilateral efforts with Japan to safeguard peace on the Korean peninsula, he added.

“It’s very important we keep a good relationship with Japan,” Moon said.

On Tuesday, South Korea said it would not seek to renegotiate a 2015 deal with Japan despite determining that the pact was insufficient to resolve the divisive issue, and urged Japan for more action to help the women.

 

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Writing by Soyoung Kim, Editing by Paul Tait)

Taiwan president warns China against military aggression

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the end-of-year news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 29, 2017.

By Fabian Hamacher

TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday China’s military ambitions are becoming more apparent and tension between Taiwan and the mainland must not be resolved through military force.

Tsai has faced increasing hostility from China since she won election early last year, with China stepping up military drills around Taiwan.

China suspects Tsai, from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, wants to push for the self-ruled island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province and sacred Chinese territory.

“China’s military activities don’t only impact the situation in the Taiwan Strait, but also in all of East Asia … This is not a problem being faced alone by Taiwan,” Tsai told reporters.

“All countries in this region who want to see peace and stability, have a consensus … and China can’t ignore this, that cross strait issues absolutely can’t be resolved through military force but through peaceful means,” Tsai said during a news conference on a stage flanked by two models of fighter jets.

Tsai, however, said her island would not be passive in the face of a more hawkish China.

“Over the past year, the morale of our military is steadily improving, support for our military is also continuously increasing. This is the most gratifying thing since I’ve become president. I hereby solemnly announce that our annual defence budget will grow steadily within a reasonable range.”

Taiwan’s defence ministry warned in a white paper this week that China’s military threat was growing by the day, with the Chinese air force carrying out 16 rounds of exercises close to Taiwan over the past year or so.

Beijing says the drills are routine and that Taiwan had better get used to them.

“We live in a fast changing geopolitical environment; China’s ambition in military expansion in the region is becoming more apparent, as evident by the People’s Liberation Army’s frequent aerial and naval activities,” Tsai said.

China has warned Taiwan against “using weapons to refuse reunification” and China’s state media has prominently featured pictures of Chinese jets flying close to the island.

Tsai has stressed she wants peace across the Taiwan Strait, but has pledged to defend Taiwan’s security and way of life.

Taiwan is well equipped with mostly U.S.-made weapons, but has been pressing Washington to sell more advanced equipment.

Democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by Beijing. Taiwan’s government has accused Beijing of not understanding what democracy is about when it criticises Taipei.

(Fixes dateline to Taoyuan not Taipei)

(Additional reporting by Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Ben Blanchard, Robert Birsel)

Taiwan says Chinese air force exercised near island 16 times in last year

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen visits the Suyapa Cathedral in Tegucigalpa, Honduras January 9, 2017.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – China’s air force has carried out 16 rounds of exercises close to Taiwan in the last year or so, Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, warning that China’s military threat was growing by the day.

China considers self-ruled and democratic Taiwan to be its sacred territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring what it views as a wayward province under Chinese control.

China has taken an increasingly hostile stance towards Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen from the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won presidential elections last year.

Beijing suspects her of pushing for the island’s formal independence, a red line for China. Tsai says she wants peace with China, but that she will defend Taiwan’s security and way of life.

In a lengthy report, Taiwan’s defense ministry listed the number of times China’s air force had drilled near the island since the end of October last year and which aircraft were involved, including bombers and advanced fighter jets.

Of the 16 drills, 15 of them were around Taiwan, flying through the Bashi Channel which separates Taiwan from the Philippines and near Japan’s Miyako island, to the north of Taiwan. The other drill was through the Bashi Channel and out into the Pacific.

China has repeatedly said the drills are routine.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said China was the island’s biggest security threat.

“The Chinese military’s strength continues to grow rapidly,” it said.

“There have been massive developments in military reforms, combined operations, weapons development and production, the building of overseas military bases and military exercises, and the military threat towards us grows daily.”

Chinese missiles can already cover all of Taiwan, and China has been improving its abilities in long-range anti-ship missiles “to build an ability to resist foreign forces”, the ministry added.

Tensions rose earlier this month after a senior Chinese diplomat threatened that China would invade Taiwan if any U.S. warships made port visits there.

Taiwan is well equipped with mostly U.S.-made weapons, but has been pressing Washington to sell more advanced equipment.

The United States is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, to China’s distaste.

Proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by autocratic China, and Taiwan’s government has accused Beijing of not understanding what democracy is all about when it criticizes Taipei.

(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)