China imposes curbs on U.S. diplomats in response to U.S. move

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Friday said it had imposed restrictions on staff at the U.S. Embassy and its consulates in mainland China and Hong Kong, responding to U.S. measures announced early this month.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not specify the measures, which it described as reciprocal.

Last week, Washington said it would require senior Chinese diplomats to get State Department approval before visiting university campuses or holding cultural events with more than 50 people outside mission grounds, which it had said were a response to China’s restrictions on American diplomats.

(Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Tony Munroe; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Hong Kong will suspend some legal cooperation with U.S., China says

BEIJING (Reuters) – Hong Kong will suspend an agreement on mutual legal assistance with the United States, China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday, in a tit-for-tat response to Washington ending some agreements with Hong Kong.

The U.S. State Department notified Hong Kong on Wednesday that Washington had suspended or terminated three bilateral agreements with the semi-autonomous city following China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law.

“China urges the U.S. to immediately correct its mistakes,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing on Thursday as he announced the suspension of the agreement on legal assistance.

The agreement, signed in 1997 before Britain returned Hong Kong to China, specified that the United States and Hong Kong governments would help each other in criminal matters such as transferring people in custody or searching and confiscating proceeds of crime.

The U.S. State Department said earlier the three agreements the United States ended covered “the surrender of fugitive offenders, the transfer of sentenced persons, and reciprocal tax exemptions on income derived from the international operation of ships”.

The U.S. decision followed President Donald Trump’s order last month to end Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the former British colony.

Trump signed an executive order that he said would end the preferential economic treatment for the city following the imposition of the draconian new security law.

The national security law punishes anything China considers secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and has drawn criticism from Western countries that worry the law will end the freedoms promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule.

Beijing and the Hong Kong government have defended the law as necessary to restore order and preserve prosperity after months of at times violent anti-government protests last year.

Hong Kong has become another contentious issue between China and the United States, whose relations were already strained by differences over trade, China’s claims in the South China Sea and its treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Toby Chopra, Robert Birsel)

U.S. officially notifies Hong Kong it has ended three agreements: State Dept

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said it notified Hong Kong on Wednesday that Washington has suspended or terminated three bilateral agreements with the semi-autonomous city following China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law.

The ending of the agreements follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s order last month to end Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the former British colony.

The State Department said in a statement the agreements ended covered “the surrender of fugitive offenders, the transfer of sentenced persons, and reciprocal tax exemptions on income derived from the international operation of ships.”

“These steps underscore our deep concern regarding Beijing’s decision to impose the National Security Law, which has crushed the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong,” State Department Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

Trump signed an executive order last month that he said would end the preferential economic treatment for the city following the imposition of the draconian new national security law.

The legislation punishes anything China considers secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and has drawn criticism from Western countries that worry the law will end the freedoms promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Analysts have said U.S.-China ties have deteriorated to their worst level in decades.

Washington this month imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other current and former Hong Kong and mainland officials whom Washington accuses of curtailing political freedom in the financial hub.

The U.S. government has also required goods made in the former British colony for export to the United States to be labelled as made in China after Sept. 25.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Susan Heavey and Marguerita Choy)

Exclusive: Taiwan in talks to make first purchase of sophisticated U.S. drones – sources

FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is negotiating the sale of at least four of its large sophisticated aerial drones to Taiwan for the first time, according to six U.S. sources familiar with the negotiations, in a deal that is likely to ratchet up tensions with China.

The SeaGuardian surveillance drones have a range of 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 km), far greater than the 160-mile range of Taiwan’s current fleet of drones.

While the sale of the unmanned aerial vehicles has been tacitly authorized by the State Department, two of the people said, it is not known whether the U.S. officials have approved exporting the drones with weapons attached, one of them said.

The deal has to be approved by members of Congress who may receive formal notification as soon as next month, two of the people said. Congress could choose to block a final agreement.

It would be the first drone sale after President Donald Trump’s administration moved ahead with its plan to sell more drones to more countries by reinterpreting an international arms control agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

While Taiwan’s military is well-trained and well-equipped with mostly U.S.-made hardware, China has a huge numerical superiority and is adding advanced equipment of its own.

Taiwan submitted its request to buy armed drones early this year, one of the people familiar with the talks said. The United States last week sent Taiwan the pricing and availability data for the deal, a key step that denotes official approval to advance the sale. It is, however, non-binding and could be reversed.

A deal for the four drones, ground stations, spares, training and support could be worth around $600 million using previous sales as a guide. There could also be options for additional units in the future, one of the people said.

The island is bolstering its defenses in the face of what it sees as increasingly threatening moves by Beijing, such as regular Chinese air force and naval exercises near Taiwan

Relations between Beijing and Washington – already at their lowest point in decades over accusations of spying, a trade war, the coronavirus and Hong Kong – could fray more if the deal gets the final go-ahead from U.S. officials. The Pentagon has said arms sales to Taiwan will continue, and the Trump administration has kept a steady pace of Navy warships passing through the Taiwan Strait.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory, and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. Beijing has denounced the Trump administration’s increased support for Taiwan.

China’s sophisticated air defenses could likely shoot down a handful of drones, according to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, a Washington think tank. But she still expects “China to scream about even the smallest arms sale that the U.S. makes to Taiwan because any sale challenges the ‘One China’ principle.”

“They get particularly agitated if they think it’s an offensive capability,” she said, adding that she expected the Trump administration to be less cautious than its predecessors.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States did not respond to a request for comment.

“As a matter of policy we do not comment on or confirm proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress,” a State Department spokesman said.

ONLY FOR FEW U.S. ALLIES

The U.S. has been eager to sell Taiwan tanks and fighter jets, but the deal to sell drones would be notable since only a few close allies – including Britain, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Korea – have been allowed to purchase the largest U.S.-made drones.

Currently, the Taiwanese government has a fleet of 26 Albatross drones made by Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a quasi-defense ministry research agency, that can fly 160 nautical miles (300 km), or 80 before returning to base, according to records kept by the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc’s SeaGuardian has an airframe that can handle carrying weapons – but only if contractually allowed by the U.S. government.

The United States has sold France unarmed MQ-9 Reapers which are similar to SeaGuardian’s, and later gave permission to arm them.

Last year, the United States approved a potential sale to Taiwan of 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around $2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions. A separate sale of 66 Lockheed Martin-made fighter jets also made it through the State Department’s process.

In recent weeks, China said it will sanction Lockheed Martin Co for involvement in the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington, D.C. ; Editing by Mary Milliken and Edward Tobin)

U.S. diplomats head to China despite row over Houston consulate

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A flight bound for Shanghai carrying U.S. diplomats has left the United States as Washington presses ahead with its plan to restaff its mission in China a day after a U.S. order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston sharply escalated tensions.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the flight, carrying an unspecified number of U.S. diplomats, left Washington on Wednesday evening. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An internal State Department email dated July 17, seen by Reuters, said the department was working to arrange a charter flight to Shanghai from Washington’s Dulles International Airport departing on Thursday.

The source said this flight had departed earlier than initially planned.

The email said a tentative July 29 flight to Tianjin and Beijing was in the initial planning stages and a target date for another flight, to Guangzhou, was still to be determined.

The memo said priority was being given to reuniting separated families and returning section/agency heads.

The U.S. is working to fully restaff its mission in China, one of its largest in the world, which was evacuated in February because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Thursday’s flight went ahead despite a dramatic move by Washington to close China’s consulate in Houston amid sweeping espionage allegations.

China warned on Thursday it would be forced to respond to the U.S. move, which had “severely harmed” relations.

It gave no details, but the South China Morning Post reported that China may close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, while a source told Reuters on Wednesday it was considering shutting the consulate in Wuhan, where the United States withdrew staff at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two flights have so far taken place to return some of the more than 1,200 U.S. diplomats with their families to China since negotiations for the returns hit an impasse in early July over conditions China wanted to impose on the Americans.

The impasse caused the State Department to postpone flights tentatively scheduled for the first 10 days of July.

U.S.-China relations have deteriorated this year to their lowest level in decades over a wide range of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of how to bring U.S. diplomats back amid disagreement over COVID-19 testing and quarantine procedures as well as frequency of flights and how many each can bring back.

(Reporting by Humeyra Paumuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)

Some State Department employees have tested positive for coronavirus – Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A handful of U.S. State Department employees across the globe have tested positive for the new coronavirus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

“We’ve had a couple of employees, you can count them on one hand, who have positive tests,” Pompeo said in a news briefing. “We’ve handled those exactly the way we’re asking every American to respond to those wherever they find themselves in the world.”

He gave no details on the precise number of State Department employees who have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, where they were based or whether they had returned to the United States. He noted that the State Department has already limited U.S. diplomats’ travel.

“We’ll continue to take care of our team, we will act in a way that’s consistent with the CDC’s (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the professional medical staff who work here with the State Department,” he said.

Pompeo added that he felt “great,” though he did not say whether he had been tested for the coronavirus.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Writing by Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay, Editing by Franklin Paul and Paul Simao)

U.S. imposes new rules on state-owned Chinese media over propaganda concerns

U.S. imposes new rules on state-owned Chinese media over propaganda concerns
By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Tuesday said it will begin treating five major Chinese state-run media entities with U.S. operations the same as foreign embassies, requiring them to register their employees and U.S. properties with the State Department.

Two senior state department officials said the decision was made because China has been tightening state control over its media, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has made more aggressive use of them to spread pro-Beijing propaganda.

“The control over both the content and editorial control have only strengthened over the course of Xi Jinping’s term in power,” said one official. “These guys are in fact arms of the CCP’s (Chinese Community Party’s) propaganda apparatus.”

Beijing was not informed in advance of the decision and would be notified on Tuesday afternoon, one official said.

Beijing’s control of China’s state-owned media has become “more and more draconian,” the second official said.

Both officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Tensions between the two superpowers have escalated since President Donald Trump came to office three years ago, with disputes ranging from trade tariffs to accusations of Chinese spying in the United States and to U.S. support for Taiwan.

Tuesday’s decision, the officials said, is not linked to any recent developments in Sino-U.S. relations and has been under consideration for some time.

The new determination is being applied to the Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corp. and Hai Tian Development USA, Inc., the officials said.

China Daily is an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party. Hai Tian Development USA distributes the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the party’s Central Committee.

The five entities’ U.S. operations will have to disclose their personnel rosters and hiring and firing decisions and register properties in the United States that they rent or own with the State Department, the officials said.

They also will have to seek advanced approval before they lease or purchase new U.S. properties, they said.

Asked if there are concerns that Beijing will retaliate against Western media based in China, one official noted that foreign news outlets there already work under strict rules and that the new disclosure rules impose no restrictions on the five state-owned Chinese entities’ U.S. operations.

“These guys operate in a far more liberal environment here in the United States than any foreign press enjoy in the People’s Republic of China, the official said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio)

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region
By Ahmed Rasheed and Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Protesters angry about U.S. air strikes on Iraq hurled stones and torched a security post at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting off a confrontation with guards and prompting the United States to send additional troops to the Middle East.

The protests, led by Iranian-backed militias, posed a new foreign policy challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020. He threatened to retaliate against Iran, but said later he does not want to go to war.

The State Department said diplomatic personnel inside were safe and there were no plans to evacuate them.

Embassy guards used stun grenades and tear gas to repel protesters, who stormed and burned the security post at the entrance but did not breach the main compound.

The Pentagon said that in addition to Marines sent to protect embassy personnel, about 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were being sent to the Middle East and that additional troops were prepared to deploy over the next several days.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 750 troops would initially be based out of Kuwait. The officials said that as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in the coming days if needed.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.

The unprecedented attack on an American diplomatic mission in Iraq marked a sharp escalation of the proxy conflict between the United States and Iran – both influential players in the country – and plunged U.S. relations with Iraq to their worst level in years.

The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam Hussein. But political stability has been elusive.

Trump, on a two-week working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, spoke by phone to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq. “President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the White House said.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump said in a tweet.

Asked later in the day about the possibility of tensions spiraling into a war with Iran, Trump told reporters: “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”

Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.

“America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

The embassy incident came seven years after the 2012 attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and led to multiple congressional investigations.

TENSIONS OVER AIR STRIKES

The protests followed U.S. air strikes on Sunday on bases operated by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah inside Iraq, which killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55. The strikes were retaliation for the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet. “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible.”

Democrats upset that Trump ditched the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2015 were quick to pounce on the incident as a failure of Trump’s Iran policy.

“The predictable result of the Trump administration’s reckless bluster, escalation and miscalculation in the Middle East is that we are now hurtling closer to an unauthorized war with Iran that the American people do not support,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The protesters, joined briefly by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia leaders, threw stones at the embassy gate, while others chanted: “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces prevented protesters entering, later reinforced by U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces.

The embassy has been hit by sporadic but non-lethal rocket fire in recent months, and was regularly shelled following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but had not been physically attacked by demonstrators in that way before.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that U.S. officials never contemplated evacuating the embassy and had kept the heat on Iraqi officials to ensure the compound was safe.

“We reminded them throughout the day of their continued responsibility,” he said.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of the militias that have been officially integrated into Iraq’s armed forces, said 62 militiamen and civilians were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiaman and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away.

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in the thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Abdul Mahdi’s government.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Idrees Ali in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Palm Beach, Fla. and Daphne Psaledakis, Doina Chiacu, Diane Bartz in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

Islamic State’s presence evolved worldwide despite Syria defeat: U.S. State Department

Islamic State’s presence evolved worldwide despite Syria defeat: U.S. State Department
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The global presence of Islamic State continued to advance in 2018 through networks and affiliates, the State Department said in its annual terrorism report, even though the Trump administration declared it defeated the jihadi group in Syria and killed its leader last month in a U.S. raid.

Iran has also remained a top state sponsor of terrorism, the report said, and funneled nearly a billion dollars per year to support its proxies in the region despite Washington having significantly ramped up its sanctions against Tehran.

Terrorism tactics and the use of technologies have also evolved in 2018, while war-hardened fighters from groups such as Islamic State returning to their home countries began raising fresh threats, the report said.

“Even as ISIS lost almost all its physical territory, the group proved its ability to adapt, especially through its efforts to inspire or direct followers online,” said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

“Additionally, battle-hardened terrorists headed home from the war zone in Syria and Iraq or traveled to third countries, posing new dangers,” he said.

Islamic State declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hard-line group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

In 2017, Islamic State lost control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and quickly thereafter almost all of its territory as a result of operations by U.S.-backed forces. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed last month in Syria in a raid by U.S. Special forces.

World leaders welcomed his death, but they and security experts warned that the group, which carried out atrocities against religious minorities and horrified most Muslims, remained a security threat in Syria and beyond.

The group on Thursday confirmed his death in an audio tape posted online and said a successor, identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had been appointed. It vowed revenge against the United States.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dan Grebler)