Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France
By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has stepped up activity at its underground Fordow nuclear plant, state TV said on Wednesday, a move France said showed for the first time that Tehran explicitly planned to quit a deal with world powers that curbed its disputed nuclear work.

In another development that could also aggravate tensions between Iran and the West, diplomats said Iran briefly held an inspector for the U.N. nuclear watchdog and seized her travel documents, with some describing this as harassment.

The incident involving an International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspector appeared to be the first of its kind since Tehran’s landmark deal with major powers was struck in 2015, imposing restraints on its uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Iran’s decision to inject uranium gas into centrifuges at Fordow, a move that further distances Iran from the accord, was described by Moscow as extremely alarming. Iran once hid Fordow from the IAEA until its exposure by Western spies in 2009.

“With the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran started injecting (uranium) gas into centrifuges in Fordow,” TV reported.

A central aim of the agreement was to extend the time the Islamic Republic would need to assemble a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so, to a year from about 2-3 months. Iran has repeatedly denied any such intention.

The 2015 deal bans Fordow from producing nuclear material. But, with feedstock gas entering its centrifuges, the facility – built inside a mountain – will move from the permitted status of research plant to being an active nuclear site.

A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told state TV later that the injection of uranium gas would start at midnight (2030 GMT). He said the centrifuges there would enrich uranium up to 4.5% fissile purity. Ninety percent purity is required for bomb-grade fuel.

President Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the 2015 deal, blamed Washington for Iran’s rolling back of its commitments, saying Fordow would soon fully resume uranium enrichment work.

“Iran’s fourth step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA (the 2015 nuclear deal) by injecting gas to 1,044 centrifuges begins today. Thanks to U.S. policy and its allies, Fordow will soon be back to full operation,” Rouhani tweeted.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump exited the deal, saying it was flawed to Iran’s advantage. Washington has since renewed and intensified sanctions on Iran, slashing its economically vital crude oil sales by more than 80%.

“PROFOUND SHIFT”

Speaking in China, French President Emmanuel Macron called Iran’s latest move “grave”, saying it explicitly signaled Iran’s intent for the first time to leave the deal.

“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA, which marks a profound shift,” said Macron, who has been at the forefront of efforts by European signatories to salvage the deal after the United States withdrew.

When asked whether Paris would support triggering a dispute mechanism enshrined in the deal, Macron said technical and ministerial meetings would be held to discuss the wider implications of Iran’s actions.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said events unfolding around the nuclear deal were deeply disturbing and called on Iran to stick to the terms of the deal.

But he added that Moscow understood why Tehran was cutting back on its commitments, and blamed the situation on the U.S. decision to pull out of the pact.

Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has bypassed the restrictions of the deal step-by-step – including by breaching both its cap on stockpiled enriched uranium and on the fissile level of enrichment.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased U.S. pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iranian state TV added.

SPEEDING UP ENRICHMENT

In Vienna, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said IAEA inspectors remained on the ground in Iran and would report back on relevant activities.

Iranian authorities said on Tuesday that Tehran will enrich uranium to 5% at Fordow, which will further complicate the chances of saving an accord that European powers, Russia and the European Union have urged Iran to respect.

The agreement capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium at 3.67% – suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90% threshold of nuclear weapons grade.

On Monday, Iran said it had accelerated enrichment by doubling the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, adding that it was working on “a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges”.

The deal, under which international sanctions against Iran were lifted, was tailored to extend the “breakout time” – how long Iran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

Iran has given another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal. Leaving room for diplomacy, Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts all the sanctions and itself returns to the nuclear deal.

The incident involving the IAEA inspector is due to be discussed at a meeting of the agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors on Thursday convened at short notice to discuss “two safeguards matters” not specified in the agenda.

“The agency wants to show how seriously they are taking this. It is a potentially damaging precedent,” one Western official said. An IAEA spokesman and Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. watchdog declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Maria Kiselyova, Francois Murphy and John Irish; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

With U.S.-China tensions running high, hopes dim for end to trade war

By Andrea Shalal and Cate Cadell

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing sharply rebuked Washington on Tuesday for adding some top Chinese artificial intelligence startups to its trade blacklist, dimming hopes for progress in high-level talks aimed at ending a 15-month trade war between the two economic giants.

U.S. and Chinese deputy trade negotiators were due to meet in Washington for a second day of talks on Tuesday, laying the groundwork for the first minister-level meetings in over two months later this week.

A report from the South China Morning Post said China had tamped down expectations ahead of the talks scheduled for Thursday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, saying the Chinese delegation could leave earlier than planned because “there’s not too much optimism.”

The mood soured this week after the U.S. Commerce Department widened its trade blacklist to include 20 Chinese public security bureaus and eight companies including video surveillance firm Hikvision <002415.SZ>, as well as leaders in facial recognition technology SenseTime Group Ltd and Megvii Technology Ltd.

The action bars the firms from buying components from American companies without U.S. government approval, a potentially crippling move. It follows the same blueprint used by Washington in its attempt to limit the influence of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL] for what it says are national security reasons.

Hikvision, with a market value of about $42 billion, calls itself the world’s largest maker of video surveillance gear.

U.S. officials said the action was tied to China’s treatment of Muslim minorities and human rights violations, provoking a sharp reaction from Beijing.

China said the United States should stop interfering in its affairs. It will continue to take firm and resolute measures to protect its sovereign security, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular media briefing without elaborating.

Major U.S. stock indexes fell on Tuesday, amid the continued tensions between the United States and China, whose tit-for-tat tariffs have roiled financial markets, slowed capital investment, and triggered a slowdown in trade flows.

New International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva issued a stark warning about the state of global growth on Tuesday, saying trade conflicts had thrown it into a “synchronized slowdown” and must be resolved.

In her inaugural speech after taking over the global crisis lender on Oct. 1, Georgieva unveiled new IMF research showing that the cumulative effect of trade conflicts could mean a $700 billion reduction in global GDP output by 2020, or around 0.8%.

LOOMING TARIFF HIKES

The trade talks are taking place days before U.S. tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods are slated to rise to 30% from 25%. Trump has said the tariff increase will take effect on Oct. 15 if no progress is made in the negotiations.

President Donald Trump on Monday said a quick trade deal was unlikely, and that he would not be satisfied with a partial deal.

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

Trump launched a new round of tariffs after the last high-level talks in late July failed to result in agricultural purchases or yield progress on substantive issues. China quickly responded with tariff increases of its own.

Washington is also moving ahead with discussions around possible restrictions on capital flows into China, with a focus on investments made by U.S. government pension funds, Bloomberg reported. The news sent shares of chipmakers sharply lower.

Another flashpoint has been a widening controversy over a tweet from an official with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. His backing of Hong Kong democracy protests was rebuked by the National Basketball Association, sparking a backlash.

Trump also called for a peaceful resolution to the protests in Hong Kong, and warned the situation had the potential to hurt trade talks.

Police in Hong Kong have used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against pro-democracy demonstrators in the former British colony, which has been plunged into its worst political crisis in decades.

Beijing views U.S. support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as interfering with its sovereignty.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder in Washington and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Paul Simao)

Death penalty tensions flare again on divided U.S. Supreme Court

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talks in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s internal divisions over the death penalty were on full display again on Monday in fresh wrangling over how the justices handled recent attempts by two convicted murders in Alabama and Texas to put off their executions.

In both cases, there are signs that tensions over the death penalty – especially skepticism by the court’s conservative majority over last-minute bids by death row inmates to block executions – are coming to a boil after simmering for years.

In the Alabama case, Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the nine-member court’s five conservatives, wrote a 14-page opinion defending its middle-of-the-night April 12 decision to pave the way for the execution of Christopher Price, 46. The court’s order was released too late for Price’s scheduled execution to be carried out, and he remains on death row.

Minutes later, the court issued a new opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito criticizing its March 28 decision to issue a stay of execution for Texas inmate Patrick Murphy after the state had blocked a Buddhist spiritual adviser from accompanying him to the execution chamber.

Thomas, whose opinion was joined by Alito and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, took aim at liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a frequent critic of the death penalty. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion from the Price decision that was joined by the court’s three other liberals.

Price had a weak legal argument, Thomas wrote, meaning “it is difficult to see his litigation strategy as anything other than an attempt to delay his execution. Yet four members of the court would have countenanced his tactics without a shred of legal support.”

Breyer is the most vocal critic of the death penalty on the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment and arguing that it is imposed arbitrarily and differently in various parts of the country.

In the April vote, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed Price’s execution so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection. The Thomas opinion on Monday was issued as the court rejected Price’s underlying appeal.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 in the 1991 killing of William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama.

In the Texas case, Alito said Murphy waited too long to bring his claim and that the court’s action to delay his execution would encourage others to bring similar last-ditch actions. Murphy, a Buddhist, had argued his religious rights under the Constitution were violated by the state.

‘NO GOOD REASON’

“This court receives an application to stay virtually every execution; these applications are almost all filed on or shortly after the scheduled execution date; and in the great majority of cases, no good reason for the late filing is apparent,” Alito wrote.

Alito said Murphy’s religious claim might have merit, but prisoners must file such lawsuits “well before their scheduled executions.”

Texas has already changed its policy, which previously allowed only Christians and Muslims to be accompanied by their religious advisers. Now, no religious advisers are allowed in the execution chamber.

Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates broke out of prison in 2000 and went on a rampage in which a police officer was killed.

A month before the Supreme Court’s Murphy decision, the justices voted 5-4 to allow an execution in Alabama to proceed and denied a request by the condemned inmate, a Muslim, for an imam’s presence in the execution chamber. Alito voted to deny both requests.

Gorsuch also complained about last-minute execution challenges when the court ruled on April 1 against Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew, who had sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition. Gorsuch said the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

As tensions over aid rise, Venezuelan troops fire on villagers, kill two

People waiting to cross to Venezuela gesture at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Carlos Suniaga and Nelson Bocanegra

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, killing two, witnesses said, as President Nicolas Maduro sought to block U.S.-backed efforts to bring aid into his economically devastated nation.

The United States, which is among dozens of Western nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has been stockpiling aid in the Colombian frontier town of Cucuta to ship across the border this weekend.

With tensions running high after Guaido invoked the constitution to declare an interim presidency last month, Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela despite widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Maduro, who took power in 2013 and was re-elected in an election last year widely viewed as fraudulent, says opposition efforts to bring in aid are a U.S.-backed “cheap show” to undermine his government.

The socialist president has declared Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil closed and threatened to do the same with the Colombian border ahead of a Saturday deadline by the opposition to bring in humanitarian assistance.

A fundraising concert for Venezuela, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson and featuring major Latin pop stars like Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, attracted nearly 200,000 in Cucuta on Friday, organizers said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty toward Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away.

With inflation running at more than 2 million percent a year and currency controls restricting imports of basic goods, a growing share of the country’s roughly 30 million people is suffering from malnutrition.

Friday’s violence broke out in the village of Kumarakapay in southern Venezuela after an indigenous community stopped a military convoy heading toward the border with Brazil that they believed was attempting to block aid from entering, according to community leaders Richard Fernandez and Ricardo Delgado.

Soldiers later entered the village and opened fire, killing a couple and injuring several others, they said.

“I stood up to them to back the humanitarian aid,” Fernandez told Reuters. “And they came charging at us. They shot innocent people who were in their homes, working.”

Seven of the 15 injured earlier on Friday were rushed by ambulance across the border and were being treated at the Roraima General Hospital in the Brazilian frontier city of Boa Vista, a spokesman for the state governor’s office said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment. Diosdado Cabello, one of the most prominent figures in Maduro&rsquo;s Socialist Party, accused the civilians involved in the clash of being “violent groups” directed by the opposition.

Venezuelan security forces have executed dozens and detained hundreds of others since protests broke out in January against Maduro’s swearing-in, according to civil rights groups.

The United States condemned “the killings, attacks, and the hundreds of arbitrary detentions”, a State Department official said on Friday.

Meanwhile China, which along with Russia backs Maduro, warned humanitarian aid should not be forced in because doing so could lead to violence.

BLOODSHED ‘NOT IN VAIN’

The bloodshed contrasted with the joyous ambiance at Branson’s “Venezuela Aid Live” in Cucuta, where Venezuelan and Colombian attendees, some crying, waved flags and chanted “freedom” under a baking sun.

“Is it too much to ask for freedom after 20 years of ignominy, of a populist Marxist dictatorship?” Venezuelan artist Jose Luis “El Puma” Rodreguez asked. “To the Venezuelans there, don’t give up, the blood that has been spilled was not in vain”.

Earlier in the day, Branson held a news conference near a never-used road border bridge that has become a symbol of Maduro’s refusal to let aid in after authorities blocked the bridge with shipping containers.

“What we’re hoping is that the authorities in Venezuela will see this wonderful, peaceful concert…and that the soldiers will do that right thing,” Branson said.

Guaido has vowed the opposition will on Saturday bring in foreign aid being stockpiled in Cucuta, the Brazilian town of Boa Vista and the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, setting up more clashes with Maduro’s security forces.

He set off toward the Colombian border on Thursday in a convoy with opposition lawmakers to oversee the effort but did not disclose his location on Friday out of security concerns, according to his aides.

“You must decide which side you are on in this definitive hour,” Guaido wrote on Twitter. “To all the military: between today and tomorrow, you will define how you want to be remembered.”

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Guaido’s move to assume the interim presidency and international backing has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, which has vowed to keep protesting until Maduro steps down. It previously staged major protests in 2014 and 2017 that waned in the face of government crackdowns.

Yet some government critics are concerned it will take more than pressure to force Maduro to step down.

“The truth is that not even 10 concerts will make damned Maduro leave office,” said Darwin Rendon, one of the 3.4 million Venezuelans to have emigrated since 2015 to find work. He sends what little he can earn selling cigarettes back to his family in Caracas.

“This regime is difficult to remove,” he added.

(Reporting by Carlos Suniaga and William Urdaneta in Kumarakapay, Venezuela; Nelson Bocanegra and Steven Grattan in Cucuta, Colombia; Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Brian Ellsworth, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Lesley Wroughton in Washington Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in BrasiliaWriting by Sarah MarshEditing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)

Spanish warship ordered ships to leave British waters near Gibraltar

FILE PHOTO: A cloud partially covers the tip of the Rock of the British territory of Gibraltar at sunrise from La Atunara port before Spanish fishermen sail in their fishing boats with their relatives to take part in a protest at an area of the sea where an artificial reef was built by Gibraltar using concrete blocks, in Algeciras bay, La Linea de la Concepcion in southern Spain August 18, 2013. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

LONDON (Reuters) – A Spanish warship tried to order commercial shipping to leave anchorages in British waters near Gibraltar but was challenged by the British navy and sailed away, Gibraltar said, the latest example of tension over the strategic port as Brexit approaches.

The Spanish ship tried to order ships to leave their anchorages on the eastern side of the Rock, but the ships stayed in position, Gibraltar’s authorities said. After being challenged by the British navy, the Spanish warship then sailed slowly along the coast with its weapons uncovered and manned.

Spanish authorities did not immediately comment on the issue.

Tensions over territorial waters around the peninsula in southern Spain often erupt between Spanish and British vessels. Gibraltar, overlooking the strait between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, has been ruled by Britain since 1713.

Its status and the status of its 30,000 residents have been gaining attention as Britain’s exit from the European Union approaches on March 29, raising questions about free movement across its land and sea borders with Spain.

“There is only nuisance value to these foolish games being played by those who don’t accept unimpeachable British sovereignty over the waters around Gibraltar,” a spokesman for Gibraltar said.

Spain has already secured a right of veto over whether future Brexit arrangements can apply to Gibraltar. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez held up an agreement on Britain’s withdrawal treaty in November over the issue and said Spain would seek joint sovereignty after Britain leaves the EU.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; additional information by Jose Elias Rodriguez; Editing by Kate Holton and Peter Graff)

U.S.-China trade talks to resume in Beijing next week: White House

FILE PHOTO - A worker places U.S. and China flags near the Forbidden City ahead of a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump to Beijing, in Beijing, China November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States and China will hold trade talks in Beijing next week, with deputy-level meetings to start on Monday and high-level talks to follow, a White House spokeswoman said on Friday.

The two countries are trying to hammer out a trade deal weeks ahead of a March deadline when U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods are scheduled to increase.

Escalating tensions between the United States and China have cost both countries billions of dollars and roiled global financial markets. Top-level negotiators and President Donald Trump met last week in Washington, but it’s unclear that the two sides will have a deal agreed by March 2.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin will travel to Beijing for principal-level meetings that will take place Feb. 14-15, the White House statement said. Deputy-level meetings led by Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish kick off on Monday.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Phil Berlowitz)

Trump-Xi trade armistice clears way for more market gains

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands after making joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Jonathan Spicer and Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK (Reuters) – One of the darkest clouds hanging over Wall Street somewhat dissipated on the weekend when China and the United States agreed to shelve any new tariffs and reset discussions, at least temporarily halting an increase in their tensions over trade.

Investors said the agreement, lasting 90 days, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit, spelled a reprieve for stocks and could pave the way for a positive bookend to a volatile trading year.

U.S. stock index futures jumped as trading for the week began late on Sunday, with benchmark S&P 500 e-mini futures up 1.55 percent. Treasury futures were soft, suggesting an appetite for risk-taking could extend last week’s gains in the stock market.

The trade tension between Washington and Beijing, along with an uncertain outlook for U.S. rate hikes, have for months dogged prospects for equities. The U.S. pledge not to boost tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods could mark the most important deal in years between the world’s top two economies.

“It sets a pretty positive tone (and) stocks should have a decent rally into December,” said Nathan Thooft, Boston-based global head of asset allocation for Manulife Asset Management.

Thooft said he believed the Trump administration was using a threat to raise tariffs to 25 percent on Jan. 1, from 10 percent now as a negotiating tactic. “So when you start to see evidence that there is the ability to come to some type of agreement, that has to be viewed as a positive,” he said.

The stock market logged an official correction after a selloff in October and continued volatility in November that, just over a week ago, had left the benchmark S&P 500  stock index down 10 percent from its all-time high.

Markets rebounded last week on comments perceived as dovish from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, though the S&amp;P was up only 2.4 percent in 2018.

The latest trade standoff began in September when the United States imposed the 10-percent tariffs, prompting China to respond with its own. Ahead of the leaders’ dinner in Argentina, investors had been bracing for a range of outcomes including a worse-case end to talks and more tit-for-tat measures that would have continued to crimp economic and corporate profit growth.

Instead, the Americans and Chinese officially lauded the result.

Beijing agreed to buy what the White House called a “very substantial” amount of agriculture, energy, industrial and other products. While the clock ticks on the 90-day tariff reprieve, the two sides will try to work out thorny issues including technology transfer, intellectual property and cyber theft.

“It’s not solved by any stretch of the imagination,” said Thooft. But risk assets and cyclical U.S. sectors like materials and industrials should benefit, he said on Sunday.

An initial jump late on Sunday of nearly 2 percent in Nasdaq 100 e-mini futures suggested that technology companies, many of which were hardest hit in the selloff, could rebound.

Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, said he was encouraged by the trade talks and warned that raising tariffs to 25 percent as the White House had threatened “would likely hurt consumers, put several American companies out of business and displace thousands of American workers.”

POWELL TESTIMONY

Energy prices could also rebound on Monday since cooling trade tensions could boost the world economy and spur demand.

Oil prices had dropped from a four-year high of about $76 per barrel in early October to just above $50 on Friday. But U.S. crude oil was up 2.7 percent to $52.37 a barrel as of 6:07 p.m. EST (2307 GMT) on Sunday.

Aside from trade policy, Wall Street’s attention has also been trained on Fed policy.

Powell was scheduled to testify on Wednesday to a congressional Joint Economic Committee. But the hearing is expected to be postponed to Thursday because major exchanges will be closed on Wednesday in honor of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at the age of 94.

Last week, Powell backed the Fed’s gradual tightening but said its policy rate was “just below” a range of estimates of the so-called neutral level that neither stimulates nor cools growth. In response, stocks shot up and largely recovered November’s earlier losses.

In the wake of Powell’s speech, Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek Research, said: “what happens in Buenos Aires will determine if stocks post a positive 2018.”

The specter of a global trade war has hovered over the market since March when Trump announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. He also recently said the United States was studying auto tariffs, which could ripple through Europe and Japan, while a pact with Canada and Mexico left some investors heartened about potential progress with China.

Nancy Lazar, economist at research firm Cornerstone Macro, said in a note that the 90-day tariff delay and China’s “incremental concessions” are good news.

“But given the stern U.S. stance, we’re certainly not raising our outlook,” she said of a 2.8-percent growth estimate for the fourth quarter, still comfortably above potential.

With U.S. corporate leaders increasingly voicing concerns over rising costs associated with tariffs, Wall Street appeared set on Monday to welcome any development that eases those pressures.

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Grant McCool and Sandra Maler)

Tensions rise at U.S.-Mexico border as migrants, holiday travelers wait to cross

A migrant boy, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, runs while holding a toy at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central American migrants in Mexico massed on Thursday around a tense U.S. border crossing, where security measures held up long lines of Mexicans headed to Thanksgiving gatherings on the other side of the frontier.

With few belongings and many of them with children in tow, the migrants set out for the crossing from the baseball field in the Mexican border city of Tijuana where they have been camped out. Around 6,000 migrants who have trekked across Mexico in a caravan in recent weeks are now crammed into the field.

They arrived at the Chaparral border crossing, opposite San Diego, California, and said they would wait there until they could request asylum, in spite of growing U.S. measures to tighten the border.

“We are already desperate, last night it rained and we all got wet. There is no room left. We are all sick. My children have a cold … and nobody has come to give us help,” said David, a Honduran who only provided his first name.

Earlier on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he had authorized the use of lethal force on the border and warned that the United States could close the whole frontier.

The San Ysidro vehicular crossing into San Diego, one of the busiest in the world, was briefly shuttered in the afternoon by U.S. officials as they performed a security exercise.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans enter the United States daily to work or study, and many were trying to get to Thanksgiving celebrations. Mariana del Campo, a retired professor, had hoped to make it across before the closing but was stuck in the line.

“What’s happening on the border is maddening,” she said as she waited in her car. “I don’t know how long we can put up with this. Someone is going to get tired or explode.”

Also stuck in her car waiting to cross for Thanksgiving was 54-year-old Aurora Diaz, who said her U.S.-based daughter was reluctant to visit Mexico in case Trump closed the border.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, make their way to the El Chaparral port of entry border crossing between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, make their way to the El Chaparral port of entry border crossing between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

U.S. OR BUST

Tensions were palpable at the pedestrian crossing where the Central Americans had gathered. Mexican police and soldiers stood guard while a helicopter buzzed over the U.S side.

Edgar Corzo, an official from Mexico’s human rights commission, spoke into a megaphone to the crowd, telling them they could request assistance in Mexico.

But migrants arrived with blankets and prepared to bed down for the night outside the border station. Some of the children cried and complained of the cold.

Authorities in Tijuana said the migrants are facing up to a six-month wait to be able to get an appointment to plead their case for asylum with U.S. authorities.

Earlier this week, U.S. officials briefly closed the main border crossing in Tijuana, putting up concrete barricades and razor wire after reports that migrants could try to rush the crossing.

“I want President Trump to know that we’re peaceful people, we don’t have weapons, we haven’t come to do evil,” said a man who declined to give his name, holding a white flag on a wooden stick that read “Peace, God is with us.” “We want to work, we want them to help us for the love of God,” he added.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Writing by Michael O’Boyle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. warships pass through Taiwan Strait amid China tensions

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 Yimou Lee, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

TAIPEI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait on Monday in the second such operation this year, as the U.S. military increases the frequency of transits through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.

The voyage risks further heightening tensions with China but will likely be viewed in self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from President Donald Trump’s government amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.

Reuters was first to report U.S. consideration of the sensitive operation on Saturday.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Commander Nate Christensen, deputy spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in a statement.

“The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” he added.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said it closely monitored the operation and was able to “maintain the security of the seas and the airspace” as it occurred.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province of “one China”, had already expressed “serious concern” to the United States, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing on Tuesday.

“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territory, and is the most important, most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” she said.

China urged the United States to cautiously and appropriately handle the Taiwan issue to promote peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, she added.

The U.S. Navy conducted a similar mission in the strait’s international waters in July, which had been the first such voyage in about a year. The latest operation shows the U.S. Navy is increasing the pace of strait passages.

Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan, but is bound by law to help it defend itself and is the island’s main source of arms. The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taiwan more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

STATUS QUO?

China has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island. It raised concerns over U.S. policy toward Taiwan in talks last week with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Singapore.

As the United States prepared for a fresh passage through the strait, it told China’s military that its overall policy toward Taiwan was unchanged.

Mattis delivered that message to China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe personally on Thursday, on the sidelines of an Asian security forum.

“Minister Wei raised Taiwan and concerns about our policy. The Secretary reassured Minister Wei that we haven’t changed our Taiwan policy, our one China policy,” Randall Schriver, a U.S. assistant secretary of defense who helps guide Pentagon policy in Asia, told reporters traveling with Mattis.

“So it was, I think, a familiar exchange.”

Taiwan is only one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a bitter trade war, U.S. sanctions, and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s relations with China have deteriorated since the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party swept to power in 2016.

Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, responded to the July passage with a warning to the United States to avoid jeopardizing “peace and stability” in the strategic waterway.

It has also viewed U.S. overtures toward Taiwan with alarm, including its unveiling a new de facto embassy in Taiwan and passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages U.S. officials to visit the island.

Military experts say the balance of power between Taiwan and China has shifted decisively in China’s favor in recent years, and China could easily overwhelm the island unless U.S. forces came quickly to Taiwan’s aid.

China has also alarmed Taiwan by ramping up military exercises this year, including flying bombers and other military aircraft around the island and sending its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.

(Reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Lee Chyen Yee in Singapore; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Toby Chopra, Bill Berkrot and Nick Macfie)

Pompeo upbeat on ‘reset’ with Pakistan after meeting new PM Khan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves to the media before his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday, saying he was hopeful of “a reset of relations” long strained over the war in Afghanistan.

Pompeo’s visit, along with the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was the first high-level U.S. mission to the new government. It aimed to smooth over tensions after President Donald Trump took a tough new line towards Pakistan over longstanding accusations it is not doing enough to root out Afghan Taliban fighters on its territory.

Pompeo met with Khan as well as Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the country’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

“We talked about their new government, the opportunity to reset the relationship between our two countries across a broad spectrum,” including business ties and ending the war in Afghanistan, Pompeo told reporters before leaving for India.

“And I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward.”

Khan, a former cricket star who swept to power in the July elections, also struck a positive tone.

“I’m a born optimist. A sportsman always is an optimist. He steps on the field and he thinks he’s going to win,” Khan told reporters.

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaks to the nation in his first televised address in Islamabad, Pakistan August 19, 2018. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaks to the nation in his first televised address in Islamabad, Pakistan August 19, 2018. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS

AID CUTS

Pompeo expressed confidence in a new beginning in relations with nuclear-armed Pakistan, but conceded: “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

“We made clear to them that – and they agreed – it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments,” Pompeo said, without specifically mentioning the Taliban.

The meetings come against a backdrop of tense ties and U.S. military aid cuts over Islamabad’s alleged reluctance to crack down on militants.

Washington has accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye to, or helping, Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network fighters who stage attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies doing so.

Pompeo landed in Islamabad minutes after the plane carrying U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ahead of the talks, Dunford said Trump’s South Asia strategy set clear expectations for Pakistan, including help to drive the Taliban to a peace process in neighboring Afghanistan.

“Our bilateral relationship moving forward is very much going to be informed by the degree of cooperation we see from Pakistan in doing that,” he told reporters.

The United States has withheld $800 million in overall assistance this year, cuts Pakistan says are unwarranted as it incurs expenses in fighting militants who threaten U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Pompeo was also expected to discuss Pakistan’s possible plans to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ease currency pressures and avert an economic crisis.

In July, Pompeo said there was “no rationale” for the IMF to give money to Pakistan that would then be used to pay off Chinese loans, comments that further rattled Islamabad.

INDIA NEXT

Pompeo is next due to visit India, Pakistan’s neighbor and bitter foe, where he is expected to put pressure on New Delhi over its purchases of Iranian oil and Russian missile systems.

He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will meet their Indian counterparts in New Delhi on Thursday and are expected to finalize defense pacts that could bring their militaries closer amid growing Chinese influence across Asia.

The talks come as U.S. hostility rises towards India’s traditional allies Iran and Russia, targets of U.S. sanctions. Iran is a big oil supplier to India, and two-thirds of its military equipment is from Russia.

The United States is concerned about India’s planned purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow.

An Indian defense ministry official said the country had nearly concluded commercial negotiations with Russia for the systems and intended to proceed with them, to boost defenses against China.

India has said it will not completely halt oil imports from Iran, but will finalize its strategy on crude purchases after this week’s meeting with U.S. officials.

(Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad and Krishna Das in India; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and Kay Johnson; Editing by Andrew Roche)