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)

Iran naval drills underway amid tensions with U.S.

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. To match Analysis USA-ELECTION/IRAN

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States believes Iran has started carrying out naval exercises in the Gulf, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said possibly more than 100 vessels were involved in the drills, including small boats. A second official expected the drill could be wrapped up this week.

Iran has been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed U.S. campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports.

The U.S. military’s Central Command on Wednesday confirmed it has seen an increase in Iranian naval activity, including in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

“We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman at Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Central Command did not update its guidance on Thursday.

A third official said the Iranian naval operations did not appear to be affecting commercial maritime activity.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the drills appeared designed to send a message to Washington, which is intensifying its economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran but so far stopping short of using the U.S. military to more aggressively counter Iran and its proxies.

But Iran did not appear interested in drawing attention to them. Iranian authorities have yet to comment on them and several officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

Trump’s policies are already putting significant pressure on the Iranian economy, although U.S. intelligence suggests they may ultimately rally Iranians against the United States and strengthen Iran’s hardline rulers, officials say.

Iran’s currency plumbed new depths this week ahead of Aug. 7, when Washington is due to reimpose a first lot of sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over high prices, water shortage, power cuts and alleged corruption.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people rallied in cities including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz to protest high inflation caused in part by the weak rial.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Russia vows consequences after Norway invites more U.S. Marines

U.S. Marines test night optics during Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2018 (ANTX-18) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, U.S. March 20, 2018. U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Rhita Daniel/Handout via REUTERS

OSLO (Reuters) – Russia vowed on Thursday to retaliate for a plan by Norway to more than double the number of U.S. Marines stationed there.

Oslo announced on Tuesday that it would ask the United States, its NATO ally, to send 700 Marines to train in Norway from 2019, against 330 at present, and said the additional troops would be based closer to the Russian border.

“This makes Norway less predictable and could cause growing tensions, triggering an arms race and destabilizing the situation in northern Europe,” the Russian Embassy said in a statement on its Facebook page.

“We see it as clearly unfriendly, and it will not remain free of consequence.”

Oslo has grown increasingly concerned about Russia since Moscow annexed of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, while adding that it does not regard its much larger neighbor as a direct threat.

The U.S. Marines were scheduled to leave at the end of this year after an initial contingent arrived in January 2017 to train for winter conditions. They are the first foreign troops to be stationed in Norway since World War Two.

The initial decision to welcome the Marines had prompted Moscow to say it would worsen bilateral relations and escalate tensions on NATO’s northern flank.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Northern Fleet launched a large naval exercise in the Arctic Barents Sea. Later this year, Norway will host its biggest NATO maneuver in decades.

(Reporting by Camilla Knudsen and Terje Solsvik; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Norway to invite more U.S. Marines, for longer and closer to Russia

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines, who are to attend a six-month training to learn about winter warfare, arrive in Stjordal, Norway January 16, 2017. NTB Scanpix/Ned Alley/via REUTERS/File Photo

By Gwladys Fouche

OSLO (Reuters) – Norway will ask the United States to more than double the number of U.S. Marines stationed in the country in a move that could raise tensions with its eastern neighbor Russia.

The government in Oslo has grown increasingly concerned about Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Some 330 U.S. Marines were scheduled to leave Norway at the end of this year after an initial contingent arrived in January 2017 to train for fighting in winter conditions. They are the first foreign troops to be stationed in Norway, a member of NATO, since World War Two.

The initial decision to welcome the Marines irked Russia and Moscow said it would worsen bilateral relations and escalate tensions on NATO’s northern flank.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide told reporters the decision did not constitute the establishment of a permanent U.S. base in Norway and was not targeted at Russia.

“There are no American bases on Norwegian soil,” she said, adding the decision had broad parliamentary support.

Oslo will ask Washington to send 700 Marines from 2019, compared with 330 presently. The additional numbers will be based closer to the border with Russia in the Inner Troms region in the Norwegian Arctic, rather than in central Norway.

The rotation of forces will last for a five-year period compared with an initial posting that ran for six months from the start of 2017, and then was extended last June.

In addition the U.S. want to build infrastructure that could accommodate up to four U.S. fighter jets at a base 65 km (40 miles) south of Oslo, as part of a European deterrence initiative launched after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Norway said the expanded invitation was about NATO training and improving winter fighting capability.

“Allies get better at training together,” Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told reporters.

Soereide told Reuters in April that Oslo did not see Moscow as a military threat and that the threat of war in the Arctic, NATO’s northern flank, was “low”.

But she said Oslo saw challenges in the way Russia was developing, not only militarily but also in the areas of civil society, the rule of law and democracy.

The Russian embassy in Oslo was not available for comment.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; Editing by Terje Solsvik and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Israeli troops kill Palestinian in West Bank clashes

An Israeli border policeman takes up position during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators at a protest against Trump's decision on Jerusalem, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man during clashes in the occupied West Bank on Friday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

An Israeli military spokesman said the man had been about to throw a fire-bomb at the troops, who were responding to an immediate threat when they shot him. He added that the incident in the city of Hebron would be reviewed.

U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2014 and a new push by President Donald Trump’s administration to restart negotiations has shown little progress so far.

Tensions between the sides have risen since Trump declared on Dec. 6 that he recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Outraged Palestinian leaders said Washington could no longer take the lead in peace efforts but Israel has said the United States should remain peace-broker.

Trump’s announcement and the planned move in May of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians – reversed decades of U.S. policy on the city. Its status is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a peace agreement.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Israel says the entire city is its indivisible, and eternal capital.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Maayan Lubell; editing by David Stamp)

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)

Nations to consider more North Korea sanctions, U.S. warns on military option

South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono are seen during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada January 16, 2018.

By David Brunnstrom and David Ljunggren

VANCOUVER (Reuters) – Twenty nations agreed on Tuesday to consider tougher sanctions to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Pyongyang it could trigger a military response if it did not choose negotiations.

A U.S.-hosted meeting of countries that backed South Korea during the 1950-53 Korea War also vowed to support renewed dialogue between the two Koreas “in hopes that it leads to sustained easing of tensions” and agreed that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was both essential and possible.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has refused to give up development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States in spite of increasingly severe U.N. sanctions, raising fears of a new war on the Korean peninsula.

The United States and Canada co-hosted the day-long meeting in Vancouver to discuss ways to increase pressure on Kim.

U.S. officials have reported a debate within the Trump administration over whether to give more active consideration to military options, such as a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean nuclear or missile site.

Tillerson brushed off a question about such a “bloody nose” strike, telling a closing news conference: “I’m a not going to comment on issues that have yet to be decided among the National Security Council or the president.”

However, he said the threat posed by North Korea was growing.

“We all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation … We have to recognize that the threat is growing and if North Korea does not chose the pathway of engagement, discussion, negotiation, then they themselves will trigger an option,” Tillerson said.

“Our approach is, in terms of having North Korea chose the correct step, is to present them with what is the best option – talks are the best option; that when they look at the military situation, that’s not a good outcome for them.”

“It is time to talk, but they have to take the step to say they want to talk.”

The Vancouver meeting pledged to ensure that U.N. sanctions already in place were fully implemented and the participants said in a joint statement they agreed “to consider and take steps to impose unilateral sanctions and further diplomatic actions that go beyond those required by U.N. Security Council resolutions.” They gave no details.

Tillerson said all countries needed to work together to improve interdiction of ships attempting to skirt sanctions and said there must be “new consequences” for North Korea “whenever new aggression occurs.”

He said the meeting had agreed that China and Russia, which did not attend the Vancouver talks and sharply criticized them, must fully implement U.N. sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Canada and the United States were demonstrating a “Cold War mentality” that would divide the international community and damage chances of an appropriate settlement on the peninsula.

“Only through dialogue, equally addressing the reasonable concerns of all parties, can a way to an effective and peaceful resolution be found,” Lu added.

U.S. officials say discussion of a military strike option has lost some momentum since North and South Korea held formal talks for the first time in two years this month and Pyongyang said it would send athletes to the Winter Olympics that South Korea will host next month.

‘NOT TIME FOR REWARD’

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in Vancouver that the world should not be naive about North Korea’s “charm offensive” in engaging in talks with the South.

“It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea,” he said. “The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said she hoped the dialogue would continue well beyond the Olympics, but stressed that existing sanctions must be applied more rigorously.

Tillerson said North Korea must not be allowed “to drive a wedge” through allied resolve or solidarity and reiterated Washington’s rejection of a Chinese-Russian proposal for the United States and South Korea to freeze military exercises in return for a freeze in North Korea’s weapons programs.

A senior State Department official said U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed the Vancouver participants over dinner on Monday and stressed the U.S. preference for a diplomatic solution, while keeping a military option on the table.

“It was a chance to raise people’s confidence that we have thought through this, that we definitely prefer a diplomatic solution,” the official said.

Russia and China have been accused of not fully implementing the U.N. sanctions, something they deny.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking on Tuesday in the West African state of Sao Tome, said everyone should cherish the present easing of tension on the Korean peninsula.

But history shows that each time tensions ease, there could be interference or backsliding, Wang added.

“Now is the time to test each side’s sincerity,” he said. “The international community must keep its eyes wide open, and see who is really the promoter of a peaceful resolution to the peninsula nuclear issue and who will become the saboteur who causes a return to tensions.”

A U.S. official said Susan Thornton, the State Department’s senior diplomat for East Asia, would travel to Beijing from Vancouver to brief China on the outcome. He said he expected Tillerson to provide readouts to his Russian and Chinese counterparts.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Philip Wen in Beijing and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

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)

In first, U.S. presents its evidence of Iran weaponry from Yemen

In first, U.S. presents its evidence of Iran weaponry from Yemen

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday presented for the first time pieces of what it said were Iranian weapons supplied to the Iran-aligned Houthi militia in Yemen, describing it as conclusive evidence that Tehran was violating U.N. resolutions.

The arms included charred remnants of what the Pentagon said was an Iranian-made short-range ballistic missile fired from Yemen on Nov. 4 at King Khaled International Airport outside Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, as well as a drone and an anti-tank weapon recovered in Yemen by the Saudis.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis with such weaponry and on Thursday described the arms displayed as “fabricated.”

The United States acknowledged it could not say precisely when the weapons were transferred to the Houthis, and, in some cases, could not say when they were used. There was no immediate way to independently verify where the weapons were made or employed.

But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley expressed confidence the transfers could be blamed on Tehran.

“These are Iranian made, these are Iranian sent, and these were Iranian given,” Haley told a news conference at a military hangar at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, just outside Washington.

All of the recovered weapons were provided to the United States by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Pentagon said. Saudi-led forces, which back the Yemeni government, have been fighting the Houthis in Yemen’s more than two-year-long civil war.

The unprecedented presentation – which Haley said involved intelligence that had to be declassified – is part of President Donald Trump’s new Iran policy, which promises a harder line toward Tehran. That would appear to include a new diplomatic initiative.

“You will see us build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they’re doing,” Haley said, standing in front of what she said were the remnants of the Nov. 4 missile.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who view Tehran as a threat, seized upon the U.S. presentation in calls on Thursday for international action.

Still, it was unclear whether the new evidence would be enough to win support for sanctions on Iran from some U.N. Security Council members, like Russia or China.

British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said he didn’t think “there’s anything that could convince some of my council colleagues” to take U.N. action against Iran. Still, he said “we’re going to be pursuing with them nonetheless.”

Under a U.N. resolution that enshrines the Iran nuclear deal with world powers, Tehran is prohibited from supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside the country unless approved by the U.N. Security Council. A separate U.N. resolution on Yemen bans the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders.

Iran rejected the U.S. accusations as unfounded and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, on Twitter, drew a parallel to assertions by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations in 2003 about U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion.

IRAN LINKS

The Pentagon offered a detailed explanation of all of the reasons why it believed the arms came from Iran, noting what it said were Iranian corporate logos on arms fragments and the unique nature of the designs of Iranian weaponry.

That included the designs of short-range “Qiam” ballistic missiles. The Pentagon said it had obtained fragments of two Qiam missiles, one fired on Nov. 4 against the airport and another fired on July 22.

The Pentagon cited corporate logos it said matched those of Iranian defense firms on jet vanes that help steer the missile’s engine and on the circuit board helping drive its guidance system. It also said the missile’s unique valve-design was only found in Iran.

Iran, it said, appeared to have tried to cover up the shipment by disassembling the missile for transport, given crude welding used to stitch it back together.

“The point of this entire display is that only Iran makes this missile. They have not given it to anybody else,” Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said. “We haven’t seen this in the hands of anyone else except Iran and the Houthis.”

A Dec. 8 U.N. report monitoring Iran sanctions found that the July 22 and Nov. 4 missiles fired at Saudi Arabia appeared to have a “common origin,” but U.N. officials were still investigating the claims that Iran supplied them.

A separate Nov. 24 U.N. report monitoring Yemen sanctions said four missiles fired into Saudi Arabia this year appear to have been designed and manufactured by Iran, but as yet there was “no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier.”

The U.N. Iran and Yemen sanctions monitors “saw a majority” of the weaponry displayed by Haley, said a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

The Pentagon put on display other weapons with designs it said were unique to Iran’s defense industry. It pointed to a key component of a Toophan anti-tank guided missile and a small drone aircraft, both of which it said were recovered in Yemen by the Saudis.

It also showed components of a drone-like navigation system like the one the Pentagon says was used by the Houthis to ram an exploding boat into a Saudi frigate on Jan. 30. The United Arab Emirates seized the system in late 2016 in the Red Sea, the Pentagon said.

The U.N. Security Council is due to be briefed publicly on the latest U.N. report monitoring Iran sanctions on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish)