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China Boat Disaster Death Toll Likely In Hundreds

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

BEIJING — More than 400 Chinese tourists, many of them thought to be elderly, were still missing late Tuesday after a tour boat sank in the Yangtze River after being hit by a strong storm, possibly a tornado.

Thousands of rescuers worked all day to find survivors, including several reported to be trapped alive in the overturned boat. But by 7 p.m., only 14 to 18 people had been confirmed as safely rescued, with five confirmed dead, according to Hubei province officials and state media.

With a second night falling on the rescue site, the number of dead is certain to rise significantly in what could end up becoming China’s worst maritime disaster since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The boat, the 251-foot-long Eastern Star, was carrying 458 people when it went down — 406 Chinese passengers, five travel agency employees and 47 crew members, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Two of the rescued included the boat’s captain and chief engineer, who were taken into custody, according to CCTV, for reasons not immediately clear.
Cruising the Yangtze is a popular pastime for foreign and Chinese tourists, with many wanting to see China’s massive Three Gorges Dam and what is left of the gorges that were flooded when the dam was constructed.

The Eastern Star had started its trip Thursday from the eastern city of Nanjing and was traveling to the southwestern city of Chongqing. It sank at about 9:30 p.m. Monday near Jingzhou in Hubei province.

The boat’s captain and its chief engineer reportedly told authorities the ship had been hit by a tornado and had sunk quickly. At least one survivor confirmed that the boat had gone down fast.

“It capsized within a minute,” tour guide Zhang Zhui told China’s Xinhua news service from a hospital bed. Zhang said he survived by jumping through a window of the boat and holding onto debris in the water for several hours.

Government meteorologists confirmed there had been strong thunderstorms in the area, but could not immediately confirm a tornado had formed. Zhang Zuqiang, head of the emergency relief and public service office of China Meteorological Administration, said an expert team was heading to the accident site to evaluate reports of a tornado, according to a report in Caixin, an online Chinese magazine.

According to state media, there was no sign the tour boat was overloaded or had any record of trouble. China News Service reported the ship had been in service for nearly 20 years and could carry up to 534 people. It is one of five vessels operated by the state-owned Chongqing Wanzhou Dongfang Shipping Company.

As news of the sinking spread across China, relatives of those on board scrambled to learn of their loved ones. Chinese TV showed anguish scenes of tearful and exhausted relatives awaiting news in a Nanjing hotel.

Many in Shanghai gathered outside of the closed office of the Shanghai Xiehe Travel Agency, which had reportedly handled reservations for many on board. A sign on the office — which was posted on Twitter and Chinese social media — gave notice that the company’s president had traveled to the accident scene and urged people with questions to contact government authorities.

China News Service interviewed one woman, Cai Bin, who said her 67-year-old mother was on the boat but that she had been unable to find out anything from the travel agency or local officials. “We are very anxious and we still have slim hope in our heart. We need authorities’ response,” CNS reported Cai as saying.

Maritime disasters in Asia are not uncommon, and some of the biggest can have political ramifications. After the MW Sewol ferry sank last year in South Korea, killing 304 passengers, many of them young students, the country’s prime minister, Jong Hong-won, accepted responsibility and resigned.
On Tuesday morning, state media quickly reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping had called for “all-out efforts in rescue work.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quickly arrived at the site and was photographed all day instructing rescue crews on operations. CCTV reported that Li specifically instructed crews to cut into the hull of the overturned boat to find survivors.

Despite such instructions, initial rescue work seemed to go slowly Tuesday, partly because of bad weather and also because of strong currents in the Yangtze. By the afternoon, People’s Daily had reported that three bodies — presumably from the shipwreck — had been found more than 30 miles downstream in Hunan province.

At the upstream Three Gorges Dam, operators held back water to assist in the rescue efforts.

Initial local media reports suggested that as many as 30 people had been successfully rescued, but those numbers were revised later in the day.

Cruising the Yangtze is a relatively inexpensive holiday. On Tuesday, the website of the Shanghai Xiexie travel agency advertised a 13-day cruise up the Yangtze for a basic price of 1,298 yuan, or about $209.

According to People’s Daily, half of those on board the Eastern Star were over 60 years old. One of the women rescued alive Tuesday was 65.
While thunderstorms and tornados are uncommon in northern China, they’ve been known to strike with deadly force in southern sections of the country.

In March 2013, at least 24 people died from a reported tornado and associated thunderstorm that dropped egg-sized hailstones in Guangdong and other provinces. The storm system overturned a ferry in the southeastern province of Fujian, killing at least 11 people, according to state media.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Rescuers save a survivor from the overturned passenger ship in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River in central China’s Hubei Province on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The ship, named Dongfangzhixing, or Eastern Star, sank at around 9:28 p.m. (1328 GMT) on Monday after being caught in a cyclone in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

China Fishing Plan In Antarctica Alarms Scientists

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

BEIJING — Scientists studying the Antarctic’s marine life received some unexpected news this month: China plans to vastly increase fishing for Antarctic krill — small crustaceans that are a critical food for the continent’s penguins and other creatures.

China currently harvests about 32,000 metric tons of krill annually from Antarctica’s waters, topped by only Norway and South Korea. Under China’s plans, detailed in a March fourth story in the state-run China Daily, the world’s most populous country would increase those catches 30 to 60 times, harvesting up to two million metric tons yearly.

Rodolfo Werner, a marine scientist and adviser to Antarctic conservation groups, said he doubts China can ramp up its catches to that level. But the fact that China has announced such ambitious plans worries him, partly because other countries might follow suit.

“I’m concerned — very concerned,” said Werner in a telephone interview from his home in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. “If they invest big money in their fishing fleets, it will push the system to relax the current (Antarctic) catch limits.”

Beijing’s fishing plans are part of its larger strategic interests in the frozen continent. Over the last three decades, China has built four research stations in Antarctica and is preparing to build a fifth. While an international treaty protects Antarctica from militarization and mining, the Chinese research stations have fueled speculation that China has long-term plans to exploit the continent’s vast energy and mineral resources.

With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, China is highly concerned about food security, and, like other countries, it harvests krill for a variety of products. These include livestock and aquaculture feed, fish bait, and omega-3 dietary supplements. Norway is the world’s largest harvester of Antarctic krill, largely to supply the supplements industry with omega-3 fatty acids.

Worldwide, huge swarms of krill help feed whales, penguins, and other marine animals. Antarctic krill are small creatures — about 2.5 inches long — but incredibly abundant. Scientists believe that the total weight of Antarctic krill is greater than the cumulative weight of any other animal species.

Despite that abundance, many conservationists are concerned that the Antarctic’s food chain is already being harmed by industrial krill fishing. Populations of Adelie and chinstrap penguins have declined more than 50 percent in the West Antarctic Peninsula in the last 30 years, and at least one study has linked the decline to a reduction in krill.

Complicating the debate is global climate change. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which operates a program to protect penguins, temperatures around the Antarctic Peninsula — the area closest to South America’s southern tip — are rising faster than anywhere on Earth. The decline of ice sheets may be reducing krill abundance, since krill get much of their winter food from the under the ice.

“The area is changing. Something is happening,” said Werner, who serves as senior adviser to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a group of conservation organizations. “That’s why, whatever we do with krill fishing, we need to be very careful.”

China’s fishing plans were announced in Beijing by Liu Shenli, chairman of a state-owned Chinese industry, the National Agricultural Development Group. The group has been described as China’s largest agricultural development enterprise. So far, it has processed 20,000 metric tons of krill products, according to official figures.

McClatchy was unsuccessful in getting comment from Liu, but in the March fourth China Daily story, he said the National Agricultural Development Group was investing heavily in krill fishing and processing, with his largest fishing boat costing more than $100 million.

“Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine,” China Daily quoted Liu as saying. “The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”

For China to ramp up its krill harvests, it would have to get approval from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The commission was formed in 1982 following two decades of unregulated krill fishing in the Antarctic, mainly by the former Soviet Union. The commission remains controversial, partly because its voting membership is made up of countries with a financial interest in commercializing krill.

Conservationists have been pushing the commission to require more observers on krill fishing vessels and to restrict fishing near penguin foraging areas, such as the Antarctic Peninsula. But China and some other countries with krill fleets have balked at such proposals, Werner said.

Andrea Kavanagh, director of the global penguin conservation campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the commission too often acts as a fisheries management agency, instead of one under a mandate to conserve marine life. The commission, she said, has yet to confront and address the causes of declining penguin populations in the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Scientists are the first to say they have no idea what is causing the decline of these penguin species,” she said in an email exchange. “So a question that needs to be asked is…why does CCAMLR still allow the fishery to operate so close to the peninsula?”

Krill fishing fleets range from traditional trawlers to more modern vessels that literally vacuum krill from the ocean and process the catch on board. China currently has eight boats in use; it would have to greatly increase its fleet to increase its catches to two million metric tons yearly.

That’s about seven times the Antarctic krill currently harvested by all nations annually.

China krill hunts do not come without risks. In 2013, a Chinese krill fishing vessel — the “Kai Xin” — caught fire and sank off the coast of Antarctica. A Norwegian vessel in the area rescued its crew of 97.

Photo: Norkrill via Flickr

Chinese Environmentalists Accuse 1,000 Companies Of Polluting

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

BEIJING — Environmental groups in China issued a report Tuesday detailing more than 1,000 companies that they say regularly exceed emissions standards, an attempt to “name and shame” Chinese industries that contribute to the country’s notorious air pollution.

Some of the industries “are in repeated violation of discharge standards and so have become a serious source of risk,” according to the report, which was released by the nonprofit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and two other nongovernmental organizations.

Alleged violators include highly profitable publicly traded companies in China, including Kingboard Chemical Holdings Ltd., Aluminum Corp. of China and SinoChem Cokechem Co., a subsidiary of SinoChem International.

On any given day, much of eastern China is smothered in gases and particulates from factories and plants that health officials say contribute to tens of thousands of deaths yearly. By putting a spotlight on publicly traded companies that they say contribute to the smog, Chinese environmentalists hope shareholders will pressure corporate executives to speed up the installation of pollution controls and conversion to cleaner fuels.

Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said Beijing’s recent pollution-control efforts during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference showed that bluer skies were possible. The quick reduction in smog demonstrated that China’s air pollution could be reduced much more quickly than the 30 or 50 years some experts have predicted, he told a news conference.

“Although the APEC blue was short, it gives us great hope,” Ma said.

China’s foremost environmentalist, Ma has been marshaling data since 2006 to pinpoint the nation’s biggest pollution problems — a daunting task, given the size of China’s economy and the lack of government oversight. In recent years, local and provincial governments have made increasing amounts of emissions data available online. That’s aided Chinese pollution watchdogs in the same way that, starting in the 1980s, “right to know” laws helped U.S. environmentalists.

Last year, Ma’s institute and two provincial environmental groups, Green Jiangnan and Green Hunan, issued their first “Green Stocks Investigative Report.” Tuesday’s was their second report.

The new report goes into detail about the scale of the alleged emissions violations, the impact on communities and the sources of investment in the companies, including some from Wall Street firms.

Kingboard Chemical operates a factory in Hebei province south of Beijing with a long history of problems. The company has also been accused of “deliberately discharging in secret, discharging in breach of set limits and fabricating online monitoring data,” according to a news release issued with the report.

Kingboard, which makes laminates, circuit boards and other products, has about 60 factories in China and Thailand.

Two big investors in Kingboard are Fidelity Management and JPMorgan Chase & Co. An Oct. 3 article in Barron’s profiled one of Fidelity’s star financial advisers who was urging investors to buy Kingboard stock.

Attempts by McClatchy to obtain comment from the company’s headquarters in Hong Kong were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Ma said investors should think twice before investing in Chinese companies that violated pollution standards. New environmental laws will go into effect in 2015 that expose violators to higher fines from the government. Such companies also could face court actions or increasing “not-in-my-backyard” resistance from affected communities.

One big question, however, is how strongly Chinese regulators will enforce the new environmental laws, given government mandates that provinces achieve certain growth targets each year. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection dispatched an inspection team to Kingboard’s coal-to-chemicals factory in Xingtai, a city in Hebei province. The factory was allegedly trying to avoid detection by increasing its emissions at night.

According to an account posted on the ministry’s website, private security officers blocked inspectors from entering the factory. Kingboard went on to record a net profit of about $200 million, a 51 percent increase over the same period last year.

Tuesday’s report was released on a day when Beijing was far from being “APEC blue.” Levels of fine particulates topped 400 micrograms per cubic meter, 16 times the level that the World Health Organization considers safe. Skyscrapers remained shrouded in a cloud of soot.

According to Ma, the biggest source of China’s air pollution is industrial, as opposed to emissions from the growing numbers of cars and trucks.

“There’s a regional characteristic of this haze,” he said. “It is not a problem of one city or one region, but a huge problem.”
___

(McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.)

Obama’s China Trip Exceeds Expectations With Wins On Climate Change, Trade

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

BEIJING — Expectations were low when President Barack Obama started his China trip Monday, less than a week after Democrats were trounced in the midterm elections. “Lame duck swims to Asia” was the headline the Washington political news website Politico put on the story.

Yet upon his departure Wednesday from Beijing, Obama could claim some trophies from his visit: He’d landed several agreements with his hosts, including a first-ever commitment by China to control its greenhouse gas emissions.

“I would describe this as the most successful multilateral summit of his presidency,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia program of Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia. He said it was impressive that the White House had been able to nail down some deals late in Obama’s visit to Beijing, as opposed to having concluded them days or weeks earlier.

Other analysts were less effusive, noting that tensions were still on display between the world’s two most powerful countries, most publicly during a news conference Wednesday by Obama and President Xi Jinping. Even so, some agreed the meeting had defied expectations.

“From the standpoint of U.S.-China relations, President Obama’s trip to Beijing has gone better than expected,” said Don Emmerson, the head of the Southeast Asia program at Stanford University.

Emmerson called it significant that, aside from the climate pact, the two sides could reach agreement on lowering global tariffs on high-technology products, lessening the chance of escalation during encounters between their countries’ militaries and lengthening visas for Americans and Chinese traveling to each other’s countries.

“‘Declaration’ is not ‘implementation,’ but these are encouraging signs of a welcomed willingness on both sides to work together,” Emmerson said. He added that he’ll be watching to see whether “this productive but fragile comity” continues as Obama attends the East Asia Summit in Myanmar on Thursday and then travels Saturday to Australia for the G-20 summit of industrial and emerging-market nations.

Obama and Xi held their sixth formal meeting of the past two years Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. During their talks, Obama said, he pressed Xi on human rights, allegations of cybertheft, unfair trade practices and China’s exchange rates. He also commended Xi for China’s help in responding to the Ebola crisis and countering terrorism, as well as recent talks to normalize relations with Japan and “ease tensions” in the region.

“If the United States is going to continue to lead the world in addressing global challenges, then we need to have the world’s second largest economy, and most populous nation on Earth, as our partner,” Obama said in comments to reporters after the meeting.

Xi and Obama’s news conference took an unusual awkward turn when the only foreign reporter allowed to ask questions peppered Xi with a series of inquiries. Under the format, only one reporter from China was allowed to ask questions, along with one foreign reporter, who turned out to be Mark Landler from The New York Times.

In a lengthy inquiry, Landler asked Xi about recent examples of anti-American rhetoric in China, the protests in Hong Kong and China’s denial of visas to New York Times reporters in apparent retaliation for investigative reports on the wealth of Chinese leaders. This created the rare situation of a Chinese leader being questioned by a foreign journalist, with his reaction streamed live on Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong media outlet usually available to Chinese netizens. The news conference wasn’t broadcast on government-controlled CCTV.

Xi initially waved off the questions, allowing a reporter from China Daily to ask one about the country’s approach to world affairs. Xi then appeared to recite a prepared statement, sticking to the line, also used by Obama, that the world’s two greatest powers do not face an inevitable clash economically or militarily.

“Both President Obama and I believe that when China and U.S. work together, we can become an anchor of world stability, and the propeller of world peace,” said Xi, speaking in Chinese with his words translated by a government interpreter.

Then Xi, the son of a Communist Party leader during the Mao era, harshened his tone as he turned to some of Landler’s questions. He called the pro-democracy occupation in Hong Kong an “illegal movement” that would be dealt with by Chinese law. “Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion,” Xi said.

He also obliquely addressed questions about press freedoms and the visa issue, although in a way that left many confused. He used an analogy about a car broken down on the highway and the responsibility for fixing it. “In China, we have a saying: The party which has created the problem should be the one to resolve it,” said Xi.

For his part, Obama tried to dodge the Hong Kong questions, acknowledging U.S. interests for a freer society in the former British territory but calling them “issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and the people of China to decide.” He also came back to the potential for China and the U.S. to lead the world on issues it agrees on, even if it disagrees on others.

“The carbon-reduction agreement we just announced is a perfect example of why a strong U.S.-China relationship is so critical,” he said.

That agreement, announced early Wednesday in Beijing, instantly became worldwide news, partly for its symbolic value. The United States and China are the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the world’s emissions. Their agreement to cap and cut emissions puts pressure on other countries to join in an international climate deal, the focus of a summit next year in Paris.

Under the pact, the United States has agreed to cut net emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels in the next 11 years. China has agreed for the first time to set limits on its own emissions, gradually reducing fossil fuels so that its emissions would peak “around 2030,” possibly earlier, and then drop as the country transitions to non-coal sources of power.

Connelly, of the Lowy Institute, said the climate pact was significant, partly because it showed that Obama could make progress internationally even without the support of Congress, which will be fully controlled by Republicans during the remainder of his term.

“This suggests to me that Obama will redouble his efforts on foreign policy the next two years,” said Connelly. “He can get a lot done. He is still president of the United States.”

Some environmentalists, however, are disappointed that the U.S. didn’t press China to commit to deeper reductions in emissions, saying the “around 2030” date in the pact is mushy and already achievable by China under its current trajectory. Xi also had little to say about the pact Wednesday, raising questions about whether China would implement the promised reductions.

Before hosting Obama and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beijing made an all-out effort to reduce air pollution. Factories were supposedly idled and cars kept off the streets, and still the air quality index neared 300 early Tuesday, a severely unhealthy level for those exposed to Beijing’s air.

Fortunately for Xi and Obama, a strong wind blew in Wednesday. That act of nature allowed Obama to board his plane and fly out of Beijing in clear blue skies, as if choreographed by his Chinese hosts.

AFP Photo/Greg Baker

U.S., China Announce Pact To Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff (MCT)

BEIJING — Creating an opening for a larger international agreement, China and the United States on Wednesday announced new targets for greenhouse gas emissions that are intended to help curb global climate change.

As part of the arrangement, announced by the White House, the United States would cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels in the next 11 years.

At the same time, President Xi Jinping of China agreed that China for the first time would set a date when its emissions would hit a peak, after which it would begin cutting its use of fossil fuels. According to the White House, China will aim to peak its carbon dioxide emissions “around 2030,” with the intention of trying to hit that target sooner. At the same time, China would work to increase the non-fossil fuel share of its energy use to 20 percent by 2030.

China and the United States account for more than one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Today’s joint announcement, the culmination of months of bilateral dialogue, highlights the critical role the two countries must play in addressing climate change,” the White House said.

The agreement, the White House said, “will also inject momentum into the global climate negotiations” in advance of a meeting in Paris next year aimed at producing an international agreement on emissions reductions.

The accord immediately drew fire from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is expected to be Senate majority leader during the last two years of President Barack Obama’s presidency.

“Our economy can’t take the president’s ideological war on coal that will increase the squeeze on middle-class families and struggling miners. This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” he said in a statement. “`Easing the burden already created by EPA regulations will continue to be a priority for me in the new Congress.”‘

Unable to get congressional approval to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, President Obama in his first term used Environmental Protection Agency authority to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, vehicles and other sources. That plan has helped the administration in negotiations with China, which previously had said that developed countries should take the lead in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With Wednesday’s announcement, the United States agreed to step up efforts to reduce such emissions, although not as quickly as many scientists and environmentalists have called for.

According to the White House, the new U.S. goal will double the current pace of carbon pollution reduction — 1.2 percent per year on average — to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025. Administration officials say this “ambitious target” will keep the United States on a trajectory to reduce overall emissions roughly 80 percent by 2050.

In recent years, China has become the world’s largest investor in renewable energy and has taken other steps to reduce industrial emissions, in part because of public unrest over severe air pollution.

The announced agreement will speed China’s development of renewable energy sources by 2030. According to the White House, the pact will require China to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission capacity by 2030 — “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

Xi and President Obama hold their final meeting Wednesday in the president’s three-day trip to China, which hosted this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Separate from Wednesday’s China-U.S. agreement, the 20 countries of APEC agreed on several measures to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include:

-A goal to double the share of renewable energy in APEC’s overall energy mix by 2030.

-A renewed commitment to phase out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful energy consumption.”

-Steps to retrofit and protect energy infrastructure to natural disasters and climate change, a response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

APEC countries, which include China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, account for 60 percent of global energy demand.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Susan Rice Seeks China Cooperation Against Islamic State As Beijing Visit Ends

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — National security adviser Susan Rice met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for 45 minutes on Tuesday, concluding a three-day visit to Beijing that was billed as a preparatory mission for President Barack Obama’s visit to China in November but saw her pressing China to join a coalition to combat Islamic State insurgents in Syria and Iraq.

Rice also devoted part of her time in China to stressing ways to prevent mishaps involving Chinese and U.S. forces in the East and South China seas, according to officials traveling with Rice who agreed to talk on background.

How the Chinese responded was difficult to know. While the administration officials agreed to speak anonymously about the talks, they declined to comment on what the Chinese said and only summarized their version of what Rice imparted to the Chinese.

The officials said Rice’s talk with Xi didn’t get into a lot of specifics but focused primarily on the importance of the U.S. relationship with China. But it’s clear the United States hopes the rise of the Islamic State will be an area where risk-averse China might be willing to join an international coalition to collectively combat terrorism.

During her talks, administration officials said Rice broached the topic of Hong Kong elections and human rights issues on the mainland. Officials declined to go into specifics but said “it was important for us to raise our support for universal suffrage in Hong Kong.”

Rice also encouraged China to speak out on Russian excursions in Ukraine, officials said. Given China’s strong stance on other countries respecting the sovereign integrity of China’s borders, administration officials hoped that Ukraine would be an issue where “our interests align,” they said.

A major concern was the potential for an incident between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft and ships.

“The Chinese understand how dangerous these incidents could be,” said one administration official, adding that Rice’s Chinese counterparts “took our concerns very seriously.”

That contrasted with a news account Tuesday by China’s state-run Xinhua news service, which reported that a top military official told Rice that the U.S. military should stop “close-in reconnaissance” if it wants to avoid a mishap that could rapidly escalate.

A Chinese fighter plane and a U.S. Navy patrol plane nearly collided a few weeks ago, in an incident U.S. officials say was caused by “unsafe and unprofessional” conduct on the part of the Chinese pilot. Chinese news media has characterized the incident as being caused by aggressive U.S. spying on China that had crossed a line.

“We hope the U.S. can promote the healthy development of new China-U.S. military ties with concrete actions,” Xinhua reported Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, as saying to Rice.

It was not unusual for a national security adviser to meet with China’s top leader. Rice’s predecessor, Tom E. Donilon, also met with Xi during a similar visit in early 2013, prior to Xi and Obama holding discussions at Sunnylands, a swank estate in Rancho Mirage, California, that was once a retreat for the late publisher Walter Annenberg and his wife. Those June 2013 meetings were deemed successful by both sides.

Although Susan Rice is fairly well-known among Chinese diplomats, at least one Chinese media outlet this week had trouble distinguishing her from Condoleezza Rice, former President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, according to the South China Morning Post. According to the Morning Post, Chinese broadcast news network CCTV ran images of Condoleezza Rice before viewers complained and the correct images of Susan Rice were substituted.

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

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Collapse Of Buildings In China Quake Renews Fears Of Poor Construction

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — Heavy rains on Monday complicated rescue efforts in south China’s mountainous Yunnan province, where a major earthquake Sunday killed at least 398 people and injured more than 2,000 others.

Roads were blocked and telecommunications down in and around the Lubian County town of Longtoushan, 277 miles northeast of Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. The magnitude 6.1 quake flattened or damaged more than 10,000 homes and other structures, again raising questions about China’s building standards and ability to respond to natural disasters.

Yunnan Information Daily, a Kunming newspaper, reported that a three-story police station in Longtoushan had collapsed, burying at least four police officers, who were confirmed dead. Upon reading this, some commenters on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, questioned why a police station in an earthquake-prone region would not have been built to tougher standards.

Other government buildings in Longtoushan, including a middle school, collapsed or were heavily damaged, according to Chinese news agencies People.nc and Xinhua.

Ludian County is home to 430,000 people, including members of the Miao, Zhuang, and Bai minorities, and it is one of China’s poorest regions. Many of the homes are made of brick and mud, even though several major earthquakes have hit the region and other parts of Yunnan province in the last century.

A magnitude 7.7 quake killed roughly 15,000 people in Yunnan in 1980, and a magnitude 7.1 quake killed 1,400 1974. In 2008, a major earthquake killed more than 70,000 people in neighboring Sichuan province, prompting some citizens to heavily criticize the government for a slow response and a failure to enforce building standards.

Earthquakes have been a sensitive topic for China’s ruling Communist Party since the 2008 disaster in Sichuan. In the days after that quake, the government attempted to suppress reports that lax building standards and inspections had contributed to the fatalities, including the deaths of hundreds of children in collapsed school buildings.

As of Monday evening, the government had not taken down comments on Weibo questioning why some local government buildings in the earthquake zone had collapsed.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report from Beijing.

AFP Photo

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Kerry: U.S. And China Have Agreed To Disagree On Key Issues

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — U.S. leaders have accused China of hacking into American companies’ files, bullying U.S. allies in Asia, and treating dissidents and ethnic minorities inhumanely. But pay little heed to the appearance of a hostile Sino-U.S. relationship.

That’s the message U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered Thursday at the conclusion of a two-day meeting between Chinese and U.S. officials in Beijing.

The two countries, Kerry said, “are moving past the differences that have accented the relationship in most recent months.” U.S. delegates and their Chinese counterparts, he said, struck agreements this week on several issues, including cooperation on combating climate change, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and reducing the chances of maritime mishaps.

At a news conference, Kerry and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew noted that the United States still has serious differences with China. But the two sides have apparently agreed to disagree in a way that, according to Kerry, seeks to alter conventional wisdom about interactions between superpowers.

“The U.S. and China are committed to a new model of relations, based on practical cooperation, but also constructive management of differences,” Kerry said. “We recognize the need to avoid falling into the trap of a zero-sum competition, and that recognition is driving our partnership on issues from climate change to wildlife trafficking to Afghanistan to peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Kerry and Lew were in Beijing for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a chance for American business and government leaders to interact with their Chinese counterparts on a range of issues. Kerry said the meeting was one of the best of its kind he’d attended, and at Thursday’s news conference, he and Lew glossed over tensions between China and President Barack Obama that many analysts say are growing almost monthly.

The biggest flash point is China’s increasingly confrontational stance against Japan, the most important U.S. ally in Asia. China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited South Korea last week in a trip clearly aimed at reminding Korea and the rest of Asia of Japan’s past war atrocities. This week, Chinese state media started publishing lurid “confessions” of Japanese World War II criminals that are sure to whip up emotions at home.

Cyber warfare is another source of conflict. In May, the U.S. Justice Department formally indicted members of the Chinese military on charges of hacking U.S. corporate secrets, part of an alleged scheme to help state-owned enterprises in China. Beijing has angrily rejected the accusations.

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that hackers traced to China had attempted to break into federal databases and gain information on government workers with security clearances. Asked about it Thursday, Kerry said he’d only learned about the alleged breach before arriving in Beijing and didn’t raise it with his Chinese counterparts, partly because it was still under investigation.

Some commentators have accused Kerry and President Obama of being softies against China’s aggressions.

“It is hard to exaggerate the audacity with which China now kicks sand in Uncle Sam’s face,” Eamonn Fingleton wrote in Forbes magazine this week. Fingleton, formerly based in Tokyo and other parts of Asia for Forbes, said the United States was regarded as an “empty suit” in China on “everything from trade barriers to industrial espionage to intellectual property theft.”

Kerry said Thursday that he’d had “frank discussions” with Chinese leaders about cybersecurity and reported Chinese crackdowns on lawyers, journalists, and activists. But the discussions were focused on how the two countries could make progress on other issues, such as easing travel between them.

More than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, Kerry has made clear that he wants to engage China on issues where its leaders feel relatively comfortable. His lighter touch has rankled some in Congress, especially Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who’s seeking to rename the street outside the Chinese embassy in Washington after Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and China’s most famous dissident.

AFP Photo / Ng Han Guan

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As China Cracks Down On Dissent, Activists Press U.S. To Raise Issue

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — With Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials in the midst of two days of meetings with their Chinese counterparts, human rights activists are urging them to elevate a topic that President Xi Jinping would rather dodge: his government’s increasingly harsh treatment of critics and civic activists.

Since Xi assumed his post last year, China has stepped up detentions and imprisonments of prominent lawyers, religious leaders, advocates for ethnic groups and those seeking to remember the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square last month.

On Wednesday, a leading Tibetan writer, Tsering Woeser, said she’d been put under house arrest after being invited to visit the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, presumably to join a function with Kerry.

Sophie Richardson, the China director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said it was difficult to know whether the Chinese president was directing such police actions or was delegating decisions to hard-liners. Regardless, she said, “the scope and scale of detentions and arrests, and the kind of behavior that is now considered problematic, bodes very badly for Xi’s tenure. … There used to be more clarity on where the red lines were drawn.”

Kerry and other top U.S. officials, including Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, are in Beijing for an annual get-together with the Chinese hierarchy known as the Strategic Economic Dialogue. The gathering results in face-to-face meetings with officials from both countries, including those with expertise in energy, public health, environment, banking, trade, economic development, national security and international relations.

In advance of the dialogue, Beijing and the White House have tried to rebut the conventional criticism of their strained relationship: that China sees the United States as a declining power and that the Obama administration, for its part, is intent on “containing” China’s rise.

In an opening speech Wednesday, Xi said the two countries had common interests that outweighed their differences, including the need to work together on a trade agreement, counterterrorism, climate change and other issues of mutual concern. “The foundation of Sino-U.S. friendship lies in the people, and our hope in youth,” Xi was quoted as saying by China’s state-run media.

Kerry said Wednesday, “We are convinced that the United States and China do not have to be rivals, but can be partners and find things to cooperate on that are important to the security of the region.”

Despite such comments, the U.S.-China relationship remains tense, stoked by China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China seas and by the White House’s decision to indict Chinese military officials on charges of hacking U.S. corporate secrets.

China has seized on the indictments to accuse the United States of cyber-hypocrisy, propaganda aided this week by claims that Washington had hired a German intelligence employee to spy on the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Visiting Beijing on Monday, Merkel was asked about accusations that the U.S. had lured a German citizen to spy against his own country. “If the allegations are true, it would be a clear contradiction as to what I consider to be trusting cooperation between agencies and partners,” she said at a Beijing news conference, presumably to the delight of her Chinese hosts.

Given the state of relations between the United States and China, some diplomats see little to be gained by pressing issues of human rights. Richardson disagrees, saying a strong message could be sent at these meetings if individual U.S. agencies were to press human rights concerns that related to their own particular priorities.

AFP Photo/Timothy Clary

China’s Xi Arrives In South Korea As Tensions Grow With North Korea, Japan

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to South Korea on Thursday, part of a courtship aimed at strengthening his hand in dealing with North Korea and Japan.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye greeted Xi upon his arrival in Seoul, the fifth time the two have met since they both assumed power last year. During the two-day visit, Xi, Park, and other South Korean officials are expected to discuss a possible trade agreement and mutual concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Chinese news outlets and officials have been hyping the meeting for days, partly because it marks the first time in two decades of normalized relations between Beijing and Seoul that a Chinese leader has visited South Korea before he has visited the north.

The visit “will certainly become the most important milestone in the history of exchanges between the two countries,” China’s ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, told the Korea Joongang Daily in an interview last week. He added that “the relationship between South Korea and China couldn’t be any better.”

China is regularly accused of clumsy foreign-policy forays, but Xi’s South Korea’s visit serves China’s interests by sending a terse message to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. While China remains North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner, Beijing opposes its nuclear weapons program and was stunned by Kim’s bloody power play last year, when he had executed his uncle and top adviser, Jang Song Thaek, who was well regarded by Chinese leaders.

In courting South Korea, China also hopes to build a regional counterweight to a historic enemy, Japan. Both countries were victims of Japanese atrocities during and before World War II, and both have denounced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for what they see as his attempts to remilitarize Japan.

Photo: akasped via Flickr

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China Blasts Proposal To Name D.C. Street For Dissident Liu Xiaobo

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — China reacted brusquely Wednesday to a vote in the U.S. Congress that approved renaming a street outside the Chinese embassy in Washington after China’s most famous political prisoner.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, labeled as “purely a farce” the vote by the House Appropriations Committee to name the street for Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu’s crime was gathering signatures for a human rights charter similar to one that helped end communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia.

Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, angering China’s Communist Party and raising his profile but doing little so far to expedite his release.

In an effort to increase pressure on China, the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved an amendment to a must-pass State Department spending bill that directs the secretary of state to rename the street outside the Chinese embassy “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”

If the full House of Representatives passes the bill, as is expected, and the Senate and President Barack Obama also approve it, the official address of the Chinese embassy would become 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza.

“Every piece of incoming mail to the embassy would bear the name of the imprisoned Nobel laureate,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who proposed the amendment and who’s one of China’s most vehement U.S. critics.

Wolf’s pressure play has been all but ignored by the media in China, where Liu’s name is “sensitive” and largely censored. Among Western experts on China, there’s been a debate on the wisdom of the congressional move, with some seeing it as the latest “tit for tat” that prevents China and United States from fully engaging on issues that divide them.

Supporters note that Congress previously has renamed streets in Washington to honor international defenders of human rights. In 1984, it honored Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov by renaming part of the street in front of the Soviet embassy.

Wolf originally sought his amendment to highlight the 25th anniversary of China’s crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, of which Liu was an enthusiastic participant.

“This modest effort would undoubtedly give hope to the Chinese people who continue to yearn for basic human rights and representative democracy, and would remind their oppressors that they are in fact on the wrong side of history,” Wolf and other members of the House said in support of the amendment.

On Twitter and other social media, commenters have wondered whether China would retaliate by naming a street outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing after a U.S. nemesis, such as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. When asked whether China would respond in such a manner, Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, smiled and dodged the question.

“What kind of measures do you think China should adopt?” she asked. She then issued a broadside against Liu, saying he’s “a criminal who has been sentenced according to law by Chinese judicial authority due to violation of Chinese law.”

Two hours before she spoke, U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus delivered his first substantive speech in China since he took the post earlier this year. Speaking to a Beijing luncheon of U.S. business organizations based in China, Baucus noted the strong economic ties between the countries and the commitment of Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to a “new model” of relations.

Baucus, however, also mentioned two issues that divide the two countries: cyberspying and human rights.

“In the past year, China has arrested several moderate voices who had peacefully advocated for such basic things as good governance and the rights of ethnic minorities and the rule of law,” Baucus said.

While Baucus didn’t name names, it was likely he was referring to Pu Zhiqiang, who was arrested last month, and Xu Zhiyong, who was sentenced to four years in prison earlier this year. Both were detained on charges similar to those that sent Liu to prison.

Before he became the ambassador, Baucus was a member of Congress for 38 years, including 35 in the Senate. It’s unknown how he views the House’s attempt to rename the street for Liu. According to U.S. embassy staff, the ambassador, after lunching with business leaders, didn’t have time to take questions Wednesday from reporters.

AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

Hong Kong Activists Push Democracy Through Polling

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters are making a statement that they want ballot choices in 2017. China’s Communist Party is making a statement it wants to control those choices.

Those entrenched positions are clashing this week as Hong Kong democracy advocates conclude an informal poll on the ground rules for the 2017 election to determine the territory’s next chief executive. Beijing has strongly condemned the grass-roots referendum, calling it “illegal” and a “farce.” But the more the Chinese government fulminates, the more Hong Kong residents line up to register their wishes, both online and at ballot boxes.

As of Monday, more than 700,000 registered voters had participated, mostly by using smartphone apps or the Internet. That’s seven times the number that Occupy Central, the group organizing the poll, originally expected. On Sunday, organizers also opened more than a dozen polling stations across Hong Kong. Media photographers showed long lines at some of the stations, even though there are still six days left for people to vote.

On Monday, an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, lashed out at the referendum, calling it a destabilizing invention that was “tinged with mincing ludicrousness.”

“As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong can’t launch any referendum without the authority of the central government,” the editorial said. “The country would fall into tumult if all regions conducted similar referendums.”

The tumult in question involves how Hong Kong will select candidates who will vie to be its chief executive in 2017. The vote will be the first to pick Hong Kong’s leader since China regained sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997, promising partial autonomy under a principle of “one country, two systems.”

Hong Kong’s Basic Law requires that “a broadly representative committee,” acting “in accordance with democratic procedures,” select candidates to go before voters in 2017.

Democracy advocates fear that, under this vague language, the committee will be stacked to ensure that only Beijing’s hand-picked candidates are on the ballot. Advocates are pressing for public nominations of candidates, a demand that Beijing has rejected as illegal.

To drive that point home, the Chinese central government on June 10 issued a “white paper” on Hong Kong, asserting that the region’s autonomy is completely at the discretion of Beijing. While many in Hong Kong recognize that political reality, the timing of the white paper was viewed as an implicit threat to punish Hong Kong should it continue push for political reforms.

That threat may be backfiring on Beijing. Angered at apparent bullying, popular opinion appears to be swinging toward Occupy Central.
That group, formed by academics and an array of pro-democracy groups, has threatened to “occupy” the central part of Hong Kong’s business district if China doesn’t agree to an election system that meets international standards.

Even activists who aren’t fully supportive of Occupy Central’s tactics say that China seems oblivious to how its actions are being viewed in Hong Kong. “The most effective way for Beijing to calm resistance is to assert less control, not more,” Michael C. Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a commentary in the South China Morning Post earlier this month.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Hacking Charges Came Even As U.S. Wooed Chinese Investment

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — Max Baucus, the U.S. ambassador to China, started his workweek Monday by urging China’s state-owned enterprises to invest in American infrastructure projects. “There is a huge opportunity,” he told a forum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that scores of Chinese and U.S. executives attended.

While Baucus was looking for Chinese investment, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was preparing to announce an indictment against five Chinese military officers. Holder would accuse them of hacking into U.S. companies’ computer systems on behalf of unnamed Chinese state-owned enterprises — including possibly some that the United States is courting for investment.

To many analysts, the juxtaposition of the two events Monday reveals how bifurcated U.S. policy toward China has become. On any given day, it can swing between indictments and ceremonial toasts.

Here in Beijing, Baucus’ efforts to court Chinese investment were quickly overshadowed by what China called “fabricated” accusations against its military officers. By Tuesday, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, was reporting that Baucus had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry to explain the U.S. position and make amends.

Adam Segal, a cyber-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was surprised that the Obama administration decided to issue the indictments, the first U.S. prosecution against a foreign country’s military for economic espionage. “The public ‘naming and shaming’ has been a big part of the picture since a year ago,” he said, but it’s unclear how effective it’s been.

Unlike in the United States, China’s economy is dominated by more than 100 major state-owned enterprises. These include companies involved in steel manufacturing, nuclear power and solar power — the sectors named in the indictment as targets for China’s U.S. hacking.

It’s long been known that China’s military has close ties to the enterprises. It’s been suspected for almost as long that the military uses its cyber-warfare capabilities to give those industries a competitive advantage. That was backed up last year by a detailed investigation by Mandiant, a private American cyber-security company. Mandiant revealed that a Shanghai-based espionage unit of the People’s Liberation Army had engaged in years of cyber-attacks on U.S. companies and defense installations.

“This issue poses a serious threat to the stability of U.S.-Chinese codependency,” Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, wrote in his new book, “Unbalanced.” Unlike issues such as unfair trade practices, he wrote, hacking doesn’t lend itself to a process of negotiation and adjudication.

Indeed, it now appears that the only avenue for negotiation has been suspended, if not permanently shut down. In response to Monday’s indictments, China said it would no longer attend a working group made up of senior officials from both countries to resolve complaints about cross-border hacking.

Baucus met with Zheng Zeguang, China’s assistant foreign minister, on Monday shortly after the indictments were announced, according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website Tuesday.

Zheng reportedly told Baucus that depending on the development of the situation, China “will take further action on the so-called charges by the United States.”

“The Chinese government and military and its associated personnel have never conducted or participated in the theft of trade secrets over the Internet,” the Foreign Ministry quoted Zheng as telling Baucus.

In its indictment, the Justice Department detailed how the army officers allegedly used malicious software, called malware, as well as techniques such as “spear phishing” to steal corporate secrets from Alcoa, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse Electric and other companies.

The indictment says the five named officers allegedly used online aliases — “KandyGoo,” “Jack Sun” and “UglyGorilla” — to do their spying. It’s silent on any higher-level officials who may have directed them in the hacking, but it makes clear — on page 3 — that certain unnamed state-owned enterprises were involved.

For example, one state-owned enterprise “involved in trade litigation against some of the American victims mentioned herein hired the unit, and one of the co-conspirators charged herein, to build a ‘secret’ database to hold ‘corporate’ intelligence,” the indictment alleges.

It also notes that one officer charged, Huang Zhenyu, is alleged to have done programming work for what is identified as “state-owned enterprise 2” from 2006 to 2009.

U.S. business interests have long complained in private about Chinese state-owned enterprises being involved in various forms of espionage, including deploying police to steal laptops from visiting corporate executives. But American groups rarely speak out in public, worried about hurting their economic prospects. When they do complain, they do so only in the most careful of terms.

On Tuesday, the American Chamber of Commerce in China — known as Amcham China — issued a statement on the indictments.

“While we cannot comment on the specifics of any particular case, AmCham China believes there is a fundamental difference between intelligence gathering for legitimate national security purposes and intelligence gathering for stealing trade secrets, and that the definition of national security ought not include economic interests,” said the group’s chairman in Beijing, Gregory Gilligan. “We urge both governments to reach agreement on the rules of the road regarding cyber security incorporating this distinction.”

It’s still unclear what steps China might take in response to the indictments, beyond statements from the Foreign Ministry labeling the charges “ungrounded and absurd” and boycotting the talks on cyber-security.

Segal doubts that Beijing would indict U.S. National Security Agency officials, but it might take actions detrimental to U.S. relations with China, such as curtailing talks among top military leaders on avoiding accidental conflicts at sea.

It also remains to be seen whether the U.S. will attempt to crack down on other hacking operations in China, some affiliated with the military, that the NSA is known to be monitoring. Even if it did, there’s no way the United States could arrest and prosecute the military officials involved, unless they were to visit a country that has a extradition treaty with the U.S.

Some observers doubt the indictments will do anything but send a symbolic message to China, and even that isn’t likely to budge Beijing. As reflected in China’s state media, Chinese officials view the United States as a hypocrite on cyber-spying in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA-spying revelations.

Writing on the Asia Society’s ChinaFile blog Monday, Robert Daly said “naming and shaming” military officers was a tactic of last resort, and that it might backfire if China’s leaders thought they needed to “save face.”

“China cares more about face than we do and will fight harder to save it,” wrote Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “Bilateral and multilateral consultation will yield better results over an arduous, imperfect long run.”

Photo: akasped via Flickr

China, Iran Say They’re ‘Strategic Partners’ As U.S. Watches Warily

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — China and Iran announced this week that they’re deepening their military ties, with Tehran going so far as to claim that China now sees Iran as a “strategic partner.”

The announcement came as Hossein Dehqan, Iran’s minister of defense and armed forces logistics, prepared to conclude a four-day visit Wednesday in Beijing, where he met his Chinese counterpart, Chang Wanquan. It also came amid a clash between the United States and China over alleged assistance by Chinese businesses to Iran’s nuclear program.

On April 29, the U.S. State Department issued a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a Chinese businessman, Li Fangwei, also known as “Karl Lee,” who was indicted in 2009 on charges of using U.S. financial institutions to help Iran sidestep U.S. sanctions.

That same day, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on eight of Li’s Chinese businesses, an action that prompted a strong response from Chinese officials. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, “China resolutely opposes the U.S. citing domestic laws to unilaterally impose sanctions on Chinese companies or individuals.”

Both authoritarian governments, China and Iran share some common interests, including standing up to U.S. influence in the Middle East and Asia. Even so, Sino-Persian relations have wavered over the years, with China helping Iran militarily at times but trying to keep a low profile.

“Too close an association would endanger China’s economically vital relationship with the United States,” said John Garver, a professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “There are different voices and views within China about how the close the China-Iran relationship should be, and how much risk would be entailed by cooperating with Iran against the U.S.”

China is Iran’s largest purchaser of oil and its biggest trading partner, but there have been recent economic tensions between them. Last week Tehran canceled a $2.5 billion deal with a Chinese company to develop the enormous Azadegan oil field in the southwest of Iran. The Chinese state company reportedly had delayed in meeting its contract obligations.

Garver says the warm-up in military ties between the countries might have something to do with the failed oil field contract. “It is not uncommon for China to ratchet up cooperation in some areas when problems arise in others,” he said.

Iran’s Dehqan arrived Sunday in Beijing, China’s Xinhua news service reported Monday. State media ran photos of Dehqan and Chang in uniform, and quoted Chang as saying he’s confident that “the friendly relations between the two countries as well as the armed forces will be reinforced.”

An Iranian news story went further, attributing a quote that offered a more sweeping description of the relationship to Chang that Chinese state media didn’t report.

“Given Iran and China’s common views over many important political-security, regional and international issues, Beijing assumes Tehran as its strategic partner,” Chang was quoted as saying by Fars News Agency, which is thought to have links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The United States closely watches China’s relationship with Tehran, partly because of a temporary deal struck in November that would relieve Iran of about $7 billion in sanctions in return for restraining its nuclear activities. While China publicly opposes any attempt by Iran to develop nuclear weapons, it has a long history of helping Tehran develop its missile systems and nuclear reactors.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Starting in the 1980s, China assisted Iran with construction of a research reactor and later a uranium hexafluoride enrichment plant. Under growing international scrutiny, China ended direct nuclear assistance to Iran more than a decade ago, but it’s allegedly allowed Chinese companies to keep supplying Tehran with restricted materials.

Li, for instance, is accused of supplying Iran with guidance devices that could be used for missiles and high-grade alloys that could be used to enrich uranium. U.S. officials say Li made millions from such sales, a claim that’s difficult to verify.

McClatchy was unsuccessful in contacting Li or officials from his main company, LIMMIT, based in the northeastern city of Dalian. But in an interview last year with Reuters, Li denied selling materials to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

“Sure, we did business with Iran, but we did not export the goods they said we did, missiles or whatever,” Li said. “We still get inquiries from Iranian clients, but we don’t respond to them.”

In a commentary Tuesday in China Daily, a leading Chinese academic urged the United States to “stop playing the role of cop” in the Li case. “Sanctions, China insists, can only be legitimate if they are authorized by the U.N.,” wrote Wang Honggang, a deputy at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. “One country should not impose sanctions on another just because its domestic law has been violated.”

U.S. officials, however, say they’ll continue to prosecute individuals and companies that seek to assist Iran with banned materials. “We will continue vigorously to enforce our sanctions, even as we explore the possibility of a comprehensive deal addressing Iran’s nuclear program,” Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said in a statement last week.

U.S. prosecutors stand little chance of bringing Li to justice, according to one legal expert McClatchy contacted. The United States doesn’t have an extradition treaty with China, and while facing charges Li is unlikely to travel to a country where he’d risk arrest and extradition.

While China could take steps on its own to arrest Li, “I expect that China does not want to set a precedent of handing one of its nationals over to U.S. authorities for prosecution,” said Margaret Lewis, an extradition expert and professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law.

AFP Photo/Atta Kenare

Obama’s Asia Trip Yields Better Military Ties But No Trade Concessions

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

MANILA, Philippines — President Barack Obama came to Asia with multiple missions: to advance U.S. trade interests, to reassure allies he’d back them in any serious confrontation with China and to rebut critics who dismissed his “pivot to Asia” strategy as being less than pivotal.

He’ll return to Washington on Tuesday partly successful.

In Japan and South Korea, Obama reaffirmed treaty obligations and ties with historic allies. In Malaysia, he made strategic inroads in a country that’s long been one of China’s closest friends in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, he arrived as the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement that will give the United States military access to a former American colony that two decades ago ordered the United States out.

At a news conference Monday in Manila, his last press availability in Asia before returning to Washington, the president bragged that “our alliances in Asia have never been stronger.”

But it remains to be seen whether Obama’s good-will trip through Asia will do much to help him at home. For the trip, there were hopes — inflated, some would say — for a breakthrough on a trade liberalization agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If signed, it would help link U.S. businesses to parts of Asia that generate 40 percent of the world’s economic output.

From all appearances, the president couldn’t get even an oral agreement from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a way for Japan to lower tariffs against certain U.S. imports, a key step in making the trade pact a reality.

“Progress on security is welcome, but it does not compensate for stasis on trade,” said Don Emmerson, a political scientist at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “If the pivot is to serve American interests as well as Asian ones, it should be about goods and services, not just guns and planes.”

As Emmerson concedes, this was a trip Obama had to make. The president was originally scheduled to travel to Asia last October — visiting Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei — but the budget impasse in Washington forced him to cancel.

With tensions rising in Asia after China’s assertive territorial moves in the East China and South China seas, Obama decided to do a makeup visit to Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines. He added South Korea when Seoul reportedly squawked about being left out.

After landing in Manila on Monday, Obama was met at the Malacanang presidential palace with a cannon salute and a band that played, among other tunes, the theme to “Beverly Hills Cop.” He then ducked inside the palace with President Benigno Aquino III, wiping his brow on a typically steamy Manila day.

Just before he arrived, U.S. and Philippines officials signed the defense pact, which was negotiated over eight months. It gives U.S. forces greater access to the archipelago than they’ve had since the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay was closed in 1992.

At a news conference Monday, Obama stressed that the 10-year agreement won’t result in a reopening of U.S. bases in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony and ground zero for some of the worst fighting in the Pacific during World War II. But it will allow U.S. forces to rotate through the area, “not simply to deal with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance our capabilities” in case of a natural disaster, he said.

On Tuesday, just before his departure for the United States, Obama recalled in a speech at Fort Bonifacio that Filipino and American soldiers had fought together during World War II and that he had signed legislation in 2009 to ensure that Filipino soldiers who fought under the U.S. flag received U.S. veterans benefits that many had been denied.

“Sadly the service of many of these proud Filipino veterans was never fully recognized by the United States,” Obama said. “Many were denied the compensation they have been promised. It was an injustice.”

It was also a reminder that Filipino and American military ties are generations old.

Repeatedly over the last week, Obama and his aides have rejected suggestions that his security push in Asia is aimed at countering or containing China, which is claiming territorial control over vast swaths of the South China Sea.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the president from making statements that could be interpreted that way. Referring to China’s dispatch of ships to disputed areas of the South China Sea, Obama pointed to the handful of jurisdictional disagreements the United States has with Canada over some “islands and rocks.” “But we don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks,” he said.

Aaron L. Connelly, a Southeast Asia expert based in Australia, said it would be hard to argue that stronger U.S. ties with the Philippines weren’t an effort to help Manila counter Chinese maritime ambitions. “There are aspects of the pivot that are clearly being done with an eye toward China,” said Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

So far, however, the response from Beijing has been muted, other than a commentary from the state-run Xinhua news service Monday that warned that an “emboldened Manila” could upset Obama’s plan for peace in Asia.

“I was surprised that the reaction was so mild,” Connelly said.

He added that he was encouraged that China last week joined more than 20 other nations in agreeing to a framework aimed at ensuring that miscommunication between naval vessels doesn’t develop into a conflict between nations.

Obama also noted that his visit showed that U.S. relations and alliances in Southeast Asia have never been stronger. “As recently as a decade ago, there were great tensions between us and Malaysia,” the president said, a marked contrast to the warm welcome he received from Prime Minister Najib Razak when he visited that nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Sunday and Monday.

On nearly every stop in Asia, the president offered tributes to victims of disasters, including families who lost loved ones in missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and those who lost family members in the recent Korean ferryboat disaster.

At a state dinner Monday night at Malacanang Palace, the president told the audience that Americans were grieving for victims of the tornadoes and storms that ripped through the U.S. over the weekend. “But we draw strength from your example” in how the Philippines recovered from November’s Hurricane Haiyan, he said.

Charles E. Morrison, the president of the East-West Center in Honolulu, an independent, U.S.-government funded center that promotes better relations among the United States, Asia and the Pacific, said each of these disasters had an upside for the United States, underscoring “the unparalleled capabilities of the U.S. to respond” in an emergency. Disaster aid after Haiyan won over millions of Filipinos, and Malaysia’s prime minister praised the United State for its assistance in searching for MH-370.

Overall, said Morrison, Obama’s trip was a success. He said it was wise of the administration to include Japan and South Korea, since that helped the president prepare for his next trip to Asia, a visit to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November.

As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Morrison said he had few expectations that Obama would be able to land a breakthrough in Tokyo. “The Japanese are the most difficult country to negotiate with because they often let petty interests get in the way of the greater good,” he said in an email exchange.

Stanford’s Emmerson said it was disappointing that the president couldn’t get more commitment from Japan on resolving trade disputes, given the support the White House is lending Tokyo on disputes with China.

“Whether President Obama’s trip to Asia is judged a success or not depends on the criterion used,” he said. “If his administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia boils down to showing up, he has certainly done that in four Asian countries.”

Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Jana Press/Zuma Press/MCT

Obama’s Asia Trip Yields Better Military Ties But No Trade Concessions

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

MANILA, Philippines — President Barack Obama came to Asia with multiple missions: to advance U.S. trade interests, to reassure allies he’d back them in any serious confrontation with China, and to rebut critics who dismissed his “pivot to Asia” strategy as being less than pivotal.

He’ll return to Washington on Tuesday partly successful.

In Japan and South Korea, Obama reaffirmed treaty obligations and ties with historic allies. In Malaysia, he made strategic inroads in a country that’s long been one of China’s closest friends in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, he arrived as the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement that will give the United States military access to a former American colony that two decades ago ordered the United States out.

At a news conference Monday in Manila, his last in Asia before returning to Washington, the president bragged that “our alliances in Asia have never been stronger.”

But it remains to be seen whether Obama’s goodwill trip through Asia will do much to help him at home. For the trip, there were hopes — inflated, some would say — for a breakthrough on a trade liberalization agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If signed, it would help link U.S. businesses to parts of Asia that generate 40 percent of the world’s economic output.

From all appearances, the president couldn’t get even an oral agreement from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a way for Japan to lower tariffs against certain U.S. imports, a key step in making the trade pact a reality.

“Progress on security is welcome, but it does not compensate for stasis on trade,” said Don Emmerson, a political scientist at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “If the pivot is to serve American interests as well as Asian ones, it should be about goods and services, not just guns and planes.”

As Emmerson concedes, this was a trip Obama had to make. The president was originally scheduled to travel to Asia last October — visiting Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei — but the budget impasse in Washington forced him to cancel.

With tensions rising in Asia after China’s assertive territorial moves in the East China and South China seas, Obama decided to do a makeup visit to Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines. He added South Korea when Seoul reportedly squawked about being left out.

After landing in Manila on Monday, Obama was met at the Malacanang presidential palace with a cannon salute and a band that played, among other tunes, the theme to “Beverly Hills Cop.” He then ducked inside the palace with President Benigno Aquino III, wiping his brow on a typically steamy Manila day.

Just before he arrived, U.S. and Philippines officials signed the defense pact, which was negotiated over eight months. It gives U.S. forces greater access to the archipelago than they’ve had since the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay was closed in 1992.

At a news conference Monday, Obama stressed that the 10-year agreement won’t result in a reopening of U.S. bases in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony and ground zero for some of the worst fighting in the Pacific during World War II. But it will allow U.S. forces to rotate through the area, “not simply to deal with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance our capabilities” in case of a natural disaster, he said.

Repeatedly in the past week, Obama and his aides have rejected suggestions that his security push in Asia is aimed at countering or containing China, which is claiming territorial control over vast swaths of the South China Sea.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the president from making statements that could be interpreted that way. Referring to China’s dispatch of ships to disputed areas of the South China Sea, Obama pointed to the handful of jurisdictional disagreements the United States has with Canada over some “islands and rocks.” “But we don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks,” he said.

On nearly every stop in Asia, the president offered tributes to victims of disasters, including families who lost loved ones in the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and those who lost family members in the recent Korean ferry disaster.

At a state dinner Monday night at Malacanang Palace, the president told the audience that Americans were grieving for victims of the tornadoes and storms that ripped through the U.S. over the weekend. “But we draw strength from your example” in how the Philippines recovered from November’s Hurricane Haiyan, he said.

Charles E. Morrison, the president of the East-West Center in Honolulu, an independent, U.S.-government funded center that promotes better relations among the United States, Asia and the Pacific, said each of these disasters had an upside for the United States, underscoring “the unparalleled capabilities of the U.S. to respond” in an emergency. Disaster aid after Haiyan won over millions of Filipinos, and Malaysia’s prime minister praised the United State for its assistance in searching for MH-370.

Overall, said Morrison, Obama’s trip was a success. He said it was wise of the administration to include Japan and South Korea, since that helped the president prepare for his next trip to Asia, a visit to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November.

As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Morrison said he had few expectations that Obama would be able to land a breakthrough in Tokyo. “The Japanese are the most difficult country to negotiate with because they often let petty interests get in the way of the greater good,” he said in an email exchange.

Stanford’s Emmerson said it was disappointing that the president couldn’t get more commitment from Japan on resolving trade disputes, given the support the White House is lending Tokyo on disputes with China.

“Whether President Obama’s trip to Asia is judged a success or not depends on the criterion used,” he said. “If his administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia boils down to showing up, he has certainly done that in four Asian countries.”

Photo: Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Jana Press/Zuma Press/MCT

Sweeping New Chinese Laws Tackle Mounting Pollution Problems

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — China’s lawmakers approved sweeping new environmental protections this week amid mounting concerns over pollution poisoning the nation’s air, water and soil.

The amendments, approved Thursday by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, are the first revisions to China’s environmental protection law since it took effect in 1989, Chinese state media reported Friday.

Environmentalists inside and outside the world’s largest country are hopeful that the amendments will result in tougher fines against polluters, taking away the incentive many industries have to pay meager penalties instead of investing in cleaner technology.

“These amendments are a game changer,” Barbara Finamore, Asia program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote on the council’s Switchboard blog. She said the amendments “put powerful new tools into the hands of environmental officials and the public, providing a strong legal foundation to the ‘war on pollution’ declared last month by Premier Li Keqiang.”

Taking effect next Jan. 1, the new law eliminates China’s cap on environmental fines. The Xinhua news agency reported one example cited by lawmaker Xin Chunying on Thursday. Xin said a company currently faced a fine of only 10,000 yuan ($1,600) for ignoring the requirement to use an approved power generator that would cost 500,000 yuan, or $80,000. Under the new law, that would change.

The new law also modifies the evaluation system for government officials, ensuring that environmental protection is considered along with performance in meeting economic growth targets. It also would give nongovernmental organizations more ability to take legal action against polluters.

This last change could prove particularly significant, since citizens have been repeatedly blocked in using the courts to address damage caused by factories and power plants.

On April 11, the water supply for more than 2.4 million people in the city of Lanzhou, in northwest China’s Gansu province, was found to be contaminated with benzene, a chemical linked to cancer. When five citizens sued the local water company, accusing it of a cover-up, a court quickly dismissed the case. According to state media, the court ruled that “only agencies and organizations that are stipulated by the law” are allowed to file pollution-related lawsuits.

Hardly a day passes in China without the revelation of another large, looming environmental problem. Last week, the environmental ministry reported the results of a soil survey conducted from 2005 to 2013. It found that heavy metals and other pollutants contaminated 16.1 percent of China’s soil and nearly one-fifth of its arable land.

On Friday in Beijing, reports surfaced that batches of rice grown in Hunan province were contaminated with cadmium.

Air pollution continues to smother vast stretches of the country, particularly in the east and north. Already this year, Beijing has had six days when the air quality index — a measure of contaminants — topped 500, a level the U.S. Embassy once described in a tweet as “crazy bad.” In 2012, there were 12 such days. In 2008, there was only one.

Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned that deteriorating environmental conditions will stir social unrest and pose a threat to Communist Party rule. Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters clashed with police while demonstrating against a proposed petrochemical plant in the southern China city of Maoming, in Guangdong province.

While environmentalists are hopeful that the new laws will give them tools for reducing the pollution burden, even Chinese state media are cautioning against expecting too much.

“Though approval of the environmental law revisions is enough reason to rejoice, it would be simple-minded to believe that the new law will automatically solve all troubles overnight,” Xinhua said in a commentary Friday. “China’s ecological problems are the result of decades of reckless pollution.”

Photo: akasped via Flickr