Beijing Preparing for War?

Photo Credit: APUnited States intelligence agencies recently detected China’s military shifting road-mobile ballistic missiles closer to its southern coast near the disputed Senkaku Islands amid growing tensions between Beijing and Japan over the islands dispute.

U.S. defense officials said the movements are being watched closely as China’s military is also holding large-scale military exercises that some fear could be a trigger for a conflict with Japan that could involve U.S. forces. The officials did not provide details of the missile movements that were tracked by U.S. aircraft, ship-based, and satellite surveillance systems in the region.

Disclosure of the missile movements comes as White House national security adviser Tom Donilon on Monday met in Seoul with China’s state councilor Liu Yandong. The two were in South Korea to attend the inauguration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Tensions remain high between Japan and China over Tokyo’s nationalization last year of several uninhabited islands between Okinawa and Taiwan called the Senkakus. China claims the islands as its territory. At issue are large undersea oil and gas deposits sought by both energy-poor countries.

The officials confirmed the missile movements near the provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian after Chinese press outlets first reported them.

Read more from this story HERE.

U.S. Offers Training and Other Aid to Syrian Rebels

WASHINGTON — The United States is significantly stepping up its support for the Syrian opposition, senior administration officials said on Wednesday, helping to train rebels at a base in the region and for the first time offering armed groups nonlethal assistance and equipment that could help their military campaign.

The training mission, already under way, represents the deepest American involvement yet in the Syrian conflict, though the size and scope of the mission is not clear, nor is its host country. The offer of nonlethal assistance is expected to come from Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting on Thursday in Rome with opposition leaders. Mr. Kerry is also expected to raise the prospect of direct financial aid, though officials cautioned that the White House still had to sign off on all the elements.

Before arriving in Rome on Wednesday, Mr. Kerry declared in Paris that the Syrian opposition needed additional assistance and indicated that the United States and its partners planned to provide some.

Under a broad definition of “nonlethal,” assistance to the opposition could include items like vehicles, communications equipment and night vision gear. The Obama administration has said it will not — at least for now — provide arms to the opposition.

One major goal of the administration is to help the opposition build up its credibility within Syria by providing traditional government services to the civilian population. Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has sent $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians. American officials have been increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, which the United States has asserted is affiliated with Al Qaeda, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.

Read more from this story HERE.

Italy Halts Austerity Plan Leaving EU In Turmoil

Photo Credit: Max RossiThree years of German-led austerity and budget cuts aimed at saving the euro and retooling the European economy was left facing one of its biggest challenges as Italian voters’ rejection of spending cuts and tax rises opened up a stark new fissure in European politics.

The governing stalemate in Rome and the vote in the general election – by a factor of three to two – against the austerity policies pursued by Italy’s humiliated caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, meant that the spending cuts and tax rises dictated by the eurozone would grind to a halt, risking a re-eruption of the euro crisis after six months of relative stability.

Fears that the deadlock will lengthen Italy’s near two-year recession and spill over into the rest of the eurozone hit markets across Europe. The Italian banking sector fell 7% in value, dragging the main MIB stock market index 4% lower.

The market turmoil in Milan spread to Germany, France and the UK, with domestic banks among the biggest fallers. Deutsche Bank saw almost 5% knocked off its value, while Barclays suffered a 4% decline. The FTSE 100 fell 1.4%. The German Dax slumped more than 2% and the Paris Cac was down 2.75%.

The cliffhanger vote saw the maverick comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement take almost one in four of the votes and the political revival of the ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But the narrow victor, Pier Luigi Bersani, on the centre-left, claimed the mantle of the premiership, although it was unclear if he would be able to form a government.

Read more from this story HERE.

President’s Afghan Withdrawal Based on Fraudulent Data?

photo credit: the us armyAn officially reported downward trend in insurgent attacks that has underpinned President Obama’s decision to pull 34,000 troops from Afghanistan did not actually happen last year.

On Tuesday, the NATO command in the Afghan capital of Kabul acknowledged that a database error caused it to report a 7 percent decline in “enemy initiated attacks,” when the actual number remained the same compared to 2011.

The Pentagon highlighted the decline in the lead-up to Mr. Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union address this month that more than half of the 60,000-plus U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will return home by the end of this year.

The error means that, on a statistical basis, the war is not going as well as professed by the administration — and as most international combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

In December, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta cited a downturn in violence in Afghanistan during a speech at the National Press Club. He referred to a NATO summit in Chicago last May during which the alliance approved an Obama campaign plan to hand over more duties to local Afghan troops, paving the way for a foreign troop exit.

Read more from this story HERE.

US Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil Grows

photo credit: jonrawlinsonThe US was more reliant on the Middle East for its oil imports last year, underscoring the critical importance of the politically unstable region for the country despite the growing energy independence its shale gas revolution is bringing.

That domestic production boom has triggered intense debate over whether the US would still guard the world’s critical sea lanes, such as the Strait of Hormuz in two decades’ time – or whether China, whose dependence on Middle Eastern crude imports is rapidly rising, would replace it.

However, recent oil import trends from the Gulf region suggest why the US might continue to play a critical security role in the region. While domestic production increased the most in 150 years last year, Washington will confirm later this week that oil imports from the Gulf region continued to rise.

By the end of November the US had already imported more than 450m barrels of crude from Saudi Arabia, more than it imported from Riyadh in the whole of 2009, 2010 or 2011, according to figures from the US energy department. For the first time since 2003, Saudi imports accounted for more than 15 per cent of total US oil imports. The Gulf as a whole accounted for more than 25 per cent, a nine-year high.

Other Gulf exporters are also seeing unusually strong US demand. By the end of November, Kuwait had shipped more oil to the US than in any year since 1998. Analysts are expecting annual figures to be released later this week to confirm the trend seen up to November.

Read more from this story HERE.

BBC Scandal: Transcripts Show Mark Thompson, Now NYT CEO, Said He ‘Never Heard’ Rumors About Molester

Photo Credit: APNewly released transcripts from an inquiry into the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile child sex scandal reveal more about the role played by the public service broadcaster’s then director-general, New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson.

The transcripts, published Friday, show that Thompson told the inquiry late last year that he had “never heard” rumors that Savile had a “dark side of any kind, sexual or otherwise.” Savile, a celebrity entertainer who died in 2011 at age 84, is alleged to have sexually abused hundreds of children over his long BBC career.

The same inquiry, chaired by former Sky News chief Nick Pollard, was told by one of the BBC’s most prominent journalists, Jeremy Paxman, that Savile’s liking for “young girls” was “common gossip” at the BBC. Other interviewees confirmed this, with one recalling have heard rumors even before she joined the BBC well over a decade earlier.

The Pollard transcripts also criticize the way the BBC was run while Thompson was at the helm, with claims he oversaw a Beijing-style, top-heavy management structure.

“[T]hey had more senior leaders than China,” BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten told Pollard. “The management team, the senior management team, that the previous director-general [Thompson] had was 27 – 25 or 27. They never met.” (Patten has first-hand experience of China’s leadership structure; he was Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong before it reverted to mainland control in 1997.)

Read more from this story HERE.

Canadian Officials Make Climate Case In DC Ahead Of Keystone Pipeline Decision

Photo Credit: rcboddenAlberta’s provincial government is trying to burnish its image on climate change as top Canadian officials make the case for U.S. approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

“Even though we have had a presence here for some time, I don’t think we have really communicated as effectively as we need to on this,” Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford said in an interview at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.

Redford and her environment minister, Diana McQueen, are in D.C. this weekend for meetings during the annual National Governors Association summit, which brings together U.S. governors and Obama administration officials.

The visit arrives as green groups are pressing the White House to scuttle the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, a demand that was the focus of a major climate change rally in Washington on Feb. 17.

Advocates of the pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands and oil to Gulf Coast refineries, have long made their case on economic and energy security grounds.

Read more from this story HERE.

China’s Xi Affirms Goal Of Unification With Taiwan In Meeting With Senior Island Politician

Photo Credit: Andy Wong/APChinese leader Xi Jinping reaffirmed China’s desire to bring Taiwan under its control in a meeting Monday in Beijing with the honorary head of the island’s ruling party.

Xi told Nationalist Party honorary chairman Lien Chan that he and other Communist Party leaders who took office in November will continue developing ties and pushing for unification with the island, which China claims as part of its territory.

“The new Communist Party ruling collective will continue to push forward the peaceful development of relations between the two sides and advance the cause of peaceful unification,” Xi told Lien at their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the legislature in downtown Beijing.

Xi promised to “pragmatically forge ahead” to achieve new achievements in relations that would enrich residents on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The meeting is the first between Xi and a leading Taiwanese politician since Xi assumed the party leadership in November, and comes weeks before he assumes the title of state president at the legislature’s annual session.

Read more from this story HERE.

US Special Forces Ordered To Leave Critical Afghanistan Province

Photo Credit: ReutersThe troops were given a fortnight to leave the strategically critical Wardak province, south west of the capital, in a move likely to trigger another confrontation with Nato commanders.

Aimal Faizi, the Afghan president’s spokesman, said the national security council ordered the expulsion after complaints that “armed groups known as special forces” were committing murder, torture and kidnap.

“The US special forces and illegal armed groups created by them are causing insecurity, instability, and harass local people,” he said. He appeared to pin the blame on Afghan fighters or militiamen recruited by and working with the Americans, but held the US forces responsible.

“These belong to the US special forces,” he said.

In one case nine people went missing after an operation and in another a young student was taken from his home and found dead two days later, with his throat cut.
The surprise announcement appeared to blindside Nato headquarters in Kabul and struck directly at troops who have long been a cornerstone of coalition strategy.

Read more from this story HERE.

Britain’s Credit Rating Downgraded by Moody’s

Moody’s announced on Friday night that it had cut the Government’s bond rating one notch from ‘Aaa’ – the highest possible level – to ‘Aa1’.

The move is a significant setback for Chancellor George Osborne, who has faced criticism that his strategy for dealing with UK’s huge debt burden is failing to deliver.

Moody’s pointed to “continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which [it] now expects will extend into the second half of the decade”.

The credit ratings agency also noted that the Government’s debt reduction programme faced significant “challenges” and that the UK’s huge debts are unlikely to “reverse before 2016”.

Moody’s said that despite considerable structural economic strengths, growth is expected to be sluggish due to a combination of weaker global economic activity and the drag on the UK economy “from the ongoing domestic public- and private-sector deleveraging process.”

Read more from this story HERE.