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As Trump shuns US multilateralism, China ups diplomatic ante

December 20, 2019

GENEVA (AP) — Chinese leaders have long been sensitive about their communist country’s international image. Now, they are battling back — investing in diplomacy and a courtship of hearts and minds, just as the United States digs in on the Trump administration’s “America First” mindset.

A trade war and other frictions between the world’s top economic power and the fast-growing No. 2 have exposed Washington’s fears about technology, security and influence. U.S. political leaders have derided China’s government over policies in protest-riddled Hong Kong, at detention centers in the majority Muslim Xinjiang region, and over allegedly underhanded business tactics by tech titan Huawei.

But increasingly, China is seeking to recapture the narrative — with a new assertiveness under President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades. “Almost overnight, we have awakened to the reality that while America slept, the Chinese Communist Party has emerged as an immediate and growing threat to our prosperity, our freedoms, and our security,” Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.) said in a speech to the National Defense University last week.

Now the Chinese even have the world’s biggest diplomatic arsenal to draw from. China’s diplomatic network — including embassies, consulates and other posts — has overtaken that of the United States, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. Beijing has 276 diplomatic posts worldwide, topping Washington’s declining deployment by three posts, the institute found.

China’s growing diplomatic presence comes as Beijing is trying to expand its international footprint in places like resource-rich Africa or the strategic South China Sea, and to compete economically with Western countries, including with its much-ballyhooed Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to expand Chinese economic clout in places like Africa and Asia.

China’s campaign to increase its influence on the global stage comes as the Trump administration retreats from multilateral diplomacy. Trump has pulled the United States out of the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organization and the U.N.-supported Human Rights Council, and this month the U.S. squeezed the World Trade Organization’s appeals court out of action. His administration has announced a U.S. pullout from the Paris climate accord and shredded multilateral trade pacts.

It’s part of a broader diplomatic retrenchment that has led to the loss of nearly 200 foreign service posts at American embassies and consulates abroad. “We’ve entered an era in which diplomacy matters more than ever, on an intensely competitive international landscape,” said William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy secretary of state who has been highly critical of Trump’s foreign policy. “China realizes that and is rapidly expanding its diplomatic capacity. The U.S., by contrast, seems intent on unilateral diplomatic disarmament.”

The U.S. pullback has been particularly felt in Geneva, a hub of U.N.-backed multilateralism: More than 2 1/2 years into Trump’s tenure, the U.S. finally brought in a new ambassador to U.N. institutions in Geneva only last month. Meanwhile, China’s deployment has grown, complete with a months-long renovation to its WTO offices on the bucolic Geneva lakefront.

Trump’s administration has initiated staffing draw-downs in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, recalling diplomats from those countries to Washington but not sending them out to other overseas missions, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.

“This the first time that any country has had more global presence than the United States and it’s a concern,” said union president Eric Rubin. “If we’re going to meet the challenge of a rising China, we need to represent ourselves aggressively and with resources overseas.”

In African nations like Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, U.S. diplomats report being outnumbered five-to-one by their Chinese counterparts, according to a union presentation to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Since Trump took office in 2017, at least five small nations in Latin America and the Pacific — Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands — have rejected intense U.S. lobbying and cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to recognize China, which often promises them major investments of the kind that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned against.

And countries in Europe and elsewhere have been reluctant to heed U.S. admonitions to cut Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei out of their advanced communications networks. The U.S. says Huawei equipment is suspect, subject to intrusion by the Chinese Communist Party, and has warned nations including NATO allies that they could be stripped of intelligence cooperation with the United States if they grant the company a role in their national grids. Huawei denies the U.S. allegations.

There was a time when China was considered a potentially benevolent rising power. Nearly a generation ago, the communist country was welcomed into the capitalist-dominated WTO in Geneva. Now U.S. officials complain that China has taken advantage of the trade body and isn’t playing by its rules. That adds to the suspicion — even as Beijing insists it respects and abides by the rules-based international system.

In 2019, “we have seen a change in how the rest of the world sees China,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “From Xinjiang to Huawei to now Hong Kong: China is no longer seen as the rising benign giant, but it is being seen as, ‘Whoops, we need to get worried about it.’”

But in some areas, like its efforts to fight climate change, China is scoring political points abroad — while Trump’s policies on the environment have drawn widespread scorn. China’s Communist Party has long believed in its monopoly on truth, history and narrative at home, Tsang said. Now, with “fake news” a buzzword, that belief may be ripe for export.

Chinese diplomats have claimed that China holds no political prisoners and insist the Xinjiang centers — which have been widely criticized for locking up Muslim Uighurs and others — were only there to provide “vocational” training and save them from religious radicalism.

“If Donald Trump can say anything he wants — whatever that happens to be, without too much regard to whether it’s factually correct or not — why would the Communist Party of China not feel that they’ve been vindicated?” he said. “Therefore, Xi Jinping’s idea of seizing the narrative is the right thing: You don’t have to get worried about facts.”

Chinese authorities have used advertising pitches, news conferences, TV and radio interviews, social media — including on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s new Twitter account — and other messaging to promote Beijing’s positions and push back against criticism.

Barely a day goes by without Chinese officials speaking out in some part of the globe: The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s web site lists 67 Chinese-language pages of statements, speeches, newspaper columns and other communications by Chinese diplomats and other officials since May alone. They blend tough talk, self-defense and self-congratulation.

China’s ambassador in Poland has decried “unilateralist” U.S. trade protection measures; its ambassador to South Africa claimed a U.S. “hidden political agenda” with its criticism about the Xinjiang centers — calling them “innovative.” One Chinese diplomat upbraided U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet over a recent column she wrote airing her concerns about the Hong Kong protests and the government response.

The Chinese ambassadors in Britain and Sweden have been particularly outspoken. “China is not a country you can kick around,” Ambassador Liu Xiaoming told the BBC’s Hardtalk program last month, part of his one-man media blitz in London in recent weeks. He insisted no political prisoners are held in China, and faulted U.S. Vice President Mike Pence by name as a “China-basher” bent on “demonizing” the country.

China’s envoy in Stockholm, Gui Congyou, told Swedish tabloid Expressen that China will blacklist the Swedish culture minister for attending an award ceremony for Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish publisher based in Hong Kong who was imprisoned by China after printing books critical of the Chinese government.

The tabloid quoted the ambassador as saying that China offers “good wine for its friends, but shotguns for its enemies.”

Lee reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in London; Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Yanan Wang in Beijing; Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Sonja Smith in Windhoek, Namibia; and Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

China furious, Hong Kong celebrates after US move on bills

November 28, 2019

BEIJING (AP) — China reacted furiously Thursday to President Donald Trump’s signing two bills aimed at supporting human rights in Hong Kong, summoning the U.S. ambassador to protest and warning the move would undermine cooperation with Washington.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that was granted semi-autonomy when China took control in 1997, has been rocked by six months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations. Thousands of pro-democracy activists crowded a public square in downtown Hong Kong on Thursday night for a “Thanksgiving Day” rally to thank the United States for passing the laws and vowed to “march on” in their fight.

Trump’s approval of the bills was not unexpected. Neither was the reaction from Beijing, given China’s adamant rejections of any commentary on what it considers an internal issue. Nevertheless, the clash comes at a sensitive time and could upset already thorny trade negotiations between the two nations.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad that the move constituted “serious interference in China’s internal affairs and a serious violation of international law,” a foreign ministry statement said.

Le called it a “nakedly hegemonic act.” He urged the U.S. not to implement the bills to prevent greater damage to U.S.-China relations, the ministry said. In a statement about the meeting, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said, “the Chinese Communist Party must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people.”

The U.S. “believes that Hong Kong’s autonomy, its adherence to the rule of law, and its commitment to protecting civil liberties are key to preserving its special status under U.S. law,” it said. The U.S. laws, which passed both chambers of Congress almost unanimously, mandate sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses in Hong Kong, require an annual review of Hong Kong’s favorable trade status and prohibit the export to Hong Kong police of certain nonlethal munitions.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”

Prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who was among those who lobbied for the U.S. laws, said it was remarkable that human rights had triumphed over the U.S.-China trade talks. Wong told Thursday’s rally that the next aim is to expand global support by getting Britain and other Western nations to follow suit.

Since the Hong Kong protests began in June, Beijing has responded to expressions of support for the demonstrators from the U.S. and other countries by accusing them of orchestrating the unrest to contain China’s development. The central government has blamed foreign “black hands” bent on destroying the city.

C.Y. Leung, a former chief executive of Hong Kong, said at a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong that he doubts the U.S. or supporters of the bills “ever had the interest of Hong Kong in mind.”

He suggested Hong Kong was being used as a “proxy” for China and the legislation was a way to hit back at Beijing. While China has repeatedly threatened unspecified “countermeasures,” it’s unclear exactly how it will respond. Speaking on Fox News, Trump called the protests a “complicating factor” in trade negotiations with Beijing.

At a daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to a question about how Trump’s endorsement of the legislation might affect the trade talks by saying it would undermine “cooperation in important areas.”

Asked Thursday if the U.S. legislation would affect trade talks with Washington, a Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman said he had no new information to share. Recently both sides expressed confidence they were making headway on a preliminary agreement to avert a further escalation in a tariff war that has hammered manufacturers in both nations.

Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Hong Kong and Elaine Kurtenbach in Beijing contributed to this report.

Trump peace plan delights Israelis, enrages Palestinians

January 29, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Mideast peace plan Tuesday alongside a beaming Benjamin Netanyahu, presenting a vision that matched the Israeli leader’s hard-line, nationalist views while falling far short of Palestinian ambitions.

Trump’s plan envisions a disjointed Palestinian state that turns over key parts of the West Bank to Israel. It sides with Israel on key contentious issues that have bedeviled past peace efforts, including borders and the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements, and attaches nearly impossible conditions for granting the Palestinians their hoped-for state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the plan as “nonsense” and vowed to resist it. Netanyahu called it a “historic breakthrough” equal in significance to the country’s declaration of independence in 1948.

“It’s a great plan for Israel. It’s a great plan for peace,” he said. He vowed to immediately press forward with his plans to annex the strategic Jordan Valley and all the Israeli settlements in occupied lands. Netanyahu said he’d ask his Cabinet to approve the annexation plans in their next meeting on Sunday, an explosive move that could trigger harsh international reaction and renewed violence with the Palestinians.

“This dictates once and for all the eastern border of Israel,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters later. “Israel is getting an immediate American recognition of Israeli sovereignty on all the settlements, without exceptions.”

Given the Palestinian opposition, the plan seems unlikely to lead to any significant breakthrough. But it could give a powerful boost to both Trump and Netanyahu who are both facing legal problems ahead of tough elections.

Trump called his plan a “win-win” for both Israel and the Palestinians, and urged the Palestinians not to miss their opportunity for independence. But Abbas, who accuses the U.S. of unfair bias toward Israel, rejected it out of hand.

“We say 1,000 no’s to the Deal of the Century,” Abbas said, using a nickname for Trump’s proposal. “We will not kneel and we will not surrender,” he said, adding that the Palestinians would resist the plan through “peaceful, popular means.”

The plan comes amid Trump’s impeachment trial and on a U.S. election year, and after Netanyahu was indicted on counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three separate cases. The longtime Israeli leader, who denies any wrongdoing, also faces a March 2 parliamentary election, Israel’s third in less than a year. He hopes to use the plan, and his close ties with Trump, to divert attention from his legal troubles.

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for an independent state and the removal of many of the more than 700,000 Israeli settlers from these areas.

But as details emerged, it became clear that the plan sides heavily with Netanyahu’s hard-line nationalist vision for the region and shunts aside many of the Palestinians’ core demands. Under the terms of the “peace vision” that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been working on for nearly three years, all settlers would remain in place, and Israel would retain sovereignty over all of its settlements as well as the strategic Jordan Valley.

“The Israeli military will continue to control the entire territory,” Netanyahu said. “No one will be uprooted from their home.” The proposed Palestinian state would also include more than a dozen Israeli “enclaves” with the entity’s borders monitored by Israel. It would be demilitarized and give Israel overall security control. In addition, the areas of east Jerusalem offered to the Palestinians consist of poor, crowded neighborhoods located behind a hulking concrete separation barrier.

Trump acknowledged that he has done a lot for Israel, but he said he wanted the deal to be a “great deal for the Palestinians.” The plan would give the Palestinians limited control over an estimated 70% of the West Bank, nearly double the amount where they currently have limited self-rule. Trump said it would give them time needed to meet the challenges of statehood.

The only concession the plan appears to demand of Israel is a four-year freeze on the establishment of new Israeli settlements in certain areas of the West Bank. But Netanyahu clarified later that this only applied to areas where there are no settlements and Israel has no immediate plans to annex, and that he considered the plan to impose no limitations on construction.

Thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza City ahead of the announcement, burning pictures of Trump and Netanyahu and raising a banner reading “Palestine is not for sale.” Trump said he sent a letter to Abbas to tell him that the territory that the plan has set aside for a new Palestinian state will remain open and undeveloped for four years.

“It’s going to work,” Trump said, as he presented the plan at a White House ceremony filled with Israeli officials and allies, including evangelical Christian leaders and wealthy Republican donors. Representatives from the Arab countries of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates were present, but there were no Palestinian representatives.

“President Abbas, I want you to know, that if you chose the path to peace, America and many other countries … we will be there to help you in so many different ways,” he said. “And we will be there every step of the way.”

The 50-page plan builds on a 30-page economic plan for the West Bank and Gaza that was unveiled last June and which the Palestinians have also rejected. It envisions a future Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, connected by a combination of roads and tunnels. It also would give small areas of southern Israel to the Palestinians as compensation for lost West Bank land.

But the many caveats, and ultimate overall Israeli control, made the deal a nonstarter for the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his main political challenger in March elections, Benny Gantz, had signed off on the plan.

“Mr. President, because of this historic recognition and because I believe your peace plan strikes the right balance where other plans have failed,” Netanyahu said. “I’ve agreed to negotiate peace with the Palestinians on the basis of your peace plan.

The Jordan Valley annexation is a big part of Netanyahu’s strategy and a key promise meant to appeal to his hard-line nationalist base, which mostly applauded the Trump plan. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the plan’s release, said they expected negative responses from the Palestinians, but were hopeful that Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have peace treaties with Israel, would not reject it outright.

Jordan gave the plan a cool reaction, saying it remained committed to a two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines. It also said it rejected any unilateral move by Israel, referring to the annexation plan.

The reaction of Jordan, which would retain its responsibilities over Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque under the plan, is particularly significant. Located next to the West Bank, Jordan also is home to a large Palestinian population.

Egypt, the first Arab country to reach a peace deal with Israel, urged Israelis and Palestinians to carefully study the plan. The European Union also said it needed to study it more closely. Saudi Arabia, another key Arab country, said it appreciated the Trump administration’s efforts and encouraged the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians “under the auspices of the United States.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations supports two states living in peace and security within recognized borders, on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, according to his spokesman.

The Palestinians see the West Bank as the heartland of a future independent state and east Jerusalem as their capital. Most of the international community supports their position, but Trump has reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by siding more blatantly with Israel. The centerpiece of his strategy was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American Embassy there. He’s also closed Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and cut funding to Palestinian aid programs.

Those policies have proven popular among Trump’s evangelical and pro-Israel supporters. But the Palestinians refuse to even speak to Trump and they called on support from Arab leaders.

Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed.

Kobe Bryant, daughter killed in copter crash, 7 others dead

January 27, 2020

CALABASAS, Calif. (AP) — NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed Sunday when their helicopter plunged into a steep hillside in dense morning fog in Southern California, his sudden death at age 41 touching off an outpouring of grief for a star whose celebrity transcended basketball.

The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities said nine people were aboard and presumed dead. Bryant, an all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, was among the victims, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.

Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, also was killed, a different person familiar with the case said. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would not confirm the identities of the victims Sunday pending official word from the coroner.

“God bless their souls,” Villanueva said at a news conference. The cause of the crash was unknown. News of the charismatic superstar’s death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief and anguish.

“Words can’t describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me,” retired NBA great Michael Jordan said. “We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”

NBA players were in tears during pregame warm-ups as crowds chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” Tiger Woods was unaware of the news during his final round at Torrey Pines in San Diego when he started hearing the gallery yell “Do it for Mamba,” referring to Bryant by his nickname.

The medical examiner’s office said specialists were working at the scene to recover the bodies, and investigators were trying to confirm identities. Federal transportation safety investigators were en route.

Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana shortly after 9 a.m. and circled for a time just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.

After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, they cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow U.S Route 101, the Ventura Highway.

Shortly after 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the Flightradar24 data showed. At the time of the crash, the Los Angles County Sheriff’s Department had grounded its own helicopters because of the poor weather conditions. The impact scattered debris over an area about the size of a football field, Villanueva said.

Among other things, investigators will look at the pilot’s history, the chopper’s maintenance history, and the records of its owner and operator, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference.

Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said weather may have contributed to the crash. Pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning they could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.

All around the world, people were glued to their phones and TV screens as news of the crash spread and networks broke into programming with live coverage. A visibly shaken LeBron James wiped his eyes with tissues and walked away alone from the Lakers plane that had just landed in Southern California.

Thousands of people gathered to mourn Bryant outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Mourners in No. 24 jerseys mixed with those in fancy dress arriving at the downtown arena for Sunday evening’s Grammy Awards.

People carried flowers and chanted “Kobe!” and “MVP!” under giant video screens showing Bryant’s smiling face. “This is where we needed to be,” said Naveen Cheerath, 31. Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific shot-maker with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.

“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.” Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game’s most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.

He teamed with O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. His Lakers tenure was marred by scandal, when in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He said the two had consensual sex, and prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.

Bryant went on to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010, and retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game. After leaving the game, Bryant had more time to play coach to daughter Gianna, who had a budding basketball career of her own and, her father said, wanted to one day play in the WNBA. They were seen sitting courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game late last year, Bryant clearly passing along his wisdom to his daughter. He regularly showcased her talents on the court on social media.

Bryant’s death was felt particularly painfully in Los Angeles, where he was unquestionably the most popular athlete and one of the city’s most beloved public figures. Hundreds of fans — many in Bryant jerseys and Lakers gear — spontaneously gathered at Staples Center and in the surrounding LA Live entertainment complex, weeping and staring at video boards with Bryant’s image.

Among those killed were John Altobelli, head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team, his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same team as Bryant’s daughter, said his brother, Tony, who is the sports information director at the school.

The National Transportation Safety Board typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying airplane or helicopter. “Ït was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering and then a boom.”

The fog cleared a bit, and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home. Firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter, but found no survivors, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, David Koenig in Dallas, Mark J. Terrill and John Antczak in Calabasas, Tim Reynolds in Miami and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed to this report.

Ending Putin’s support of Venezuela no easy feat for US

February 19, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — In October 2016, the head of Russia’s largest oil company traveled to the birthplace of Hugo Chávez, in the empty, sweltering plains of Venezuela, to unveil a giant bronze statue of the late socialist leader that he and his longtime friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, commissioned from a prominent Russian artist.

It was a turning point in the relationship between Russia and Venezuela, and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin brought with him a 600-year-old choir from a Moscow monastery to celebrate. Speaking to throngs of red-shirted government supporters in fluent Spanish gleaned from his days as a Soviet military translator in Africa, Sechin praised Chávez as a “leader of multi-polarity” and a “symbol of an entire era.”

“We have no choice between victory or death,” said Sechin, quoting a Venezuelan independence hero to describe the deepening ties between the two U.S. adversaries. ”We must achieve victory.” Now the Trump administration wants to break up that blossoming alliance as part of its campaign to oust Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department blocked U.S. companies from doing business with Rosneft Trading SA, accusing the Geneva subsidiary of the Russian state-owned oil giant of providing a critical lifeline to Maduro as he seeks to bypass U.S. sanctions.

For months, U.S. officials have been warning foreign companies that they could face retaliation if they continue to do business with Maduro. Those admonishments have been aimed primarily at Russia, which U.S. officials say handles about 70% of Venezuelan oil transactions that have been rerouted since the Trump administration a year ago made it illegal for Americans to by crude from Venezuela.

Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan oil expert at Rice University in Houston, said the latest actions should send a chill through companies in Spain, China and elsewhere that continue to partner with state-run oil monopoly PDVSA. It could also foretell the ending of a special license for Chevron that has so far exempted the San Ramon, California-based company from having to pull out of the country, where it’s a partner in joint ventures with PDVSA that produce about a quarter of the OPEC nation’s total production.

“It’s no longer the dog barking,” said Monaldi. “It’s biting now.” PDVSA in a statement condemned what it called “economic assassination” by the U.S. aimed at taking control of Venezuela’s oil industry. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the new actions would bolster Venezuela’s lawsuit filed against the Trump administration at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Rosneft operates with PDVSA several oil fields that it acquired after U.S. drillers were forced out by Chavez’s nationalization drive. But as the new, go-to supplier of the country’s pariah crude it wins two ways, according to analysts. First, Rosneft purchases Venezuela’s premium Merey 16 crude at a steep discount. It then uses the proceeds from its sale to pay down $6.5 billion lent to PDVSA since 2014 for the purchase of Russian-made weaponry and other goods.

Meanwhile, refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast that used to depend on Venezuela’s heavy crude have nearly tripled their imports of unfinished Russian petroleum products in the year since sanctions have been in place, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

To avoid complications for customers in China and India, Rosneft has been hiring tankers that try to hide their cargo by turning off their mandatory tracking systems and carrying out risky ship-to-ship transfers off the coast of west Africa and other distant locations.

In the short term, he expects Maduro will have to pay more to find another intermediary to take on the added risk of moving the country’s oil. That means his cash-strapped government will have even less money to import scarce food and medical supplies as well as repair the country’s crumbling electricity infrastructure. And with storage facilities already at capacity, production that is already at a seven-decade low is likely to fall even further, he added.

Still, short of a U.S. naval blockade of Venezuelan ports — a military option that the Trump administration has refused to rule out but has shown no sign of pursuing — nobody expects oil sales from the nation sitting atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves to dry up completely.

“They can find always find ways to sell it, but it’s much harder,” said Monaldi. Even less clear is the impact on the U.S.’ goal of engaging Russia to find a solution to Venezuela’s year-old political impasse.

The U.S. leads a group of now nearly 60 nations that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader following what it considers Maduro’s fraudulent 2018 re-election. In turn, Russia has accused the Trump administration of spreading false information to engineer a coup, needling the U.S. in what has traditionally been considered Washington’s backyard as the two sides wage proxy battles for influence in Syria, Ukraine and other global hot spots.

Richard Nephew, an energy researcher at Columbia University, said that in sparing Rosneft itself, and only going after one of its many units, the impact on Russia’s continued political support for Maduro is likely to be more muted.

The bulk of Rosneft’s long-term supply contracts are arranged directly by the parent company in Moscow, with the Swiss-based trading unit handling spot sales, he said. The sanctions also include a three-month winding down period, which should give the company — and ravenous oil traders — plenty of time to redirect transactions, including with Venezuela.

In addition, Rosneft and Sechin were already partially sanctioned in 2014 in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. As a result, many U.S. companies had already been steering clear of the company.

“This seems more like a warning shot designed to look bigger than it actually is,” said Nephew, who helped design U.S. sanctions policy while at the State Department under President Barack Obama. “It’s shooting someone who is Russian sounding without really punishing the Russians themselves.”

Several pro-Putin lawmakers were dismissive of the actions, saying they would appeal to the World Trade Organization to remove what they described as unilateral, unlawful U.S. actions. “I think this issue can be resolved,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told RIA Novosti news agency. “They’re smart over there (in Rosneft) and they will find a way to get around it.”

But even if Putin maintains outward support for Maduro, it’s unclear if he’ll double down and lend even more money to the bankrupt country. At the height of unrest in 2018, anti-government protesters tried to destroy the Chávez statue dedicated by Russia. Today, it’s under heavy guard, pointing to the uneasy calm that prevails in the normally pro-government Venezuelan countryside, where power outages are an almost daily occurrence and misery widespread.

While Venezuela has stayed current on its debt to Russia, and is expected to pay off the last remaining amount in the coming weeks, it’s defaulted on almost all other lenders and investors in the country’s bonds. Meanwhile, its debt with Russia is backed by a lien on 49.9% of PDVSA’s American subsidiary, Houston-based CITGO, control of which the Trump administration has handed to a board named by Guaidó.

“The Russians are nothing if not good chess players,” Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, wrote in a recent report. Rosneft’s “choice here will be an important tell for us about the future direction of their policy.”

Goodman reported from Miami.

Russia’s foreign minister slams ‘aggressive’ US policies

January 17, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s foreign policy chief on Friday blamed what he described as “aggressive” U.S. policies for growing global tensions, noting Washington’s reluctance to extend a key nuclear arms pact.

Sergey Lavrov, who serves as acting foreign minister in the wake of Wednesday’s resignation of the Russian Cabinet, said this week’s meeting of top U.S. and Russian diplomats on strategic stability didn’t achieve any immediate results, adding that “dialogue is continuing.”

Russia-U.S. relations have been at post-Cold War lows since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. Speaking at an annual news conference, Lavrov said that the U.S. has stonewalled Russia’s push for extending the New Start nuclear arms treaty that expires in 2021. The agreement is the last U.S.-Russian arms control deal still in place, and Moscow has argued that its demise will remove the final barrier stemming an arms race.

“We will act strongly to avoid depriving the world of agreements that control and limit nuclear weapons,” said Lavrov, who has was appointed foreign minister in 2004. “We stand for the extension of the New Start treaty without any preconditions,” he said. “I hope that the Americans hear us, but we haven’t received any coherent signals from them.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has pushed for China to join nuclear arms cuts, but Lavrov described the idea as unrealistic. He pointed at Beijing’s refusal to discuss reductions in its nuclear arsenal, which is much smaller than those of the U.S. or Russia.

Lavrov emphasized that the U.S. push for Russia to encourage China to change its mind doesn’t make sense. “We respect the Chinese position and we won’t persuade China to change it,” he said. Turning to other issues, Lavrov criticized Britain, France and Germany for caving in to pressure from the U.S. over a nuclear deal with Iran.

Earlier this week, the three countries reluctantly triggered the accord’s dispute mechanism to force Iran into discussions over its violations, starting the clock on a process that could result in the “snapback” of U.N. and EU sanctions on Iran.

The three nations are being pressed on one side by Trump to abandon the agreement like he did unilaterally in 2018, and on the other side by Iran to provide enough economic incentives for it to continue honoring the deal.

Lavrov noted that the European Union boasted about creating a mechanism for trade with Iran bypassing U.S. sanctions, but never put it into action. He described the move by Britain, France and Germany as a “dangerous turn,” arguing that the three nations used the moment of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran to “blame Iran for all what happened.”

Following the U.S. drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran announced what it said was its fifth and final step in dropping its commitments under the 2015 deal. Iran said it would no longer abide by any limitations to its enrichment activities.

Turning to Libya, Lavrov said he expects the warring parties in the North African nation to observe a lasting cease-fire after their talks in the Russian capital earlier this week. He explained that the talks in Moscow between Libya’s rival leaders focused on a document spelling out conditions of a cease-fire that could serve as a basis for Sunday’s Libya talks hosted by Germany.

Lavrov said he plans to attend the talks in Berlin, which will be attended by both Fayez Sarraj, the head of Libya’s U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli, and his rival, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, Sarraj and Hifter attended Monday’s talks in Moscow, but didn’t meet directly.

“Their relations are tense, and they don’t want to be in one room together, let alone talk to each other,” Lavrov said. He added even though Hifter refused to sign the cease-fire document that was signed by Sarraj, the most important outcome of the talks was that the truce was still holding.

Russia shows its latest weapon to US inspectors

November 26, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian military says it has shown its latest hypersonic weapon to U.S. inspectors. The Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it demonstrated the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle to a team of U.S. inspectors this week as part of transparency measures under the New Start nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. It said the new weapon will be put on combat duty in December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the Avangard in 2018 along with other prospective weapons, noting that its ability to make sharp maneuvers on its way to a target will render missile defense useless.

The military said the Avangard is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound. Putin said its creation represented a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.

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