Top US Navy officer to visit Beijing amid heightened South China Sea tensions

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A Navy personnel relays information to the air and deck crew aboard the USS McCampbell, which early this year sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea where Beijing has built military installations. (US Navy/AFP)
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Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, above, will meet with his counterpart Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong and leaders of China’s Central Military Commission during his visit to Beijing. (AP)
Updated 12 January 2019
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Top US Navy officer to visit Beijing amid heightened South China Sea tensions

  • Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will meet with his counterpart Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong and leaders of China’s Central Military Commission
  • China has warned the US against further upgrading military ties with Taiwan

BEIJING: The US Navy’s top officer will visit China starting Sunday amid increasing frictions in the South China Sea and other tensions underscoring their rivalry for dominance in Asia.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will meet with his counterpart Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong and leaders of China’s Central Military Commission during his visit to Beijing and the eastern city of Nanjing lasting through Wednesday, the Navy said.
The goal of the visit, Richardson’s second as head of operations, is to “continue a results-oriented, risk reduction focused dialogue” between the two militaries, the Navy said.
“A routine exchange of views is essential, especially in times of friction, in order to reduce risk and avoid miscalculation,” the release quoted Richardson as saying. “Honest and frank dialogue can improve the relationship in constructive ways, help explore areas where we share common interests, and reduce risk while we work through our differences.”
Richardson and Shen met previously at the 2018 International Seapower Symposium in the US and have held three discussions via video teleconference, the most recent in December, the release said.
China has long chafed at the robust US naval presence in its region, seeing that as a key component of a strategy to contain its development.
In recent years, the South China Sea has become the main area of contention, home to islands, rich fishing grounds, undersea mineral deposits and shipping lanes through which pass an estimated $5 trillion in goods annually. China claims virtually the entire waterway on historical grounds and has strengthened its hold through the fortification of its island holdings and the construction and man-made outposts by piling sand and concrete atop coral reefs.
Five other governments also exercise overlapping claims in the area and while the US takes no formal position on sovereignty, it insists on the right to navigation and overflight, including in air and waters within the territorial limits surrounding China’s holdings.
Such freedom of navigation operations intended to assert such rights have enraged China, which has vowed to take whatever measures to thwart them.
While those usually involve the dispatch of ships and aircraft to warn off US vessels, in late September, a Chinese destroyer came perilously close to the USS Decatur in the South China Sea in what the US Navy called an “unsafe and unprofessional maneuver.” Navy officers downplayed the incident, calling it unfortunate, rare and something they’d like to avoid in future.
Richardson has said such patrols highlight the US position against “illegitimate maritime claims.”
Chinese navy academy researcher Senior Capt. Zhang Junshe said Wednesday that Beijing may further fortify the outposts depending on perceived threats.
While the sides have sought to boost understanding and signed agreements to handle unexpected confrontations at air and sea, deep mistrust lingers.
Last summer, Washington disinvited China from a major US-sponsored naval exercise in what it called “an initial response” to China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
The Pentagon cited strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested areas in the Spratly Islands. It called on China to remove these systems. Despite strong mutual suspicions, the US had included China in the past two versions of the naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or RimPac, in 2014 and 2016.
China has also warned the US against further upgrading military ties with Taiwan. China threatens to use force against the self-governing island to assert its claim of sovereignty. Under President Donald Trump, the US has taken incremental moves to bolster ties with the island, including renewed arms sales and upgraded contacts between officials.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also heads the Central Military Commission, said in a Jan. 2 address that the ruling communists “made no promises to abandon the use of force,” but added that was directed at those advocating formal independence for the island that split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949, along with any foreign forces that might intervene.
Adding to the tensions, China and the US are locked in a tariff dispute that shows little sign of dissipating and Washington has repeatedly accused Beijing of running a cyber espionage campaign to capture commercial and government secrets.


Death toll reaches 85 in Mexico fuel pipeline fire horror

Residents search for human remains and items that could help to identify their missing relatives and friends at the site where a pipeline ruptured by oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 20, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 48 min 22 sec ago
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Death toll reaches 85 in Mexico fuel pipeline fire horror

  • The explosion of the illegal pipeline in central Mexico killed more than 70 people
  • The new president promised earlier to fight the epidemic of fuel theft

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico: People in the town where a gasoline explosion killed at least 85 people say the section of pipeline that gushed fuel has been a habitual gathering site for thieves, repeatedly damaged and patched like a trusty pair of jeans.
“It was the popular tap,” said Enrique Cerron, 22, who lives near the field. “You could pass by at 11 or 12 in the morning and see people filling up here.”
On Friday, amid countrywide fuel shortages at gas stations as the government attempts to stem widespread fuel theft, this particular section of pipeline had come back into service after being offline for nearly four weeks when somebody punctured the line again. Word quickly spread through the community of 20,000 people that gas was flowing. Come one, come all.
Hundreds showed up at the spigot, carrying plastic jugs and covering their faces with bandanas. A few threw rocks and swung sticks at soldiers who tried to shoo them away. Some fuel collectors brought their children along.
Tlahuelilpan is a largely agrarian community located 90 minutes by car from the capital and just 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the state-run Tula oil refinery. It’s surrounded by verdant alfalfa fields and power plant stacks, and is reasonably affluent by rural Mexican standards. Hidalgo state data shows about half the community lives in moderate poverty, in line with the national average.
At first the gasoline leak was manageable, locals say, emitting a tame fountain of fuel that allowed for filling small buckets at a time. But as the crowd swelled to more than 600, people became impatient.
That’s when a man rammed a piece of rebar into a patch, according to Irma Velasco, who lives near the alfalfa field where the explosion took place, and gasoline shot 20 feet (6 meters) into the air, like water from a geyser.
A carnival atmosphere took over. Giddy adults soaked in gasoline filled jugs and passed them to runners. Families and friends formed human chains and guard posts to stockpile containers with fuel.
For nearly two hours, more than a dozen soldiers stood guard on the outskirts of the field, warning civilians not to go near. Officials say the soldiers were outnumbered and their instructions were to not intervene. Only a week earlier, people in a different town had beaten some soldiers who tried to stop them from gorging on state-owned fuel.
The lure of free fuel was irresistible for many: They came like moths to a flame, parking vehicles on a nearby road.
The smell of gas grew stronger and stronger as thousands of barrels spewed. Those closest to the gusher apparently became delirious, intoxicated by fumes. Townspeople stumbled about. The night filled with an eerie mist, a mixture of cool mountain air and fine particles of gasoline.
Velasco said she rushed to aid a man she saw staggering along the road and away from the gusher. She removed his gas-drenched clothes to help alleviate the overwhelming stench of toxic fuel. Then she helped another young man, who described to her how the geyser had erupted.
Cerron was at the heart of the mayhem when he sensed mounting danger.
He pulled a 70-year-old man out of a ditch where gasoline was pooling; the man had passed out from the vapors. Then Cerron, a student, decided it was time to go home.
“They looked like zombies trying to get all that gasoline out,” says Cerron.
He passed soldiers warning would-be scavengers to stay away. It’s going to explode, they said. And it did. Once home, Cerron turned for one last glance at the gusher. Instead he saw flames.
The fireball that engulfed those scooping up gasoline underscores the dangers of the epidemic of fuel theft that Mexico’s new president has vowed to fight.
By Sunday evening, the death toll blaze had risen to 79, with 58 others hospitalized, federal Health Minister Jorge Alcocer said. Dozens more were listed as missing.
Soldiers formed a perimeter around an area the size of a soccer field where townspeople were incinerated by the fireball, reduced to clumps of ash and bones. Officials suggested Sunday that fields like this, where people were clearly complicit with the crime of fuel theft, could be seized by the government.
But Attorney General Alejandro Gertz ruled out bringing charges against townspeople who merely collected spilled fuel, and in particular those hospitalized for burns. “Look, we are not going to victimize the communities,” he said. “We are going to search for those responsible for the acts that have generated this tragedy.”
The disaster came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day. The crackdown has led to fuel scarcity at gas stations throughout the country due to shifts in distribution, both licit and illicit.
Officials say pipeline in and around Tlahuelilpan has been perforated 10 times over the past three months.
Lopez Obrador vowed on Sunday to continue the fight against a practice that results in about $3 billion per year in stolen fuel. Legally, that fuel belongs to the Mexican people, with state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, acting as custodian.
But Pemex has long been plagued by corruption. Lopez Obrador described the company on Sunday as “at the service of people without scruples,” saying Pemex had been kidnapped by “a gang of ruffians,” referring to crooked government officials and executives within the company.
Lopez Obrador faces an uphill fight against a practice that has become an economic salve for poor rural areas where pipelines pass, covered by only a foot or two of dirt. Gangs recruit locals who then rally support from the community via gifts or threats of violence.
Storage sheds and warehouses dot the region, with landowners earning extra income from the rent or gifts of fuel.
The president plans a tour next week to several towns outside Mexico City where fuel theft has become entrenched in the local economy. He promises jobs and financial aid as an alternative for communities along pipelines that are somewhat dependent on income from fuel theft rings.
“Mexico needs to end corruption,” Lopez Obrador said Sunday. “This is not negotiable.”
Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries. His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck.
Another pipeline burst into flames Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. But there were no reported casualties.
In December 2010, authorities blamed thieves for a pipeline explosion in the central Mexico state of Puebla, not far from the capital, that killed 28 people, including 13 children.