By Matt Spetalnick and Manuel Mogato WASHINGTON/MANILA (Reuters) - When a Philippine government ship evaded a Chinese blockade in disputed waters of the South China Sea last month, a U.S. Navy plane swooped in to witness the dramatic encounter. The flyover was a vivid illustration of the expanding significance of one of Asia's most strategic regions and underscored a message that senior U.S. officials say President Barack Obama will make in Asia next week: The "pivot" of U.S. military and diplomatic assets toward the Asia-Pacific region is real. Washington's Asian allies, however, appear unconvinced. During Obama's four-nation tour of Asia that begins on April 23, his toughest challenge will be to reassure skeptical leaders that the United States intends to be more than just a casual observer and instead is genuinely committed to countering an increasingly assertive China in the region.
Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - A Saudi man has died of MERS in the western city of Jeddah, where authorities have sought to calm fears over the spreading respiratory illness, the health ministry said Wednesday. The ministry said five more people were infected with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, including two medics, all in Jeddah. The latest death of a 52-year-old brings to 71 the total number of people to have died from MERS, out of 205 infections in Saudi Arabia, it added. Health authorities on Tuesday reported the death of a 59-year-old, also in Jeddah, as well as four other infections in the same city, including three medics.
By Barbara Lewis BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament backed a law on Wednesday to help keep alien species of plants and wildlife out of Europe and limit their spread in the event they do get in. Non-native plant and animal life are estimated to cost the European Union 12 billion euros ($16 billion) a year in damage and control costs. They compete with European species for food and disrupt their habitats. The European Environment Agency says more than 10,000 alien species have gained a foothold in Europe and at least 1,500 are considered harmful.
South Korea and Japan held rare high-level talks Wednesday on the extremely sensitive issue of wartime sex slavery, which has contributed to a virtual freeze in diplomatic ties. Kyodo News cited an unnamed government official as saying the Japanese side would indicate Tokyo is mulling an official apology and money for the so-called "comfort women" forced to work in military brothels. Seoul said the meeting between Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asia and Oceania affairs bureau, and Lee Sang-Deok, South Korea's director-general for Northeast Asian Affairs, marked the first time high-level officials had discussed the comfort woman issue in isolation.
ISTANBUL (AP) — Istanbul, the noisy metropolis on the Bosporus Strait lauded by many a travel ranking, has much more to offer than grand mosques and bazaars. Away from the din of typical tourist haunts, a walk around the neighborhoods of Karakoy, Balat and Kuzguncuk will peel back the surface to reveal the city's multilayered history, and the lifestyles of those who've lived it.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A Malaysian man who went on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia has become the first death in Asia from Middle East respiratory syndrome, while the Philippines has isolated a health worker who tested positive for the deadly coronavirus.
BEIJING (AP) — China's economic growth slowed further in the latest quarter but appeared strong enough to satisfy Chinese leaders who are trying to put the country on a more sustainable path without politically dangerous job losses.
Supermarket giant Tesco announced a second drop in annual profits in a row on Wednesday, leaving Britain's biggest retailer hoping that recent expansion into India and China can offset weakness in Europe. But annual profit after tax soared to £974 million from £28 million in the previous trading year when Tesco was hit by its decision to close the group's under-performing US business. "While the decline in profitability and like-for-like UK sales comes as no surprise, it marks the end of a disappointing year for Tesco," said Bryan Roberts, analyst at consultancy group Kantar Retail. Speaking of 2013/14, Tesco said in its earnings statement: "Our performance in the year was not where we had planned it to be."
London shares opened higher on Wednesday as shares in Tesco jumped after the supermarket giant's fourth quarter results came out not as bad as investors had feared. Tesco shares climbed 3.27 percent to 773.50 pence as the UK market leader unveiled a 6 percent drop in underlying profits for its year to February but targeted expansion in Asia for future growth. Chief executive Philip Clarke noted: "We have significantly reduced our new investment in Europe, focusing the majority of our overseas capital on targeted, high-returning investments in Korea, Malaysia and Thailand." In other Asian expansion, Tesco last month struck a joint venture deal with India's Tata Group to become the first foreign supermarket to enter the country's $500-billion (362 billion-euro) retail sector.
South Korea has blocked the newly launched Korean version of the global adultery hook-up site Ashley Madison, saying Wednesday that it threatened family values in a country where marital infidelity is a crime. Under a 1953 statute that criminalises adultery, an unfaithful spouse in South Korea can receive a prison sentence of up to two years for having an affair. The Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), a largely government-appointed body, said the website was an incitement to immorality. "In light of the legal spirit of relevant laws aimed to protect healthy sexual morals, marriage bonds and family life, KCSC decided to block access to the site which incites adultery," the commission said in a statement.
By David Brunnstrom WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and China have held "productive" talks on North Korea, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday, part of stepped up international diplomacy after Pyongyang warned of plans to conduct a new type of nuclear test. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies met with his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei in New York on Monday and Tuesday. "The United States and China agree on the fundamental importance of a denuclearized North Korea," it said, adding that the meetings were part of a series of high-level U.S.-China discussions on how to achieve that in a peaceful manner. The talks follow meetings last week between the United States, Japan and South Korea, the countries that along with China and Russia were trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea until Pyongyang declared the so-called six-party talks dead in 2008.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Yahoo is still prospering from its lucrative investments in Asia while the Internet company's listless advertising sales are picking up under CEO Marissa Mayer, if ever so slightly.
President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday international sanctions on Iran would unravel in months following negotiations with world powers on its nuclear program, the official IRNA news agency reported. Some international sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program have been eased temporarily after a deal was reached last year with world powers, but Washington has said the lifting of sanctions can only happen "in total" after a comprehensive deal is reached. "Today we already see the sanctions unraveling," he said, according to IRNA, referring to the modest easing of sanctions in return for concessions made by Rouhani's government in nuclear talks with world powers. World powers want Iran to curb its nuclear activity, which Western nations fear is aimed at giving Tehran the capability to make a nuclear weapon.
By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine have falsely claimed to be under assault to justify Russian intervention, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday in a report that warned of an impact on the May 25 election if propaganda persisted. Russia declared Ukraine on the brink of civil war on Tuesday as Kiev said an "anti-terrorist operation" against pro-Moscow separatists was under way, with troops and armored personnel carriers seen near a flashpoint eastern town. Russia then seized and annexed Ukraine's Crimea region after its ethnic Russian majority backed the move in a referendum, which the West condemned as an illegal sham.
CAIRO (AP) — Zeina Karam, who has reported on political upheaval, war and transformation in the Middle East for almost two decades, has been named as Beirut bureau chief for The Associated Press, leading coverage of Lebanon as well as the devastating conflict in Syria.
BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday it had lodged a protest with the United States over a visit by Washington's environmental protection chief to self-ruled Taiwan this week. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy's visit is the first by a cabinet-level official since 2000, according to Taiwan's presidential office. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou met her on Monday. McCarthy was visiting to highlight environmental cooperation between the United States and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. ...
A total lunar eclipse, the first since December 2011, will take place Tuesday with the Americas best placed to get a glimpse. With a first phase -- known as a penumbral eclipse -- kicking off at 0453 GMT, the total lunar eclipse is due to start at 0706 GMT and last until 0824 GMT, the US space agency said. While the entire event is visible from North and South America, sky watchers in northern and eastern Europe, eastern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia will be out of luck, according to NASA. The year's second total lunar eclipse will take place on October 8, with the tetrad's remaining two expected on April 4 and September 28 of next year.
By Michael Martina BEIJING (Reuters) - An animal welfare group said on Tuesday it will save 130 bears from a bile extraction farm in China, its largest rescue so far, in a bid to end a business that has sparked outrage over animal cruelty amid growing opposition. Hong Kong-based Animals Asia says as many as 10,000 bears are held in captivity in China and used for bile extraction, often under poor conditions that cause long-term physical and psychological suffering. Animals Asia reached a deal with state-owned Flower World to take over its bear bile farm in the southern Guangxi region's capital Nanning and convert it into a sanctuary for the Asiatic black bears, known as moon bears for a white crescent marking on their chests. Most people oppose it, so we consider prospects for the bear bile business will be less and less optimistic," Flower World General Manager Yan Shaohong told reporters.
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam has granted early release to two high-profile dissidents, bringing the number of democracy activists freed this month to three in what the government called a "policy of leniency."
BANGKOK (AP) — As head of his village, Prajob Naowa-opas battled to save his community in central Thailand from the illegal dumping of toxic waste by filing petitions and leading villagers to block trucks carrying the stuff — until a gunman in broad daylight fired four shots into him.
MUMBAI, India (AP) — Riding on its startup success and flush with fresh capital, taxi-hailing smartphone app Uber is making a big push into Asia. There's a twist, though: Instead of being the game-changing phenomena it was in the U.S., Uber faces a slew of competitors using similar technology.
(Reuters) - Vietnam has freed two more political dissidents, making it three activists released in the space of a week, as pressure increases on the communist government to stop jailing its critics. Nguyen Tien Trung, a 30-year-old blogger, was freed from a prison in southern Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday, his father said. Vi Duc Hoi, 56, a former communist party member who became a democracy activist, was released on Friday, London-based rights group Amnesty International confirmed on Monday. Trung's father, Nguyen Tu Tu said it was a positive move by the authorities and hoped more would follow.
Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - A foreigner has died from MERS in the western Saudi city of Jeddah, where authorities have sought to calm fears over the spreading respiratory illness, the health ministry said Monday. Last week panic over the spread of MERS among medical staff in Jeddah had caused a temporary closure of an emergency room at a main hospital, prompting a visit by Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabiah aimed at reassuring an anxious public. Rabiah briefed the cabinet on Monday following his visit to hospitals in Jeddah over the weekend.
British insurer Aviva has agreed to sell its stake in its South Korean venture for an undisclosed amount as it focuses on its core Asian businesses, the group said Monday. Aviva has sold its 47-percent holding in Woori Aviva Life Insurance to NongHyup Financial Group (NHFG), it said in a statement. "Aviva has a strong presence in China and South East Asia, which are key future cash generators for the group," said Aviva Asia chief executive Khor Hock Seng.
Russia and China aim to wrap up a 10-year series of talks about Russian gas supplies before President Vladimir Putin visits China in May, media quoted the deputy prime minister as saying on Monday. The Russian deputy premier, Arkady Dvorkovich, also said China is interested in alternative energy projects on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March. Moscow and Beijing have been involved in painstaking talks about possible Russian gas supplies to China, with price being the main obstacle to a deal.
By Oleg Vukmanovic and Ron Bousso MILAN/LONDON (Reuters) - Israel's drive to export its new-found natural gas could help to rebuild strained ties with old regional allies Egypt and Turkey, but could deprive Europe of a precious alternative to Russian gas. Israel has in recent months already signed energy deals with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, though relations with the Palestinians are at a low ebb, and now needs to expand its export horizons to cash in on its huge energy discoveries. If all goes well, the latest developments could see first pipelines being laid between Israel and Turkey as soon as 2015, and gas cooperation between Israel and Egypt is also emerging, which would allow export access to Asia's major markets. A growing population and soaring demand have left Egypt's own liquefied natural gas export (LNG) plants in need of new supply, as domestic shortages eat into seaborne exports through the Suez Canal to the world's most lucrative market in Asia.
By Katharine Houreld and Ben Blanchard KABUL/BEIJING (Reuters) - China is quietly preparing for a more robust role in the future of Afghanistan, concerned that the withdrawal of NATO troops will leave a hotbed of militancy on its doorstep. The two countries are connected by a narrow mountainous corridor that is almost impassable, which meant Beijing could focus on mining and mineral deals in Afghanistan as Western forces battled Taliban insurgents. But officials say that China is emerging as a key strategic player. In August it will host a "Heart of Asia" conference on Afghanistan, which may have a newly elected president by then, inviting leaders from regional nations including India and Pakistan.