BEIJING – A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts in the region.
PHILIPPINE FOREIGN SECRETARY PRAISES CHINA
The Philippine foreign secretary heaped praise on China’s ruling Communist Party during a visit to Beijing, underscoring the growing distance between the Philippines and the United States as China’s regional political and economic influence rises.
Teodoro Locsin said Wednesday that China’s authoritarian one-party system has provided opportunities for developing economies to grow and has given them a certain momentum for improvement that Western democracies currently lack.
"Without the new China there will be no prospect whatsoever for the developing world to grow into emerging economies," Locsin said.
The secretary’s remarks reflected sentiment in the Cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has frequently praised China and criticized his county’s long-standing alliance with the U.S.
Earlier this month, the Philippine defense secretary said his country’s defense treaty with the U.S. needs to be re-examined, bringing expressions of concern from Washington.
The newfound goodwill comes despite the fact that China and the Philippines have competing claims to territory in the South China Sea. The Philippines has been successful at international arbitration to contest China’s claim to virtually the entire crucial waterway, but Beijing has ignored the ruling.
EX-PHILIPPINE OFFICIALS CLAIM CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Two former Philippine officials are filing a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity over his government’s assertive actions in the South China Sea.
The two former officials contend that China’s actions have deprived thousands of fishermen of their livelihood and wrecked the environment.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and ex-chief anti-graft prosecutor Conchita Carpio Morales said Thursday that they filed the complaint with the tribunal before the current Philippine president’s move to withdraw the country from the tribunal took effect.
They accused Xi and other Chinese officials of turning seven disputed reefs into islands, causing extensive environmental damage, and of blocking about 320,000 Filipinos and other counties’ fishermen from their fishing grounds.
"This has seriously undermined the food and energy security of the coastal states in the South China Sea, including the Philippines," del Rosario and Carpio Morales said in a statement.
China’s island building, which started in 2013 in an effort to construct air and naval bases in the disputed waters, reportedly destroyed large expanses of coral reefs and endangered fisheries.
"It presents one of the most massive, near permanent and devastating destruction of the environment in humanity’s history," they said.
There was no immediate reaction from China.
Duterte decided to withdraw the Philippines from the ICC last year in a move that took effect March 17. Duterte’s move has been challenged by human rights advocates before the Philippine Supreme Court.
US NAVY PROTESTS CHINESE BEHAVIOR
A senior U.S. Navy commander says the U.S. won’t alter its so-called "freedom of navigation" sailings in the disputed South China Sea and has pressed ahead with such operations despite a dangerous maneuver by a Chinese navy ship against an American destroyer.
Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told reporters in Manila that Washington protested that "unprofessional behavior" by the Chinese ship, which maneuvered very close to the USS Decatur as the latter sailed closely by a Chinese-occupied island in the Spratlys in September.
"No, it’s not going to change where we do our freedom of navigation operations," Sawyer said when asked if the Sept. 30 incident off Gaven Reef would change such U.S. Navy operations. Several such sail-bys have been undertaken by American naval ships since that close encounter in the disputed waters, he said.
"It was concerning because the ships got too close," Sawyer said, adding that U.S. officials have voiced "our displeasure with what we consider to be unprofessional behavior."
The USS Decatur had sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven Reef when a Chinese destroyer approached within 45 yards (41 meters) of the bow of the U.S. Navy ship, which changed course to prevent a collision. The Decatur was also warned to leave the area, U.S. Pacific Fleet officials said at the time.
China said the Luoyang, a Chinese missile destroyer, was deployed to identify the U.S. warship and drive it away near Chinese territory. Beijing protested the Decatur’s action as provocative.
One of seven disputed reefs transformed by China into militarily fortified islands in recent years, Gaven is claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the South China Sea.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez reported from Manilla, Philippines.
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CARACAS, Venezuela – A Venezuelan official says Russian aircraft arrived in Caracas this weekend as part of ongoing military cooperation between the two allies.
The official said Sunday that Russian military officials are visiting to discuss equipment maintenance and training, and strategy. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Flightradar24, a flight-tracking site, showed the flight path Saturday of what it listed as a Russian air force plane, apparently headed to Caracas while flying across the Caribbean.
Javier Mayorca, a Venezuelan journalist, tweeted that a Russian cargo plane with military equipment also arrived in Caracas on Saturday.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
Russia backs Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has rejected demands from the United States and dozens of other countries that he resign.
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MEXICO CITY – Families of missing people swarmed Mexico’s president Sunday after he vowed to ramp up efforts to identify thousands of bodies. They held pictures of their loved ones or pressed large envelopes with details of their cases into his right hand. A woman broke into tears between pleas for help.
The remains of at least 26,000 people are in government custody at forensic institutions across Mexico, waiting to be identified. Thousands more Mexicans are missing, their bodies presumed to be in clandestine graves. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Sunday his government will allot all the resources and manpower necessary – "there’s no financial ceiling" – to identify remains and give families some sense of closure.
The task is monumental: Mexican authorities lack investigative capacity, and few crimes are solved; families themselves search unmarked graves for loved ones; and there’s no nationwide database of DNA to help identify the thousands of remains collected by forensic workers.
Grotesque levels of violence are largely to blame – Mexican authorities opened 33,341 murder cases last year, the highest on record – but so are weak government institutions.
Lopez Obrador called the pile of missing persons cases "the saddest, most painful inheritance" his administration has received since taking office Dec. 1.
Lopez Obrador also said he feels the families’ pain.
"When I go on tour, when I meet families – above all mothers – they pull me, they shake me, they cry. I bear it all because I know what they are suffering without their children and their loved ones," he said.
Guadalupe Fernandez is one of the many mothers searching for her son. Jorge Antonio Robledo Fernandez disappeared 10 years ago, while working as an engineer to build ovens for a steel company in northern Mexico. He was 32. If he’s dead, she would like to at least find his remains.
On Sunday, as every day, Fernandez awoke thinking of what she could do to further the investigation into her son’s whereabouts. She arrived hours before the president’s speech and secured a front-row seat. She took heart in Lopez Obrador’s promise to meet again in three months for a progress report on missing persons, and she felt satisfied, she said, having done something for her son "even on a Sunday."
"I’m going to continue to search for my son until my last breath," she said.
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HAVANA – Prince Charles and his wife Camilla are beginning the first official trip to Cuba by the British royal family in a pomp-filled display of disagreement with the Trump administration’s strategy of economically isolating the communist island.
The heir to the British throne is expected to land in Havana around 5 p.m. Sunday and lay a wreath at the memorial to colonial independence hero Jose Marti, near massive portraits of socialist revolutionary icons including guerrilla fighter Che Guevara.
The next two days include visits to historic sites, a solar park, organic farm, biomedical research center, cultural gala and a dinner with President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
It does not include visits with political dissidents or other critics of Cuba’s single-party system, a decision prompting criticism from Cuban exiles.
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JERUSALEM – The leaders of Romania and Honduras have announced they will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, following the lead of President Donald Trump.
Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez delivered their announcements Sunday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington. The announcements were welcomed by Israeli politicians.
Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to the city, a move that was applauded by Israel. Guatemala followed suit.
The move angered the Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as capital of a future state.
Most countries have embassies in Tel Aviv out of sensitivity over the contested city. The Palestinians, and most of the international community, say the city’s final status should be resolved in negotiations.
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MADRID – There will be lots of politics to talk about when Venezuela takes on a Catalonia squad in a friendly soccer game in Spain on Monday.
Venezuela has a coach who offered his resignation over the alleged political use of his national team, while Catalonia — the region in the middle of an independence dispute with Spain — will be missing players because some non-Catalan teams didn’t release them.
Venezuela is coming off a convincing 3-1 win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Friday, but what attracted most of the attention after the friendly was an announcement by Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel. He offered his resignation because he was not happy with the politicization of a pre-game visit by a representative of Juan Guaido, the man challenging Nicolas Maduro’s claim to the presidency in Venezuela.
Dudamel and the rest of the squad had welcomed the visit but the coach apparently did not like that images were later released to the public.
"Regrettably, they politicized the visit," Dudamel said. "The agreement was that if there was any image or video, it would have been used internally only. But they politicized the visit, and we can’t allow that to happen. It was regrettable how they used it."
Venezuela is in the middle of a power struggle since Maduro’s re-election last year was deemed illegitimate by several governments.
Dudamel said he will remain in charge of the squad on Monday, but his future will depend on talks with Venezuelan soccer federation officials in the coming days.
Catalonia has also undergone political turmoil, peaking recently in 2017 with an independence referendum not recognized by Madrid. The issue divided Spain at the time and remains a hot topic politically.
Although the region is not independent, Catalonia has often put together squads to play in friendly matches against other nations.
Among the Catalan players expected to play on Monday are veterans Gerard Pique and Xavi Hernandez. Both have retired from the Spanish national team and are off-duty with their clubs because of the international break.
Hernandez, a 39-year-old midfielder, currently plays in Qatar. The 32-year-old Pique, still a starter with Barcelona, decided to stop playing with Spain’s national team after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
But other players initially selected for the squad were not released by their clubs, who said their decisions were not related to politics.
Valladolid, which is fighting relegation from the top tier of the Spanish league, was the first team to keep its players from taking part in Monday’s match, and Rayo Vallecano and Huesca — also threatened by relegation — later followed suit.
"We understand the reasons why these clubs are not going to let their players play," Catalonia coach Gerard Lopez said.
The match will be played in Girona, a Catalan city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Barcelona.
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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis says he is praying for the success of talks underway in Nicaragua aimed at solving a yearlong political crisis in the country.
Francis addressed the crisis in Nicaragua after leading a prayer Sunday to a crowd at St. Peter’s Square.
Francis, who is from Argentina, described the talks between President Daniel Ortega’s administration and opposition delegations as "important."
He said: "I accompany the initiative with prayer and encourage the parties to find a peaceful solution for the good of all as soon as possible."
The crisis was triggered last April when cuts to social security benefits led to protests that evolved into calls for Ortega’s resignation. Security forces responded with violent repression. Human rights groups say at least 325 people died.
The unrest also devastated the economy.
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been hailed on social media by Muslims around the world for her response to two mosque shootings by a white nationalist who killed 50 worshippers. She wore a headscarf at the funerals in line with Islamic custom and swiftly reformed gun laws.
An image of the prime minister embracing a grieving woman was projected onto the world’s tallest tower in Dubai over the weekend with the Arabic word for "peace."
Yet for many Muslims, Ardern’s most consequential move was immediately labeling the attack an act of terrorism.
That stands in contrast to numerous ideologically-motivated mass shootings in North America by white non-Muslim gunmen that were not labeled acts of terrorism, say Muslim leaders and terrorism experts.
For too long, terror attacks have been depicted as a uniquely Muslim problem, with acts of violence described as "terrorist only when it applies to Muslims," said Abbas Barzegar of the Council on American Islamic Relations. He works on documenting and combating anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia.
"We’ve got an issue in this country where anytime a violent act is committed by a Muslim, the media starts at terrorism and then works backward from there," added Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank.
It’s the opposite when the shooter is non-Muslim and white, said Clarke, who’s spent his career studying terrorism, particularly Muslim extremism.
The March 15 attacks on the New Zealand mosques raised questions about whether Islamophobia and the threat of violent right-wing extremism was being taken seriously by politicians and law enforcement.
The gunman in the New Zealand massacre called himself a white nationalist and referred to President Donald Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity." Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, has been charged with murder in the attacks.
Trump expressed sympathy for the victims, but played down the rise of white nationalism around the world, saying he didn’t consider it a major threat despite data showing it is growing.
The Anti-Defamation League found that right-wing extremism was linked to every extremist killing in the United States last year, with at least 50 people killed. The group said that since the 1970s, nearly three in four extremist-related killings in the United States have been linked to domestic right-wing extremists and nearly all the rest to Muslim extremists.
"It’s really important that this attack not be dismissed as some crazy lone wolf, isolated incident," said Dalia Mogahed, who leads research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an organization that focuses on research of American Muslims.
"I think it needs to be seen as … a symptom of a wider problem, a transnational rising threat of white supremist violence where anti-Muslim rhetoric is the oxygen for this movement," she said.
A study by the ISPU found that foiled plots involving Muslims perceived to be acting in the name of Islam received 770% more media coverage than those involving perpetrators acting in the name of white supremacy. Another study by Georgia State University found that out of 136 terror attacks in the U.S. over a span of 10 years, Muslims committed on average 12.5 percent of the attacks, yet received more than half of the news coverage.
Mehdi Hasan, a commentator, TV host, columnist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said the public has been conditioned since the 9/11 attacks to see terrorists "as people with big beards, brown skin, loud voices shouting in Arabic."
"I don’t think anyone can deny that the entire War on Terror has fed into this idea (of) Muslims as a threat, as ‘the other’, as inherently violent," Hasan said.
Additionally, when non-Muslim white gunmen are the perpetrators of violence, there are often attempts at examining their mental health or childhood in ways not consistently afforded to others, Hasan said.
Some of the most notorious recent attacks by white assailants with racist or extremist views— the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 people in October and the church shooting that killed nine black worshippers in Charleston in 2015 — were not labeled terrorism and the assailants were not tried as terrorists. Neither was the shooting by a white assailant at a mosque in Quebec, Canada in 2017 that killed six Muslims.
Clarke, the terrorism expert, said he’s been called to testify on Capitol Hill three times in the past two years about jihadi terrorism. "Where are the hearings about right-wing violence?" he asked.
Meanwhile, sectarian, cultural and ideological differences among the world’s Muslims complicate efforts to uniformly push back against negative stereotypes — including the perception by some that Islam condones or encourages violence.
Such biases have been exacerbated by multiple attacks by Islamic extremists in European capitals and by years of conflicts that seem to pit Sunni and Shiite Muslims against each other. In the Middle East, the victims of extremist violence have often been fellow Muslims, targeted by groups like Islamic State or al-Qaida because they don’t share their hard-line ideology.
The Islamic State group, which promoted an extremist version of Sunni Islam, terrorized millions of people during a five-year reign in parts of Syria and Iraq that only ended Saturday, with the loss of the last speck of land of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Some leaders of majority-Muslim countries have been accused of exploiting the debate.
Las week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stirred controversy when he was seen as politicizing the New Zealand attacks to galvanize Islamist supporters during a campaign ahead of municipal elections. The attacker had livestreamed the shootings on social media, and Erdogan screened clips of the attack— despite New Zealand’s efforts to prevent the video’s spread.
Mogahed, who co-authored a book called "Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think" based on interviews with tens of thousands of Muslims around the world, said it’s important to ask whether someone needs to be speaking for Islam, particularly when other groups of people are afforded the presumption of innocence when horrific acts are carried out in their name.
Some Muslim community leaders, like Dawud Walid, an imam in Detroit, said they are troubled by demands that Muslims condemn extremism carried out in the name of Islam. This suggests that Muslims share some sort of collective responsibility for the actions of extremists.
Hasan says this "subliminally reinforces the idea that terrorism is a Muslim problem."
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BOGOTA, Colombia – When Lorena Delgado approached the Venezuelan consulate in Colombia’s capital on a recent afternoon hoping to extend the life of her expiring passport, she found the metal gates to the languishing building shuttered.
Days earlier, Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro had severed ties with the neighboring Andean nation where over a million of his compatriots have fled in recent years, recalling all his diplomats and leaving the consulate and embassy buildings closed.
The man challenging Maduro’s claim to the presidency had appointed a new ambassador, but he was at a loss about how to help her. Despite the fact that Colombia recognizes Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, the ambassador he sent does not have access to the consulate or the ability to issue passport extensions.
"You feel trapped," said Delgado, 32, who needs to travel abroad to apply for a work visa. "We’re in limbo."
As Venezuela’s power struggle stretches on, a parallel dispute for control of embassy buildings in the countries recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s true president has taken root. While new opposition-appointed diplomats are being recognized around the world, the United States is the only nation where they control a consulate building. In no country do Guaido’s envoys have the ability to carry out basic tasks like issuing a passport, as Venezuela’s civil registration agency remains under the control of Maduro.
The diplomatic duel has left the estimated 3.4 million Venezuelans who now live abroad stuck between two administrations. In most countries holdover consular employees continue to carry out tasks like registering births abroad while new, Guaido-appointed ambassadors remain outside embassy walls, symbols of their movement’s lagging advance.
"At this moment, we don’t have a solution from either side," said Paola Soto, 25, who is trying to reunite with her 5-year-old son in Chile.
The battle for diplomatic recognition is largely taking place behind closed doors, but it has occasionally spilled out into public.
In February, the Guaido-appointed ambassador to Costa Rica, Maria Faria, announced she had taken control of the embassy in San Jose, proudly posting on Twitter a photograph of herself standing in front of a Venezuelan flag inside the building. A shouting match erupted outside when the Maduro-appointed diplomats tried to get in.
Costa Rica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, despite recognizing Faria as Venezuela’s ambassador, issued a statement deploring her actions, saying she’d broken an established protocol allowing Maduro appointees 60 days to leave.
In March, a similarly confusing incident took place in Lima, Peru when workers were spotted at night removing chairs and even a stately bust of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar from the Venezuelan embassy. The furniture was put back inside after anti-government protesters decried them.
"You’ve robbed enough in Venezuela!" one angry woman shouted.
More recently, on Monday, Guaido’s U.S. ambassador announced he was taking control of the New York consulate and two military-owned buildings in Washington where images of Maduro have now been replaced with portraits of Guaido.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza accused the United States of violating articles of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that require host countries to protect foreign embassy buildings even when ties are severed.
He warned that if the U.S. doesn’t fulfill its international obligations, the Venezuelan government could pursue legal action and retaliate with reciprocal action – a not so veiled threat that they might occupy the recently vacated U.S. Embassy in Caracas. The U.S. withdrew all embassy personnel from Caracas due to safety concerns after Maduro severed ties with the U.S. over its support for Guaido.
Gustavo Marcano, an exiled Venezuelan mayor who now works for the Guaido-backed Venezuelan embassy in the U.S., said the building acquisition is one of several attempts to ensure Venezuela’s assets abroad are protected. The U.S. is also working to transfer other prized belongings, like Houston-based CITGO, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, to Guaido.
"This is the first step toward ending usurpation," he said from inside the Manhattan consulate, where photos of the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez still hung on the walls.
He added that while they cannot issue documents like passports, the Guaido-led consulate does plan to look for other remedies to help the increasingly large number of Venezuelans who possess no valid form of identification. One idea being floated is the creation of a consular-issued identification card that would be recognized by the host nation.
In other countries, the Guaido-named ambassadors are taking a gentler approach, choosing to slowly work toward eventually taking control of consulates in conjunction with the host nation’s foreign relations ministry – or avoiding the topic altogether.
Humberto Calderon, the appointed ambassador to Colombia, said he’s focused more on tending to Venezuelan migrants, viewing occupying the buildings as a potential agitator that could harm Colombians living in Venezuela.
"It’s our decision," he said. "We haven’t wanted to do it."
Calderon once served as Venezuela’s energy minister and is working from a hotel. He said that when Maduro severed diplomatic relations with Colombia, nearly all the consular staff left, boarding a government-sent plane and flying home. He’s had no access to anything they left behind in the buildings.
In other countries, some Maduro employees have stayed on, gingerly sidestepping the higher-voltage political fight.
In Peru, five Maduro-appointed envoys will remain in place to carry out consular functions, according to a high-ranking Venezuelan official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation. He said that after talks with Peru’s foreign ministry, an agreement was reached allowing them to remain in the country and continue working in the embassy, even though the nation recognizes Guaido’s ambassador.
"The objective is to maintain consular relations," he said. "Not diplomatic ones."
That’s a scenario that’s likely to play out in most countries: Even as more than 50 heads of state declare their allegiance to Guaido, necessity will inevitably compel them to maintain a range of ties to the Maduro government.
"Ultimately it’s not in any country’s real interest to maintain an embassy that’s run by staff that have no ability to advance commercial or consular interests," said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America.
He pointed to the case of the Netherlands, which despite backing Guaido, has pledged to keep the Maduro consular staff intact in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, which stands about 40 miles from Venezuela’s coast. The Netherlands has joint ventures with Venezuela’s giant state-run oil company at stake.
"It’s very much a dual diplomacy situation for many of these countries," Ramsey said.
Soto said she doesn’t know how to explain the standoff to her son, who left by plane from Venezuela with his father over a year ago. Ever since she’s been trying to meet up with him in Chile but has gotten stuck in Colombia.
"There’s no solution," she said. "Not here, not in Venezuela, nowhere."
Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed to this report.
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BOGOTA, Colombia – A magnitude 6.1 earthquake that struck in Colombia shook buildings and frightened residents, but does not appear to have caused any damage.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports the mid-afternoon quake Saturday took place near El Dovio, about 200 miles (325 kilometers) south of Medellin.
Colombians reported feeling the quake as far away as the capital city of Bogota.
Colombia’s disaster agency says a preliminary examination indicates the quake did not inflict any damage and there were no victims.
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