Bangkok, June 23 (AP/UNB) — Southeast Asian leaders on Sunday pressed their call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea and renewed their alarm over the U.S.-China trade war, with one leader warning it may spiral out of control.
The long-raging territorial conflicts and the protracted dispute between the two global economic powerhouses are high on the agenda in the final of two days of meetings of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It's an annual summit steeped in diplomacy, protocol and cultural color in the Thai capital.
Facing regional predicaments such as the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, the leaders took the stage and clasped their hands together in a trademark ASEAN handshake to project unity.
Founded in 1967 in Bangkok in the Cold War era, the diverse 10-nation bloc lumps together an absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchies, along with socialist republics and fledgling democracies.
This year's host, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, opened the summit with a call for regional unity and a push for the bloc to conclude a massive free trade pact with China and five other Asia-Pacific nations to cushion any impact from America's trade conflicts with China.
"The winds of protectionism that are battering the multilateral system remind us that we must hang on ever stronger to one another," Prayuth said.
The U.S., which has pursued bilateral deals over multination trade accords under President Donald Trump, is not included in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, which Prayuth said would encompass the world's largest free-trade region.
Officials from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam will be at the G-20 summit later this month in Japan, where Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet, and express the region's concerns.
"ASEAN hopes there will be discussions that lead to an easing and resolution of these problems because they affect many countries," Prayuth said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told other leaders on Saturday that the trade conflict between Washington and Beijing "is creating uncertainty. It is taking a toll on global growth and it could hinder the ongoing processes of economic integration."
"The U.S. and China must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control," the usually blunt Duterte said.
In their public communiques, the leaders have avoided naming the U.S. and China or specific nations embroiled in controversial issues in a show of their conservative protocols. The leaders, however, could raise thorny issues in a closed-door and informal session.
Duterte has said he would raise the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea following the June 9 ramming of an anchored Philippine boat by a larger Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed Reed Bank. The incident sparked an outcry and condemnations in the Philippines after the Chinese crew sailed away while the fishing boat sank at night. Its Filipino crew was rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.
Known for his close ties with China, Duterte has backed Beijing's initial assertion that the collision was accidental. He mocked calls for him to immediately take drastic actions and agreed to a joint investigation with China, which critics have opposed.
In a statement outlining their regional policies, the leaders on Sunday renewed their call for countries involved in the territorial spats to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law."
Four ASEAN states — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — along with Taiwan and China are locked in disputes over the strategic waterway. ASEAN has been in talks with China to negotiate a nonaggression pact called the "code of conduct" to prevent major armed clashes in the offshore region, which has long been regarded as a potential Asian flashpoint.
Southeast Asian diplomats have told The Associated Press that the first of three rounds of talks on the proposed pact was expected to be completed this year. The more difficult aspects, including whether the pact should be legally binding and cover the entire disputed region, have been relegated to the final rounds so as not to stall the talks early on.
While China has praised the negotiations as a show of Asian nations' ability to manage their conflicts peacefully, critics doubt if such a code of behavior can make a difference given Beijing's increasingly aggressive assertion of its claims in the strategic waters.
They cite China's construction of islands on seven disputed reefs in recent years despite it being a party to a 2002 non-binding regional agreement discouraging such actions.
China initially claimed some of the islands would serve as storm shelters for fishermen but Beijing instead installed defensive missile systems there and its naval forces shoo away and warn ships and aircraft that stray near.
Stepping back from the heavy issues, Prayuth told a news conference after the summit that ASEAN leaders backed the desire of the region, where football is popular, to submit a joint bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034.
Istanbul, Jun 23 (AP/UNB) — Standing on a white campaign bus heading into Sunday's repeat election, Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu shouted to ecstatic supporters in a hoarse voice: "Never bow your heads. We are right and we'll win."
The crowd on the bank of the Bosphorus Strait roared back approval Saturday, singing his campaign slogan "Everything will be great!" as thousands formed a heart shape with their hands hoping their candidate will repeat his victory of 12 weeks earlier.
Imamoglu, 49, is vying to become the first Istanbul mayor in a generation backed by Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party. He narrowly defeated former Prime Minister Benali Yildirim, the candidate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, in the city election held March 31.
But the governing party challenged the results and Turkey's election commission voided the vote after Imamoglu already had been inaugurated and taken office.
His campaign for the redo election galvanized his supporters, who flocked to daily rallies in Istanbul. Vans playing music and messages in support of Imamoglu drove around the city of 15 million people all.
Yildirim, who campaigned on a promise to modernize the city's infrastructure and transport systems, thanked thousands of supporters who attended his final rally Saturday as campaigning officially ended. "By God's grace look at this crowd," he said. "This is such a passion, this is such an excitement."
Imamoglu's campaign focused on urban poverty. He also took aim at what he alleged is the Turkish government's cronyism and use of public contracts to enrich Justice and Development Party backers. Erdogan's government denied the allegation and pointed to its long-term record of delivering economic growth.
Some analysts said a second defeat in Istanbul would be a blow to Ergodan, who started his political rise as the city's mayor. Turkey slid into recession at the end of 2018 and has suffered two debt rating downgrades in the past year.
"A second loss would constitute a major humiliation for Erdogan and could incite some of (his party's) old guard to come out with a new political offering," Wolf Piccoli of the New York-based risk analysis firm Teneo Intelligence said.
"Imamoglu is the first politician in almost 20 years who could become a credible challenger to Erdogan," Piccoli added.
Many of Imamoglu's supporters view him as the opposition's new hope.
"For us, he's a hero," said Ozan Yilmaz, who wore white T-shirt stenciled with an image of Imamoglu's face to the final opposition campaign rally Saturday. "He's our man. He's real, he's happy, and he's nearly always smiling. We need that positive energy. In five years, we might not be talking about Istanbul but all of Turkey."
Imamoglu ended his campaign by climbing into a boat with his wife, Dilek, for a sail along the Bosphorus, followed by photographers and camera crews.
Just over 10 million people are eligible to vote Sunday, with polls open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0500-1400GMT). Results are expected late Sunday.
Sihanoukville, Jun 23 (AP/UNB) — Cambodian rescuers combing through the rubble of a collapsed seven-story building recovered the bodies of 17 construction workers and pulled out 24 injured, as authorities questioned four Chinese who were involved with the project.
Construction workers said the unfinished building in the coastal city of Sihanoukville doubled as their housing, with the crew spending nights on the second floor. Nhor Chandeun and his wife were asleep when at around 4 a.m. Saturday they heard a loud noise and the building crumbled on top of them.
"All the workers were asleep," the 31-year-old said from a hospital in the city. "A moment before the building collapsed it was vibrating and then it was falling down. But it was too quick to escape."
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training said that 30 workers were at the site when the building collapsed, but Nhor Chandeun said there were about 55-60 people inside the building.
Yun Min, the governor of Preah Sihanouk province, said the building was owned by a Chinese investor who leased land for a condominium — one of many Chinese projects in the thriving beach resort. Provincial authorities said in a statement that four Chinese nationals involved in the construction have been detained while an investigation into the collapse is carried out.
It wasn't immediately clear what caused the collapse.
Rescue workers were using saws to cut steel beams and excavators to move piles of rubble from the site. Officials said 1,000 people were taking part in the operation that continued overnight into Sunday morning.
Nhor Chandeun and his wife were trapped for 12 hours before rescuers found them.
"My wife and I kept calling for help," he said. "We were shouting and shouting but there was no sound replying to us and we presumed that we would die under the rubble."
"Fortunately the rescuers found me in time," he added.
Seoul, Jun 23 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump sent North Korean leader Kim Jong Un an "excellent" letter, the North's state-run news agency reported Sunday, quoting Kim as saying he would "seriously contemplate it."
The White House declined to confirm that Trump had sent a letter to Kim.
It comes as nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea broke down after the failed summit between Kim and Trump in February in Vietnam.
The U.S. is demanding that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons entirely before international sanctions are lifted. North Korea is seeking a step-by-step approach in which moves toward denuclearization are matched by concessions from the U.S., notably a relaxation of the sanctions.
Kim "said with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content," Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency reported.
"Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content," the agency said, without elaborating.
South Korea's presidential office said it sees the exchange of letters between Kim and Trump as a positive development for keeping the momentum for dialogue alive.
Trump's letter also came days after Kim's summit with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, which experts say underscored China's emergence as a major player in the diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North.
North Korean state media said Kim and Xi discussed the political situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula and reached unspecified consensus on important issues.
Xi is expected to meet with Trump next week in Japan during the G-20 summit. Analysts say he could pass him a message from Kim about the nuclear negotiations.
Kim said during his New Year's speech said he would seek a "new way" if the United States persists with sanctions and pressure against North Korea. After the collapse of his meeting with Trump in Hanoi, Kim said Washington has until the end of the year to offer mutually acceptable terms for a deal to salvage the negotiations.
Following a provocative run in weapons tests, Kim initiated negotiations with Seoul and Washington in 2018, which led to three summits with South Korea's president and his first with Trump in Singapore on June 12 last year, when they issued a vague statement on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing how and when it would occur. The lack of substance and fruitless working-level talks set up the breakdown of Kim's second meeting with Trump, which the Americans blamed on excessive North Korean demands for sanctions relief in exchange for only a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Nuclear negotiations have been at a standstill since then, but on the eve of the anniversary of the Singapore summit, Trump told U.S. reporters he received a "beautiful" letter from Kim, without revealing what was written. In an interview with TIME magazine last week, Trump said he also received a "birthday letter" from Kim that was delivered by hand a day before.
Trump and Kim also exchanged letters in 2018 after their first summit. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said at the time that the letters addressed their commitment to work toward North Korea's "complete denuclearization."
In September 2018, Trump told a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in West Virginia that Kim "wrote me beautiful letters and they're great letters. We fell in love."
Analysts say the gesture of sending letters is part of North Korean efforts to present Kim as a legitimate international statesman who is reasonable and capable of negotiating solutions and making deals. Because of the weight of formality they provide, Kim might see personal letters as an important way to communicate with leaders of countries the North never had close ties with, they say.
Washington, June 22 (AP/UNB) — Iran has increased its offensive cyberattacks against the U.S. government and critical infrastructure as tensions have grown between the two nations, cybersecurity firms say.
In recent weeks, hackers believed to be working for the Iranian government have targeted U.S. government agencies, as well as sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, sending waves of spear-phishing emails, according to representatives of cybersecurity companies CrowdStrike and FireEye, which regularly track such activity.
It was not known if any of the hackers managed to gain access to the targeted networks with the emails, which typically mimic legitimate emails but contain malicious software.
The cyber offensive is the latest chapter in the U.S. and Iran's ongoing cyber operations targeting the other, with this recent sharp increase in attacks occurring after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Iranian petrochemical sector this month.
Tensions have escalated since the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year and began a policy of "maximum pressure." Iran has since been hit by multiple rounds of sanctions. Tensions spiked this past week after Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone — an incident that nearly led to a U.S. military strike against Iran on Thursday evening.
"Both sides are desperate to know what the other side is thinking," said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye. "You can absolutely expect the regime to be leveraging every tool they have available to reduce the uncertainty about what's going to happen next, about what the U.S.'s next move will be."
CrowdStrike shared images of the spear-phishing emails with The AP.
One such email that was confirmed by FireEye appeared to come from the Executive Office of the President and seemed to be trying to recruit people for an economic adviser position. Another email was more generic and appeared to include details on updating Microsoft Outlook's global address book.
The Iranian actor involved in the cyberattack, dubbed "Refined Kitten" by CrowdStrike, has for years targeted the U.S. energy and defense sectors, as well as allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike.
The National Security Agency would not address discuss Iranian cyber actions specifically but said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday that "there have been serious issues with malicious Iranian cyber actions in the past."
"In these times of heightened tensions, it is appropriate for everyone to be alert to signs of Iranian aggression in cyberspace and ensure appropriate defenses are in place," the NSA said.
Iran has long targeted the U.S. oil and gas sectors and other critical infrastructure, but those efforts dropped significantly after the nuclear agreement was signed. After President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in May 2018, cyber experts said they have seen an increase in Iranian hacking efforts.
"This is not a remote war (anymore)," said Sergio Caltagirone, vice president of threat intelligence at Dragos, Inc. "This is one where Iranians could quote unquote bring the war home to the United States."
Caltagirone said as nations increase their abilities to engage offensively in cyberspace, the ability of the United States to pick a fight internationally and have that fight stay out of the United States physically is increasingly reduced.
The U.S. has had a contentious cyber history with Iran.
In 2010, the so-called Stuxnet virus disrupted the operation of thousands of centrifuges at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Iran accused the U.S. and Israel of trying to undermine its nuclear program through covert operations.
Iran has also shown a willingness to conduct destructive campaigns. Iranian hackers in 2012 launched an attack against state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, releasing a virus that erased data on 30,000 computers and left an image of a burning American flag on screens.
In 2016, the U.S. indicted Iranian hackers for a series of punishing cyberattacks on U.S. banks and a small dam outside of New York City.
U.S. Cyber Command refused to comment on the latest Iranian activity. "As a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence or planning," Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the apparent cyber campaign, experts say the Iranians would not necessarily immediately exploit any access they gain into computer systems and may seek to maintain future capabilities should their relationship with the U.S. further deteriorate.
"It's important to remember that cyber is not some magic offensive nuke you can fly over and drop one day," said Oren Falkowitz, a former National Security Agency analyst. It takes years of planning, he said, but as tensions increase, "cyber impact is going to be one of the tools they use and one of the hardest things to defend against."