Friday, April 10, 2009

Oil on the agenda as Chavez visits China

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was set to arrive in China Tuesday on a visit likely to deepen already strong ties that focus on oil but branch into areas stretching from the military to the media.
China buys 300,000 barrels of Venezuelan crude every day, and is eager for more from the Latin American country as part of its global quest for as diverse a range of energy supplies as possible.
"The recent economic slowdown has eased the short-term supply constraint in the world oil market," said Kevin Tu of Vancouver-based energy research firm MK Jaccard and Associates.
"However, if we look at a longer time span, oil will continuously be a scarce commodity, especially when the world economy starts to recover from the current financial turmoil."
The bilateral relationship is driven by one basic fact: Venezuela hopes to shift its oil exports away from over-reliance on US demand, and China wants to diversify its imports to avoid over-dependence on Middle Eastern supply.
So while a drop in global oil prices amid the economic crisis puts Venezuela at a disadvantage, it may boost bilateral trade as China is keen to supply strategic oil reserves to keep it secure during future energy bottlenecks.
"The leaders in Beijing see the low oil prices right now as an opportune time for China to fill its nascent strategic petroleum reserves," said Russell Hsiao, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
Chavez, who has called for eventually boostingoil exports to China to one million barrels a day, will visit for three days, and is scheduled to meet President Hu Jintao Wednesday and Vice-President Xi Jinping Thursday.
He was due to arrive late Tuesday from Japan for what will be his sixth visit to China since he came to power a decade ago, a record for a Latin American leader.
Xi visited Venezuela in February, when the two nations signed 12 agreements and doubled an investment fund to 12 billion dollars.
"The fund is part of the strategic alliance that bolsters our common interests and confirms Venezuela's standing as an oil-providing partner (to China) for the next 500 years," Chavez said then.
Other agreements signed in February involved building in Venezuela a factory producing mobile phones and an assembly plant for household appliances, as well as farming ventures and a deal between state-run Venezuelan and Chinese television networks Telesur and CCTV.
Historically cordial, China-Venezuelan relations have strengthened under Chavez's leftist administration, with bilateral trade peaking at more than 10 billion dollars last year, according to Venezuelan figures.
Last year, Venezuela launched its first geostationary satellite thanks to cooperation with China.
In another manifestation of the evolving relationship, Chavez last month inaugurated the Llanos railway construction project budgeted at 800 million dollars that will be built with Chinese technology, media here said earlier.
Military ties have also expanded. Venezuela recently purchased a fleet of 18 K-8 reconnaissance and training aircraft from China with delivery expected in January 2010.
Chavez said during Xi's visit that similar deals would likely be struck in the future.
"Venezuela will buy Chinese radar and airplanes specially designed for training," he said.
More broadly, and despite the oil-heavy agenda between the two nations, China views the relationship with Venezuela through a strategic prism of empowering developing countries and the alliances between them.
"China-Venezuela relations should be seen within the broader framework of Beijing's 'south-south' strategy to strengthen the clout of developing countries within international institutions," said Hsiao.

Gates urges 'reform,' cuts in US weapons programs

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday outlined plans to "profoundly reform" US military spending, urging a scaling back of major weapons programs while boosting funds for counter-insurgency warfare.
Gates said he was proposing halting production of F-22 fighter jets, canceling a new presidential helicopter and delaying ship building plans, while bolstering funding for surveillance drones and other resources for campaigns against insurgents like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If approved, these recommendations will profoundly reform how this department does business," Gates told a news conference.
The defense secretary said he had tried to balance the need to combat immediate threats posed by insurgents linked to terror networks, with more traditional threats associated with conventional warfare.
"Collectively, they (the recommendations) represent a budget crafted to reshape the priorities of America's defense establishment," he said.
The budget was designed to help "fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years to come," said Gates, whose proposals will likely face stiff opposition from some members of Congress.
In an unusual step, Gates said he briefed lawmakers about his recommendations before making his proposals public.
"The president agreed to this unorthodox approach ... because of the scope and significance of the changes," he said.
The move suggested Gates and President Barack Obama were bracing for a political battle with lawmakers and influential defense industry contractors, who have often rebuffed past attempts to slash mammoth weapons projects.
The Pentagon chief said he recommended ending production for the F-22 Raptors, saying there was no need to greatly expand the aircraft fleet beyond the already approved production of 187.
The Raptors, equipped with radar-evading technology and built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, cost about 350 million dollars each and have been in development since the Cold War.
The Air Force had proposed building nearly 400 of the aircraft but critics said such an expansion was excessive at a time when US troops in the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan are asking for unmanned drones to help them combat Islamist militants.
Gates called for cutting 1.4 billion dollars from missile defense weaponry in the 2010 budget, canceling plans for more C-17 transport aircraft and scrapping a US Army vehicle that forms part of a hi-tech network known as Future Combat Systems.
He said he recommended delays in ship building that would mean the US fleet of aircraft carriers would drop to 10 ships instead of the usual 11 ships after 2040.
An Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter would also be cut under Gates' advice but funds would be set aside to build more F-35 aircraft and to support the military's special forces -- a vital part of the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates said his proposals sought to change the way the Pentagon manages defense contracts, which have been plagued by cost overruns and incessant delays.
The recommendations still need to be formally endorsed by the White House and then approved by Congress.
The country's top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, praised the secretary's recommendations, saying it was time the budget reflected the needs of counter-insurgency campaigns now underway.
"Some will argue he is tilting dangerously away from conventional capabilities. He is not," Mullen said in a statement.
"In truth, he is evening out what has been in this time of war a fairly lop-sided approach to defense acquisition," said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Gates said he was not seeking to ignore conventional threats.
"What people have lost sight of is that I am not trying to have irregular capability take the place of conventional" weapons, he said.
"I am trying to get the irregular guys to have a seat at the table."
Despite recommended cuts in many programs, the Pentagon planned to go ahead with bidding this summer for a multi-billion contract to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers, Gates said.
The contract has pitted aerospace rivals Boeing against Northrup Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). A previous contract was awarded to Northrup and EADS but was cancelled after an appeal from Boeing.

China wary of 'G2' with US: analysts

A week after some saw the advent of a new world order at the G20 in London, the idea of a "G2" that would put the United States and China at the head of international affairs is gathering momentum.
But analysts say the concept of "Chimerica," meant to reflect a new geostrategic situation created by China's unprecedented rise in power, is neither realistic nor likely to appeal to Beijing.
First raised in US academic circles in 2006, the idea was floated again by former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in Beijing in January as the two nations celebrated 30 years of diplomatic ties.
The concept has attracted a lot of interest from Chinese researchers and columnists, particularly since the G20 meeting last week.
Brzezinski, who was also an adviser to Barack Obama during his electoral campaign, suggested an "informal G2" for discussions "not just about bilateral relationships, but about the world in general."
In his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in London, Obama took a step in that direction, agreeing to "strengthen ties at all levels" with Beijing.
The two also launched a fresh strategic dialogue to be held each year that would cover issues as varied as the economy, the environment, and relations with Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
The concept of the G2 "is supported by those in the United States who are favourable to a strategy of cooperation with Beijing, in contrast to the neoconservatives' view of the 'Chinese threat,'" said Valerie Niquet, director of Paris-based research organisation Centre Asie Ifri.
This strategy is tempting at a time when the G8 is regarded by some as obsolete and the G20 is seen as too diluted to be able to respond to global challenges.
Meanwhile the financial crisis has highlighted the interdependence of the world's number one and three economies, while the battle against climate change has shown that the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases must work together.
"On a lot of issues the only two real partners are China and the United States," said Jean-Francois Di Meglio, vice president of the Paris-based research group Asia Centre.
What would hold back the partnership, he said, is the Chinese yuan.
"There is the big world creditor (China) and the big world debtor (the United States). But the big creditor has a currency that is not convertible. That's the argument that kills the G2," Di Meglio said.
Moreover, the Chinese might be "in a process that is moving them closer to the concept of a G2, (but) they definitely do not want that to show that as it would give them lots of responsibilities," he said.
Although China desires recognition, a G2 would go against its long-standing preference for multilateralism that allows it to form partnerships and solid relations around the globe.
"China has never looked to lead the world, it only follows a trend of development," said Liu Yuhui, a researcher at China's Academy of Social Sciences.
Some of the Chinese elite, however, fascinated by the American model, are favourable to "Chimerica."
The concept "has the huge merit... of proving China's global power, which cannot be ignored," said Niquet.
Nevertheless, she also pointed that other world powers would be unhappy with the concept.
"(G2) would obviously go against Russia's diplomatic game that aims to convey the image of a multilateral front to Washington," she said.
It would also be unacceptable for Japan "for reasons of security and leadership," Niquet said.

Obama tells Maliki US will pull out troops on time

US President Barack Obama told Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday that he would pull American troops out of the country as planned, the premier's office said.
"Obama renewed the American commitment to Iraq and to withdraw troops as previously planned," Maliki's spokesman Yasin Majid said, decribing the meeting in which the two leaders also discussed security as "positive."
The US president has ordered an end to US combat operations in Iraq by August 31 2010, but says 50,000 troops will remain under a new mission until the end of 2011.
Hefty support for Obama's Iraq withdrawal: pollMore than two-thirds of Americans support President Barack Obama's plans to withdraw most US troops from Iraq, a new poll said Tuesday as Obama paid a surprise visit to Baghdad.
A total of 69 percent backed the withdrawal plan while 30 percent were opposed, the poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corp. said.
In February Obama announced he was pulling most combat troops out of Iraq by August 2010, although a force of up to 50,000 will remain until the end of the following year. The current deployment is more than 140,000.
A military accord signed last November between Baghdad and Washington requires all US forces to leave the country by the end of 2011.
The poll was released as Obama arrived for his first visit to Iraq since taking office in January, amid a new upturn in deadly attacks blamed by the Iraqi government and US military on the Al-Qaeda terror network.
The president told CBS television late last month that he would not speed up troop withdrawals from Iraq, arguing the war-torn country was "moving in the right direction" but still needed US help.
The CNN poll of 1,023 respondents was conducted by telephone from Friday to Sunday, and has an error margin of three percentage points.

Obama's crisis diplomacy hits North Korea hiccup

President Barack Obama's vaulting rhetoric over North Korea's missile launch ran into familiar resistance at the UN, exposing the cold reality confronting his vows of a new diplomatic dawn.
The Stalinist state's weekend launch of a long-range missile came just days after Obama's first talks with the Chinese and Russian presidents in London, posing an early test of the leaders' declared aim for a geopolitical reboot.
But while the US administration faced embarrassment over China's go-slow approach at the UN Security Council, analysts said Obama may be playing a long game with his North Korea policy still a work in progress.
"The (UN) session ended but the process didn't," said Richard Bush, head of Northeast Asian studies at Washington's Brookings Institution, after an emergency Security Council session Sunday.
"This is going to be a negotiation. Countries don't necessarily reveal their bottom line at the beginning of a negotiation," he said.
Bush added: "There is a value in their approach of maintaining the confidence of Japan and South Korea. And you do have to show a certain amount of firmness towards North Korea."
North Korea's launch of what experts say was an intercontinental ballistic missile gate-crashed a landmark speech by Obama in the Czech capital Prague where he called for a nuclear-free world.
"Rules must be binding," the president said, hours after the North Korean launch, which he said breached UN resolutions. "Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."
Backing the demands of its rattled Japanese and South Korean allies, the United States pushed for the Security Council session. But no meaningful UN action came Sunday after China, supported by Russia, called for "restraint."
The Security Council debate revealed the diplomatic limitations of Obama's rhetoric, but it also served as a chance for Washington to "close ranks" with the Asian allies, said John Park of the United States Institute of Peace.
"These are very difficult discussions that the US will conduct at the UN," the Korean-American analyst observed.
"But the direction is clear from the White House press statement issued after the launch: they want to get past this missile issue and get back to the six-party talks."
Those talks, aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear program, have stalled. Pyongyang's real motivation behind the missile launch may in fact have been to grab the attention of the new Obama administration.
"They ratchet up international tensions and the US comes to the negotiating table. It's worked in the past with the US," said James Person of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
According to Person, North Korea has always wanted to torpedo the six-party process, ditch Japan and South Korea from the talks, and deal with the United States bilaterally.
"This missile launch had been long in the planning. So I think there should have been a more calculated approach from the US," he said, questioning the wisdom of going the UN route despite the guaranteed objections of China.
The US State Department said Monday it wanted a strong response from the United Nations condemning North Korea's rocket test, but hinted it need not come through a Security Council resolution.
Such resolutions are generally legally binding, but the 15-nation UN body can also issue non-binding "presidential statements."
"We have to see what kind of unity the United States can forge with China. We're still in the middle of the game," Bush at Brookings argued.
"The goal is walking a fine line to get the Chinese on board to the extent that North Korea understands that it has miscalculated and can't get its way by provocation."

Thompson Files: Air-tanker logjam

Ever since Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, threw a monkey wrench into efforts to lease new aerial refueling tankers five years ago, the U.S. Air Force has been struggling to implement an alternate strategy.
The Air Force has spent a lot of time and money on the process but still hasn't managed to buy a single new tanker. Now the 453 Eisenhower-era Boeing KC-135 tankers that make up most of the aerial refueling fleet are approaching 50 years of age. Since nobody has ever operated jets for this long, there's no way of knowing for sure when they will start falling out of the sky because of metal fatigue or corrosion. But with the replacement process likely to take decades, it's a safe bet that will eventually happen.
The U.S. Air Force provides aerial refueling to all of the military services of the United States and to the nation's allies too, so if its tanker fleet is grounded by age-related problems, the nation's entire military posture could be crippled.
Flying to places like Afghanistan and Guam in the central Pacific Ocean often requires multiple refuelings, and right now the U.S. Air Force is accomplishing that mission with the kind of planes that airlines retired a generation ago. So you would think there would be some sense of urgency about finally getting the acquisition process right and moving out on buying new tankers.
Well, no such luck. Despite Obama administration rhetoric about openness in U.S. federal contracting, the Pentagon's new and improved tanker-selection process has all the transparency of the FBI's witness protection program.
The performance requirements for the future tankers were blessed by the U.S. Department of Defense's Joint Requirements Oversight Council with almost no input from industry, and now the acquisition strategy is being crafted in much the same way. If you were planning to spend $100 billion over the next 30 years on a new aircraft fleet, wouldn't you want to check with the only two qualified suppliers to determine whether your terms and specifications were reasonable?
We have been here before. Last year the U.S. Air Force kept contractors in the dark for several months before releasing the findings of its initial tanker competition, which proved to be so poorly executed that the whole process was overturned by the Government Accountability Office.
That doesn't necessarily mean the wrong tanker was selected, but there were so many problems with the way the process was carried out that the service had to start over. Many of those problems could have been avoided if the industry teams had been kept informed on how the selection process was unfolding. Instead, the U.S. Air Force couldn't explain its approach convincingly even after the winner was announced.
The current buildup to a re-competition is being carried out with even greater secrecy. This time around, the U.S. Air Force doesn't bear all the blame because U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reserved final oversight of key tanker decisions for his office. That means it will be his fault if the process unravels a second time, especially given the administration's righteous indignation about past acquisition errors.
What is missing from the Obama administration's high-minded rhetoric is any acknowledgment of the role that government incompetence played in bringing about those errors. When it comes to buying weapons, this really is the worst form of government except for all the others, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.
But perhaps a more fitting quote for the present tanker process would be George Santayana's observation about how people who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Israel tests Arrow interceptor missile

Israel on Tuesday tested its Arrow ballistic missile interception system, a costly project launched two decades ago aimed at countering strikes mainly from archfoe Iran.
The Arrow (Hetz in Hebrew) intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile similar to Iran's Shahab-3 which can reach Israel. The missile was fired by an Israeli fighter plane over the Mediterranean, a defence official said.
"This morning, the Arrow system performed a successful test," the defence ministry said in a statement.
"The success of the project marks a key step in its development plan and the improvement of the operational systems to offer a response to the growing threat of ballistic missiles in the region."
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who watched the test from a helicopter, said that combined with other rocket and missile interception systems under development, the Arrow project "will offer optimal protection from near and immediate strategic threats," in the ministry statement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the test launch, saying: "We seek peace but we will know how to protect ourselves."
It was the latest successful test of the Arrow, a project launched in 1988 during the now-defunct Star Wars programme under late US president Ronald Reagan.
The Arrow programme was stepped up after Israel was hit by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.
Development of the Arrow is now half-funded by Israel's main ally, the United States. Israel says it has carried out more than a dozen successful tests of the Arrow under various conditions.
Israel considers Iran to be its arch-foe following repeated calls by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.
Widely considered to be the Middle East's sole nuclear armed state, Israel and Washington suspect Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under the guise of its civilian nuclear programme, a charge Tehran has repeatedly denied.
In March, Iran said it had successfully tested an air-to-sea missile with a 110-kilometre (70-mile) range. The announcement came days after a top military commander said Tehran has missiles that can reach nuclear facilities in Israel.
Mohammed Ali Jafari, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Tehran has missiles with a range of more than 2,000 kilometres, bringing all of Israel within range.
But defence analysts question the accuracy of Iran's longer-range missiles.
Jafari's comment came amid sustained speculation that Israel, which has a nuclear facility at Dimona in the Negev desert at which it is widely believed to have developed a nuclear arsenal, could target Iranian nuclear plants.

Czechs don't expect US to scrap missile shield plans

Czech Deputy Premier Alexandr Vondra said Thursday he is not expecting the US to scrap its missile shield plans in Europe, despite President Barack Obama's decision to review the scheme which Moscow opposes.
"I don't expect it will be scrapped," Vondra said in an interview with AFP, adding that "It's up to the Americans to say what their ideas are."
Prague and Washington last year signed two deals for the installment of a missile radar southwest of Prague as part of the controversial US missile shield scheme.
Former president George W. Bush launched the plans to extend the US missile shield into Europe, basing 10 interceptors in Poland linked to a radar in the Czech Republic to counter any threat from "rogue states," primarily Iran.
But Obama's administration has begun a review of the project's costs and technical feasibility, a move which has eased fears in Russia that the shield was aimed at it.
"It's logical that a new administration coming to power wants to make a review of all important things and that's an important thing. I expect the first results of this review to be presented some time later this year," said Vondra.
However while not expecting the project to be scrapped, the Czech deputy prime minister did admit there could be delays and modifications.
"There is the question about the speed, there is the question about some adjustments," he said.
One reason not to rush could be "the question of the maturity of the threats" from Iran, but it does not mean that we're going to scrap."
Officially, Russian diplomats have downplayed US and Israeli fears that Iran is on the verge of building an atomic weapon, while Moscow has resisted calls for tougher sanctions on Tehran for its disputed nuclear programme.
However a Russian strategic arms expert said earlier this month that Iran could produce an atomic weapon in "one or two years".
Obama's administration has already made some rapprochement towards Tehran.
The US held its first direct contact with Iran Tuesday at a conference on Afghanistan where America and its old foe found common cause on rebuilding the war-torn state.
The Czech government, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will host Obama at an EU-US summit in Prague on Sunday.
There it will hope to persuade him of the shield's usefulness despite public opposition to the project.
"There are some threats, so we should work together to see how to guarantee the protection of all allies if the threats persist," Vondra said.
"Iran certainly, if you measure this by its nuclear programme as well as the ballistic missile programme, belongs to the most serious threats."

Israeli Very-Short-Range Anti-Ballistic Missile Interceptor System Fails Part Four

Why has Israel's very-short-range Iron Dome anti-ballistic missile interceptor system failed so badly? And why didn't the Israelis simply buy the already combat-approved, highly reliable U.S.-built Raytheon Vulcan Phalanx machine gun instead?
First, it should be noted that the huge cost overruns and delays on Iron Dome are hardly unique. This kind of thing happens to far larger and more expensive U.S. and Russian programs all the time. The Russians are still struggling to salvage their costly but dangerously unreliable Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, and their aircraft carrier programs have been an exercise in failure and futility for nearly 40 years.
The U.S. armed forces sank hundreds of billions of dollars into the fairy-tale appeal of the Future Combat Systems under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. While some individual parts of the FCS have been made to work effectively, the overall vision of a super-integrated command and control communications system integrating everything in real time looks like an impossible dream that would require infinite resources that simply aren't available.
The cost overruns on the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.'s A400M heavy military air transport will certainly run into the tens of billions of dollars and could go even higher.
So Iron Dome's problems do not reflect some unique ineptitude of the Israeli military's aerospace and high-tech sectors. Such programs are always high-stakes gambles, however rosy the initial projections are.
But Iron Dome's unique problems do shed a revealing light on the nature of the Israeli aerospace industry and its strengths and weaknesses.
The most important point about Israel's very advanced and remarkably successful military aerospace corporations is that the country and its defense industrial sector are both small.
Israel's scientists, engineers and technicians deservedly acquired their world-class reputation not by building massive projects on the scale of the United States, Russia and the EU nations but by working with the major aircraft and defense companies of other nations.
They did so with France for the first 20 years of the Jewish state's existence. And for the past 40 years, they have done so with the United States. Utilizing this cooperation, Israeli companies have dramatically upgraded, and they have advanced the capabilities of the aircraft and combat systems they had acquired.
This cooperation has proven immensely fruitful for the United States as well as for Israel over the past four decades. But it often has caused the Israelis and their supporters to forget that Israel shines when it works fruitfully with its vastly larger ally.
In contrast, the Israelis have a very poor record of producing entirely homemade major combat systems themselves. Their outstanding success in this regard is usually cited as the Merkava -- Hebrew for "chariot" -- Main Battle Tank. But the Merkava has now been in use for more than a quarter of a century.
The Israelis had to give up their ambitious plan to produce their own air superiority fighter jet, the Lavi, more than 20 years ago. This was in large part because of intense opposition from the major U.S. aerospace companies and their allies in the Pentagon. But Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and top Israel Defense Forces generals fiercely opposed the project too because it would have cost so much money that the ammunition, spare-parts and maintenance budgets of the regular Israeli army would have been stripped to the bone to pay for it.
Iron Dome suffered from this problem too. It was quite simply far too ambitious and revolutionary a military technology for a tiny country like Israel with major defense burdens already in place to pay for and develop. The Israelis therefore would have done far better to buy off the shelf the existing weapons systems that could have defended their northern and southern settlements from low-tech, short-range rocket bombardment, and of these, the Raytheon Phalanx was by far the best and most obvious choice.