N.Korea 'prepared to return to nuclear talks': reports

TOKYO, August 21, 2010 (AFP) - North Korea has agreed in principle to the resumption of six-nation talks on dismantling its nuclear programme, Japanese media reported Saturday, quoting a senior Chinese diplomat.

Wu Dawei, China's special envoy on Korean affairs, said Pyongyang was committed to a step-by-step process towards returning to full disarmament talks, the daily Yomiuri Shimbun said.

North Korea was aiming to return to the talks after holding bilateral consultations with the United States and an informal preparatory meeting with dialogue partners, Wu was quoted as saying.

He said a date for official talks had yet to be discussed.

Wu visited North Korea from Monday to Wednesday, meeting Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun and other North Korean officials in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang's official media said on Thursday that the two sides held in-depth discussions on regional and bilateral issues "including the resumption of the six-party talks and the denuclearisation of the whole Korean Peninsula."

But Wu described as "a little bit questionable" a report by the Korean Central News Agency that he and the North Koreans "reached a full consensus of views on all the matters discussed," according to the Yomiuri.

The six-party talks -- which group the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- have been stalled since Pyongyang walked out in April last year and then conducted its second nuclear test a month later.

Wu said he wanted to visit Japan, the United States and South Korea to brief them about his discussions in North Korea, the Yomiuri said.

In a meeting with a group of Japanese lawmakers in Beijing on Friday, Wu confirmed North Korea's willingness to return to the talks, other Japanese media reported.

South Korea has demanded that Pyongyang apologise for the sinking of one of its warships before it would consider resuming the six-nation talks.

Tensions have been running high on the Korean peninsula since the March sinking of the Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives, with Seoul and Washington accusing the North of torpedoing the corvette.

Pyongyang has vehemently denied it was involved and fired off a barrage of threats and warnings to South Korea and the United States, which have been staging a series of military drills in a show of force against the North.

China evacuates 50,000, N.Korea hit hard by border flooding

BEIJING, August 21, 2010 (AFP) - Heavy rain sparked serious flooding along the China-North Korea border Saturday, with more than 50,000 Chinese evacuated and Pyongyang's state media warning of "devastating" consequences in the North.

Downpours swelled the Yalu river which forms the border between the neighbouring countries to untenable levels, sending floodwaters into homes on both sides of the frontier, state media in both nations said.

In the northeast Chinese city of Dandong, three people were missing and more than 50,000 others evacuated, officials told AFP. About 230 homes collapsed and some transport, power and communication links have been cut off.

The transport ministry said in a statement that it had sent civilian helicopters to pluck a group of about 90 stranded residents from their flooded homes.

While an official at Dandong's flood control headquarters insisted that the situation was "not serious" in the city of 2.4 million, the Korean Central News Agency said the city of Sinuiju across the border had been "severely affected".

Floodwaters had inundated all houses, public buildings and farmland in three sectors of Sinuiju -- home to a North Korean military airbase -- and nearby rural communities, KCNA reported, without saying how many people were affected.

Provincial and local officials joined military personnel in rescue efforts, the North's media said.

In China, some roads were submerged along the Yalu and houses in Dandong were flooded with water that was knee-deep after heavy rain which began early Friday, the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing the city government.

Workers were building a sand-bag flood barrier along the part of the river where the barriers had been breached, the agency reported.

Officials cited by Xinhua said only riverside areas, not downtown Dandong, had been affected.

Storms were expected to batter the area throughout Saturday.

Heavy summer rain across large parts of China has triggered the country's worst floods in a decade.

Nearly 3,900 people have been killed or left missing this year in China in flood-related incidents, including about 1,750 victims of devastating mudslides in a remote northwestern town on August 7-8, official figures show.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top Communist party leaders have made personal donations to help survivors of the disaster in Zhouqu, where at least 1,407 people were killed and more than 350 others are missing, Xinhua said.

Earlier this month, authorities suspended shipping and tourist traffic on the Yalu amid fears of flooding, as the waterway had seen more rain in a two-week period than at any comparable time in recorded history.

Thousands were evacuated at the time.

Across the border in North Korea, widespread flooding this summer has caused an unspecified number of fatalities, according to state media reports from Pyongyang.
In 2007, the impoverished nation reported at least 600 people dead or missing from devastating floods.

Elsewhere in China, rescuers were still searching for 69 people who went missing in rain-triggered mudslides in a remote part of the southwestern province of Yunnan. Twenty-three people have been confirmed dead, Xinhua said.

"The rescuers are at risk of sinking into the mud any time," the agency quoted military officer Yang Pingang as saying in Puladi township, where more rain was also expected.

"The task is dangerous," said rescuer Cao Dashuai.

Hundreds of homeless villagers have been moved to two temporary shelters in the township, Xinhua said.

Google photographing French streets again, minus Wi-Fi scans

PARIS, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - Google said Friday it had resumed photographing France with its Street View bikes and cars but without gathering fragments of personal data sent over unsecured Wi-Fi systems for which it is being probed.

The French data protection agency CNIL said in June it was examining private data collected for Street View, including emails and possibly banking details, to decide if the firm should face criminal charges or other sanctions.

CNIL swiftly slammed the resumption as premature, given that the authority had not yet completed its probe.

"While the CNIL's investigations are not yet completed, the resumption of Street View traffic seems premature," it said in a statement.

Street View lets users view panoramic street scenes on Google Maps and take a virtual "walk" through cities such as New York, Paris or Hong Kong.

The service, which began in France in 2008, first came in for criticism for threatening the privacy of people caught -- sometimes in embarrassing situations -- in the photos taken by cars cruising cities in over 30 countries.

But when it emerged that Google's cars and bikes had also been gathering fragments of personal data sent over unsecured Wi-Fi systems, legal action and official probes were quickly announced across the world.

"We recognise that serious mistakes were made in the collection of Wi-Fi payload data, and we have worked to quickly rectify them," Google's vice president of engineering Brian McClendon said in July.

Google has said it is cooperating with authorities in France and elsewhere and would delete data if legally obliged to.

China to relocate hundreds out of mudslide-hit town

BEIJING, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - More than 1,700 people made homeless by devastating mudslides in northwest China are to be relocated to a resettlement area and may have to stay in tents there through the winter, state media said.

The news came as rescuers in other mudslide-hit areas of southwestern China continued to look for dozens of people buried by torrents of mud, following heavy summer rains that triggered the nation's worst floods in a decade.

In the northwest town of Zhouqu in Gansu province, where at least 1,407 people were killed and more than 350 others left missing in the August 7-8 tragedy, hundreds are living in schools that must be vacated for the new term.   Yang Jianguo, head of the civil affairs bureau of Gannan prefecture, where

Zhouqu is located, said those survivors would be moved to a village west of the disaster zone, the official Xinhua news agency said on Thursday.

More than 1,000 tents will be erected in a new settlement zone, with three tents for each family.

"They probably will have to spend the winter there, so winter tents will be used," Yang was quoted as saying.

Dozens of Tibetan monks on Thursday began a seven-day prayer ritual for the dead and the survivors in Zhouqu county, Xinhua reported. One-third of the population of Zhouqu is Tibetan.

In the southwest province of Yunnan, more than 1,100 rescuers were hunting for survivors buried in a sea of sludge that slammed into homes in Puladi township in the early hours of Wednesday when residents were sleeping.

Twelve people have died so far in the mudslides, which left another 80 missing, Xinhua said.

In neighbouring Sichuan province, 16 people have died since last week in mudslides and landslides triggered by heavy rain, and 66 others are missing, according to a separate Xinhua report.

A train travelling in Sichuan's Guanghan city derailed on Thursday after floods destroyed a bridge, plunging at least two carriages into a river, but all passengers were pulled to safety.

More than 2,100 people have been left dead or missing around the country this year in flood-related incidents before the Gansu disaster, according to government figures. Counting the Zhouqu mudslides, that toll rises to nearly 3,900.

The civil affairs ministry said Friday it had not calculated a new nationwide toll.


Record Taiwan income gap blamed on China ties

Record Taiwan income gap blamed on China ties

TAIPEI, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwanese media said on Friday that closer economic ties with China had contributed to a record income gap between rich and poor on the island.

The most prosperous 20 percent on Taiwan reported average disposable incomes of 1.79 million Taiwan dollars (56,000 US) last year, or 6.34 times more than the income of the poorest 20 percent, according to government figures.

This was the highest level since 2001, said the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, which attributed it to a global trend of widening gaps between the rich and poor.

But the Apple Daily said in an editorial that the gap was the result of local businesses relocating production overseas, especially China -- which signed a landmark trade deal with Taiwan in June.

"Economic growth is rising, but ordinary people don't get to feel it," said the paper. "The exporters and their shareholders are laughing all the way to the bank, while the poor are ending up in a hopeless situation."

The paper said products made by Taiwanese companies at plants outside the island, particularly in China, were taking up an ever larger proportion of total trade, rising from 13 percent in 2000 to 50 percent in June this year.

Some economists have previously warned of the impact that closer ties with China will have on income distribution in Taiwan, which was once one of East Asia's most equal societies.

They say that the opening with China makes it possible for Taiwanese businesses to move their production to the mainland, cutting costs and increasing profits.

However, by doing so they also reduce job opportunities in Taiwan, hitting the incomes of the island's blue-collar population, the economists have warned.
China and Taiwan have seen a rapid improvement in ties since 2008, when Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became the island's president.
The culmination of this trend was the signing in June of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, the most far-reaching deal yet between China and Taiwan.

Service: World News (ASI)

  (slug) China

Study says China's Internet access matches developed world

Study says China's Internet access matches developed world

BEIJING, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - Access to the Internet is as widespread in China, home to the world's largest online population, as it is in developed nations, according to a study cited Friday by state media.

About one quarter of China's 420 million web users live in rural areas where Internet access exists in 91.5 percent of communities, the People's Daily said, citing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study.

About half of the Chinese population still live in rural areas, where the standard of living is far below of the country's thriving cities.

Across the nation, 70 percent of high schools, more than 60 percent of vocational schools, about 40 percent of middle schools and 12 percent of primary schools have Internet access, the study revealed.

The government said in a white paper on the Internet issued in June that it hoped to make the Internet available to 45 percent of its 1.3-billion-strong population in the next five years.

Beijing operates a vast system of web censorship, sometimes referred to as the "Great Firewall of China". It blocks access to any content the government deems unacceptable, ranging from pornography to political dissent.

Critics at home and abroad complain that the Internet rules stifle criticism of the ruling Communist Party and restrict discussion on sensitive topics such as Tibet and the brutal crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.

Japan urges China to raise rare earth exports, says official

TOKYO, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - Japan is urging China to expand, not restrict, its exports of rare earth minerals essential for the production of many electronics and hybrid cars, officials said Friday.

China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earths production, has announced it will cut its export ceiling to 8,000 tonnes in the second half of this year, about 70 percent down from the same period last year.

Rare earths are used in making parts for computers, mobile phones and low-carbon emission autos, in which Japan has emerged as a pioneer.

China's export limit for the minerals this year totals about 30,000 tonnes, down from 50,000 tonnes last year, says Japan's trade ministry.

Market prices of rare earths have soared, by more than 20 percent for some types, since China's announcement in July, and Japan Wednesday expressed concern to China about the trend, a trade ministry official said.

"Even though a few other countries such as the United States have rare earth reserves, China became the single largest producer of rare earths by selling at cheaper prices than others," said the official.

"But the prices have shot up since the Chinese announcement."

Yosuke Kondo, a lower house member and ministerial aide at the trade ministry, had visited Beijing and expressed concern over the rising price, the official said.

Japan is expected to make a similar request in a meeting of Japanese and Chinese economy ministers planned for next week in Beijing.

China says two suspects in Xinjiang blast, one dead

BEIJING, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - Authorities in China's restive Xinjiang region believe two suspects, a man and a woman, were behind an explosion that killed seven people and injured 14 others, state media reported Friday.

The pair allegedly tossed explosives from a three-wheeled vehicle into a crowd on Thursday in the suburbs of the city of Aksu, not far from the border with Kyrgyzstan, the Xinhua news agency and Global Times newspaper said.

Five people died at the scene and two others died later in hospital, the report said. The female suspect died in the incident, though it was not immediately clear if she was included in the death toll of seven.

Regional government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin told AFP that the injured male suspect, who was detained at the scene, was a member of Xinjiang's Uighur minority.

She said Friday it was "still not clear" whether more than one suspect was involved.
Hou said investigators had ruled out accident as a cause for the explosion, but reiterated that it was too early to say whether the blast was an "act of terrorism".

The spokeswoman denied reports that martial law had been imposed in Aksu, according to the Global Times.

Aksu is located 650 kilometres (400 miles) southwest of the regional capital Urumqi, which was rocked in July 2009 by violence pitting the mainly Muslim Uighurs against members of China's dominant Han group.

Nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 injured in all, the government says, in the worst ethnic violence in China in decades.

China has blamed the unrest on "separatists" but provided no evidence of any organised campaign. More than 25 people have either been executed or received the death penalty for their involvement in the violence, state media say.

Intel to buy McAfee as it eyes wireless market

NEW YORK, August 20, 2010 (AFP) - Intel is buying Internet security firm McAfee for 7.68 billion dollars, as the computer chip giant seeks to expand its reach to mobile and wireless devices.

Intel, whose processors power nearly 80 percent of computers worldwide, has arranged to pay 48 dollars per share for all of McAfee's common stock, a 60 percent premium on the security vendor's closing value Wednesday.

Panda Security chief executive Juan Santana welcomed the Intel move as good news for the industry and said he suspected that a factor in McAfee's decision to sell was increasingly tough competition in the market.

"As we have been saying all along, security has to be a pillar in next-generation computing," Santana said.

"Time will tell if the acquisition is good news or not for McAfee and Intel's users, partners, employees and shareholders; but I agree that it is clearly elevating the importance of IT security to new heights."

Intel had also been eyeing McAfee technology for keeping data secure in "cloud computing," a growing trend for applications or information storage to be hosted as services on the Internet, according to Santana

Boards of directors for both companies have unanimously approved the take-over, which is still subject to approval from regulatory authorities.

The acquisition of one of the world's largest anti-virus software companies underscores Intel's bid to move into mobile phones, in-car navigation systems, televisions and medical devices as the traditional PC market nears saturation.

"There is an explosion of billions of devices on the Internet that need to be secured... The embedded market is very specific and a high opportunity market for us," Intel's head of software Renee James told journalists.

McAfee chief executive Dave DeWalt emphasized the huge potential for Internet security business as wireless devices become increasingly ubiquitous in day-to-day life.

"Cybercriminals and cyberterrorists are misusing the Internet's open and any-to-any communication architecture for malicious purposes, leaving many users at risk and the future of the Internet as we know it in question," he said in his blog following the acquisition announcement.

"We are joining forces to tackle this next generation cybersecurity issue, which impacts everyone and anything connecting to the Internet," he wrote.

Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario, explained that Intel will now integrate security software directly on its microchips.

"This is the beginning of a security-on-silicon age," he said.

Intel expects to have the first integrated microchips out on the market in the first half of 2011, which should give Intel an unparalleled edge over its competitors, mainly Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

"As you move this capability from software to hardware it becomes significantly more efficient and powerful," Levy told AFP.

"You can only make a processor so fast and so powerful, at some point it has to do more than the competition, so a processor with integrated security, for example, has a much more powerful value."

Experts believe that Intel will introduce its integrated processor in a new smartphone chip platform due for release in 2011 as well as the upcoming Google TV, a service which will enable viewers to browse the web while watching TV.

Intel chief Paul Otellini said McAfee fitted well into his company's "software and services strategy," especially in enhancing "wireless mobility."

McAfee, based in Santa Clara, California and founded in 1987, boasted about two billion dollars in revenue in 2009.

The McAfee deal added to a series of acquisitions by Intel, ranging in scope from gaming to visual computing to embedded device and machine software.

It also came a month after Intel reported its best-ever quarterly results in an ongoing rebound in the semiconductor market.

"Intel's acquisition of McAfee signals to the industry that smartphones and other connected devices are joining the web of devices we trust with critical data and that these devices need to be protected," said Lookout Mobile Security chief executive John Hering.

"We have seen threats rising across the major mobile platforms and expect this trend to increase as mobile devices continue to become the dominant computing platform."

In a further sign of the shifting market trend towards integrated hardware, computer manufacturer bellwether HP announced on Tuesday the acquisition of security software firm Fortify Software.


Taiwan parliament passes bill to admit Chinese students

TAIPEI, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan's parliament on Thursday passed a controversial bill to open local universities to Chinese students, but with a number of restrictions to prevent them taking jobs from locals.

They will be barred from working part-time or full-time while studying in Taiwan, and will not be allowed to sit professional examinations or those for the civil service, said parliamentary speaker Wang Jin-pyng.

"I think the impact of the bill is even larger than ECFA," said lawmaker Wu Yu-sheng of the ruling Kuomintang party, referring to a major trade pact the island recently forged with China.

"We can use Taiwan's democracy and education to affect the mainland's youngsters and deepen exchanges," he said.

Lawmakers also agreed to recognise mainland diplomas, except for medical degrees.

The bill provoked scuffles in parliament earlier this year, with opposing lawmakers fearing that Chinese students could use up resources at the expense of the island's taxpayers.

Critics also warn that an influx of young people from the mainland could pose a threat to national security and worsen unemployment.

Taiwan aims to admit Chinese students for the first time next year, to help ease a shortage of students caused by the island's dwindling birth rate and a trend towards Taiwanese students enrolling at mainland universities.

According to forecasts, more than a third of Taiwan's 164 universities will be shut down by 2021 because they cannot get enough students.

Taiwanese students have been enrolling at mainland universities for years, attracted by relatively low tuition fees. An estimated 7,000 are currently studying in China.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still considers the island part of its territory to be taken back by force if necessary.

Ties have improved since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 on a China-friendly platform.

Taiwan's Foxconn says it will hire 400,000 more in China

TAIPEI, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan IT giant Foxconn plans to hire up to 400,000 new employees in China over the coming year, partly to keep up production despite cutting maximum overtime hours, officials said Thursday.

The company, a major supplier to brands such as Apple, Dell and Nokia, said the expansion plan, coming after a series of suicides this year, will boost its work force to 1.3 million.

"We're not sure if that can be done, but that's the direction we're aiming for," Foxconn spokesman Arthur Huang told AFP.

The planned increase will come about mostly in the central provinces of China as the company seeks to scale back the size of its biggest facility in southern Shenzhen city, he said.

Louis Woo, an assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, confirmed in a statement that the company intended to add 300,000-400,000 new employees over the next year.

"This estimated increment is, in part, a result of reducing maximum overtime hours allowed for employees in line with Chinese government regulations and the company's goal of giving employees increased time outside of the workplace," he said.

"It will be adding new employees to ensure that operations will be maintained at current production levels following the implementation of the reduced overtime programme."

A total of 13 Chinese employees have committed suicide this year at Foxconn plants and an affiliate by jumping from buildings, including 10 in Shenzhen.

Labour rights activists have blamed the suicides at Foxconn -- the world's largest maker of computer components -- on tough working conditions in its factories.

But company founder Gou has said none of the suicides was directly work-related and that he was cleared by Chinese authorities of any wrongdoing in the period leading up to the suicides.

Mekong region rail network to move a step closer - Advancer

HANOI, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - A railway system connecting more than 300 million people who live around one of the world's great rivers, the Mekong, will come a step closer on Friday.

A plan for connecting regional rail lines is expected to be endorsed in Vietnam by ministers from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, said the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

It is "the first step in developing and implementing an integrated railway system in the sub-region," Kunio Senga, director general of ADB's Southeast Asia department, said in a foreword to the 25-page plan.

Except for a line that connects China and Vietnam, the six nations' national railway systems do not link up, and Laos has no rail network at all.

The plan cites four possible ways of connecting the region but it says one is most viable. It would stretch from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and up to Nanning and Kunming, largely using existing lines or those already under construction.

The only missing link on that route is between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, it says, estimating a cost of 1.09 billion dollars for completion. This does not include roughly seven billion dollars in additional funding needed to upgrade the existing lines.

By 2025, an estimated 3.2 million passengers and 23 million tonnes of freight are forecast for the completed route, the document says.

It calls for the region to be connected with at least one link by 2020.

Railway integration is a "huge" task, whose success will lie in the efficiency of rules and procedures governing cross-border trade and transport, the plan says.

The goal coincides with an effort by Mekong nations to develop "economic corridors" around new road links, which would help to reduce poverty and would be complemented by railway connections, the ADB said.

"The GMS (Greater Mekong Sub-region) railway network needs efficient interconnections with other modes, especially road and inland waterways, for maximum connectivity," the rail plan says.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region is an ADB-supported programme that began 18 years ago to promote development through closer economic links. It includes five Southeast Asian countries as well as China's Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Between 1992 and 2006 the area grew at an average 8.3 percent annually, the rail document says.

The favourable growth trends along with increasing trade openness suggest "growing demand for transport of goods and increasing pressure on existing transport systems," it adds.

Infrastructure investment into the area over the past decade has reached about 11 billion dollars, said Arjun Goswami, who heads the ADB's regional cooperation and integration group.

He said the bank, whose mission is to reduce regional poverty, provided about one-third of that figure.

Given the high cost of projects such as the railway, public-private partnerships will be important, Goswami told AFP in an interview.

"We've, I think, helped pioneer that in Cambodia," he said.

Cambodia's rail system is being rehabilitated for 140 million dollars, financed by ADB along with others including the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the rail document says.

Although they are growing fast, the Mekong nations -- except for Thailand -- still have the lowest per capita gross domestic product among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While much has already been done to develop East-West and North-South road links through the Mekong countries, transport routes must be turned into "economic corridors" to promote investment and development in the periphery, not just the major cities, Goswami said.

"And I think the opportunities that that will bring to smaller urban centres... is very important for poverty reduction," he said.

Taiwan leader renews plea for US to sell fighter jets

TAIPEI, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou on Thursday renewed calls to Washington to sell the island an upgraded version of the F16 fighter, following a Pentagon report warning of China's growing military might.

"We hope the US will consider selling Taiwan F16 C/D fighter jets to balance the military edge leaning towards China," Ma was quoted by state-funded Central News Agency as saying.

Ma told visiting US Congressman Roland Burris that Taiwan wished to acquire the jets not to prepare itself to start a war but to defend itself and ensure the island's safety, the report said.

His comments came after the Pentagon said in an annual report to Congress on Monday that China's military build-up against Taiwan has "continued unabated" despite improving political relations.

"The balance of... military forces continues to shift in the mainland's favour," the report said.

The report covered developments in 2009, before the United States approved a 6.4 billion-dollar arms package for the island in January.

Taiwan applied to the US government to buy 66 F-16 fighters in early 2007, but observers say Washington has held up the deal for fear of angering Beijing.

China opposes any arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war and have been governed separately since.

However, ties have improved markedly since Ma took office in 2008 on a Beijing-friendly platform.

Japan, US plan naval drill near disputed islets: report

TOKYO, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - Japan and the United States are planning a joint naval exercise in southwestern Japanese waters later this year near islets disputed with China and Taiwan, a media report said on Thursday

The war games in December, to be joined by the US Navy's Seventh Fleet, are based on a scenario involving Japan recapturing an unnamed remote southwestern island from an enemy, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported without citing sources.

Japan is to send fighters and patrol planes, as well as 250 paratroopers from cargo planes guarded by F-15 fighters in the drill in Oita prefecture, near Okinawan and other southern islands, the report said.

A defence ministry spokesman was not immediately able to confirm the report.

Such an exercise could bring a stern response from China, which has built up its fleet and strongly asserted its maritime territorial claims in recent years.

The United States and Japan, security allies since the end of World War II, usually stage their naval exercises east of Japan in the Pacific.

A US government report warned this week that China's rising defence power is changing East Asia's military balance, a view shared by Japan which has protested over several tense naval incidents with China this year.

In April, Tokyo protested after a Chinese naval helicopter made a close fly-by of one of its destroyers on the high seas off a southern Japanese island chain in Okinawa prefecture, during exercises Japan considered provocative.

A similar incident took place near the Okinawan islands in the same month, when 10 Chinese naval vessels, including two submarines, were seen sailing through international waters between Japan's southernmost islands.

Japan has territorial disputes with both China -- its key Asian economic rival -- and Taiwan over a cluster of small uninhabited islets called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, which lie between Japan and Taiwan.

The defence ministry has said it will review the basing of its ground forces in coming years to strengthen the defence of remote southwestern islands.

Former defence minister Yasukazu Hamada said last year he would study the possibility of stationing troops on Yonaguni island, located in the East China Sea only about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Taiwan.

Facebook adds location-sharing feature

SAN FRANCISCO, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - Facebook on Wednesday threw the switch on a new feature that lets US members of the social networking service share their whereabouts with friends while on the move.

Facebook Places marks the firm's hotly anticipated first step into "location-based" services that have been catching on with people who own smartphones equipped with satellite position tracking capabilities.

"Starting today, you can immediately tell people about that favorite spot with Facebook Places," said Places product manager Michael Eyal Sharon.

"You can share where you are and the friends you're with in real time from your mobile device."

Facebook members can "check-in" at restaurants, bars, or other social venues and let their friends at the social network instantly know where they are and with whom.

A Places application for iPhone handsets was released, and social network members with smartphones with Web browser software that supports geo-location and HTML5 could use Places at the mobile website touch.facebook.com.

"If you are not in the US you can still see if friends are using it here but you will not be able to check-in," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said at a festive Places launch event at the firm's headquarters in Northern California.

Facebook said it plans to eventually extend the feature to all smartphones and to the social networks more than 500 million members worldwide.

As if anticipating backlash that seems to come with each change at Facebook, executives and engineers there stressed that privacy was being respected and that users control how location information is shared.

Privacy advocates have accused Facebook of failing to properly safeguard information members post to profiles, and adding people's location to the treasure trove of personal data is likely to intensify the debate.

With the rollout of Places, Facebook began making tools available to developers interested in crafting applications that take advantage of the new feature.

Users would have to grant an application maker permission before any data regarding their whereabouts was shared, according to Facebook engineer Ben Gertzfield.

Location-based social networking services Gowalla and Foursquare, which have been competing for dominance in the new but rapidly growing arena, were among the developers treated to early looks at Places.

Gowalla and Foursquare members that "check-in" places, letting their chosen circles of friends at the respective services see where they are, have been able to automatically update Facebook profiles with the information.

"This validates that we are onto something," Foursquare vice president of partnerships Holger Luedorf said at the Places launch event.

"We definitely want to help people connect their online and offline worlds."

Startup Yelp that has attracted millions of users that share opinions of hotels, restaurants and other establishments promised a Places application for iPhones and Android-based smartphones will be out on Thursday.

Yelp is working on "augmented reality" that would enable people to peer through camera lenses of smartphones and see graphics indicating where Facebook or Yelp friends are in areas, according to Yelp products director Eric Singley.

"We think this is a really good starting point," Zuckerberg said of the Places launch. "You can imagine a whole world of things that can be built."

He said Places was starting out with a focus on "making it so you can share where you are and who your are with and see who is around you" and that Facebook will build on it from there.

Zuckerberg said it was yet to be determined how revenue would be generated from Places, but location-based services have proven potential when it comes to targeting advertising or promotions that users happen to be near.

Two dead, 90 missing in China mudslides

BEIJING, August 19, 2010 (AFP) - Devastating mudslides in southwest China have claimed their first two victims and left 90 others missing, as experts in other parts of the country warn of more disasters to come, state media said Thursday.

Torrents of mud slammed into homes in the remote Puladi township in Yunnan province in the early hours of Wednesday when residents were sleeping, leaving dozens missing and prompting a large-scale rescue effort.

Photos published in state newspapers showed rescuers laying down planks on a 300-metre (yard) wide sea of mud which had buried at least 21 houses along with their inhabitants.

"The downpour, coupled with howling wind, was terrifying. My daughter, son and I did not dare sleep, but the mudslide took away my son anyway," Yang Guihua, her voice trembling, was quoted as saying by the official China Daily.

Yang's nine-year-old son is still missing, the report said.

More than 1,100 rescuers were searching for the missing, mainly mine employees and local villagers. The mudslides left another 38 people injured, including 10 seriously hurt, the official People's Daily said.

Local weather authorities have predicted more rain in the area over the next few days, further complicating rescue efforts.

The latest mudslides come after at least 1,287 people were killed in mudslides 10 days ago in the northwestern province of Gansu, which virtually split the town of Zhouqu in two, leaving nearly 460 more missing.

The neighbouring province of Sichuan, which is only just recovering from the huge 2008 earthquake that left nearly 87,000 dead or missing, has also been badly hit by torrential summer downpours.

At least 15 people there have been killed in mudslides, and hundreds more have been evacuated.

Qiao Jianping, a researcher with the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, said hazards sparked by the 2008 quake could last more than a decade, according to the China Daily.

The mudslides in Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan are the latest in a string of weather-related disasters across China in a summer of heavy rains that have triggered the country's worst flooding in a decade.

More than 2,100 people have so far been left dead or missing and 12 million evacuated nationwide, not including the toll from the Zhouqu disaster, according to government figures.

Japan says islets disputed with China guarded by US

TOKYO, August 18, 2010 (AFP) - Japan said Wednesday that territory disputed with China in the East China Sea is subject to the Japan-US security treaty, stressing that the allies would "respond together" to any attack there.

"We have not been notified by the United States that it has changed its stance" on the handling of the islands of Senkaku, called Diaoyu in China, said foreign ministry press secretary Kazuo Kodama.

The uninhabited islets lie between Japan and Taiwan, which both claim them, as does China.

"It is natural that Japan and the United States respond together" if the islands are attacked, Kodama told reporters.

The comment came days after a US government report warned that China's rising defence power is changing East Asia's military balance.

Following the report, Japan's defence ministry said Tuesday it would keep a close eye on Beijing's military build-up.

The long-standing territorial spat has cast a shadow over ties between the two Asian powers, despite political and business leaders' efforts to improve relations.

Japan's concern over the territory was heightened when two Chinese ships entered Japanese territorial waters near the islets in December 2008.

It has reported a rise in incidents involving China's military in recent months.

In April, Tokyo protested after a Chinese naval helicopter made a close fly-by of one of its destroyers on the high seas off a southern Japanese island chain in Okinawa prefecture, during exercises Japan considered provocative.

A similar incident took place near the Okinawan islands in the same month, when 10 Chinese naval vessels, including two submarines, were seen sailing through international waters between Japan's southernmost islands.


Pentagon report 'not beneficial' for military ties: China

BEIJING, August 18, 2010 (AFP) - China said Wednesday that a Pentagon report on Beijing's expanding military capabilities was "not beneficial" for military ties between the Asian nation and Washington.

"Issuing this report is not beneficial for the improvement and development of Sino-US military ties," Geng Yansheng, spokesman for the nation's defence ministry, said in a statement faxed to AFP.

China media rap 'aggressive' Pentagon report

BEIJING, August 18, 2010 (AFP) - China's state media on Wednesday criticised a Pentagon report on Beijing's expanding military capabilities as unprofessional and aggressive, saying US demands for transparency were unrealistic.

In the report released Monday, the US Defence Department said China's military build-up in the Taiwan Strait had "continued unabated" despite better ties with the China-friendly government in Taipei, in power since 2008.

The Pentagon said Beijing was ramping up investment in a range of areas including nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, submarines, aircraft carriers and cyber warfare.

China's foreign and defence ministries have so far unusually refrained from reacting to the report, but the state-run media carried a barrage of comments from experts.

"The report is not exactly professional. It uses ambiguous terms without solid proof," Ni Feng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily.

Zheng Yongmian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, told the Global Times that the report had an "overly aggressive tone", though other experts said the the rhetoric had "softened".

Military ties between the United States and China were suspended by Beijing months ago after Washington agreed on a 6.4-billion-dollar arms package with Taiwan that included helicopters, missile defences and mine-sweepers.

China considers Taiwan, where the mainland's defeated nationalists fled in 1949 at the end of a bloody civil war, to be part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Meng Xiangqing, a professor at the National Defence University, told the Global Times: "The interfering nature of the report remains unchanged. It will surely draw discontent from China over its exaggeration of its military power."

On calls for China to improve its military transparency, with the Pentagon saying billions of dollars are spent but not included in the publicly released budget, experts said Beijing could never meet Washington's standards.

"Anyone who understands basic international politics knows there is no absolute transparency, especially between non-allies," Shi Yinhong, a scholar on international relations at Renmin University, told the China Daily.

Aircraft crash in China could be N.Korea chopper: reports

BEIJING, August 18, 2010 (AFP) - Investigators are probing a crash involving a unidentified small aircraft in northeast China, state media said, amid reports from Seoul on Wednesday that it could have been a North Korean helicopter.

China's Xinhua news agency issued a brief dispatch about the incident in Liaoning province, giving only the site of the crash on Tuesday afternoon in Fushun county and saying a probe was under way.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing an intelligence source in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, said the doomed aircraft was a North Korean helicopter, and that the pilot had been killed.

"The pilot died on the spot," Yonhap quoted the intelligence source as saying, adding that the pilot was the only person aboard the craft.

"The authorities are investigating how the helicopter flew over the border and what the cause of the crash was."

North Korea has a military airbase in the city of Sinuiju, near the border with China.

Malaysians use social media to bypass censorship

KUALA LUMPUR, August 18, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia bumps along the bottom of international rankings for press freedom, but the explosion of social media like Twitter and Facebook is revolutionising how journalists work.

Dissenting views, which for decades were screened out of the government-linked mainstream media, are now everywhere, including the blogosphere and mobile SMS messages, making repression extremely difficult.

One veteran reporter with one of the country's leading newspapers said that for most of his career it was virtually impossible to write about the opposition or any issues deemed off-limits by authorities.

"But today, government MPs are forced to engage and debate their counterparts across the aisle in social media like Twitter and Facebook, allowing us to report on the opposition and avoid much censorship," he says.

"Where previously we had to accept at face value a minister's version of events or policies, today their disgruntled aides and opponents are already tweeting or leaking details on Facebook, giving us uncensored access."

"Although the restrictions and controls are still in place, it's become much harder to censor what the opposition or rights groups say in the media," says the journalist who, due to the sensitivity of the issue, declined to be named.

 Malaysia was ranked 131st out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index, because of its tight controls on print and broadcast media.

The watchdog says Malaysia prevents journalists from properly covering sensitive subjects such as corruption or human rights abuses, using a publishing permit system which allows it to shut down media outlets at will.

After decades of such policies, self-censorship became rife and political leaders hardly even needed to make the much-feared phone call to the news room.

But the seeds of change were sown in 1996 when the government pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector.

Despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism, the web and online media remain relatively free.

Today, Facebook fan pages highlighting political rallies and civil society forums, as well as Twitter exchanges with lawmakers, have reshaped the reporting landscape.

"All our reporters have BlackBerrys and use that to follow these tweets. The social media has changed the way journalists work in fundamental ways," says Premesh Chandran, the founder of pioneer online news portal Malaysiakini.

Chandran says the new immediacy hampers government attempts to "spin" or control a story as journalists get real-time reaction from the opposition and experts and use it to seek an immediate response from officials.

With the advent of Twitter, politicians from both sides of the aisle freely disseminate their views, so much so that legislators have been known to take debates out of the chamber and continue them in the Twitterverse.

Social media also have a knack of eliciting more candid commentary than politicians would usually choose to put in a regular press release.

That phenomenon was on display this week when Khairy Jamaluddin, influential leader of the ruling party's youth wing, gave a quick response to a government decision not to drop a ban on students joining political parties.

"Cabinet decision not allowing university students to be involved in political parties is gutless and indicates outdated thinking," he said in a much-discussed tweet.

Opposition politician Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, 28, tweets daily on his constituency work, lists all his public events on Facebook and even carries out interviews and dialogues online.

"Social media definitely gives the opposition and alternative voices a space to express our views without censorship," he says.

"The limitation is that we are restricted to 140 characters on Twitter so we can't really flesh out many of the arguments and positions but it at least allows people and the media to read and understand our perspective."

Malaysians have flocked to the Internet for news and views, a phenomenon credited with the opposition's stunning performance in 2008 polls when the government lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time.

RSF's regional correspondent Patrice Victor says the Malaysian experience could be replicated in other countries as they develop a potent combination of repressive governments and reasonable Internet access.

"We are seeing social media free the way journalists report in this region and the trend in Malaysia can also be seen happening in Singapore, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar)," he says.

"Governments here are slowly realising that it is very hard to censor and restrict information once people have access to the Net and this trend of using social media to break down censorship looks like it is here to stay."

Singapore accidents put focus on foreign worker safety

SINGAPORE, August 18, 2010 (AFP) - Alam Khali can still remember vividly how he feared for his safety whenever he squatted on the back of an open-topped lorry  while being ferried to construction sites in Singapore.

Squashed in with other foreign labourers, the 40-year-old Bangladeshi said he clung on to whatever part of the lorry he could get his hands on as the vehicle made its way around the wealthy city-state.

"Of course scared, but boss says take lorry, we take," Khali, who has been working in Singapore since 2003, shrugged in an interview at a hotel construction site while having a lunch of plain vegetables and white rice.

Thanks to a new boss, Khali now gets a stipend to travel by subway to work, but most of the estimated 245,000 foreign construction workers from poorer Asian countries are not so lucky.

Transported around like cattle even under pouring rain, the workers are a daily reminder to Singaporeans of how tough it is to be at the bottom of the economic ladder, but attitudes are changing.

Lee Kitt Anya, an 11-year-old schoolgirl, won a national book-writing competition last year for a story she wrote about a fictional Indian worker after being shocked by the sight of a group of labourers on a lorry.

"It's quite a horrifying sight because it was raining very heavily and they were so wet," she recalled. "I felt quite appalled."

Lee donated part of the proceeds from her book to a welfare group for migrant workers called HOME.

"I don't mind and I don't really need the money, they need it more," she said.
The death of three Chinese workers in road accidents in June has prompted Singapore to accelerate the implementation of new safety rules, including fitting lorries with canopies and higher side railings.

"Singaporeans are generally used to seeing workers transported in this way, but even so, more and more feel that it is wrong," said John Gee, president of Transient Workers Count 2 (TWC2), a local advocacy group for migrant workers.

"Their sympathy with the workers rises every time there is an accident, or when they find themselves in heavy traffic during a downpour and see workers crouched in the back of a lorry, holding what they can over their heads to offer some protection," he told AFP.

Since the start of the year, all new lorries to be used for ferrying workers have to be fitted with canopies and side railings before they go on the road.

Older vehicles will be fitted with safety and comfort equipment over the next 12 months.

Transport Minister Raymond Lim, who announced the measures in parliament, ruled out immediate moves to make it compulsory for employers to use buses to ferry workers.

"We should allow the measures to improve workers' safety on lorries to take effect and study their effectiveness before concluding that they are insufficient and going for a ban," he said.

Social worker Gee from TWC2 says the new lorry safety measures are a step forward but "they are no substitute for transport in enclosed vehicles such as buses or minivans."

"We'd like the government to indicate that, in the longer run, it would prefer that people are transported in enclosed vehicles and then to make a declaration of intent that it intends to pursue this goal, preferably with a timescale."

Construction is again reaching fever pitch in Singapore as the economy roars back from recession.

Two massive casino complexes have powered the current building boom, and economic growth forecasts of 13 to 15 percent this year are spurring new residential and office property projects requiring even more foreign labour.

An estimated 100,000 new foreign workers will be hired by Singapore this year.

"The government has asserted that migrant workers make a vital contribution to the economy," said Gee.

"But this still leaves the workers evaluated on the basis of their usefulness to Singapore, and too little focus is given to the rights and aspirations of the workers themselves," he added.


Taiwan parliament passes historic China trade pact

TAIPEI, August 17, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan's parliament Tuesday approved a historic but controversial trade deal with China which is expected to bring the two former rivals closer than ever before.

Getting the Taiwanese legislature's approval was seen as crucial in terms of securing legitimacy for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) -- by far the island's most wide-ranging accord yet with China.

"The ECFA is extremely important to Taiwan if it hopes to avoid being marginalised economically amid an increasing number of trade blocs," said Cheng Ching-ling, a legislator with the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) party.

China is Taiwan's largest trading partner, its largest investment destination, and now also home to a growing number of Taiwanese people.

The ECFA was passed with 68 votes for and none against. Members of the anti-China opposition refused to take part in the vote, instead voicing protests, according to an AFP photographer on the scene.

Taiwan's opposition had voiced vehement opposition to ECFA since it was signed in June, but in the end it allowed the deal to pass through the 112-seat parliament after just a day of debate.

"The situation right now is pretty much like a dog barking at a train, and we actually can do nothing about it," said Tsai Huang-lang, a legislator for the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

"Once the agreement becomes effective, which is inevitable now, Taiwan will lose its sovereignty and become like Hong Kong and Macau."

The ECFA has been a major priority for Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, who swept to power in 2008 on a vow to improve the island's economy through better ties with China.

Approval was never in doubt given the KMT's absolute majority in parliament, but the legislative green light was nevertheless seen as important in order to legitimise the pact.

While seeking domestic backing for the ECFA in the months prior to its signing in June, President Ma repeatedly said that he would seek parliamentary approval for the agreement.

The ECFA does not explicitly call on Taiwan and China to get the support of their parliaments, saying simply that they must complete "due process" and then notify each other.

When China and Taiwan signed the agreement in June, they said it would take effect "within six months", but they have released no detailed timetable.

"Ma Ying-jeou is selling out Taiwan" and "ECFA means more unemployment," were among the slogans chanted by the protesters outside parliament, reflecting common worries among supporters of the opposition.

A group of protesters stripped down to their underwear, saying their protest symbolised Taiwan losing everything to China.

The ECFA has been widely characterised as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation between the former rivals, who split after the end of a civil war in 1949.

KMT politicians have hailed the pact, saying it will bolster the island's economy, but the DPP and its allies claim that it will undermine Taiwan's de facto independence.

Although Taiwan and China have been governed separately for more than six decades, Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, by force if necessary.

Tung Chen-yuan, a China expert at Taipei's National Chengchi University, said the pact will benefit Taiwan rather than China, even though it may not help the island in the short term by as much as the government claims.

"It will bolster the confidence of investors -- both from here and abroad -- as they believe lots of business opportunities will emerge from the closer links between the two sides," he said.

Taiwan parliament aims for vote on China trade pact

TAIPEI, August 17, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan legislators were Tuesday set to vote on a controversial trade pact with China as anti-Beijing demonstrators rallied outside parliament, with some expressing their anger by taking off their clothes.

The lawmakers were discussing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) article by article in preparation for a final vote on the crucial document -- by far Taiwan's most wide-ranging accord yet with mainland China.

With an absolute majority in parliament for the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party, there seemed to be little doubt that the ECFA would be passed, and the only question was when.

"Parliament is likely to have a vote on the ECFA today," an assistant to KMT legislator Lu Hsueh-chang told AFP.

He added that KMT legislators had originally been told to prepare themselves for a vote at 0900 GMT, but the schedule had been delayed as the debate was lasting longer than expected.

Negotiators from Taiwan and China met in June to sign the agreement, a major priority for Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, who swept to power in 2008 on a vow to improve the island's economy through better ties with China.

"Ma Ying-jeou is selling out Taiwan" and "ECFA means more unemployment," were among the slogans chanted by the protesters outside parliament, reflecting common worries among supporters of the opposition.

A group of protesters stripped down to their underwear, saying their protest symbolised Taiwan losing everything to China.

The ECFA has been widely seen as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation between the former rivals, who split after the end of a civil war in 1949.

KMT politicians have hailed the pact, saying it will bolster the island's economy, but the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) and its allies claim that it will undermine Taiwan's de facto independence.

Although Taiwan and China have been governed separately for more than six decades, Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, by force if necessary.

The KMT holds 74 seats in Taiwan's 112-seat parliament and the DPP 33. The balance is held by small parties and independents.

Tung Chen-yuan, a China expert at Taipei's National Chengchi University, said the pact will benefit Taiwan rather than China, even though it may not help the island in the short term by as much as the government claims.

"It will bolster the confidence of investors -- both from here and abroad -- as they believe lots of business opportunities will emerge from the closer links between the two sides," he said.

Although the ECFA has been called a landmark agreement, observers have pointed out that it mainly offers a framework that has to be filled out by further, more difficult talks.

After the ECFA becomes effective, the two former rivals will begin negotiations on trade in goods and services, investment protection and trade-dispute settlement.

"Taipei has to open up its market to Beijing in future talks, but how it will open up, and the measures it will prepare to mitigate the impact, will be a test of its abilities to deal with Beijing," said Tung.

Taiwan 'closely monitoring' China's military build-up

Taiwan 'closely monitoring' China's military build-up

TAIPEI, August 17, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan said Tuesday it was "closely monitoring" China's arms build-up following a US government report warning that China's  military advantage over the island was growing.

"China has not given up the use of force against Taiwan, and we are closely monitoring China's military developments. We ask the public to be rest assured," defence ministry spokesman Yu Sy-tue told AFP.

In an annual report to Congress, the Pentagon said Monday that China's military build-up against Taiwan has "continued unabated" despite improving political relations.

"The balance of... military forces continues to shift in the mainland's favor," the report said.

The report covered developments in 2009, before the United States approved a 6.4 billion-dollar arms package for the island in January.

China considers Taiwan, where the mainland's defeated nationalists fled in 1949, to be territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

However, ties have improved markedly since Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 on a Beijing-friendly platform.

Ma has said that the island will not engage in an arms race with China, despite the threat it poses.

China military gaining on Taiwan, aiming beyond: US

WASHINGTON, August 17, 2010 (AFP) - China is extending its military advantage over Taiwan and increasingly looking beyond, building up a force with power to strike in Asia as far afield as the US territory of Guam, the Pentagon said.

In an annual report to Congress, the US Defense Department said Monday that China was ramping up investment in an array of areas including nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, submarines, aircraft carriers and cyber warfare.

"The balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland's favor," the report said.

The Pentagon said China's military build-up on the Taiwan Strait has "continued unabated" despite improving political and commercial relations since the island elected Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008.

The report -- which US officials delayed for five months amid strains with China -- covered 2009, before the United States approved a 6.4 billion-dollar arms package for the island in January.

China considers Taiwan, where the mainland's defeated nationalists fled in 1949, to be a province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

The military report said China was "already looking at contingencies beyond Taiwan," including through a longstanding project to build a far-reaching missile that could potentially strike US carriers deep in the Pacific.

"Current trends in China's military capabilities are a major factor in changing East Asian military balances and could provide China with a force capable of conducting a range of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan," it said.

China's military doctrine has traditionally emphasized the ability to strike within an area extending to Japan's Okinawa island chain and throughout the South China Sea east of Vietnam, the report said.

But Chinese strategists are now looking to expand their reach further to be able to hit targets as far away as Guam, including much of mainland Japan and the Philippines, it said.

China is working on the longer-range precision missile, but probably needs more work on the technical infrastructure to put the weapon into use, an official who helped draft the report said on condition of anonymity.

Japan and Vietnam, which both have historic tensions with China, have reported rising incidents with China's military in recent months.

The report predicted that China may step up patrols in the South China Sea. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month in Vietnam backed open access to the sea, triggering a rebuke by Beijing.

The Pentagon report credited China with becoming slightly more open but reiterated concerns about an overall lack of transparency.

In March this year, China said it was raising its defense budget by 7.5 percent to 532.1 billion yuan -- 77.9 billion dollars at the exchange rate at the time -- breaking a string of double-digit increases.

The Pentagon study was cautious on suggestions that China's military was partaking in national belt-tightening, saying that the spending growth may be lower simply because the forces were at the end of a five-year program.

The Pentagon paper estimated that China's overall military-related spending was more than 150 billion dollars in 2009 when including areas that do not figure in the publicly released budget.

It is still far below the US defense budget, the world's largest, which is more than 700 billion dollars in the fiscal year beginning in October.

President Barack Obama's administration has sought to broaden cooperation with China, which in the last quarter surpassed Japan to be the world's second largest economy after the United States.

But the administration approved the package to Taiwan that included helicopters, missile defenses and mine-sweepers, leading China to break off military exchanges with the United States.

The Pentagon said it wanted dialogue with China to avoid any "miscalculation" between the two militaries.

"We stand prepared to work with the Chinese if they are prepared to work with us," the anonymous official said. "But it only does us so much good to show up to a meeting if we're the only ones that are there."

The Taiwan arms sale did not include F-16 fighter-jets, which the island and many US analysts say are crucial to narrowing the strategic gap with Beijing.

US trust of media dwindling

WASHINGTON, August 13, 2010 (AFP) - No more than one-quarter of Americans trusts the news media, but the greatest confidence in the struggling newspaper industry ironically comes from young people, a poll said Friday.

The Gallup poll found that 25 percent of Americans felt a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers and 22 percent in television news, in line with a steady slide over the past two decades.

The media were among the national institutions in which Americans placed the least confidence, although Congress, big business and health care coverage providers fared worse.

However, 49 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they placed confidence in newspapers, the same demographic often blamed for the precipitous decline in US dailies' subscription rates.

Confidence falls sharply once Americans get older, with only 19 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds trusting newspapers before the figure rises among middle-aged and elderly people.

Explaining the results, Gallup said young people tended to place more trust in institutions in general and noted that online media, despite growing popularity, often linked back to traditional media.

"But so long as roughly three in four Americans remain distrustful, it will be difficult to attract the large and loyal audiences necessary to boost revenues," it said.

Liberals were the most trustful of newspapers, at 35 percent, compared with 18 percent of conservatives. The gap was narrower in views on television media, with moderates the most confident.

Gallup said it surveyed 1,020 adults in the continental United States and gave a margin of error of four percentage points.

Spanish judge probes complaint over Google's Street View

MADRID, August 16, 2010 (AFP) - A judge in Spain is to investigate a complaint that Google captured data from Internet users when it collected photos for its Street View service, the association that filed the suit said Monday.

Judge Raquel Fernandino summoned a legal representative of Google in Spain to appear before her in October over the suit, said an association promoting the rights of Internet users, APEDANICA.

The complaint alleged Google collected data from users connected to Wi-Fi networks which it subsequently stored.

Google's Street View provides pictures of real-world moments at spots around the world. But it has sparked concerns over the possible of erosion of privacy.

Google revealed earlier this year that electronics in its picture-taking vehicles captured data from wireless Internet systems not secured by passwords.

The company has apologised repeatedly for what it called an accidental data grab, but authorities in more than a dozen countries are investigating whether the company broke privacy laws.

Fernandino has asked Spanish police to provide her with information on "the tools used for the capturing of data" as well as the destination of such data and the number of users affected.

The head of Google Spain, Marisa Toro, told the Spanish daily El Mundo that the company cooperates "in all countries with institutions and judicial authorities to answer any questions they have.

"Our ultimate goal is to remove the data in accordance with our legal obligations and in consultation with the relevant authorities," she said.


Malaysia's Anwar loses bid to strike out sodomy charges - Lead

KUALA LUMPUR, August 16, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Monday lost a bid to have sodomy charges against him struck out over claims of an affair between his young accuser and a female prosecutor.

High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah refused the request, saying there was no proof of the defence argument that 25-year-old Saiful Bukhari Azlan could have been passed confidential trial information by the junior prosecutor.

Anwar's counsel had argued that the relationship undermined the entire case against the 62-year-old former deputy premier, who was sacked and jailed on separate sex and corruption counts a decade ago.

The judge said the allegations that Saiful and the lawyer Farah Azlina Latif were romantically involved were presumably true as the prosecution had not denied them.

But he accepted the prosecution argument that she was a junior member of the team, a "note-taker" who had no access to sensitive information that could undermine the trial process.

"She has no control over the directions of the prosecution and in the handling of the witnesses," Mohamad Zabidin said.

"(Therefore it) did not affect the prosecution to the extent that it compromised the integrity and the conduct of the trial."

Anwar, who spent six years in jail on the original convictions which were widely seen as politically motivated, emerged to reinvent himself as leader of the opposition and score unprecedented gains in 2008 elections.

He has condemned the latest allegations as a conspiracy designed to end his career, and said the relationship between his accuser and the prosecutor is more proof that the trial is biased.

The claims of an affair first surfaced in a political blog last month, and shortly afterwards Farah Azlina was removed from the case.

No evidence has been offered, but neither the attorney-general nor the pair involved have denied the allegations.

Saiful has accused Anwar -- a father of six -- of sodomising him at an upmarket Kuala Lumpur condominium in 2008. If convicted, Anwar could face up to 20 years in prison.

Sodomy, even among consenting adults, is illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

China province cuts power to 500 plants

BEIJING, August 16, 2010 (AFP) - Authorities in eastern China have cut off electricity to more than 500 factories for a month after they failed to meet emission reduction targets, state media reported Monday.

The news came after China warned more than 2,000 companies in high-polluting and energy-intensive industries to shut down outdated equipment or risk having bank loans frozen, approvals for new projects dry up, and their power turned off.

The order from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was the latest salvo by Beijing as it tries to slash its world-leading greenhouse gas emissions and restructure the economy.

The 506 factories in eight cities targeted by officials in Anhui province are mostly in industries that consume high amounts of energy such as the coal, chemical and metallurgical sectors, the China Daily newspaper reported.

"Some of their high energy consumption is due to the factories' antiquated production facilities," Zhao De, an energy official with the province's Department of Economic and Information Technology, was quoted as saying.

He told the newspaper it was the first time the province had cut the power to such a large number of factories, although previously officials had put limits on power consumption during peak summer months.

Sun Yangzhi, an official at Zhongcheng Cement Factory which employs 700 people in the city of Huaibei, told the newspaper his plant received a notice that power to the plant would be cut for a month two days before the blackout.

"We are quite worried because several tons of coating material will be wasted if we do not put them into production as soon as possible," Sun was quoted as saying.
"We are also anxious because we will not be able to complete several orders."

The suspensions are intended to help the province meet its energy consumption targets by year's end, the report said.

The factory blackouts will also reduce electricity demand as the province copes with two weeks of temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) which have sent consumption soaring, the report said.

Neighbouring provinces have also introduced measures to cope with surging power demand.

Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, has restricted consumption to 1,000 companies since Thursday to ensure that residents have enough power and has also asked energy-intensive companies to halt production, the report said.

In Zhejiang, 69 companies in Jinhua city had their electricity rationed between July and September, while in Shaoxing city, which consumes a quarter of the province's power, 200 firms face limits until year's end, it said.

Book critical of China's premier to go on sale

HONG KONG, August 16, 2010 (AFP) - A controversial book that criticises China's Premier Wen Jiabao is set to hit Hong Kong bookstores Monday, after mainland Chinese police warned its dissident author he could be thrown in jail.

Yu Jie, the 36-year-old author of "Wen Jiabao: China's Best Actor", was interrogated in Beijing by state security agents in July and warned that publishing the book could see him sent to prison.

Bao Pu, head of Hong Kong publisher New Century Press, said he was going ahead with the book's release on Monday.

"The printing factory will deliver the book by late afternoon," he said. "There has been no pressure or interference whatsoever (in publishing the book)."

However, Bao wrote in his foreword for the book that the author was warned after authorities knew about their plan to have it published in Hong Kong.

"The police's logic is that the leader is not an ordinary person."

"Criticising the leader is a very serious criminal case. It would be very likely for (Yu) to be punished severely like the way Liu Xiaobo was," Bao wrote, referring to the dissident who was jailed for 11 years for promoting a manifesto calling for China to become a democracy.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 but retains a semi-autonomous status with civil liberties not enjoyed by people in mainland China.
Yu's books have been banned on the mainland since 2004 but are widely available in Hong Kong.

The book on Wen is likely to cause shockwaves, as China's premier enjoys a generally good reputation both at home and abroad, where he is sometimes described as progressive.

But Yu told AFP in an interview in July that the 67-year-old premier had actually worked to further restrict civil liberties and increase the powers of China's feared secret police.

The premier is sometimes referred to as "Grandpa Wen" because of his down-to-earth interactions with the public but Yu's book is scathing of the way Wen dealt with opposition voices and criticism.

"Accepting criticisms and scolding from the public is the very first basic skill a ruler needs to have. Without such mental quality, one should not take part in this game," according to excerpts of the book seen by AFP.

Without a popular mandate, the Chinese government has to "force its people to recognise it by force and lies," he wrote.

"In China, it is not a case of the rulers being locked into a cage by its people. It's the people being locked into the cage by their rulers."

In June, Bao said he decided not to publish another controversial book -- "The Tiananmen Diary of Li Peng" -- initially citing copyright concerns.

The book suggested that the former Chinese premier, known as the "Butcher of Beijing", followed orders to clear Tiananmen Square in the bloody 1989 democracy rally that saw hundreds if not thousands of protesters die.

Bao said his decision not to publish the diary was sparked by moral rather than legal concerns, and cited interference from unidentified people.

Japan world's second-largest economy in first half: govt

TOKYO, August 16, 2010 (AFP) - Japan held onto its position as the world's second biggest economy ahead of surging China in the first half of 2010, a government official said Monday, after data showed growth sharply slowed in April-June.

On a nominal basis, Japan's gross domestic product was at 2.578 trillion dollars compared to China's 2.532 trillion dollars in the first half, the cabinet office said in a preliminary estimate.

However, the data pointed towards the looming prospect of China overtaking Japan as the world's second-largest economy, underlining its growing global clout after becoming the world's biggest exporter, auto market and steelmaker.

Japan's second quarter GDP was smaller than China's at 1.288 trillion dollars compared with 1.336 trillion dollars, according to the government.

Deflation and weak domestic demand have long burdened Japan, as consumers tend to put off purchases in the hope of further price falls, while global economic weakness has also hit the exports that have driven Japan's recovery.

"In the future, we expect the Japanese economy to fall into lull, as exports continue to weaken," said Hiroshi Watanabe, senior economist at Daiwa Research Institute.
"The economy is likely to slow through the early part of 2011."

In June, Japan's unemployment rate edged higher to 5.3 percent, while production of automobiles and electronic gadgets underwent a surprise slip, amid signs that an export-driven recovery may be stalling.

Shipments of cars, gadgets and components have been crucial in offsetting weaker demand at home, but concern is mounting that Japan may be hit by Beijing's efforts to cool China's economy, together with fragile eurozone and US demand.


Poverty in Taiwan at record high: report

TAIPEI, August 15, 2010 (AFP) - The number of Taiwanese households living in poverty rose to a record high of 108,000 in the three months to June despite the continued growth of the economy, it was reported Sunday.

The quarterly figure marked an increase of 10,000 households over a year ago, the Commercial Times said, citing figures compiled by the Ministry of the Interior to be released this week.

In Taipei, a single adult earning under 14,614 Taiwan dollars (457 US) a month is considered to be in poverty, the newspaper said, while the benchmark is slightly lower for the rest of the island.

The ministry blamed an income gap which has been widening despite Taiwan  enjoying a steady recovery from the global economic downturn.

"Relatively speaking, the rich families have benefited from the economic recovery," an unnamed ministry official was quoted as saying.

 The island's economy jumped 13.27 percent year-on-year during the first quarter of this year, growing at its fastest pace in more than 30 years, thanks to strong demand for exports in markets such as China.

The fast growth cements the island's recovery from its worst economic crisis since World War II and was helped by a rebound in world trade after the global downturn.

The figure, which compares with a contraction of more than nine percent in the same period last year, is the highest for Taiwan since the fourth quarter of 1978, the government said.

Philanthropy thriving in newly rich Singapore

SINGAPORE, August 15, 2010 (AFP) - If you want to smell like roses and help the world's less privileged people, part with some of that extra money and give it to Lee Poh Wah.

"Philanthropic money is like manure. It smells if you have too much of it in the bank," said the 40-year-old chief executive officer of the Lien Foundation, one of Singapore's most high-profile philanthropic organisations.

"Its intended use is to fertilise and support ideas that can improve society, so we should spread it wisely," the earnest, bespectacled promoter of "radical philanthropy" told AFP in an interview.

As Singapore celebrates 45 years of independence this month, it takes pride in its transformation into one of Asia's richest societies, and the idea of sharing wealth is gaining broader support.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group in June said Singapore had the highest concentration of US dollar millionaire households in the world, with 11.4 percent of families owning investable assets in seven figures or higher.

Donations to charitable organisations grew from 381 million dollars (279 million US) in 2001 to 687 million dollars (504 million US) last year,   according to the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC).

This includes foundations established by wealthy families including the Liens, whose patriarch Lien Ying Chow founded the Overseas Union Bank.

Other wealthy Singaporean families who made their fortunes from banking and trading have also set up foundations involved in a wide range of activities.

Even middle-class Singaporeans are getting their hands dirty by doing volunteer work, said Kevin Lee, NVPC director of sector development.

"Singapore's volunteerism rate has been rising over the past decade. It has risen from 9.3 percent in 2000 to 16.9 percent in 2008. This 16.9 percent, or 590,000 people, gave 45 million hours of their time," he noted.

The NVPC's Lee singled out the younger generation for praise.

On weekends, schoolchildren spread out across Singapore to solicit donations for various charities from shoppers and commuters who find it hard to say "no" to the young fund-raisers.

"Youth volunteering in particular has improved the most over the years. At 23 percent, which excludes compulsory community service required by schools, it is significantly above the national volunteerism rate of 16.9 percent."

Singaporean students are required to take part in mandatory community work to help make them socially responsible.

The Community Chest, a fund-raising organisation that provides social services to the needy, has also seen a rise in donations.

"In 1999, Community Chest funded 123 programmes run by 55 charities. In 2009, 157 programmes run by 70 charities were supported," said Ang Bee Lian, chief executive officer of the NCSS.

Singaporean volunteers are also venturing overseas, giving free services to villagers in less developed Asian countries.

The Lien Foundation has issued funding for groundbreaking projects, from installing floating toilets for Cambodian villagers living on the Tonle Sap Lake to funding a "Quality of Death" index to raise awareness of the welfare of the terminally ill worldwide.

Extending a helping hand to the region's less fortunate also makes great financial sense, said the foundation's chief executive.

"Fundamentally it's because you get twice the bang for half the buck if you do overseas projects. Money can go so much further if you go to a developing country," Lee said.

"The impact is more transformational compared to the work done in Singapore itself."
But Lee said Singapore, with a population of five million, can do more wealth-sharing on a per capita basis, citing the United States as a benchmark.

"Singapore has the highest proportion of millionaire families in the world ... but if I compare the two countries, Singapore and America, and I normalize the population, the Americans give five times more than Singaporeans," he said.

Olympics: Youth Olympics officially opened

SINGAPORE, August 14, 2010 (AFP) - The inaugural Youth Olympic Games officially opened on Saturday in a spectacular blaze of colour, with Jacques Rogge hailing it as a new chapter in the Olympic movement.

With the Singapore skyline as an impressive backdrop, some 7,000 singers and dancers performed in an opening ceremony on a floating platform at Marina Bay.

"Tonight we open a new chapter in the history of the Olympic movement," International Olympic Committee president Rogge told the 27,000-capacity crowd and a worldwide television audience in declaring the Games open.

"From this moment on, young people around the world have a chance to participate in a global forum that combines sport, education and culture."

The Games, which feature athletes aged 14 to 18, are a project Rogge has championed since becoming IOC chief in 2001, with the event designed as a stepping stone for youngsters striving to compete at an Olympics proper.

Some 3,600 athletes from 205 countries will take part in the 26 events that make up the traditional Olympics, with a simultaneous cultural and education programme running to teach them about Olympic values and global issues.

Some of the sports have been adapted, with new formats like street basketball and triathlon with mixed gender teams.

There will even be competitions with mixed teams from different nationalities.

Addressing the athletes, Rogge said the Games would help them "learn the difference between winning and being a champion".

"To win, you merely have to cross the finish line," he said.

"To be a champion, you have to inspire admiration for your character, as well as for your physical talent."

As well as Rogge, the ceremony was attended by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Youth Olympic Games ambassador Yelena Isinbaeva, the Olympic pole-vault champion and world record-holder.

Other Games ambassadors, swimming sensation Michael Phelps and sprint king Usain Bolt, sent messages of support.

The Games run from August 14 to 26.