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Obama, traveling in Asia, confronts a region warily watching Ukraine crisis

Credit:
         Yves Herman - Pool/Getty Images

President Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Nuclear Security Summit in March. The leaders will meet during Obama’s Asia trip this week; he will make stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.  Credit: Yves Herman – Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama travels through Asia this coming week, he will confront a region that’s warily watching the crisis in Ukraine through the prism of its own territorial tensions with China.

Each of the four countries on Obama’s itinerary – Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines – has disputes with China over islands and waters in the South and East China Seas. Their leaders will be weighing Obama’s willingness to support them if those conflicts boil over.

“What we can say after seeing what happened to Ukraine is that using force to change the status quo is not acceptable,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country is in one of the fiercest disputes with China.

Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have taken a tougher line on the territorial issues in recent weeks, sternly warning China against the use of military force and noting that the U.S. has treaty obligations to defend Japan in particular. But in an attempt to maintain good relations with China, the U.S. has not formally taken sides on the question of which countries should control which islands.

Analysts say there are concerns that China could be emboldened by the relative ease with which Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine over U.S. objections, as well as the very real possibility that Moscow could take more land. Moreover, some in Asia question Obama’s ability to follow through on his security pledges in light of his decision last summer to pull back on plans for a military strike against Syria.

“The heavyweights in the region got very scared by the Syrian decision,” said Douglas Paal, a longtime U.S. diplomat in Asia who now is vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’ve never seen anything like that. They’ve always counted on strong executives bringing the Congress along or going around the Congress to make sure that our security guarantees will be honored.”

Obama’s advisers say they see little evidence thus far that China has been encouraged by Russia’s incursions into Ukraine. Instead, they say Beijing appears to be viewing with concern the Kremlin’s attempts to sway pro-Russian populations in areas of Ukraine, given China’s own restive minority populations in border regions.

U.S. officials also have tried to keep China from supporting Russia’s moves in Ukraine by appealing to Beijing’s well-known and vehement opposition to outside intervention in other nations’ domestic affairs. Officials say they plan to emphasize that stance when they discuss Asia’s territorial disputes with regional leaders this week.

“We have been talking with them about the importance of a strong international front to uphold principles that they and we all hold dear, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, the need for peaceful resolution of disputes,” said Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser. “And we will continue to have that discussion throughout each of the stops on our trip.”

Obama’s eight-day Asia swing is a makeup for a visit he canceled last fall because of the U.S. government shutdown. Leaving Washington on Tuesday, he will stop briefly in Oso, Wash., where mudslides killed dozens of people. He will arrive Wednesday in Japan.

Obama’s advisers say there are no plans to scrap the trip if the situation in Ukraine worsens. But the president may have to make decisions while traveling about imposing more penalties against Russia if a deal to ease the crisis collapses.

The U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union signed an agreement Thursday. But already, the prospects of it holding appear slim, with pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine refusing to leave the government buildings they occupy in nearly a dozen cities.

Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday said it would offer strong help to Ukraine, but that responsibility for reducing tensions rested with Ukrainians, not outsiders.

Compared with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, China has been relatively restrained in its territorial ambitions. But tensions spiked last fall when Beijing declared an air defense zone over a large part of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands controlled by Japan and a maritime rock claimed by both China and South Korea. China’s coast guard also has blocked Filipino ships in the South China Sea in recent weeks.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea. Nansha is the Chinese name for the Spratlys, a chain of resource-rich islands, islets and reefs claimed partly or wholly by China, the Philippines, Malaysia and other southeast Asian nations.

Former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez said he expects Beijing to avoid Russian-style moves on any of the disputed territories, in large part because China is surrounded by American allies from the East China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and may have to deal with the U.S. military in the region if it undertakes a major act of aggression.

“It would be a folly on the part of China to do anything drastic, to do a Crimea,” Golez said.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines and Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Follow Julie Pace on Twitter.

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Ferry captain arrested in South Korea

Chung
         Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Divers from the South Korean Navy continued to search on Saturday for the nearly 270 missing passengers from a ferry that sunk off the country’s southeastern coast this week. Photo Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The 68-year-old captain of the ferry that sank off the southern coast of South Korea was arrested on Saturday for suspicion of negligence and abandonment.

266 people are missing since the ship sank on Wednesday. As the confirmed death toll rose to 36, divers have not been able to get inside the ship where they expect to find additional bodies. Hundreds of divers took part in the search on Saturday.

Captain Lee Joon-seok has been accused of abandoning the passengers, with local news reports indicating he was one of the first people to evacuate the sinking ship leaving a majority of its passengers inside.

“I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims,” Lee told reporters when he left court on Saturday.

He is also accused of waiting 30 minutes after the ship began to sink before issuing evacuation orders. The captain defended this move, citing rough waters and cold temperatures, as well as the fact that rescue ships had not arrived.

“I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Lee said.

According to the Associated Press, some of the survivors said they never heard an evacuation order.

The two other crew members arrested were a helmsman and a third mate. According to senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin, the 25-year-old rookie third mate was steering the ship through unfamiliar and challenging waters when the incident occurred.

There were 476 people on board the Sewol when it sank. A majority of the passengers were students from a high school outside of Seoul who were on vacation.

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Socialism after Chavez: Political divisions deepen amid unrest in Venezuela

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JUDY WOODRUFF: In March of last year, the 14-year rule over Venezuela by the controversial and charismatic Hugo Chavez came to a dramatic end when the leader died of cancer.

His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, was elected president soon after. As Maduro marks the end of his first year in office tomorrow, divisions have deepened in a country that has become violent in recent months.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: Late last week, after more than three months of sometimes deadly street protests throughout Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro met with his political opposition.

The six-hour televised session brokered by the Vatican and three South American foreign ministers attracted record ratings on Venezuelan TV, reflecting the nation’s anxiety at the street violence that has killed more than 40 and posed the biggest challenge to the government in more than a decade.

The alternative to finding an accommodation, said Maduro, is a dark one.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela (through interpreter): Imagine, it would be the beginning of an armed, violent civil confrontation, bloody, bloody, and no one would win anything.

MARGARET WARNER: What began in January as demonstrations against rising crime mushroomed in February into massive marches, with hundreds of thousands protesting the scarcity of goods, insecurity and the arrest of demonstrators.

Today, there remain smaller, but fervent localized protests in neighborhoods fortified with barricades. The target of all this? President Maduro. Maduro has struggled to maintain Chavez’s aura, but he is being swamped by an economic slide that has brought this oil-rich country 57 percent inflation and near empty store shelves, and a further explosion in Venezuela’s rampant crime, creating what the U.N. says is now the second highest murder rate in the world.

This has made life unbearable for 19-year-old student Christian Alejandro Martinez. He never protested before, but after having his house robbed, his car keys and car stolen, he’s taken to the streets. He and his fellow students feel their future is slipping away.

CHRISTIAN ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ: We can’t see it on the horizon. We are studying, but we don’t really know if we’re going to ever achieve our careers. We don’t know if we’re going to go out some day at night and get shot at. So, how can you live in this situation?

MARGARET WARNER: And Martinez has no faith in Maduro, as he did in Chavez.

CHRISTIAN ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ: I do believe that Hugo Chavez had a plan, a plan that had ideals, and a way of thinking that it would be better for the community.

MARGARET WARNER: Chavez called his plan Bolivarian socialism. The goals were social justice, empowering the poor with expanded government services and redistributing Venezuela’s vast oil riches to finance it.

MICHAEL SHIFTER, President, Inter-American Dialogue: This is what Chavez represented. This is what I think he put his finger on a legitimate grievance in Venezuela.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: I think, for Maduro and his followers, this is a revolution that he’s committed to continue. The problem is, this is a model that has obviously failed and obviously is unable to deliver basic goods to people, a reasonable economic environment with security protections.

MARGARET WARNER: Why isn’t it delivering anymore? Two reasons, says former Venezuelan Development Minister Moises Naim, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

MOISES NAIM, Author, “The End of Power”: The problem is that the 21st century socialism requires two things that are no longer there. One is a lot of money brought in by very high prices and Chavez’s charisma.

MARGARET WARNER: And Maduro doesn’t have that?

MOISES NAIM: Chavez was a political genius. Chavez was perhaps one of the best politicians we have seen in Latin America in a long time.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: The problem with Chavismo is that it was based on the model of one person makes all the decisions. It’s what happened for 14 years. Nobody else was involved politically. And you see the problem with Maduro.

MARGARET WARNER: And Chavez depended on Venezuela’s huge oil reserves, the world’s largest, to fund his social programs. But Naim says mismanagement of that state-owned sector has cost the country’s oil income to slip.

MOISES NAIM: In Venezuela, production has gone down. Lack of investment in the oil industry — again, the Chavez model is not a model of investment. It’s not a model of boosting productivity. It’s a model of spending.

MARGARET WARNER: To test the public’s view of all this, a NewsHour crew went to San Cristobal far from the capital, near the Colombian border, to meet up with architecture student Geraldine Colmenares. She’s finding life untenable right now.

GERALDINE COLMENARES, (through interpreter): I cannot go out on the streets and get what I want to feed my child, always having to stand in line, looking from supermarket to supermarket and thinking if I’m going to get back home alive.

MARGARET WARNER: She doesn’t stay long at her neighborhood’s barricades. She’s afraid to take her young son, but she helps by supplying protesters with food and water. She too has no confidence in Maduro.

GERALDINE COLMENARES (through interpreter): Maduro wants to do the same as Chavez, but he can’t. He wants to be like Chavez, but he is not like Chavez.

MARGARET WARNER: There are still plenty of fervent Chavistas who are sticking with Maduro, like Marlin Marchand, who lives with her mother in Caracas, and depends on Chavez era government programs, like the subsidized food stores.

MARLIN MARCHAND, Maduro Supporter (through interpreter): This merkal is a basic grocery, but with very low prices. A pack of flour cost two bolivars. On the open market, it’s 35 or 50. Why? Because capitalism is structured in a way that we, the poor, can’t buy what we need.

MARGARET WARNER: She says her faith in Chavez and Maduro endures.

MARLIN MARCHAND (through interpreter): Chavez was a leader. He built schools for people who did not know how to read, and now many more people know how to read. This is socialism, and Chavez transmitted this to President Maduro. Maduro’s made mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, but he’s trying to lead things in a positive direction.

EDGAR RODRIGUEZ, (through interpreter): Chavez was always seeking their votes. He always spent money before elections. That is why he won.

MARGARET WARNER: Fifty-year-old Caracas-based engineer Edgar Rodriguez, long opposed to Chavez, concedes he did improve the quality of life for many of Venezuela’s poor, but he says signs of an economic implosion are everywhere now.

What’s more, he says, Maduro doesn’t have the political skills to handle the country’s changed circumstances, demonizing his opponents or those who suggest he should change course.

EDGAR RODRIGUEZ (through interpreter): There is a future if the president recognizes the other point of view, but he speaks only for himself and his people. We are talking for the other half of Venezuela, and the president is ignoring us.

MARGARET WARNER: The NewsHour contacted the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington for an interview to explore the government’s perspective. We got no response.

But, earlier this month, Maduro in an op-ed in The New York Times took no responsibility for the country’s difficulties, and instead cast blame on a familiar Chavez boogeyman.

“The anti-government protests are being carried out by people in the wealthier segments of society,” he wrote, “who seek to reverse the gains of the democratic process that have benefited the vast majority of the people. Now is a time for dialogue. We have extended a hand to the opposition.”

Maduro didn’t mention that his government has jailed a top member of that opposition, former Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, on charges of fomenting unrest.

What’s more, says Naim, statistics do not back up Maduro’s claim that this is an uprising of only the wealthy.

MOISES NAIM: Venezuela never had so many wealthy people. Venezuela didn’t have such a large middle class. And even the election results show that about half the country is against the government. That means there are millions of very poor people that they claim to represent, that the government claims to represent that are taking to the street.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Shifter thinks there’s a bit more merit to Maduro’s charge.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: I think they are expression of the profound discontent that’s widespread in Venezuela, but it — but I think it’s a mistake to interpret the protests as reflecting necessarily the majority opinion of Venezuelans.

MARGARET WARNER: There appear to be low expectations for the talks between the government and opposition. Maduro didn’t even attend the meeting that resumed this week. But if they don’t produce any sort of reconciliation, what’s the alternative? A second year for Maduro and post-Chavez Venezuela that is worse than the first.

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How will U.S. deliver consequences if Eastern Ukraine conflict doesn’t improve?

Tensions Continue In Eastern Ukraine Despite Diplomatic Progress

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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Ukraine, I spoke to President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, a short time ago.

Ben Rhodes, welcome.

As we just heard in that report, a number of the people who are occupying these buildings in Eastern Ukraine say they’re not going to leave, they’re not going to give them up. Does that undercut the deal that was reached yesterday in Geneva?

BEN RHODES, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting: Well, Judy, what we believe is that the Russian government has a tremendous amount of influence with at least a portion of these protesters.

And what we would like to see them do is use all their influence, their public statements, their private comments, to encourage these protesters to leave these buildings, to disarm. The Ukrainian government is keeping its end of the bargain. They took steps toward passing an amnesty law, so they would be immune from prosecution if they do lay down their arms.

And we will be watching this over the next several days to see if the Russians are using their influence and if these protesters are pulling back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, even if some of the protesters listen to Moscow, there are still others who say they’re Ukrainian and they don’t respect the government in Kiev and they’re not budging, no matter what Moscow tells them.

BEN RHODES: Well, what we see is actually the vast majority of the Ukrainian people, including a majority of the people in the East, do support the unity of Ukraine and the government in Kiev.

And there’s a way to address the concerns of some of those minority populations, including ethnic Russians, which is through a constitutional reform process. And the Ukrainian government committed to decentralization, rights for minorities being protected.

They have indicated their commitment to protecting the right of the Russian language as one of the languages of Ukraine. So there’s a pathway for these protesters to have their grievances met through politics and not through the type of armed actions that we have seen in these buildings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of the other arguments they’re making, Ben Rhodes, is that they’re simply doing what the protesters in Kiev have done, which is take to the streets, hold their ground until they see the government doing what they want. I mean, why isn’t that a valid argument?

BEN RHODES: Well, there’s a huge difference here, Judy, which is, the fact is, in the protest in Kiev, you had tens, in some cases hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in these protests to have their voices heard.

We have not seen that by any measure in the East. What we have seen is very small protests in the hundreds and very organized armed groups in a coordinated fashion taking over these buildings. So this has not been a groundswell of popular opinion manifested by thousands and tens of thousands of people taking to the streets. This has been small numbers of armed men taking control of government buildings in a coordinated fashion, we believe clearly with some support from Moscow.

And it feels much more like a play to destabilize the country, rather than a kind of popular movement that has emerged organically as, was the case in Kiev.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, even having said that, these protesters, again, pointing to Kiev, is the U.S. saying to the Kiev government, we want these protesters in Kiev who are occupying the Maidan also to stand down?

BEN RHODES: Yes, absolutely.

So, when we say in the agreement in Geneva that the Ukrainian government signed up to, all paramilitary groups should lay down their arms, give up those arms, not occupy buildings, that applies to protesters in the West, as well as the East.

And we have encouraged and the government of Ukraine has taken steps to disarm some of those extreme nationalists who are engaged in activities like taking over government buildings in the West as well. This is something that applies not just in the East, applies across the country. And, again, the government in Kiev has made those commitments.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk went out to the East to try to have a dialogue with some of these protesters. We believe it’s important they keep trying to have that dialogue inside of Ukraine, as well as with the international community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if Ukrainians, if the East — if the protesters in Eastern Ukraine don’t do what the U.S. is asking, if Russia doesn’t do what the U.S. is asking, the president and others have said there will be more consequences.

But what we have seen so far is that the sanctions haven’t really had much of an effect on Mr. Putin. What makes the administration, what makes the president think more sanctions will have an effect?

BEN RHODES: Well, first of all, we have put in place a series of sanctions. We also have an executive order that gives us broader authorities to target individuals and entities that they control that are important to the Russian economy and then also potentially sectors of the Russian economy.

We have seen President Putin pause with those forces on the border where he’s massed significant military forces. And then we have seen this destabilization taking place in Eastern Ukraine. So, we haven’t yet seen the worst-case scenario, which is Russian forces coming across that border, which would trigger those vast sectorial sanctions that we would move to with the Europeans.

So, that deterrent effect is in place. But we have also been very clear that if we continue the see these destabilizing activities that we believe are rooted in Moscow’s policy, we will move to additional sanctions. And, again, if we start to go after additional individuals who are important in the Russian economy, important to the Russian leadership, as well as the companies and banks that they are responsible for, we believe we can have a significant impact on the Russians.

In fact, we have already seen their forecasts for the economy downgraded. We have seen capital flight out of the country. So it is having an effect. It’s just, how much does it have to sink in for the Russians to change their calculus and pursue this through politics, instead of force?

And that’s what we have an opportunity to do through Geneva, but, again, if we don’t see them following through, we will move to those additional sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser to the president, thank you very much.

BEN RHODES: Thanks. Good to be with you.

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