US and China hold first informal nuclear talks in 5 years, eyeing Taiwan

HONG KONG — The United States and China resumed semi-official nuclear arms talks in March for the first time in five years, with Beijing’s representatives telling U.S. counterparts that they would not resort to atomic threats over Taiwan, according to two American delegates who attended.

The Chinese representatives offered reassurances after their U.S. interlocutors raised concerns that China might use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons if it faced defeat in a conflict over Taiwan. Beijing views the democratically governed island as its territory, a claim rejected by the government in Taipei.

“They told the U.S. side that they were absolutely convinced that they are able to prevail in a conventional fight over Taiwan without using nuclear weapons,” said scholar David Santoro, the U.S. organizer of the Track Two talks, the details of which are being reported by Reuters for the first time.

Participants in Track Two talks are generally former officials and academics who can speak with authority on their government’s position, even if they are not directly involved with setting it. Government-to-government negotiations are known as Track One.  

Washington was represented by about half a dozen delegates, including former officials and scholars at the two-day discussions, which took place in a Shanghai hotel conference room.  

Beijing sent a delegation of scholars and analysts, which included several former People’s Liberation Army officers.

A State Department spokesperson said in response to Reuters’ questions that Track Two talks could be “beneficial.” The department did not participate in the March meeting though it was aware of it, the spokesperson said.  

Such discussions cannot replace formal negotiations “that require participants to speak authoritatively on issues that are often highly compartmentalized within (Chinese) government circles,” the spokesperson said.

Members of the Chinese delegation and Beijing’s defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment.  

The informal discussions between the nuclear-armed powers took place with the U.S. and China at odds over major economic and geopolitical issues, with leaders in Washington and Beijing accusing each other of dealing in bad faith.  

The two countries briefly resumed Track One talks over nuclear arms in November but those negotiations have since stalled, with a top U.S. official publicly expressing frustration at China’s responsiveness.

The Pentagon, which estimates that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal increased by more than 20% between 2021 and 2023, said in October that China “would also consider nuclear use to restore deterrence if a conventional military defeat in Taiwan” threatened CCP rule.

China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control and has over the past four years stepped up military activity around the island.  

The Track Two talks are part of a two-decade nuclear weapons and posture dialog that stalled after the Trump administration pulled funding in 2019.  

After the COVID-19 pandemic, semi-official discussions resumed on broader security and energy issues, but only the Shanghai meeting dealt in detail with nuclear weapons and posture.

Santoro, who runs the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum think-tank, described “frustrations” on both sides during the latest discussions but said the two delegations saw reason to continue talking. More discussions were being planned in 2025, he said.  

Nuclear policy analyst William Alberque of the Henry Stimson Centre think-tank, who was not involved in the March discussions, said the Track Two negotiations were useful at a time of glacial U.S.-Chinese relations.

“It’s important to continue talking with China with absolutely no expectations,” he said, when nuclear arms are at issue.

No first-use?

The U.S. Department of Defense estimated last year that Beijing has 500 operational nuclear warheads and will probably field more than 1,000 by 2030.  

That compares to 1,770 and 1,710 operational warheads deployed by the U.S. and Russia respectively. The Pentagon said that by 2030, much of Beijing’s weapons will likely be held at higher readiness levels.

Since 2020, China has also modernized its arsenal, starting production of its next-generation ballistic missile submarine, testing hypersonic glide vehicle warheads and conducting regular nuclear-armed sea patrols.

Weapons on land, in the air and at sea give China the “nuclear triad” – a hallmark of a major nuclear power.

A key point the U.S. side wanted to discuss, according to Santoro, was whether China still stood by its no-first-use and minimal deterrence policies, which date from the creation of its first nuclear bomb in the early 1960s.

Minimal deterrence refers to having just enough atomic weapons to dissuade adversaries.

China is also one of two nuclear powers – the other being India – to have pledged not to initiate a nuclear exchange. Chinese military analysts have speculated that the no-first-use policy is conditional – and that nuclear arms could be used against Taiwan’s allies – but it remains Beijing’s stated stance.  

Santoro said the Chinese delegates told U.S. representatives that Beijing maintained these policies and that “‘we are not interested in reaching nuclear parity with you, let alone superiority.'”  

“‘Nothing has changed, business as usual, you guys are exaggerating’,” Santoro said in summarizing Beijing’s position.

His description of the discussions was corroborated by fellow U.S. delegate Lyle Morris, a security scholar at the Asia Society Policy Institute.  

A report on the discussions is being prepared for the U.S. government but would not be made public, Santoro said.

‘Risk and Opacity’

Top U.S. arms control official Bonnie Jenkins told Congress in May that China had not responded to nuclear-weapons risk reduction proposals that Washington raised during last year’s formal talks.  

China has yet to agree to further government-to-government meetings.

Bejing’s “refusal to substantively engage” in discussions over its nuclear build-up raises questions around its “already ambiguous stated “no-first-use” policy and its nuclear doctrine more broadly,” the State Department spokesperson told Reuters.  

China’s Track Two delegation did not discuss specifics about Beijing’s modernization effort, Santoro and Morris said.

Alberque of the Henry Stimson Centre said that China relied heavily on “risk and opacity” to mitigate U.S. nuclear superiority and there was “no imperative” for Beijing to have constructive discussions.

China’s expanded arsenal – which includes anti-ship cruise missiles, bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarines – exceeded the needs of a state with a minimal deterrence and no-first-use policy, Alberque said.  

Chinese talking points revolved around the “survivability” of Beijing’s nuclear weapons if it suffered a first strike, said Morris.

The U.S. delegates said the Chinese described their efforts as a deterrence-based modernization program to cope with developments such as improved U.S. missile defenses, better surveillance capabilities, and strengthened alliances.

The U.S., Britain and Australia last year signed a deal to share nuclear submarine technology and develop a new class of boats, while Washington is now working with Seoul to coordinate responses to a potential atomic attack.

Washington’s policy on nuclear weapons includes the possibility of using them if deterrence fails, though the Pentagon says it would only consider that in extreme circumstances. It did not provide specifics.  

One Chinese delegate “pointed to studies that said Chinese nuclear weapons were still vulnerable to U.S. strikes – their second-strike capability was not enough,” said Morris.

 

Africa defense chiefs to gather in Botswana for US military conference

Gaborone, Botswana — Defense chiefs from 30 African countries will gather in Botswana next week for a two-day military conference to discuss the continent’s security and stability challenges. The meeting, organized by the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, will be the first to be held in Africa since the inaugural conference in 2017 

“The aim [is] to tackle the pressing security challenges on the African continent and to find ways to work together for a safer, more secure Africa,” said Lt. Commander Bobby Dixon, a spokesman at AFRICOM.  “From counterterrorism efforts to cyber threats and peacekeeping missions, this conference will cover it all. Experts and military leaders will share insights, strategies, and forge partnerships that will strengthen the collective defense capabilities for all of Africa. This is more than just a conference — it’s a significant step towards a unified approach in safeguarding the African continent.”

AFRICOM says the meeting will build on the success of previous conferences. Last year’s meeting held in Rome, Italy, attracted the highest turnout, with 43 countries in attendance.

“It is evident that Africa faces a series of challenges,” said Jakkie Cilliers, a political scientist at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “It is not always clear that the model that the U.S. presents is appropriate for Africa. In recent years, we have seen a variety of coups in Africa, sometimes executed by African forces that have been trained in the U.S., the U.K. and France. And it is also evident that a number of U.N. peacekeeping missions, such as that in the DR Congo and Mali, are withdrawing from Africa.

“On the other hand, the role of Russia and the so-called Africa Group [pls check the audio; it is usually called the Africa Corps] is expanding. So, it’s clear that Africa is facing a security challenge, and partners can and should do as much as possible to help.”

Cilliers added that there is a need for the Gaborone conference to come up with effective solutions to the continent’s security challenges. 

“Are we seeing a new model developing where African governments are considering alternative security arrangements, mostly by other African countries?” he said. “And of course, the role of private companies is also increasing. These events occur at a time of significant shifts in the global balance of power, and Africa again is an area of competition. One hopes all these issues will be discussed at the upcoming conference in Gaborone, and that real solutions will come to the fore.”

In March, following its Peace and Security Council meeting, the African Union expressed “deep concern” over the scourge of conflicts on the continent and their impact on socioeconomic development.

US bans Russia’s Kaspersky antivirus software

Washington — U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday banned Russia-based cybersecurity firm Kaspersky from providing its popular antivirus products in the United States over national security concerns, the U.S. Commerce Department said.

“Kaspersky will generally no longer be able to, among other activities, sell its software within the United States or provide updates to software already in use,” the agency said in a statement.

The announcement came after a lengthy investigation found Kaspersky’s “continued operations in the United States presented a national security risk due to the Russian Government’s offensive cyber capabilities and capacity to influence or direct Kaspersky’s operations,” it said.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said, “Russia has shown time and again they have the capability and intent to exploit Russian companies, like Kaspersky Lab, to collect and weaponize sensitive U.S. information.”

Kaspersky, in a statement to AFP, said the Commerce Department “made its decision based on the present geopolitical climate and theoretical concerns,” and vowed to “pursue all legally available options to preserve its current operations and relationships.”

“Kaspersky does not engage in activities which threaten U.S. national security and, in fact, has made significant contributions with its reporting and protection from a variety of threat actors that targeted U.S. interests and allies,” the company said.

The move is the first such action taken since an executive order issued under Donald Trump’s presidency gave the Commerce Department the power to investigate whether certain companies pose a national security risk.

Raimondo said the Commerce Department’s actions demonstrated to America’s adversaries that it would not hesitate to act when “their technology poses a risk to the United States and its citizens.”

While Kaspersky is headquartered in Moscow, it has offices in 31 countries around the world, servicing more than 400 million users and 270,000 corporate clients in more than 200 countries, the Commerce Department said.

As well as banning the sale of Kaspersky’s antivirus software, the Commerce Department also added three entities linked to the firm to a list of companies deemed to be a national security concern, “for their cooperation with Russian military and intelligence authorities in support of the Russian government’s cyber intelligence objectives.”

The Commerce Department said it “strongly encouraged” users to switch to new vendors, although its decision does not ban them from using the software should they choose to do so.

Kaspersky is allowed to continue certain operations in the United States, including providing antivirus updates, until September 29, “in order to minimize disruption to US consumers and businesses and to give them time to find suitable alternatives,” it added.  

Lack of legal framework complicates policing political deepfakes

Voters in this U.S. presidential election are vulnerable to bad actors using artificial intelligence to create disinformation that benefits rival politicians or promotes the interests of foreign governments. VOA’s Ivanna Pidborska looks at the use of AI in Election 2024 in this report narrated by Carolyn Presutti. Camera and edit: Kostiantyn Golubchik, Dmytro Melnyk

South Africa beats US in Super Eight playoffs at the T20 World Cup

NORTH SOUND, Antigua — South Africa had to work hard to earn an 18-run win over the fast-improving United States in the opening game of the Super Eight at the Twenty20 World Cup on Wednesday.

Co-host the West Indies also lost it first match in the Super Eight stage Wednesday, beaten by eight wickets by defending champion England. Jack Salt scored 87 runs to lead England.

Andries Gous made an unbeaten 80 off 47 balls for the U.S. — against the country of his birth — to move atop the batting charts at the World Cup before South Africa restricted the Americans at 176-6.

Fast bowler Kagiso Rabada claimed 3-18 and spinner Keshav Maharaj got the prized wicket of U.S. captain Aaron Jones for a duck — no runs — to finish with 1-24.

Quinton de Kock had earlier made a rampant 74 off 40 balls and Heinrich Klaasen provided the perfect finish with 36 not out in the South African total of 194-4 after Jones won the toss and elected to field.

“Pretty happy with the performance as a whole,” South Africa captain Aiden Markram said. “A couple of overs here and there we need to tidy up … but the wicket definitely changes and gets a bit slower.”

De Kock and Markram (46 off 32 balls) dominated both spinners and the pacers as they raised a solid 110-run stand after Saurabh Netravalkar (2-21) had provided the early breakthrough by getting the wicket of Reeza Hendricks in his second over.

“We’ve had some tricky wickets so it was nice to spend some time in the middle today,” de Kock said. “The USA put us under pressure towards the end. It was a great game.”

Netravalkar, who bowled a sensational Super Over in the United States’ historic win over heavyweights Pakistan in the group stage, struck immediately in his return spell when Markram was brilliantly caught by diving Ali Khan at deep backward point off a full-pitched ball.

But Klaasen used all his T20 experience in the last five overs and struck three sixes while Tristan Stubbs also hit two fours in his 16-ball unbeaten 20 which lifted the South Africa total.

“Hard to take a defeat after coming so close,” Jones said. “We did lack discipline in the bowling at times, (but) once we play good cricket we can beat any team in the world. We need to be a lot more disciplined.”

England beats the West Indies

At Gros Islet, St Lucia, Salt carried his bat for 87 and Jonny Bairstow made an unbeaten 48 as defending champion England beat the West Indies by eight wickets in a match between two-time World Cup champions.

It was the West Indies’ first loss of the tournament and their first defeat in eight Twenty20 internationals.

The West Indies made 180-4 batting first on the same pitch on which they made 218-5 against Afghanistan in the final match of the group stage on Monday.

The fireworks came at the end and from England as Salt made his 87 runs from 47 balls with seven fours and five sixes and Bairstow added his 48 from 26 deliveries. England reached 181-2 with 15 balls to spare.

Salt provided a solid foundation for the England run chase, initially in a 67-run opening partnership with Jos Buttler.

Salt scored 30 runs — three sixes and three fours — from the 16th over bowled by Romario Shepherd.

“I’m not looking too far ahead at the minute, just glad that I could contribute to a good team win,” Salt said. “It was a little bit tougher in the middle overs with the spin.”

The pitch may have been a little slower than on Monday but England captain Buttler also used his bowlers well and the West Indies innings included 50 dot balls.

A capacity crowd in the first night match of the Super Eight stage was out to party but the match really didn’t come alive until the end.

The West Indies started well but were disrupted in the six-over power play by the loss of Brandon King who retired hurt after 4.3 overs with a side or groin strain. King had just hit the first six of the match, a 103-meter (338-foot) blow that flew over the grandstand and out of the stadium.

He made 23 from 13 balls and was setting the early pace of the innings when he was forced to retire with the West Indies at 40-0. There was no immediate word on the seriousness of King’s injury.

“Credit has to be given to the England bowling unit. You can see they had clear plans and executed them well,” West Indies captain Rovman Powell said.

Families of Boeing MAX crash victims seek nearly $25 billion fine, prosecution

Washington — Families of Boeing 737 MAX crash victims on Wednesday asked U.S. authorities to impose a fine of up to $24.8 billion on the aviation giant and proceed with criminal prosecution.

The move comes a day after Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun acknowledged the gravity of the company’s safety problems and assured a U.S. congressional panel that it was making progress on the issue.

Sitting behind him in the audience were relatives of victims of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes in 2018 and 2019, who held up victims’ photos.

“Because Boeing’s crime is the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history, a maximum fine of more than $24 billion is legally justified and clearly appropriate,” Paul Cassell, a lawyer for the families, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The 32-page document explains the calculations behind the amount sought, saying Boeing “should be fined the maximum — $24,780,000,000 — with perhaps $14,000,000,000 to $22,000,0000,000 of the fine suspended on the condition that Boeing devote those suspended funds to an independent corporate monitor and related improvements in compliance and safety programs as identified below.”

It added: “And Boeing’s Board of Directors should be ordered to meet with the families.”

The families also believe the government should promptly “launch criminal prosecutions of the responsible corporate officials at Boeing at the time of the two crashes.”

The case relates to crashes in 2018 and 2019 in Indonesia and Ethiopia that together claimed 346 lives and comes as Boeing faces intensifying scrutiny following recent manufacturing and safety problems.

The aviation giant has again been in the public spotlight since a January 5 incident in which a 737 MAX operated by Alaska Airlines was forced to make an emergency landing after a fuselage panel blew out midflight.

Louisiana requires public school classrooms to display Ten Commandments

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana has become the first U.S. state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom, the latest move from a Republican-dominated legislature pushing a conservative agenda under a new governor. 

The legislation that Republican Governor Jeff Landry signed into law on Wednesday requires a poster-sized display of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font” in all public classrooms, from kindergarten to state-funded universities. 

Opponents questioned the law’s constitutionality and vowed to challenge it in court. Proponents said the measure is not solely religious, but that it has historical significance. In the language of the law, the Ten Commandments are “foundational documents of our state and national government.” 

The posters, which will be paired with a four-paragraph “context statement” describing how the Ten Commandments “were a prominent part of American public education for almost three centuries,” must be in place in classrooms by the start of 2025. 

Under the law, state funds will not be used to implement the mandate. The posters would be paid for through donations. 

The law also “authorizes” but does not require the display of other items in K-12 public schools, including: The Mayflower Compact, which was signed by religious pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and is often referred to as America’s “First Constitution”; the Declaration of Independence; and the Northwest Ordinance, which established a government in the Northwest Territory — in the present day Midwest — and created a pathway for admitting new states to the Union. 

Opponents vow to challenge law

Not long after the governor signed the bill into law at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette on Wednesday, civil rights groups and organizations that want to keep religion out of government promised to file a lawsuit challenging it. 

The law prevents students from getting an equal education and will keep children who have different beliefs from feeling safe at school, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon. 

“Even among those who may believe in some version of the Ten Commandments, the particular text that they adhere to can differ by religious denomination or tradition. The government should not be taking sides in this theological debate,” the groups said. 

The controversial law, in a state ensconced in the Bible Belt, comes during a new era of conservative leadership in Louisiana under Landry, who replaced two-term Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards in January. Republicans hold a supermajority in the legislature, and Republicans hold every statewide elected position, paving the way for lawmakers to push through a conservative agenda. 

Similar bills requiring the Ten Commandments be displayed in classrooms have been proposed in other states, including Texas, Oklahoma and Utah. However, with threats of legal battles over the constitutionality of such measures, no state besides Louisiana has succeeded in making the bills law. 

Similar law ruled unconstitutional

Legal battles over the display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms are not new. 

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar Kentucky law was unconstitutional and violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  

The high court found that the law had no secular purpose but rather served a plainly religious purpose. 

Tropical Storm Alberto forms over Gulf of Mexico, bringing floods

MEXICO CITY — Tropical Storm Alberto, the first named storm of 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, has formed over the western Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC), said on Wednesday, bringing  flooding across the southern coast of the United States. 

The storm was located about 300 kilometers (186.4 miles) east of Tampico, Mexico, packing maximum sustained winds of 65 kilometers per hour (40.3 miles per hour), the forecaster said. Alberto is likely to dissipate over Mexico as early as Thursday night. 

The NHC said the storm was very large and that rainfall, coastal flooding and strong winds could occur far from the center along north-eastern Mexico and the south Texas coast.  

Heavy rains also will affect large regions of Central America, the NHC warned, a region that is still facing strong rains that left some 11 people dead in El Salvador over the weekend because of landslides and road accidents. 

“Life-threatening flooding and mudslides are likely in and near higher terrain across the Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas,” the NHC said, including the eastern city of Ciudad Victoria and Monterrey, Mexico’s third-biggest city in Nuevo Leon state. 

Nuevo Leon State Governor Samuel Garcia said on the social media platform X that people should avoid leaving the house or crossing waterways while it is raining and to keep emergency kits on hand. Workers were ready to address the possible impact of strong winds and rain on the electrical grid, water supplies, and sewage, he said. 

Across the Gulf on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, local media reported strong winds and torrential rains. Some authorities, however, said the storm could help fill the country’s dams, depleted by an extended drought. 

The NHC predicted “moderate coastal flooding” along much of the Texan coast through Thursday as southern areas experience tropical storm conditions.  

Forecasters have warned that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season will likely be highly active because of impacts from the La Nina weather pattern and warmer ocean water.