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US mulls further sanctions on Russia; all of which however look counter-productive

Ambassador Huntsman says US preparing report on sanctions; no decision taken or expected soon on further sanctions

Alexander Mercouris

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Jon Huntsman, the new ambassador to Russia who President Donald Trump has appointed, has downplayed the prospect of further sweeping sanctions against Russian companies and businesspeople being announced by the US on 29th January 2018.

Ambassador Huntsman instead says that only a report will be published on that day

The date when additional U.S. sanctions may be imposed on Russian individuals and companies has not been set, while January 29 is the date of publishing the ‘Kremlin report’, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman told reporters on Tuesday.

The media has reported the possibility of new sanctions but all that has been happening so far is the implementation of the law, there is nothing new, Huntsman said.

The law Ambassador Huntsman is referring to is the new sanctions law voted by Congress in August and signed under protest by President Trump that month.

There has been much secrecy about this report, which the law specifies must be published by 29th January 2018.  Latest reports say that a list is being drawn up of 300 businesspeople and companies who are to be placed on a new sanctions list.

As I have discussed previously, additional sanctions against individual Russian businesspeople and companies might cause serious problems for the businesspeople and companies concerned but they will have little or no impact on the Russian economy overall.  On the contrary if they lead to more Russian businesspeople and companies keeping their money in Russia they will serve the Kremlin’s interests.

However there have been rumours that the US is considering more sweeping sanctions targeting not just individual businesspeople and companies but the entire Russian economy.  Three sorts of such sanctions have been mentioned

(1) Cutting off Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank payment system;

(2) Freezing Russian gold and foreign currency reserves held in the US; and

(3) Prohibiting US investors from buying Russian sovereign debt.

What are the prospects of any of these sanctions being imposed?

The first thing to say is that all three of these sanctions would be exceptionally aggressive steps, which would send shockwaves across the international financial system.  Countries like China which also have issues with the US – and which the US is now also threatening with sanctions in connection with the North Korean crisis – would almost certainly interpret such moves as a long term threat to themselves.

Implementing actions of this sort would over time only hasten moves by countries like China and Russia to set up alternative international financial institutions of their own.  That would undermine the US led ‘globalisation’ of the international financial system.  Since the US is the principal beneficiary of this system implementing these sort of sanctions would hardly be in the US’s own long term interests, which is of course precisely why such sanctions were not imposed on Russia at the peak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014.

Assuming however that in the current hysterical atmosphere there really are proposals to impose these sanctions on Russia, what would their consequences be?

(1) Disconnecting Russian banks from SWIFT

The first point to make about this proposal is that the US does not have the power to impose it unilaterally.  SWIFT is based in Brussels, not the US, and is regulated by EU law, not US law.  The US government is not in a position simply to order that Russian banks be disconnected from SWIFT.

As it happens it is known that the Obama administration and the British government did actively lobby for Russian banks to be disconnected from SWIFT back in 2014.  However they ran into a wall of opposition both from SWIFT itself and from European governments, with the German and Austrian governments especially strongly opposed.

There is no indication that such a proposal is being seriously debated at this time in European capitals, which makes it unlikely that it is being considered.

However assuming that it is being considered, what would its effect be?

US and British politicians who have lobbied for Russian banks to be disconnected from SWIFT seem to think this is some of ‘magic bullet’ or ‘nuclear option’ which would tip the whole Russian economy into crisis, but is this really so?

There is a huge amount of mystification about SWIFT.  However ultimately it is nothing more than an electronic transfer system which banks use in order to transfer money between each other.

Banks could transfer money between each other before SWIFT appeared.  I can remember a time not so long ago when most money transfers between banks did not use SWIFT.

The fact that SWIFT is an electronic transfer system means that it can be duplicated, and that is exactly what the Russians have reportedly done.

Back in 2014 the disconnection of Russian banks from SWIFT would indeed have been a heavy blow because Russian banks used SWIFT to transfer money between each other within Russia itself.

However the reports that the US and Britain were lobbying for Russian banks to be disconnected from SWIFT caused the Russian Central Bank to create its alternative to SWIFT as a back up system.

Not only does this system apparently already exist, but it has apparently been field tested, though for the moment it is not in actual operation because of the continued availability of SWIFT.

Most probably most Russian banks and bank branches are not yet connected to this alternative system.  However if Russian banks really were disconnected from SWIFT the alternative system would not only be rapidly brought into operation but priority would be given to extending it across the whole Russian banking system.

Doubtless there would be a period of disruption, but a country like Russia has the technological and administrative resources to solve that sort of problem, and I suspect doing so would take no more than a few months.

Russian banks would of course still be prevented from making electronic transfers via SWIFT to Western banks.  However the impact of this can be exaggerated.

Since 2014 the big state owned Russian banks which account for 70% of the Russian banking system and an even higher proportion of the foreign operations undertaken by Russian banks have been effectively cut off from borrowing in Western financial markets.  Their foreign based customers would no doubt suffer if they were disconnected from SWIFT, but it is unlikely the big state owned banks would themselves be seriously affected.

Which brings me back to the main objection to cutting off Russian banks from SWIFT.  Many of the bank customers who would be most seriously affected are Western companies and businesspeople with investments in Russia.

With trade between Russia and Western European actually increasing over the last few months, many European businesspeople and companies would be very seriously affected.

Not only would that hurt them badly but some of these are influential people and companies who would be likely to complain.  That of course is why the decision was taken back in 2014 not to disconnect Russian banks from SWIFT in the first place.

Overall disconnecting Russian banks from SWIFT looks neither like a magic bullet nor like something that European business would willingly accept.  Frankly the political and financial costs of doing it look greater than any conceivable benefit.

(2) Freezing Russian gold and foreign currency reserves

Since this would be tantamount to seizing the sovereign property of the Russian state it would unquestionably be illegal and would as Russian officials have said be equivalent to an act of war.  However the US has shown an increasing willingness to take illegal actions and it is unlikely that the fact that this step is illegal would be enough to deter it.

If the US did take this step what would its economic impact be?

Russia does keep some of its foreign currency reserves in the US with the IMF, but it is not clear how great the amount is and claims that it is as much as a third of the reserves is probably a wild overstatement.

There is no doubt that such a step would have a serious impact, causing the value of the rouble to fall, at least for a short time.

However Russia runs a trade surplus and has paid off most of its foreign debt and the Central Bank since 2014 has been letting the rouble float.

The economy would swiftly adjust as it did to the crisis of 2014, with the Russian trade surplus growing still further as Russia’s trade position benefitted from the rouble’s fall and from the surge in oil prices which would be likely follow such a measure.

Doubtless inflation in Russia would be higher, though it would be unlikely to go as high as it did during the inflation spike of 2015.  However the political impact of the increase in inflation within Russia would be mitigated with the Russian government in a position to blame the US for causing it.  Besides as happened following the inflation spike of 2015, once the economy adjusted inflation would fall back again.

If freezing the Russian state’s foreign currency reserves in the US would only have a short term impact on the Russian economy, it would nonetheless constitute a colossal shock across the world financial system.

It would show that the US is prepared to abuse its position at the core of the world financial system and as the host of institutions such as the IMF to target not just the financial reserves of the smaller economies such as Libya, Venezuela or Iran but also the reserves of big G20 economies such as Russia.

The Chinese especially – who have been on the receiving end of similar threats against their reserves for some time – would be horrified.

It would be difficult to imagine any step the US might take that would be more likely to galvanise countries like China and Russia to set up their own alternatives to the current US dominated world financial system and to its various institutions which have historically been under the control of the US.  Such moves are already underway and following the freezing (ie. seizure) of whatever proportion of Russia’s reserves are on US territory that process would be bound to accelerate.

It is impossible to see how that would benefit the US.

(3) Prohibiting US investors from buying Russian sovereign debt

In my opinion this is by far the most likely of any further sectoral sanctions the US might introduce.  It is the one further sectoral sanction the Democratic Senators who published the recent report about Russia which I discussed in a recent article have actually recommended

The U.S. Treasury Department is required to report in early 2018 on the possible effects on Russia’s economy of sanctions on sovereign debt, which could have the potential to foreclose external sources of funds. While the head of Russia’s central bank believes that ‘‘there won’t be any seriously negative consequences’’ from such sanctions, economists have warned that such sanctions ‘‘may totally stop other foreign investors, not the U.S. investors only, from buying the new government debt, fiercely pushing up borrowing costs for Russia.”

This sanction would also almost certainly be illegal but as I have said in my previous discussion of the proposals to freeze whatever foreign currency reserves the Russian state has located on US territory (see (2) above) that no longer seems to be a significant constraint on US actions.

It would however only be a limited sanction.  The US cannot prevent Russia from floating bonds in the international money markets – in Asia if not in Europe – and the Democratic Senators’ assumption that prohibiting US investors from buying such bonds will dissuade other international investors from doing so is also almost certainly wrong (the cited authority for the claim are not ‘economists’ but two articles in Bloomberg Markets).

The problem anyway is that with Russia now expected to run a budget surplus next year, and with Russia’s trading position also in healthy surplus, and with Russia’s gold and foreign currency reserves now standing at more than $430 billion and growing, it is not obvious that Russia needs to borrow at all.

Unless this measure is combined with a freezing of Russian gold and foreign currency reserves, it is difficult to see how this could be more than a pinprick, just as the Democratic Senators report Russian Central Bank Chair Nabiullina saying..

However if the US were to freeze Russian gold and foreign currency reserves this step would not be necessary anyway, since US investors would not want to buy Russian foreign debt in those circumstances if the Russian reserves were frozen.

At that point of course the US would be facing all the consequences outlined in (2).

Needless to say, if US investors were prohibited from buying Russian debt but no action was taken against Russia’s reserves, then the US would simply be forcing its own investors to forego an opportunity to make money by buying into a strong financial asset which was being bought by other international investors elsewhere.

Again it is not obvious how this would benefit the US.

Summary

What all these proposals in common is that they highlight is the simple fact that the sectoral sanctions which were imposed by the West on Russia in 2014 have failed.

The sanctions did not break the Russian economy, or cause a popular revolution in Russia, or lead to an oligarchs’ coup against Putin – all things their advocates variously predicted would happen because of them.

Nor have they achieved their stated person, which is to force Russia to change its policies towards Ukraine.  Even the Democratic Senators in their recent report very grudgingly admit as much

Sanctions Pressure Has Been Insufficient: U.S. and EU sanctions have not resulted in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements nor the return of Crimea to Ukrainian control.  The Russian government appears to have been able to resist this pressure because the cost imposed by sanctions has been manageable.

The trouble is that faced with this simple fact the advocates in the US and elsewhere of more confrontation with Russia refuse to learn the lesson that sanctions against Russia do not work.

Instead they demand more and more sanctions of a sort which were rejected in 2014 when the original sanctions were imposed precisely because they are the sort of sanctions that over the long term are more likely to cause harm to the US and the West than they are to Russia.

The key point is that the Russian economy is many orders of magnitude bigger and more sophisticated than the sort of economies – such as those of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Venezuela – upon which the US has imposed sanctions previously.  Applying the supposed lessons of the impact of sanctions on those economies in the case of Russia makes no sense, even if those lessons had been learnt correctly, which they have not. Unlike all those economies Russia’s economy is far bigger, already possessing the technology, capital and resources it needs to develop autonomously.

As a self-sufficient continental economy sanctions on Russia almost by definition can have only a limited impact, and one which over time must diminish anyway.

As it happens the most effective sanctions the West could have imposed on Russia, both in terms of their impact on the Russian economy and their limited impact on the economies of the West, were the sectoral sanctions which were imposed in 2014.

Those sanctions did stop for a time the flow of capital from the West into Russia at a time when Russia was facing heavy debt repayments and when the price of its main export products – oil and gas – was collapsing.  The result was to deeper the recession caused by the collapse of oil and gas prices whilst further lowering the value of the rouble in a way which intensified the inflation spike.

With oil prices now rising, most short term Russian foreign debt repaid, and with the rouble floating, none of the sanctions discussed in this article look like they can have anything like the impact on Russia that the sanctions imposed in 2014 did.

The fact that the Russian economy successfully – in fact almost effortlessly – adjusted to those sanctions despite the difficult conditions ought to serve as a warning that further sanctions against Russia will not work, and if they are of the sort discussed in this article are counter-productive.

Jon Huntsman’s comments may suggest that there are people in the US who understand this, and that the demands of those who want ever more confrontation on this occasion are unlikely to be followed.

However the lesson of the last few decades is that to expect rational decision making in Washington especially on the subject of Russia is to expect altogether too much.

One way or the other the next few weeks will show the direction decisions in Washington are taking.

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Skripal and Khashoggi: A Tale of Two Disappearances

Two disappearances, and two different responses.

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Authored by Finian Cunningham via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


Two disappearances, and two very different responses from Western governments, which illustrates their rank hypocrisy.

When former Russian spy Sergei Skripal went missing in England earlier this year, there was almost immediate punitive action by the British government and its NATO allies against Moscow. By contrast, Western governments are straining with restraint towards Saudi Arabia over the more shocking and provable case of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The outcry by Western governments and media over the Skripal affair was deafening and resulted in Britain, the US and some 28 other countries expelling dozens of Russian diplomats on the back of unsubstantiated British allegations that the Kremlin tried to assassinate an exiled spy with a deadly nerve agent. The Trump administration has further tightened sanctions citing the Skripal incident.

London’s case against Moscow has been marked by wild speculation and ropey innuendo. No verifiable evidence of what actually happened to Sergei Skripal (67) and his daughter Yulia has been presented by the British authorities. Their claim that President Vladimir Putin sanctioned a hit squad armed with nerve poison relies on sheer conjecture.

All we know for sure is that the Skripals have been disappeared from public contact by the British authorities for more than seven months, since the mysterious incident of alleged poisoning in Salisbury on March 4.

Russian authorities and family relatives have been steadfastly refused any contact by London with the Skripal pair, despite more than 60 official requests from Moscow in accordance with international law and in spite of the fact that Yulia is a citizen of the Russian Federation with consular rights.

It is an outrage that based on such thin ice of “evidence”, the British have built an edifice of censure against Moscow, rallying an international campaign of further sanctions and diplomatic expulsions.

Now contrast that strenuous reaction, indeed hyper over-reaction, with how Britain, the US, France, Canada and other Western governments are ever-so slowly responding to Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi case.

After nearly two weeks since Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, the Saudi regime is this week finally admitting he was killed on their premises – albeit, they claim, in a “botched interrogation”.

Turkish and American intelligence had earlier claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered on the Saudi premises by a 15-member hit squad sent from Riyadh.

Even more grisly, it is claimed that Khashoggi’s body was hacked up with a bone saw by the killers, his remains secreted out of the consulate building in boxes, and flown back to Saudi Arabia on board two private jets connected to the Saudi royal family.

What’s more, the Turks and Americans claim that the whole barbaric plot to murder Khashoggi was on the orders of senior Saudi rulers, implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The latest twist out of Riyadh, is an attempt to scapegoat “rogue killers” and whitewash the House of Saudi from culpability.

The fact that 59-year-old Khashoggi was a legal US resident and a columnist for the Washington Post has no doubt given his case such prominent coverage in Western news media. Thousands of other victims of Saudi vengeance are routinely ignored in the West.

Nevertheless, despite the horrific and damning case against the Saudi monarchy, the response from the Trump administration, Britain and others has been abject.

President Trump has blustered that there “will be severe consequences” for the Saudi regime if it is proven culpable in the murder of Khashoggi. Trump quickly qualified, however, saying that billion-dollar arms deals with the oil-rich kingdom will not be cancelled. Now Trump appears to be joining in a cover-up by spinning the story that the Khashoggi killing was done by “rogue killers”.

Britain, France and Germany this week issued a joint statement calling for “a credible investigation” into the disappearance. But other than “tough-sounding” rhetoric, none of the European states have indicated any specific sanctions, such as weapons contracts being revoked or diplomatic expulsions.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “concerned” by the gruesome claims about Khashoggi’s killing, but he reiterated that Ottawa would not be scrapping a $15 billion sale of combat vehicles to Riyadh.

The Saudi rulers have even threatened retaliatory measures if sanctions are imposed by Western governments.

Saudi denials of official culpability seem to be a brazen flouting of all reason and circumstantial evidence that Khashoggi was indeed murdered in the consulate building on senior Saudi orders.

This week a glitzy international investor conference in Saudi Arabia is being boycotted by top business figures, including the World Bank chief, Jim Yong Kim, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Britain’s venture capitalist Richard Branson. Global firms like Ford and Uber have pulled out, as have various media sponsors, such as CNN, the New York Times and Financial Times. Withdrawal from the event was in response to the Khashoggi affair.

A growing bipartisan chorus of US Senators, including Bob Corker, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Chris Murphy, have called for the cancellation of American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as for an overhaul of the strategic partnership between the two countries.

Still, Trump has rebuffed calls for punitive response. He has said that American jobs and profits depend on the Saudi weapons market. Some 20 per cent of all US arms sales are estimated to go to the House of Saud.

The New York Times this week headlined: “In Trump’s Saudi Bargain, the Bottom Line Proudly Stands Out”.

The Trump White House will be represented at the investment conference in Saudi Arabia this week – dubbed “Davos in the Desert” by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He said he was attending in spite of the grave allegations against the Saudi rulers.

Surely the point here is the unseemly indulgence by Western governments of Saudi Arabia and its so-called “reforming” Crown Prince. It is remarkable how much credulity Washington, London, Paris, Ottawa and others are affording the Saudi despots who, most likely, have been caught redhanded in a barbarous murder.

Yet, when it comes to Russia and outlandish, unproven claims that the Kremlin carried out a bizarre poison-assassination plot, all these same Western governments abandon all reason and decorum to pile sanctions on Russia based on lurid, hollow speculation. The blatant hypocrisy demolishes any pretense of integrity or principle.

Here is another connection between the Skripal and Khashoggi affairs. The Saudis no doubt took note of the way Britain’s rulers have shown absolute disregard and contempt for international law in their de facto abduction of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. If the British can get away with that gross violation, then the Saudis probably thought that nobody would care too much if they disappeared Jamal Khashoggi.

Grotesquely, the way things are shaping up in terms of hypocritical lack of action by the Americans, British and others towards the Saudi despots, the latter might just get away with murder. Not so Russia. The Russians are not allowed to get away with even an absurd fantasy.

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US-China trade war heats up as surplus hits record $34 Billion (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 136.

Alex Christoforou

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According to a report by the AFP, China’s trade surplus with the United States ballooned to a record $34.1 billion in September, despite a raft of US tariffs, official data showed Friday, adding fuel to the fire of a worsening trade war.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies have soured sharply this year, with US President Donald Trump vowing on Thursday to inflict economic pain on China if it does not blink.
The two countries imposed new tariffs on a massive amount of each other’s goods mid-September, with the US targeting $200 billion in Chinese imports and Beijing firing back at $60 billion worth of US goods.

“China-US trade friction has caused trouble and pounded our foreign trade development,” customs spokesman Li Kuiwen told reporters Friday.

But China’s trade surplus with the US grew 10 percent in September from a record $31 billion in August, according to China’s customs administration. It was a 22 percent jump from the same month last year.

China’s exports to the US rose to $46.7 billion while imports slumped to $12.6 billion.

China’s overall trade — what it buys and sells with all countries including the US — logged a $31.7 billion surplus, as exports rose faster than imports.

Exports jumped 14.5 percent for September on-year, beating forecasts from analysts polled by Bloomberg News, while imports rose 14.3 percent on-year.

While the data showed China’s trade remained strong for the month, analysts forecast the trade war will start to hurt in coming months.

China’s export jump for the month suggests exporters were shipping goods early to beat the latest tariffs, said ANZ’s China economist Betty Wang, citing the bounce in electrical machinery exports, much of which faced the looming duties.

“We will watch for downside risks to China’s exports” in the fourth quarter, Wang said.

Analysts say a sharp depreciation of the yuan has also helped China weather the tariffs by making its exports cheaper.

“The big picture is the Chinese exports have so far held up well in the face of escalating trade tensions and cooling global growth, most likely thanks to the competitiveness boost provided by a weaker renminbi (yuan),” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist at Capital Economics.

“With global growth likely to cool further in the coming quarters and US tariffs set to become more punishing, the recent resilience of exports is unlikely to be sustained,” he said.

According to Bloomberg US President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement isn’t that different from the North American Free Trade Agreement that it replaced. But hidden in the bowels of the new trade deal is a clause, Article 32.10, that could have a far-reaching impact. The new agreement requires member states to get approval from the other members if they initiate trade negotiations with a so-called non-market economy. In practice, “non-market” almost certainly means China. If, for example, Canada begins trade talks with China, it has to show the full text of the proposed agreement to the U.S. and Mexico — and if either the U.S. or Mexico doesn’t like what it sees, it can unilaterally kick Canada out of the USMCA.

Although it seems unlikely that the clause would be invoked, it will almost certainly exert a chilling effect on Canada and Mexico’s trade relations with China. Forced to choose between a gargantuan economy across the Pacific and another one next door, both of the U.S.’s neighbors are almost certain to pick the latter.

This is just another part of Trump’s general trade waragainst China. It’s a good sign that Trump realizes that unilateral U.S. efforts alone won’t be enough to force China to make concessions on issues like currency valuation, intellectual-property protection and industrial subsidies. China’s export markets are much too diverse:

If Trump cuts the U.S. off from trade with China, the likeliest outcome is that China simply steps up its exports to other markets. That would bind the rest of the world more closely to China and weaken the global influence of the U.S. China’s economy would take a small but temporary hit, while the U.S. would see its position as the economic center of the world slip into memory.

Instead, to take on China, Trump needs a gang. And that gang has to be much bigger than just North America. But most countries in Europe and East Asia probably can’t be bullied into choosing between the U.S. and China. — their ties to the U.S. are not as strong as those of Mexico and Canada. Countries such as South Korea, Germany, India and Japan will need carrots as well as sticks if they’re going to join a U.S.-led united trade front against China.

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the escalating trade war between the United States and China, and the record trade surplus that positions China with a bit more leverage than Trump anticipated.

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Via Zerohedge Trump Threatens China With More Tariffs, Does Not Seek Economic “Depression”

US equity futures dipped in the red after President Trump threatened to impose a third round of tariffs on China and warned that Chinese meddling in U.S. politics was a “bigger problem” than Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

During the same interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes”, in which Trump threatened to impose sanctions against Saudi Arabia if the Saudis are found to have killed WaPo reported Khashoggi, and which sent Saudi stock plunging, Trump said he “might,” impose a new round of tariffs on China, adding that while he has “great chemistry” with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and noting that Xi “wants to negotiate”, he doesn’t “know that that’s necessarily going to continue.” Asked if American products have become more expensive due to tariffs on China, Trump said that “so far, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.”

“They can retaliate, but they can’t, they don’t have enough ammunition to retaliate,” Trump says, “We do $100 billion with them. They do $531 billion with us.”

Trump was also asked if he wants to push China’s economy into a depression to which the US president said “no” before comparing the country’s stock-market losses since the tariffs first launched to those in 1929, the start of the Great Depression in the U.S.

“I want them to negotiate a fair deal with us. I want them to open their markets like our markets are open,” Trump said in the interview that aired Sunday. So far, the U.S. has imposed three rounds of tariffs on Chinese imports totaling $250 billion, prompting China to retaliate against U.S. products. The president previously has threatened to hit virtually all Chinese imports with duties.

Asked about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, Trump quickly turned back to China. “They meddled,” he said of Russia, “but I think China meddled too.”

“I think China meddled also. And I think, frankly, China … is a bigger problem,” Trump said, as interviewer Lesley Stahl interrupted him for “diverting” from a discussion of Russia.

Shortly before an audacious speech by Mike Pence last weekend, in which the US vice president effectively declared a new cold war on Beijing (see “Russell Napier: Mike Pence Announces Cold War II”), Trump made similar accusations during a speech at the United Nations last month, which his aides substantiated by pointing to long-term Chinese influence campaigns and an advertising section in the Des Moines Register warning farmers about the potential effects of Trump’s tariffs.

Meanwhile, in a rare U.S. television appearance, China’s ambassador to the U.S. said Beijing has no choice but to respond to what he described as a trade war started by the U.S.

“We never wanted a trade war, but if somebody started a trade war against us, we have to respond and defend our own interests,” said China’s Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

Cui also dismissed as “groundless” the abovementioned suggestion by Vice President Mike Pence that China has orchestrated an effort to meddle in U.S. domestic affairs. Pence escalated the rhetoric in a speech Oct. 4, saying Beijing has created a “a whole-of-government approach” to sway American public opinion, including spies, tariffs, coercive measures and a propaganda campaign.

Pence’s comments were some of the most critical about China by a high-ranking U.S. official in recent memory. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo got a lecture when he visited Beijing days later, about U.S. actions that were termed “completely out of line.” The tough words followed months of increases tit-for-tat tariffs imposed by Washington and Beijing that have ballooned to cover hundreds of billions of dollars in bilateral trade.

During a recent interview with National Public Radio, Cui said the U.S. has “not sufficiently” dealt in good faith with the Chinese on trade matters, saying “the U.S. position keeps changing all the time so we don’t know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities.”

Meanwhile, White House economic director Larry Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday” that President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will “probably meet” at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires in late November. “There’s plans and discussions and agendas” being discussed, he said. So far, talks with China on trade have been “unsatisfactory,” Kudlow said. “We’ve made our asks” on allegations of intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers, he added. “We have to have reciprocity.”

Addressing the upcoming meeting, Cui said he was present at two previous meetings of Xi and Trump, and that top-level communication “played a key role, an irreplaceable role, in guiding the relationship forward.” Despite current tensions the two have a “good working relationship,” he said.

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BREAKING: Explosion in Crimea, Russia kills many, injuring dozens, terrorism suspected

According to preliminary information, the incident was caused by a gas explosion at a college facility in Kerch, Crimea.

The Duran

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“We are clarifying the information at the moment. Preliminary figures are 50 injured and 10 dead. Eight ambulance crews are working at the site and air medical services are involved,” the press-service for the Crimean Ministry of Health stated.

Medics announced that at least 50 people were injured in the explosion in Kerch and 25 have already been taken to local hospital with moderate wounds, according to Sputnik.

Local news outlets reported that earlier in the day, students at the college heard a blast and windows of the building were shattered.

Putin Orders that Assistance Be Provided to Victims of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The president has instructed the Ministry of Health and the rescue services to take emergency measures to assist victims of this explosion, if necessary, to ensure the urgent transportation of seriously wounded patients to leading medical institutions of Russia, whether in Moscow or other cities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov said.

The president also expressed his condolences to all those affected by the tragic incident.

Manhunt Underway in Kerch as FSB Specialists Investigate Site of Explosion – National Anti-Terrorist Committee

The site of the blast that rocked a city college in Kerch is being examined by FSB bomb disposal experts and law enforcement agencies are searching for clues that might lead to the arrest of the perpetrators, the National Anti Terrorism Committee said in a statement.

“Acting on orders from the head of the NAC’s local headquarters, FSB, Interior Ministry, Russian Guards and Emergency Ministry units have arrived at the site. The territory around the college has been cordoned off and the people inside the building evacuated… Mine-disposal experts are working at the site and law enforcement specialists are investigating,” the statement said.

Terrorist Act Considered as Possible Cause of Blast in Kerch – Kremlin Spokesman

“The tragic news that comes from Kerch. Explosion. The president was informed … The data on those killed and the number of injured is constantly updated,” Peskov told reporters.

“[The version of a terrorist attack] is being considered,” he said.

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