US, Philippines Scale Back Next Month’s Military Drills

About 5,000 American and Philippine troops will hold humanitarian exercises next month instead of annual war games, scaling back military drills in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s disdain for their longstanding defense alliance.

Troops taking part in “Balikatan” will simulate a response to a devastating super typhoon in the central Philippines, modeled on typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which killed at least 6,300 people and left more than 200,000 families homeless.

“Balikatan is designed to meet current challenges facing the Philippines,” U.S. embassy press officer Molly Koscina said in a statement on Monday.

Duterte has made no secret of his grudge against the United States and believes a U.S. military presence of any kind in the Philippines puts his country at risk of being dragged into conflict. He has threatened to abrogate treaties with Washington, but has yet to follow up.

Duterte contacts Russia, China

The volatile leader has reached out to Russia and China and invited their warships to come to the Philippines for exercises too.

He has taken issue with the United States on its approach to the South China Sea and said Manila will never take part in joint patrols, to avoid provoking China.

Balikatan, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder,” has taken place on 32 occasions and every year since 2000, involving conventional warfare activities, as part of a mutual defense treaty between the two countries under a 1951 security pact.

Amphibious landing part of last’s years drills

Nearly 9,000 troops participated in a simulation of retaking an oil-and-gas platform last year, seized by an imaginary enemy, and practiced an amphibious landing on a Philippine beach near an area of the disputed South China Sea.

U.S. Marines also used for the first time in the Philippines a long-range truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher.

A Philippine army spokesman said the downsizing of the exercises was in response to Duterte’s dislike of war games with Washington.

“We made some adjustments, based on the pronouncements of the president that such exercises should be focused on humanitarian operations,” Major Frank Sayson told reporters. “Just to make it clear, this is not a war game.”

Two major military drills called off

Sayson said the two sides agreed to scrap two major military drills — Amphibious Landing Exercise or “Phiblex” and Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) — geared toward external and maritime defense.

He said the two armies would work on marksmanship and defusing of homemade bombs, as part of counter-terrorism exercises.

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Trump Urges UN Reform to Make US Investment Worthwhile

President Donald Trump complained on Monday that the United States is shouldering an unfair burden of the cost of the United Nations, but said if the world body reforms how it operates, the investment would be worth it.

Trump, who has frequently criticized the cost to the United States of supporting the NATO alliance, took his concerns directly to the ambassadors of the U.N. Security Council, who joined him at the White House for a lunch.

“If we do a great job, I care much less about the budget because you’re talking about peanuts compared to the important work you’re doing,” Trump told the 15 council envoys.

The United States is the biggest U.N. contributor, paying 22 percent of the $5.4 billion core budget and 28.5 percent of the $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget. These assessed contributions are agreed by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly.

Trump said the U.S. share of those budgets was “unfair.”

He has proposed a 28 percent budget cut for diplomacy and foreign aid, which includes an unspecified reduction in funding for the United Nations and its agencies, as well as enforcement of a 25 percent cap on U.S. funding for peacekeeping operations.

“We need the member states to come together to eliminate inefficiency and bloat and make sure that no one nation shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden,” he said.

Trump’s remarks came as the General Assembly prepares to negotiate in the coming months the U.N. regular budget for both 2018 and 2019 and the peacekeeping budget from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met briefly with Trump at the White House on Friday for the first time since both took office earlier this year.

The United States currently owes the United Nations $896 million for its core budget, U.N. officials said. The United States is also reviewing 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions as the annual mandates come up for renewal by the Security Council in a bid to cut costs.

U.N. agencies such as the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), the children’s agency UNICEF, and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), are funded by governments voluntarily.

The State Department said this month it was ending funding for UNFPA, the international body’s agency focused on family planning, as well as maternal and child health in more than 150 countries. Guterres warned that the cut could have “devastating effects” on vulnerable women and girls.

In 2016, the United States was the top contributor to the UNDP’s core budget, with an $83 million donation; the leading donor to UNICEF’s core budget in 2015 with $132 million; and the fourth-largest donor to the UNFPA, giving $75 million.

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Former East German Plans ‘Tear Down This Wall’ Concert on US-Mexico Border

For the first 20 years of Markus Rindt’s life, he knew just how far he could travel — no further west than the wall that split Germany in two.

“I grew up with walls around me —it was a weird situation, to see that the world seems to end at this wall,” remembers Rindt. “You feel that it cannot be that the world ends here.”

He’s spent the nearly 30 years since then-President Ronald Reagan called on then-Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall” between West and East Germany making music, traveling and making the occasional political statement the best way he knows: in concert.

Now Rindt wants to take that movement to a new frontier — the barriers between the United States and Mexico —where he hopes to pull off an ambitious, border-long project in early June with the Dresden-based contemporary orchestra he leads — the Dresdner Sinfoniker just days before the June 12 anniversary of Reagan’s speech.

“Our plan,” he says, “is a very big plan.”

Rhetoric prompts series of concerts

Rindt added the open-air border show to a schedule of two planned concerts June 3 by the group in Mexico City and Puebla, inspired by U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric in favor of building more walls along the border.

“This project is the most ambitious project so far. I have no idea if it [will work] in the end,” Rindt told VOA in a phone interview from Dresden, where he returned six years after fleeing to West Germany via Prague in 1989.

“I feel the project is necessary in our time. It is not only against this planned Trump wall, but against isolation[ist] tendencies around the world as well,” says Rindt. That includes Europe, where last year, Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union, and France, where a nationalist candidate is in the running for president.

#teardownthiswall

There are, of course, logistics to a cross-border concert; Rindt feels confident in Mexico’s approval for the group to perform with 15-20 musicians and a children’s choir from Tijuana on a stage along the southern side of the wall/fence. He is less sure that U.S. officials will approve of a few musicians and a children’s choir joining them through the fence in San Diego’s Friendship Park where relatives on both sides of the border are allowed to meet.

WATCH: Report from Friendship Park in San Diego

Rindt has never been to the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s invited U.S. and Mexican musicians to join the Dresdner Sinfoniker in June, and has raised more than half the funds to get his musicians there.

It’s not the first cross-border concert; those have been happening for years; Rindt knows that. There is even an artist who used the wall itself to make music. But Rindt hopes the event will take on a life of its own; he wants musicians and artists to perform along the border, from Texas to California, and use a hashtag inspired by Reagan’s speech to link all of their performances: #teardownthiswall.

‘There must be other ways’

He’s not ignorant or ignoring transnational issues, he says. Trump has said the wall is necessary for national security.

“I’m aware of some problems — drugs of course — some people will answer me what about drugs and criminals. There must be other ways to solve such problem.”

Data shows that smugglers do indeed work around border barriers. Trump recently told the Associated Press that: “People want the border,” but an April survey from Qunnipiac University shows increasing opposition to building more of a border wall among Americans, up from 55 percent against its construction just after President Donald Trump’s election in November, to 64 percent now.

“To Trump: I would say there is no best country in the world, no best religion, no best skin color — I don’t like this America-first thought,” says Rindt. “Europe is unified … It is so great this feeling now, to be so so free, the world is much bigger than before for us.  We are so far away from conflicts with each other. If you compare this with 60 years ago — we have to keep this freedom and peace.”

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Workers: GM Fires 2,700 in Venezuela After Plant Closure

General Motors’ Venezuelan subsidiary has sent a message to almost 2,700 staff informing them that they are no longer employed by the company and had received severance pay in their bank accounts, according to two employees.

A Venezuelan court last week ordered the seizure of the company’s Valencia plant, ruling in favor of two dealers that had filed a case in 2000 against the subsidiary on grounds they had not complied with an agreed sale of 10,000 vehicles.

Workers say that before the seizure was announced, GM had been dismantling the plant, which has not produced a car since the beginning of 2016 because of shortages of parts and strict currency controls in the OPEC nation.

The seizure, which GM called “illegal,” comes amid a deepening economic and social crisis in leftist-led Venezuela that has already roiled many U.S. companies.

“We all received a payment and a text message,” said a worker who had worked for the company for more than a decade, adding that his corporate email account had been deactivated over the weekend.

“Our former bosses told us the executives left and we were all fired. There is no longer anyone in the country,” added another employee who received the same message on his personal cell phone and a payment to his account. He had been at GM for five years.

 

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the layoffs or the worker allegations it had already been dismantling the plant.

GM said last week that it was halting operations and laying off workers due to the “illegal judicial seizure of its assets.”

‘Show Your Face’

The leftist government of Nicolas Maduro says it is not seeking to expropriate the plant, which has been operating for 35 years, and has called on GM to come back.

“To the current General Motors president of Venezuela, Jose Cavaileri: You come here, show your face and share with us the options to restore normality,” said Labor Minister Francisco Torrealba said Monday.

GM is not the first company to fire Venezuela employees by text message. Clorox did the same two years ago when announcing its exit from the crisis-struck country, after which workers took over the plant.

GM’s plant closure comes after Venezuela’s automobile production fell in 2016 to a record low of eight cars per day, according to a local automotive group.

Two union spokespeople said they had no official company information on the layoffs, but said that most workers received the messages along with a bank deposit.

Neither employee would reveal the amount they received but union leaders said it was too low.

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Tesla’ Big Model 3 Bet Rides on Risky Assembly Line Strategy

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk took many risks with the technology in his company’s cars on the way to surpassing Ford Motor Co.’s market value.

Now Musk is pushing boundaries in the factory that makes them.

Most automakers test a new model’s production line by building vehicles with relatively cheap, prototype tools designed to be scrapped once they deliver doors that fit, body panels with the right shape and dashboards that don’t have gaps or seams.

Tesla, however, is skipping that preliminary step and ordering permanent, more expensive equipment as it races to launch its Model 3 sedan by a self-imposed volume production deadline of September, Musk told investors last month.

Musk’s decision underscores his high-risk tolerance and willingness to forego long-held industry norms that has helped Tesla upend the traditional auto industry.

While Tesla is not the first automaker to try to accelerate production on the factory floor, no other rival is putting this much faith in the production strategy succeeding.

Musk expects the Model 3 rollout to help Telsa deliver five times its current annual sales volume, a key target in the automaker’s efforts to stop burning cash.

“He’s pushing the envelope to see how much time and cost he can take out of the process,” said Ron Harbour, a manufacturing consultant at Oliver Wyman.

Investors are already counting on Tesla’s factory floor success, with shares soaring 39 percent since January as it makes the leap from niche producer to mass producer in far less time than rivals.

There are caution signs, however. The production equipment designed to produce millions of cars is expensive to fix or replace if it doesn’t work, industry experts say. Tesla has encountered quality problems on its existing low-volume cars, and the Model 3 is designed to sell in numbers as high as 500,000 vehicles a year, raising the potential cost of recalls or warranty repairs.

“It’s an experiment, certainly,” said Consumer Reports’ Jake Fisher, who has done extensive testing of Tesla’s previous Models S and X. Tesla could possibly fix errors quicker, speeding up the process, “or it could be they have unsuspected problems they’ll have a hard time dealing with.”

Musk discussed the decision to skip what he referred to as “beta” production testing during a call last month with an invited group of investors. Details were published on Reddit by an investor on the call.

He also said that “advanced analytical techniques” — code word for computer simulations – would help Tesla in advancing straight to production tooling.

Tesla declined to confirm details of the call or comment on its production strategy.

The auto industry’s incumbents have not been standing still.

Volkswagen AG’s Audi division launched production of a new plant in Mexico using computer simulations of production tools — and indeed the entire assembly line and factory – that Audi said it

believed to be an industry first. That process allowed the plant to launch production 30 percent faster than usual, Audi said.

An Audi executive involved in the Mexican plant launch, Peter Hochholdinger, is now Tesla’s vice president of production.

Making Tools Faster

Typically, automakers test their design with limited production using lower grade equipment that can be modified slightly to address problems. When most of the kinks are worked out, they order the final equipment.

Tesla’s decision to move directly to the final tools is in part because lower grade, disposable equipment known as “soft tooling” ended up complicating the debut of the problem-plagued Model X SUV in 2015, according to a person familiar with the decision and Tesla’s assembly line planning.

Working on a tight deadline, Tesla had no time to incorporate lessons learned from soft tooling before having to order the permanent production tooling, making the former’s value negligible, the source said.

“Soft tooling did very little for the program and arguably hurt things,” said the person.

In addition, Tesla has learned to better modify final production tools, and its 2015 purchase of a Michigan tooling company means it can make major equipment 30 percent faster than before, and more cheaply as well, the source said.

Financial pressure is partly driving Tesla’s haste. The quicker Tesla can deliver the Model 3 with its estimated $35,000 base price to the 373,000 customers who have put down a $1,000 deposit, the closer it can log $13 billion.

Tesla has labored under financial pressure since it was founded in 2003. The company has yet to turn an annual profit, and earlier this year Musk said the company was “close to the edge” as it look toward capital spending of $2-2.5 billion in the first half of 2017.

Tesla has since gotten more breathing room by raising $1.2 billion in fresh capital in March and selling a five percent stake to Chinese internet company Tencent Holdings

Ltd.

Musk has spoken to investors about his vision of an “alien dreadnought” factory that uses artificial intelligence and robots to build cars at speeds faster than human assembly workers could manage.

But there are limits to what technology can do in the heavily regulated car business. For example, Tesla will still have to use real cars in crash tests required by the U.S. government, because federal rules do not allow simulated crash results to substitute for data from a real car.

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Spain, Brazil Want EU-Mercosur Deal, Worry About Venezuela

The governments of Spain and Brazil on Monday reinforced their commitment to completing a trade pact between the European Union and South American trade bloc Mercosur despite protectionist sentiments.

On a two-day visit to Brazil, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he agreed with Brazilian President Michel Temer about the need to wrap up a trade deal that has taken more than 15 years to negotiate.

Rajoy also called for elections as the only way to reach a negotiated solution to the political crisis in Venezuela, expressing “deep concern” over the volatile situation in the neighboring country.

“We agree that given the degree of confrontation and the volatility of the situation, a negotiated solution is needed, and it must inevitably involve giving back to the Venezuelan people their voice,” he said.

Rajoy is heading a large delegation of Spanish businessmen who are looking for investment opportunities in Brazilian banking, energy, water and infrastructure sectors.

Spain backs deal

Brazil is the third-most important market for Spanish investors, who account for the second largest stock of foreign investment in the South American nation after the United States.

Spain is one of the strongest backers of an accord to lower trade barriers between the European Union and Mercosur members Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Negotiations have been delayed for years by the reluctance of European farmers and Mercosur manufacturers to face competition.

“Spain has always been and will continue to be a firm supporter of the agreement,” Rajoy said after meeting Temer. “In these moments in which some feel protectionist temptations, we both agree on the importance of free trade.”

US retreat favors EU  

Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, who is hoping to clinch the EU-Mercosur deal by the end of the year, said external reasons would help advance it.

Malcorra said the retreat of the United States from trade talks had opened a window for the European Union to become a strong player in multilateral, region-to-region accords.

“Our view is that [the EU-Mercosur accord] is not only an economic agreement,” she said in Geneva on Monday. “It’s more than that, a political agreement.”

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РПР закликає АП утриматись від втручання у роботу системи адміністрування ПДВ

Громадська організація «Реанімаційний пакет реформ» закликає Адміністрацію президента утриматись від втручання у роботу системи адміністрування ПДВ, а Міністерство фінансів – гарантувати незалежність та безпеку її функціонування. Про це йдеться у заяві, поширеній РПР у понеділок.

«Експерти «Реанімаційного пакету реформ наголошують: законних підстав для надання особливого доступу АПУ до реєстру та інших складових системи електронного адміністрування ПДВ немає», – йдеться у заяві.

Вони називають вимогу Адміністрації президента до Державної фіскальної служби про надання такого дозволу такою, що суперечить конституційному принципу розподілу влади у парламентсько-президентській республіці.

«Єдиний реєстр автоматичного відшкодування ПДВ запрацював 1 квітня цього року і мав стати потужним засобом детінізації економіки України. Завдяки публічності реєстру зацікавлені органи державної влади, громадськість, бізнес та ЗМІ отримали дієві інструменти аналізу та виявлення можливих зловживань у сфері відшкодування ПДВ. Проте, вже за два тижні з моменту його введення в дію, система електронного адміністрування ПДВ опинилася під серйозною загрозою її незалежному функціонуванню з боку АПУ. У результаті не передбаченого законом втручання АПУ у роботу системи електронного адміністрування ПДВ наявним на сьогодні є ризик витоку конфіденційної інформації платників податків, а отже – загроза національній безпеці», – йдеться у заяві РПР.

19 квітня 2017 року Державна фіскальна служба України на вимогу Адміністрації президента України надала співробітникам адміністрації доступ до системи повного циклу адміністрування ПДВ.

На Банковій отримання такого дозволу пояснили необхідністю отримання прозорої та оперативної інформації, а також для попередження можливих зловживань.

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Штаб: у Мар’їнці під обстріл бойовиків потрапили житлові квартали і пост прикордонників

Штаб української воєнної операції на сході України заявляє про обстріл бойовиками житлових кварталів Мар’їнки, а також однойменного контрольного посту прикордонників.

«Сьогодні вечері, 24 квітня, під час обстрілу позицій сил АТО в районі населеного пункту Мар’їнка, під вогонь противника, як і два дні тому, потрапили житлові квартали міста», – йдеться у повідомленні. За попередніми даними, обстріл здійснили зокрема з мінометів 82-міліметрового калібру.

Обстріл посту прикордонників, згідно з повідомленням штабу, здійснювався з населеного пункту Олександрівка, підконтрольного угрупованню «ДНР».

В обох випадках інформація про постраждалих не надходила.

Угруповання «ДНР» це повідомлення не коментувало. Угруповання звинуватило українську сторону в обстрілі Олександрівки у неділю.

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