Kremlin says Putin told Pence Russia did not meddle in U.S. election: Ifax

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MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. Vice President Mike Pence Russia had nothing to do with meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Interfax reported on Monday, during discussions about an upcoming meeting between Putin and President Donald Trump.

Putin and Pence spoke in Singapore last week about key issues that could be discussed at the meeting between the two leaders, expected to take place at the G20 summit in Argentina in late November, a Kremlin spokesman said.

Pence raised the issue of external meddling in the U.S. election but Putin told him that “the Russian state had nothing to do … and can not have anything to do with meddling” in any electoral processes, Interfax quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Two years after Philippines’ pivot, Duterte still waiting on China dividend

MANILA (Reuters) – Two years after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced a divorce with old ally the United States in return for bumper business ties with China, he doesn’t have much to show for it.

Duterte left Beijing in 2016 with $24 billion of Chinese loans and investment pledges for his ambitious infrastructure overhaul, a few weeks after saying the Philippines was being treated like a dog by Washington and would be better off with China.

But only a fraction of China’s pledged support has materialized, exposing Duturte to criticisms he has been complicit in allowing China to pose threats to Philippines’ sovereignty, and been left high and dry by Beijing.

When Xi Jinping visits the Philippines this week, Duterte will need the Chinese president to put his money where his mouth is and help Duterte justify his geopolitical concessions to a historic rival, according to Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based defense and security analyst.

“Otherwise, we can definitely conclude that there’s really nothing much in the rhetoric and the Philippines has been taken for a ride,” Heydarian said.

“Duterte’s naivety with China has been a slam dunk strategic coup for China, no doubt about it.”

Philippine’s Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said it would be unreasonable to expect all the Chinese pledges to come through after only two years, but officials were hopeful intervention by Xi after his visit could help.

“We’re very optimistic this will, their head of state, will pressure their bureaucracy to speed up the process,” he said last week.

Duterte’s signature “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, the centerpiece of his economic strategy, involves 75 flagship projects of which about half are earmarked for Chinese loans, grants or investments.

But according to publicly available Philippine government documents reviewed by Reuters, only three of those – two bridges and an irrigation facility worth a combined $167 million – have so far broken ground.

The rest, including three rail projects, three highways and nine bridges, are at various levels of planning and budgeting, or are awaiting Chinese government approval for financing, or the nomination of Chinese contractors.

‘POSITIVE RESULTS’
China’s foreign ministry said major projects agreed by both sides “are proceeding smoothly and continue to achieve positive results”. China wanted to boost trade and investment and “promote the early commencement of building of even more agreed upon projects,” the ministry said in a statement to Reuters.

Chinese committed investments in the Philippines in the first half of this year were just $33 million, about 40 percent of that of the United States and about a seventh of Japan’s, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, tracking a similar trend the previous year.

Trade between China and the Philippines has picked up significantly, but data suggests mostly in China’s favor.

Chinese exports to the Philippines grew 26 percent in the first nine months of 2017 from the same period a year earlier, outpacing its imports from Manila, which grew 9.8 percent.

Net foreign direct investment from China has, however, surged to $181 million for the first eight months of this year, from $28.8 million for all of 2017, according to the Philippine central bank.

PRESSURE NEEDED
Duterte has made a point of praising China effusively and confessing his “love” for Xi. He even jokingly offered his country to Beijing as “a province of China”.

Many ordinary Filipinos as well as international lawyers and diplomats are incensed by Duterte’s refusal to even raise with China the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) 2016 award that ruled in the Philippines’ favor, and invalidated Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea.

Instead, Duterte is seeking an agreement with China to jointly explore offshore gas at the disputed Reed Bank in the resource-rich and strategic waterway. Some lawmakers fear that could be tantamount to recognizing Beijing’s claim to a site that the PCA ruling said China has no sovereign rights to under international law.

Duterte has also been against Southeast Asian countries taking a united stand against China militarization and at a regional summit last week, he warned against causing friction, because the South China Sea was “now in their (China’s) hands”.

Heydarian said if Duterte was unable to show an economic dividend from his China gambit, it could weaken his hand ahead of 2019 mid-term elections that might determine the success or failure of his presidency.

To stand a chance of delivering on his policy agenda, Duterte needs his allies to command a majority in Congress and the Senate to ensure key legislation is passed to enable reforms aimed at generating revenue, attracting investment and creating higher-quality jobs.

“If after Xi Jinping’s visit, there’s still no big move by China to invest in the Philippines, if China’s militarization and reclamation will just continue unabated, you’re going to have a situation where Duterte will come under extreme pressure,” he said.

“The opposition is going to use that to pin down Duterte and his allies as Chinese lackeys.”

Getting rid of me risks delaying Brexit – May

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Sunday toppling her would risk delaying Brexit and she would not let talk of a leadership challenge distract her from a critical week of negotiations with Brussels.

In the days since she unveiled a draft EU divorce deal, May’s premiership has been thrust into crisis. Several ministers, including her Brexit minister, have resigned and some of her lawmakers are seeking to oust her.

More than two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, it is still unclear how, on what terms or even if it will leave as planned on March 29, 2019.

May has vowed to fight on, but with both pro-EU and pro-Brexit lawmakers unhappy with the draft agreement, it is not clear she will be able to win the backing of parliament for it, raising the risk Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

“These next seven days are going to be critical, they are about the future of this country,” May told Sky News. “I am not going to be distracted from the important job.”

“A change of leadership at this point isn’t going to make the negotiations any easier … what it will do is mean that there is a risk that actually we delay the negotiations and that is a risk that Brexit gets delayed or frustrated.”

To trigger a confidence vote, 48 of her Conservative lawmakers must submit a letter to the chairman of the party’s so-called 1922 committee, Graham Brady.

More than 20 lawmakers have said publicly that they have done so, but others are thought to have submitted letters confidentially. Brady told BBC Radio on Sunday the 48 threshold had not yet been reached.

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Brady said he thought it was likely May would win any confidence vote, making her immune to another challenge for 12 months under the party’s rules.

Mark Francois, one lawmaker who has submitted a letter, said he expected some colleagues were taking soundings from local party members over the weekend before making a decision.

FUTURE RELATIONSHIP
At the centre of concerns over the deal is the Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a return to border checks between the British province and EU-member Ireland.

Critics say it would leave Britain bound to the EU in perpetuity and risks dividing the United Kingdom by aligning Northern Ireland more closely with the EU’s customs rules and production standards than mainland Britain.

The DUP, a small Northern Irish party which props up May’s minority government, has threatened to pull its support if the backstop means the province is treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

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DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said on Sunday it was “time to work for a better deal which does not undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom”.

May said negotiations were continuing and she intended to go to Brussels and meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. She said she would also be speaking to other EU leaders ahead of an EU summit to discuss the deal on Nov. 25.

“We won’t agree the leaving part, the withdrawal agreement, until we have got what we want in the future relationship because these two go together. The focus this week will be on the future relationship,” she told Sky. “It is the future relationship that delivers on the Brexit vote.”

Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, who resigned in July over May’s Brexit plans, said it was “either a tragic illusion or an attempt at deception” to think issues with the exit deal could be remedied in the next stage of talks.

“I have heard it said that this is like a football match, in which we are one-nil down at half-time, but … we can still pull it back and get the Brexit we want,” Johnson wrote in his weekly column for Monday’s Daily Telegraph.

“We are about to give the EU the right to veto our departure from the customs union. Why should they let us go?”

British newspapers reported that five senior pro-Brexit ministers were working to pressure May to change the deal, but May said she saw no alternative plan on the table.

Former Brexit minister Dominic Raab, who resigned on Thursday in protest at the deal, said he supported May as leader but her deal was “fatally flawed” and she must change course.

“I still think a deal could be done,” Raab told the BBC. “The biggest risk of no deal is taking a bad deal to the House of Commons … it is very important to take the action now.”

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would vote against May’s deal and the government should go back to Brussels for further negotiations. He said that was a priority ahead of pushing for a second referendum on the final agreement.

“It’s an option for the future, but it’s not an option for today, because if we had a referendum tomorrow, what’s it going to be on? What’s the question going to be?” Corbyn told Sky News.

Mexican drug lord, Beltran Leyva, dead at 56 of cardiac arrest

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Hector Beltran Leyva, a Mexican drug lord whose cartel earned a reputation as one of the country’s most vengeful and ruthless, died late on Sunday in hospital of cardiac arrest after being transferred from jail with chest pain, Mexican authorities said.

Beltran Leyva had been incarcerated since March 2, 2016 in Federal Prison Number 1, a maximum security facility in central Altiplano, Mexico, where he was facing federal prosecution for various crimes, the Mexico Interior Ministry said in a statement announcing the death.

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Nicknamed “the H,” according to the statement, Beltran Leyva’s capture in 2014 near a town where he had posed as an art and real estate dealer was seen as a major victory for Mexican authorities in their decade-long war against drug gangs.

The snaring of the Beltran Leyva cartel’s boss dealt a serious blow to a drug gang named after a group of brothers who became infamous for the bloody turf war waged with their former ally, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Guzman is currently facing trial for drug trafficking in federal court in Brooklyn.

Authorities said Beltran Leyva, 56, was transferred on Sunday from prison to hospital minutes after security officers noticed he had severe pain in his chest that did not respond to first aid from prison doctors.

The statement “noted that, at all times, Beltran Leyva … received the medical attention he required and that the staff of the hospital as well as the federal center, exhausted all the clinical resources at its disposal.”