Top Asian News 4:52 a.m. GMT

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Pentagon's top official made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet with U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban. Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the U.S. troop presence, although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban's list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations. Shanahan said he is encouraged that President Donald Trump's administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in American history. But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is hardly lying low ahead of his corruption trial on charges related to the multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund. He's crooned about slander in an R&B video and vilified the current government in daily social media posts to counter portrayals of him as corrupt and out of touch. The trial set to begin Tuesday comes nine months after Najib's spectacular election defeat, which was spurred by voters' furor over the 1MDB scandal that is being investigated in the U.S. and other countries. He is charged with 42 counts of criminal breach of trust, graft, abuse of power and money laundering in one of Malaysia's biggest criminal trials.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — When President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un first met in Singapore last year, there was pomp, there was circumstance, but there wasn't much substance. Before they meet again in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28, there's growing pressure that they forge a deal that puts them closer to ending the North Korean nuclear weapons threat. But what could that look like? Kim may be willing to dismantle his main nuclear complex. The U.S. may be willing to cough up concessions, maybe remove some sanctions. The question, however, is whether what's on offer will be enough for the other side.

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's prime minister has cast his government as stronger on national security than the opposition after signing an agreement with the French government to deliver a fleet of submarines and ahead of federal elections expected to be held in May. Prime Minister Scott Morrison used a speech to Australia's National Press Club on Monday on the eve of Parliament's first sitting day of the year to detail his conservative coalition's record on a range of security issues including military spending, terrorism, asylum seekers, criminals using encrypted communications and domestic violence. Earlier, Morrison and French Defense Minister Florence Parly signed an agreement of deliver the first of a fleet of 12 submarines to Australia in the early 2030s.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — About 3,000 people who fled as a wildfire threatened a New Zealand town were allowed to return home Monday as firefighting conditions improved. Another 400 residents living in valleys near the fire aren't yet able to return, although officials hope they will be able to soon. Firefighters say they've gained the upper hand over the blaze thanks to favorable weather conditions. The forest fire began nearly a week ago on the South Island and burned 2,300 hectares (5,700 acres). It burned down one house and prompted evacuations beginning Friday. "It's a large fire, and the fact that we're able to get residents back into Wakefield this afternoon is extremely positive news," said Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi.

BEIJING (AP) — A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves: ___ EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region. ___ CHINA RESPONDS TO PHILIPPINE DEVELOPMENT ON THITU ISLAND Ships from the Chinese navy and coast guard along with fishing boats from its maritime militia have been deployed to keep watch on Philippine development work on the island of Thitu.

BEIJING (AP) — The U.S. Embassy in Beijing says it is following the case of a Chinese-born Kazakh man who had been fighting attempts by Beijing to return him to China from neighboring Uzbekistan and whose current whereabouts are unknown. In an emailed response to a question from The Associated Press, a spokesman said Monday that the embassy was aware of Halemubieke Xiaheman's situation and was in close touch with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and "relevant governments" on his case. Halemubieke had filmed a video from inside the transit zone at the airport in Uzbekistan's capital, pleading for help, saying the Chinese Embassy there wanted him sent back to China.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and the United States struck a new deal Sunday that increases Seoul's contribution for the cost of the American military presence on its soil, overcoming previous failed negotiations that caused worries about their decades-long alliance. The development comes as President Donald Trump is set to hold his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in late February. South Korea last year provided about $830 million, covering roughly 40 percent of the cost of the deployment of 28,500 U.S. soldiers whose presence is meant to deter aggression from North Korea. Trump has pushed for South Korea to pay more.

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. fears about China and Russia's growing influence in Central Europe will top Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's agenda as he heads to the region this week, Trump administration officials say. Pompeo leaves Sunday on a five-nation tour of Europe that will begin in Hungary and Slovakia where he will raise those concerns and the importance of promoting democracy and the rule of law to counter Beijing and Moscow's efforts to pull the countries away from the West and sow divisions in the European Union and NATO. The centerpiece of the trip will be a conference on the future of the Middle East in Poland on Wednesday and Thursday that is expected to focus on Iran and will also be attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump's Mideast peace team of senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt.

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey has called China's treatment of its minority Uighurs "a great cause of shame for humanity." In a statement Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said it's "no longer a secret" that China has arbitrarily detained more than a million Uighurs in "concentration camps." He said the Turkic Muslim population faced pressure and "systematic assimilation" in western China. Aksoy said Turkey has shared with China its position on "all levels" and urged authorities to close the detention facilities and respect human rights. The minister said Turkey had also learned of the death in prison of famed Uighur musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit, who had been sentenced to eight years over one of his songs.