US diplomat says China ties a priority

The new top US diplomat for East Asia reaffirmed that building a better relationship with China is one of the three pillars of his country's policy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Daniel Russel, who became assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs a week ago, said the other two pillars are modernizing the five treaty alliances the US has in the region - with Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines - and participating in building regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit and Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"The United States has placed a premium on trying to build a cooperative partnership with China through direct and high-level dialogue," Russel said on Monday during his first news briefing in the job.

He said he has been involved throughout his career with improving the "hugely consequential relationship" with China, especially in the past few years, as special assistant to the president, and the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs.

"This is an ongoing project. It continues and will continue," said the career diplomat.

"We are exploring the areas in which cooperation between US and China, two major economies, can make a positive and practical impact both on the well-being and lives of the citizens of both our countries, but also in the region and in the global economy and in the global context," Russel said.

He said the two countries are working hard to develop a candid dialogue. "There are areas of disagreement, and we need to make sure that we understand the motivations and objectives of the other side," he said.

Russel said such a spirit was behind the Sunnylands summit between President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama in California in early June, as well as the fifth China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington 10 days ago.  

"The US and China don't agree on everything, of course, but we talk about everything," he said.

Russel accompanied US Secretary of State John Kerry to China in April. He also attended the opening session of the dialogue.

Russel described the willingness of senior officials to talk directly and constructively on regional and multilateral meetings as "emblematic of the determination of both sides to ensure the lines of communication between our two nations are wide open".

"It is clearly my belief and my impression that maintaining a good line of communication between Washington and Beijing is also a priority for other countries in the region," he said.

He said countries throughout the region expect and want the US and China to maintain high-level dialogue and practical cooperation to help generate positive results.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US and China should continue to try to promote cooperation where their interests converge, and to manage disputes on issues where they disagree.

"President Obama remains committed to developing a positive relationship with China as well as to the US rebalancing to Asia," she said.

"It remains important for our leaders and senior policy officials to have frequent dialogue in person and by phone, to coordinate our respective policies," Glaser said.

Russel said he came away from the recent dialogue with a sense of continued progress, when the two countries talked about hot issues such as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Syria, climate change, cyberspace, human rights, maritime security and the relationship between US and Chinese militaries.

He described the dialogue as underscoring the global reach and global impact of the world's two largest economies.

"We really show the breadth of our engagement, of the continued strides we are making in expanding meaningful cooperation on issues that are genuinely important to both our people, to the region and to the world as well as the progress in managing areas where we have real disagreements," he said.

He said he is aware of the problems in the region, such as the nuclear programme of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and issues related to cyberspace, climate change and energy security.

Russel said there will be no "letup, no backtracking" of the US commitment to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, where the US claims to have enormous interests and investments.

Many Chinese have remained suspicious of the US rebalancing strategy, regarding it as a scheme to contain China's rise. Some US scholars have even called for adjusting the strategy to play down the military component and enhance the economic aspect of the programme.

Russel, who worked many years in Japan as a diplomat, emphasised the "peaceful and responsible" management of territorial disputes between China and Japan in the East China Sea.

He said the US continues to encourage the diplomatic process to manage the issue in a way that will reduce tensions, reiterating the US stance of not taking sides on sovereignty issues.

However, in China, many see the US stance on the territorial disputes in both the East China Sea and South China Sea as biased in favour of allies Japan and the Philippines.

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