Washington restates pledge to defend Asian allies

Daniel Russel

Risk of economic retaliation should deter Beijing from any attempt at Russia-style annexation, says US official

(Today) – China should not doubt the United States’ commitment to defend its Asian allies and the risk of economic retaliation should also discourage Beijing from using force to pursue territorial claims in Asia in the way Russia has in Crimea, a senior US official has said.

Mr Daniel Russel, President Barack Obama’s diplomatic point man for East Asia, said it was difficult to determine what China’s intentions might be, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea had heightened concerns among US allies in the region about the possibility of China using force to pursue its claims.

“The net effect is to put more pressure on China to demonstrate that it remains committed to the peaceful resolution of the problems,” Mr Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.

He said the retaliatory sanctions imposed on Russia by the US, European Union and others should have a “chilling effect on anyone in China who might contemplate the Crimea annexation as a model”.

This was especially so given the extent of China’s economic interdependence with the US and its Asian neighbours, Mr Russel said.

When asked about Mr Russel’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he was confusing two different issues. “No matter whether the Ukraine issue or the South China Sea issue, China has many times expressed its position. Why must this US official mention the two issues in the same breath and obstinately say these things about China?” Mr Hong yesterday told a daily news briefing.

Mr Russel added that while the US did not take a position on rival territorial claims in East Asia, China should be in no doubt about Washington’s resolve to defend its allies if necessary.

“The President of the United States and the Obama administration are firmly committed to honouring our defence commitments to our allies,” he said. While Washington stood by its commitments — which include defence treaties with Japan, the Philippines and South Korea — Mr Russel said there was no reason the rival territorial claims could not be resolved through peaceful means.

He said he hoped that the fact that the Philippines had filed a case against China on Sunday at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague would encourage China to clarify and remove the ambiguity surrounding its own claims.

Mr Russel termed the deployment of Chinese vessels in its dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea as “problematic” and said Beijing had taken “what to us appear to be intimidating steps”. “It is incumbent of all the claimants to foreswear intimidation, coercion and other non-diplomatic or extra-legal means.”

Last year, China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone, which covers territory also claimed by South Korea and Japan, including uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Beijing also has disputes over territory in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. China displays its claims on official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of South-east Asia.

Mr Russel had told a congressional hearing in February that the US had growing concerns that China’s maritime claims were an effort to gain creeping control over an area covering roughly 80 per cent of the South China Sea despite its neighbours’ objections. He added that an agreement between China and South-east Asia’s regional bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), on a code of conduct to regulate behaviour in the South China Sea was long overdue.

At the time, China responded by urging the US to take a rational approach and reiterating Beijing’s position that its claims were based on history and international law. China’s Foreign Ministry added in a statement then that the US comments were “not constructive” and Washington was playing up tensions and undermining peace and development in the Asia-Pacific.

Mr Obama is due to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines from April 22, when he is expected to stress his commitment to a rebalancing of US strategic and economic focus towards the Asia-Pacific region in the face of an increasingly assertive China.