WASHINGTON — The nominee to become the top U.S. diplomat in East Asia delivered pointed comments about China in his confirmation hearing Thursday, saying there's no place for "coercion and bullying" in the region's seas.
Danny Russel told a Senate panel that he'll do everything in his power to "lower the temperature" in territorial disputes in the South and East China seas and push claimants including China toward diplomacy.
He also said it was "unacceptable" for China to demand only bilateral negotiations with the other claimants and voiced strong U.S. support for efforts by Southeast Asia to negotiate as a bloc and frame a "code of conduct" to manage the disputes – an issue to be taken up at regional security talks in Brunei later this month.
Russel is currently White House senior director for Asian affairs. He is nominee to become assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, replacing Kurt Campbell, who resigned in February to enter business.
Russel is a 28-year career diplomat, less ebullient than Campbell, with long experience in Japan and Korea. His association with Asia began in his 20s when he spent three years studying martial arts in Japan.
He has played a central role in the Obama administration's strategic "pivot" to Asia. That's seen the U.S. stake out a diplomatic position on maritime issues that has irked Beijing, with Washington saying it has a national interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
Six governments have overlapping claims to tiny reefs and islands across those resource-rich waters, with China claiming it has sovereignty over virtually all of it. While the U.S. itself is not a claimant, it says it has a stake in the freedom of navigation in its busy sea lanes, which are crucial to world trade.
"I certainly will do everything in my power to try to lower the temperature, push claimants including China into a diplomatic track and continue to warn them that the region in which China will flourish is a region of law, a region of order and a region of respect for neighbors, not one in which there is space for coercion and bullying," Russel said.
He said that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have raised the issue of China's behavior on the seas with its leaders, and the Chinese "are in no doubt that America stands by our allies."
The most volatile maritime disputes involving China in the past couple of years have involved U.S. treaty allies, the Philippines and Japan – nations which Beijing has blamed for triggering tensions.
While acknowledging U.S.-China competition, Russel said the U.S. supports the rise of a China that is stable, prosperous and abides by international rules and norms. He said the U.S. seeks "practical cooperation" that benefits both countries and the region.
He said positive cooperation with China would be "essential" in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Russel confirmed that he has visited Pyongyang during his time at the White House. He said helping to achieve a halt or rollback in the North's atomic program would be a top priority if he becomes assistant secretary of state.
The full Senate must confirm his appointment.