CROSSING THE STRAIT: US ‘watching’ Zhang visit with ‘interest’

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in WASHINGTON

Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 3

The US is “watching with interest” as China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) visits Taiwan for the first time this week, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel said on Wednesday.

Russel unveiled Washington’s seemingly cautious approach to the politically sensitive trip after testifying before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the future of US-China relations.

In an interview conducted in the corridor outside the committee chamber, Russel said Washington was always interested in developments in cross-strait relations.

“We will look forward to hearing the outcome of Mr Zhang Zhijun’s visit to Taiwan,” he said.

A US Department of State source later told the Taipei Times that the US expected a full briefing on the visit from President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.

When members of the Asian press asked Russel if Washington views the visit as a positive development, he said: “We welcome all steps forward on cross-strait relations that are acceptable to the people on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait.”

He said he had testified before the Senate committee as part of “the runup” to the strategic and economic dialogue that US Secretary of State John Kerry is to hold in Beijing next month.

“What I tried to convey was that the US places great importance on the US-China relationship as being the context of our overall Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy,” Russel said.

The US official said Washington aims to develop practical areas of cooperation as it bids to manage inter-nation differences in a way that reinforces and supports international law in situations such as the territorial disputes between competing claimants in the South and East China seas.

“This is a very important issue for the [US President Barack] Obama administration, for the region and for the US Congress,” he said. “Everyone is of the view here that the claims must be verified, and the differences must be resolved peacefully, and the behavior of all parties in the region must be governed by a sense of restraint and responsibility and care.”

During his testimony, Russel said Beijing’s neighbors are “understandably alarmed” by China’s increasingly coercive efforts to assert its claims in the contested waters.

“A pattern of unilateral Chinese actions in sensitive and disputed areas is raising tensions and damaging China’s international standing,” he said.

Russel said that some of China’s actions were directed at US allies and that Washington has key interests at stake in the region, including freedom of navigation and over-flight, unimpeded lawful commerce, respect for international law and the peaceful management of disputes.

As a rising power, China should hold itself to a high standard regarding its behavior, Russel said.

“To wilfully disregard diplomatic and other peaceful ways of dealing with disagreement and disputes in favor of economic or physical coercion is destabilizing and dangerous,” he said.

Disputes should be decided on the merits of China’s and other claimants’ legal claims, along with adherence to international law and norms, not the strength of the competing countries’ military and law enforcement, nor the size of their economies, he added.

Rusel also criticized China’s human rights record and its “harsh crackdown” on commemorations of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre.