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U.S. Diplomats To Hold Talks With Their Chinese Counterparts Next Week


Here's a chance to explore tensions between the United States and China. Diplomats from those two countries meet next week - regular meetings, at a nervous time. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel says China is pushing boundaries.

DANIEL RUSSEL: The behavior that we're seeing suggests that the Chinese want to exercise a kind of exceptionalism. We're hearing more and more about a Chinese dream.

INSKEEP: China sees a huge role for itself in Asia. The U.S. wants China to follow international rules. We met Russel after U.S. computers were hacked. Someone in China is suspected of obtaining personal information of government employees.

It's occurring to me, sitting here now, that perhaps somebody has your information.

RUSSEL: Oh, trust me; I don't think there's very much about me that the Chinese don't know.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

RUSSEL: The good news is my life is an open book.

INSKEEP: The administration, of course, is also pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal with Pacific nations - just about all the major players except China. And it has been described by the administration as a way to reassure and bind U.S. allies to the United States and make sure the United States is the one writing the rules for the region and not China. Should the Chinese feel threatened by that?

RUSSEL: No. And interestingly, the Chinese, in my experience over the past two or three years, have evolved from great suspicion and concern towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, to gingerly inquiring as to whether Chinese membership might, at least theoretically, someday be an option. And senior U.S. officials have been very clear and careful that the door is not closed to them.

INSKEEP: When you get into these private meetings, are the discussions on entirely different issues than some of the things we talk about in public?

RUSSEL: Yes, in that there are a number of big issues that occupy our attention that are hiding in plain sight. But equally important is the willingness and the ability of the two sides to engage on real problems - the situation in the South China Sea - where we have a very different perspective.

INSKEEP: Let's just remind people this is a waterway that is bounded by a number of nations, where the Chinese have been asserting more and more control and also building artificial islands that can be used as military bases among other things. The United States has called on China to stop that construction. And as I understand it, the Chinese have announced that they will stop as soon as they are done.

RUSSEL: (Laughter). Well, you've got that right. The concern throughout the Asia-Pacific region - not only from the other claimants - is that China's goal is simply to create a military advantage and to use these outposts as bases for power projection. This mustn't and can't be solved through brute force. There are rules. China is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. What China should be building, frankly, is not outposts. It should be building common ground with the other claimants.

INSKEEP: Is there something the United states can or will put on the table to push the Chinese to that position because they're not in the same position you are?

RUSSEL: Well, what the Chinese have said is that the process of reclamation has breached its natural conclusion but that they intend to proceed with construction of facilities that include military facilities. The net effect is to alienate the neighbors with whom China trades and the neighbors with whom China has to live. Now, the U.S. Navy will not be impeded by a sandbar or by construction by any country, including China, in the South China Sea.

INSKEEP: Two former U.S. diplomats, Robert Blackwell and Ashley Tellis, not very long ago sat where you sat and argued, if I may summarize, that the U.S. and China simply have fundamentally different interests in Asia. Very simply put, the United States wants to be in Asia. China wants the United States out of Asia. Do you see the interests clashing that dramatically?

RUSSEL: Well, look. I think the way to think about it is that the U.S. and China both have a huge interest in the peaceful development of the Asia-Pacific region. What that means is that the United States couldn't contain China if it wanted to, and frankly, we don't. It means also that China couldn't exclude the United States, even if they wanted to. And they say that they don't.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Daniel Russel. He is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Thanks very much for coming by.

RUSSEL: Thank you, Steve. It's - I appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.