Daniel Russel: U.S. Won't 'Just Agree to Disagree' in Disputes with China

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Russel discusses navigating the line between cooperation and acquiescence when negotiating with Chinese counterparts. 2 min. 55 sec. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Russel said Wednesday that dialogue with China has opened the door to “unprecedented cooperation” in many areas during the Obama administration. However, he said China still wants the U.S. to give it a “free pass” on issues that China considers its “core interests,” and “that’s just not a deal that the United States ever can or would make.”

Speaking at Asia Society in New York, Russel, who heads East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, pointed to roughly two dozen top-level summits between U.S. and Chinese leaders since President Barack Obama took office, saying that effectively managing “the complex and consequential U.S.-China relationship has been a key pillar of the Obama administration.” He said that this has put “what I’d call a ‘floor’ under the relationship” that ensures “we can deal with real disagreements, we can weather even a crisis, without the risk of conflict or confrontation.”

Remaining flashpoints Russel cited included escalating tensions between China and other countries in the region over disputed territories, as well as cyber theft that “threatens America’s companies and our workers.” He noted that during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to the United States, Xi gave Obama assurances on both these fronts, committing not to militarize islands in the South China Sea, and vowing — “after years of denial in meeting after meeting,” as Russel put it — that China won’t conduct cyber-enabled theft for commercial gain.

A third issue Russel said was brought up during the Xi-Obama summit was “the constriction of political space and human rights in China,” which includes “increasing pressure on U.S. journalists — the New York Times, Bloomberg — academics, NGOs and institutions, and businesses that operate there.” He cited the new national security law under consideration by the Chinese government that includes “draconian penalties” and “excessively vague language,” saying it would have a chilling effect on U.S. businesses and institutions with a history of bringing economic benefits to the Chinese people.

Russel said that Chinese counterparts often “seek from us a willingness to paper over differences that is just not tenable in a democracy.” The past two summits between Xi, Obama, and other top diplomats, he suggested, were “successful in the sense that, and for the reason that, we didn't pull punches.”

“We proved that we can combine practical cooperation on issues that matter to both of us, with a direct, candid, and effective engagement on trying to solve problems where we can, narrow them where we can’t solve them, and manage them where we can’t narrow them,” Russel said.

Speaking about China’s rise on the world stage, Russel stated that the key for the American side is that this emergence “not be destabilizing” and that it occurs within the international system of rules.

“I know it sounds a little rich coming from an American,” he added. “But we can’t accept Chinese exceptionalism.”

Complete Video

Watch Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel speak at Asia Society in New York. 1 hr., 34 min. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.