WASHINGTON (AP) - China's coercive efforts to enforce its territorial claims in disputed waters are not just raising tensions but damaging its international standing, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. <br />
Top diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, was speaking at a congressional hearing, two weeks ahead of high-level talks in Beijing, where he said Washington would seek to build ``strategic trust'' with China and economic cooperation, but would also push for the release of political prisoners. <br />
Appearing before lawmakers, Russel criticized China's recent actions in the East and South China Seas which he said had left its neighbors ``understandably alarmed.'' <br />
China is locked in a standoff with Vietnam after deploying oil rigs in waters claimed by nations, and has running territorial disputes with U.S. treaty allies, the Philippines and Japan, that have increased fears of a military skirmish that could rock the region's fast-growing economies. <br />
``A pattern of unilateral Chinese actions in sensitive and disputed areas is raising tensions and damaging China's international standing,'' Russel said in prepared comments for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. <br />
``China, as a strong and rising power, should hold itself to a high standard of behavior. To willfully disregard diplomatic and other peaceful ways of dealing with disagreements and disputes in favor of economic or physical coercion is destabilizing and dangerous,'' he said. <br />
China says its expansive territorial claims have a historical basis and denies acting provocatively, and it looks dimly on Washington speaking out on the issue. While the U.S. is not a claimant itself, it says it has a national interest in sustaining open navigation and trade through those waters. <br />
U.S.-China relations have also been strained by U.S. accusations of cyber espionage, and Russel said the U.S. would raise its concerns over theft of intellectual property and trade secrets at next month's Strategic and Economic Dialogue, to be attended by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. <br />
Washington upped the ante last month when it charged five Chinese military officials with hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secrets accusations that Beijing rejects.
A blustery winter storm dumped snow and ice across the West on Wednesday, making driving treacherous in the mountains from California to the Rockies and forcing residents and party-goers in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year's.
House Republican leaders rallied around one of their own, Whip Steve Scalise, on Tuesday after he said he regrets speaking 12 years ago to a white supremacist organization and condemns the views of such groups.
President Vladimir Putin's chief political foe was convicted along with his brother on Tuesday in a fraud case widely seen as a vendetta by the Kremlin, triggering one of Russia's boldest anti-government demonstrations in years.
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