By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China should not doubt the U.S. commitment to defend its Asian allies and the prospect of economic retaliation should also discourage Beijing from using force to pursue territorial claims in Asia in the way Russia has in Crimea, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
Daniel Russel, President Barack Obama's diplomatic point man for East Asia, said it was difficult to determine what China's intentions might be, but Russia's annexation of Crimea had heightened concerns among U.S. allies in the region about the possibility of China using force to pursue its claims.
"The net effect is to put more pressure on China to demonstrate that it remains committed to the peaceful resolution of the problems," Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Russel said the retaliatory sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States, the European Union and others should have a "chilling effect on anyone in China who might contemplate the Crimea annexation as a model."
This was especially so given the extent of China's economic interdependence with the United States and its Asia neighbors, Russel said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about Russel's comments, said he was confusing two different issues.
"No matter whether the Ukraine issue or the South China Sea issue, China has many times expressed its position. Why must this U.S. official mention the two issues in the same breath, and obstinately say these things about China?" Hong told a daily news briefing on Friday.
Russel added that while the United States did not take a position on rival territorial claims in East Asia, China should be in no doubt about Washington's resolve to defend its allies if necessary.
"The president of the United States and the Obama administration is firmly committed to honoring our defense commitments to our allies," he said.
While Washington stood by its commitments - which include defense treaties with Japan, the Philippines and South Korea - Russel said there was no reason why the rival territorial claims could not be resolved by peaceful means.
He said he hoped the fact that the Philippines had filed a case against China on Sunday at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague would encourage China to clarify and remove the ambiguity surrounding its own claims.
Russel termed the deployment of large numbers of Chinese vessels in its dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea "problematic" and said that Beijing had taken "what to us appears to be intimidating steps."
"It is incumbent of all of the claimants to foreswear intimidation, coercion and other non-diplomatic or extra-legal means," he said.
In Asia, China also has competing territorial claims with Japan and South Korea, as well as with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan in potentially energy-rich waters.
Obama is due to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines from April 22, when he is expected to stress his commitment to a rebalancing of U.S. strategic and economic focus towards the Asia-Pacific region in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Bernard Orr)