US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has said that Washington will no longer “tiptoe” around China’s behaviour in Asia.
In his first major speech on the international stage, Shanahan on Saturday mixed sharp criticism of China and warnings of North Korea’s “extraordinary” threat with vows that the US will remain strongly committed to the Indo-Pacific region and is ready to invest billions of dollars in securing its stability.
“Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” he said, at the Shangri-La Dialogue conference in Singapore.
While he didn’t specifically name China in early parts of his speech at Asia’s biggest security gathering, he made clear who his target was, making pointed references to Beijing’s campaign to put advanced weapons systems on disputed islands in the region.
“If these trends in these behaviours continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful,” Shanahan said.
“We’re not going to ignore Chinese behaviour and I think in the past people have kind of tiptoed around that,” Shanahan said later, in answer to a question.
However, he also said he was keen to foster a military relationship with Beijing.
Shanahan’s remarks came as the United States and China remain locked in an escalating trade war and at odds over a range of security issues in Asia.
A senior Chinese military official responded to Shanahan’s comments by saying that the United States’ actions on Taiwan and the South China Sea were hardly conducive to maintaining stability in the region.
Shanahan said it was in Beijing’s interests to have a constructive relationship with the United States.
But he added: “Behaviour that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.”
“Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow, and parochial vision of the future, and we stand for the free and open order that has benefited us all – including China.”
US politicians said Shanahan’s speech was impressive.
“I was very impressed and I certainly am looking much more positively on potentially voting for him when his confirmation happens,” Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth told reporters.
The White House said last month that it plans to nominate Shanahan as defense secretary, a job he has been doing in an acting capacity since January.
His nomination, if and when it comes, will have to be confirmed by the US Senate.
“The way he laid out the facts and the United States’ position in a firm way, but very upfront, impressed me tremendously,” Duckworth added.
Shanahan said that he did not see the current trade dispute between China and the United States as a trade war, but rather just part of trade negotiations.
An increase in Chinese tariffs on most US imports on a $60bn target list took effect as planned on Saturday, after Washington’s own tariff increases.
Shanahan also became the latest senior US official to call out Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, saying in his speech that it was too close to the Chinese government.
The United States has accused Huawei of espionage, breaching trade sanctions against Iran and intellectual property theft. Huawei disputes all allegations.
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue – a two-day event – gathers defence ministers and top military officials from around the world.
While the forum is purely about security, the discussions are being held against a backdrop of Sino-US trade tensions and high-tech rivalry.