SINGAPORE – In his first major public appearance in Asia, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said the US would no longer “ignore Chinese behavior” in the Asia-Pacific region, calling its activity a “tool kit of coercion.”
Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Shanahan also said that, despite China’s militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea, its alleged attempts to conduct cyberattacks on other nations and its engagement in “predatory economics and debt-for-sovereignty deals,” he wanted a better military-to-military relationship.
“I think in the past people have tiptoed around” Chinese activity in the region, the acting defense secretary told the audience during the question-and-answer period after his remarks. “It’s not about being confrontational. It’s about being open and having a dialogue.”
In describing China during his address before defense leaders in Asia, Shanahan said that “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.”
But later on in his 45-minute speech, Shanahan said there were areas where China “could still have a cooperative relationship with the United States,” such as counter-piracy and enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea.
A day earlier Shanahan held a 20-minute meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the conference. He said he gave the Chinese defense minister a book of images of ship-to-ship transfers of oil near China, a common way that North Korea has allegedly skirted sanctions.
“China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region, too. But behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end,” Shanahan said. “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.”
Historically, China has defended its activities in the region, saying it is providing economic support to other Asian nations through infrastructure projects. It has said it has sovereignty over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters and that facilities it has built there are for defensive and civilian purposes. Several other Asian governments make partial claims in the sea.
China has denied involvement in cyberattacks and said it is a victim of such activity.
Shanahan also said that while the US enjoys strong relationships in the region, allies need to share more of the burden. The Trump administration has long pushed for European nations to invest 2 percent of their gross domestic product in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, calling the US contributions to the alliance unfair.
“We are investing in you, and with you. And we need you to invest further in yourselves,” Shanahan said. “We need you to invest in ways that take more control over your sovereignty and your own ability to exercise sovereign choices.”
In response to his meeting with Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, Shanahan said he saw “a lot of potential” in the military relationship between the two countries. Yet he also described China’s buildup on disputed islands in the South China Sea as “overkill” if intended as a defensive measure.
A speech by Gen. Wei scheduled for Sunday could overshadow the US acting defense chief, who has been in the job since Jan. 1. Gen. Wei hasn’t attended the conference since 2011.
Shanahan made only a passing reference to North Korea in his prepared remarks, as talks between the two nations have stalled.
“We acknowledge that North Korea has neared a point where it could credibly strike regional allies, US territory and our forward-deployed forces. North Korea remains an extraordinary threat and requires continued vigilance,” he said.