SINGAPORE - Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan suggested Saturday that China was responsible for a range of destabilizing activities in Asia, stirring already heightened tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
In a wide-ranging speech in front of regional defence chiefs at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Shanahan called on Asian allies to increase their security spending, while emphasizing the United States’ commitment to the region.
He did not specifically name China when making accusations of “actors” destabilizing the region.
“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,” Shanahan said in his first major speech since taking over as acting defence secretary in January.
“If the trends in these behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths, sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful.”
His reference appeared to be to artificial islands built by China in the disputed South China Sea, a strategic waterway claimed almost wholly by Beijing.
While naming China, Shanahan said it was in Beijing’s interests to have a constructive relationship with the United States.
But he added: “Behavior 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 benefitted us all — including China.”
Shanahan’s comments come as the United States and China are locked in an escalating trade war and at odds over a range of issues from the South China Sea to democratic Taiwan, which China says is part of its sacred territory.
China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe is due to address Asia’s marquee security summit on Sunday when he is expected to criticize the United States over its implied support for a democratic Taiwan.
Wei, who is also the third-highest-ranked general in the People’s Liberation Army, is the first Chinese defense minister to visit the security conference since Liang Guanglie attended in 2011.
On Friday, Shanahan held talks with Wei that both sides called “constructive,” although their teams later reverted to type with critical comments on each other’s defence strategies.
Along with the expected warnings aimed at China, Shanahan referred to cooperation between the two countries in areas like military-to-military exchanges, counterpiracy and joint efforts to reduce the “extraordinary threat” posed by North Korea’s military ambitions.
Shanahan also called on U.S. allies to contribute more to their own defenses. Burden sharing, from Asia to Europe, has long been a demand of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“We need you to invest in ways that take more control over your sovereignty and your own ability to exercise sovereign choices.”
For years, American defense secretaries have used the Shangri-La conference’s podium to condemn China for its militarization of outposts in contested areas of the South China Sea and for conducting cyberespionage against U.S. technology programs. But they have balanced their criticism with calls for cooperation, stability and a rules-based order in the region.
Shanahan told reporters Friday that the U.S. needs to do a better job of describing its level of commitment to the region, including military exercises, training and other activities.
“I do think we have to up our game on talking about interactions,” he said, adding that the U.S. will have a larger presence in the region for various military exercises. “Our responsibility is to show them what we’re actually doing.”