SINGAPORE — U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Saturday denounced China’s efforts to steal technology from other nations and militarize man-made outposts in the South China Sea as a “toolkit of coercion,” saying Beijing’s bad behavior must end.
In his first major speech on the international stage, Shanahan mixed sharp criticism of China and warnings of North Korea’s “extraordinary” threat with vows that the U.S. will remain strongly committed to the Indo-Pacific region and is ready to invest billions of dollars in securing its stability.
While he didn’t specifically name China in early parts of his speech, 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 the trends in these behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful,” Shanahan said.
His remarks underscore America’s frayed relations with China, as the Trump administration wages a trade war with Beijing, imposes sanctions on Chinese tech giant Huawei and approves a weapons sale to Taiwan, the self-ruled island the Communist mainland claims as its own territory. And they reflect America’s new national defense strategy that declared great power competition with China and Russia as top priorities.
Shanahan’s speech on Saturday is also arguably an audition to both the world and U.S. top leaders in Congress, as his nomination for permanent secretary has still not been sent to Capitol Hill by Trump.
And listening closely in the audience were nervous allies and partners in the region who are worried about the economic impact of the U.S.-China trade dispute and the political blowback of America’s complaints about Beijing’s rapid progress in hypersonic weapons, nuclear technology and space launches.
“No one nation can – or should – dominate the Indo-Pacific,” Shanahan told the conference.
He added that the U.S. is willing to cooperate with China and welcomes competition, but said behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.
“Competition does not mean conflict,” he said. “Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules.”