WASHINGTON — The new defense secretary sounded a familiar tune in a meeting with top staff at the top of the morning: China, China, China.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told senior staff that China remains a prime focus of challenges for 2019, underscoring increasing Pentagon concerns about the growing aggressiveness of Beijing in south Asia.
Shanahan talked China on Wednesday morning, Pentagon officials told reporters — reiterating similar remarks Shanahan made to Pentagon reporters last week.
His emphasis on China came as Chinese President Xi Jinping used his New Year’s message to announce that Taiwan “must and will be reunited with China,” according to news reports. Such statements usually ramp up prospects for a confrontation with the U.S.
Bejing considers Taiwan, which consists of a group of islands, a renegade province that eventually must be restored within control of the mainland.
Shanahan became acting defense secretary at 11:59 p.m. Monday after a formal, scripted telephone call to him from outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“Under the direction of President [Donald] Trump, the Department of Defense remains focused on safeguarding our nation. We have deep respect for Secretary Mattis’ lifetime of service, and it has been a privilege to serve as his deputy secretary,” Shanahan said Tuesday in a statement sent to reporters.
“As acting secretary of defense, I now look forward to working with President Trump to carry out his vision alongside strong leaders including the service secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the combatant commanders, and senior personnel in the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” Shanahan said.
“The Department of Defense continues to be one of our nation’s bedrock institutions. Our foundational strength lies in the remarkable men and women who volunteer to serve our country and protect our freedoms, while making immense personal sacrifice. It is an honor to work with such a dedicated team committed to the greatness of our nation,” he said.
Shanahan can serve as acting secretary for 210 days before a Senate confirmation is needed.
Mattis eschewed any departure ceremony and left the Pentagon Monday without fanfare.
In his farewell message, he quoted President Abraham Lincoln’s words to General Ulysses Grant, while praising members of the Defense Department.
“Let nothing which is transpiring, change, hinder, or delay your military movements, or plans,” Mattis quoted Lincoln’s February 1865 telegram to Grant.
“Our Department’s leadership, civilian and military, remains in the best possible hands,” Mattis said. “I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life. Our Department is proven to be at its best when the times are most difficult.
“It has been my high honor to serve at your side,” he said. “May God hold you safe in the air, on land, and at sea.”
Mattis resigned suddenly on Dec. 19, 2018. He had offered to remain on the job through the end of February 2019, but Trump told the defense secretary to leave by the end of the year.
Before he departed, Mattis accepted the resignation of Dana White, who was the chief Pentagon spokesperson. It was announced Wednesday that Marine Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman, who was named in the fall to be the on-camera face of the Pentagon, has been reassigned. He was to begin briefing reporters in February.
Charles Summers, who was White’s deputy, has become the acting Pentagon spokesperson.