WASHINGTON – Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said China continues to take steps to undermine “the rules-based international order” but that the U.S. would stress diplomacy rather than the military to try and correct Beijing’s behavior.
“We see this manifested in a range of behaviors and activities throughout the Indo-Pacific, a ‘toolkit of coercion,’ ” Shanahan said in his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum.
One day later, China said U.S. was the bad guy.
“Some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles, in the name of freedom of navigation,” Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, said at the forum. “The large-scale force projection and offensive operations in the region are the most serious destabilizing and uncertain factors in the South China Sea.”
The battle of words over the weekend left other defense ministers uneasy, according to news reports — unhappy at being cornered in perhaps choosing between the two superpowers.
At issue is China’s militerization of islands and man-made outcroppings in the South China and East China seas, despite promises not to do so.
That is something that the top U.S. military person said may be a fait accompli.
“To the extent that the military capabilities haven’t been increased in recent months, I assume that’s because the islands have now been developed to the point where they’ve provide the military capability that the Chinese requires them to have,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an appearance at Brookings Institution last week.
Dunford said any future action by China or others in the area should be checked with “diplomatic and economic steps that can be taken to hold people accountable,” as well as “other tools, primarily other tools, to deal with it.”
For Shanahan, the address was his first major speech since President Donald Trump said in May he would nominate him to be defense secretary.
“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 to the forum.
”If these trends in these behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful,” he said.
Shanahan told reporters traveling with him that he “won’t apologize for the way I framed some of my remarks, but we’re not going to ignore Chinese behavior” including theft of U.S. technology.
“I think in the past people have kind of tiptoed around that,” he said. “It’s not about being confrontational, it’s about being open and having a dialogue.”
Wei said that China has “limited defense facilities on the islands and reefs for self-defense” and that Washington is causing the problems, according to news reports.
Satellite photos dispute that characterization, showing heavy buildup of forces and weaponry.
“Where there are threats, there are defenses,” he said. “In face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defense facilities?”
He also said China would not promise to renounce the use of force to take Taiwan and that is will not “yield a single inch of the country’s sacred land, but it shall not seize anything from others either,” regarding the South China Sea islands.
“The PLA (People’s Libration Army) has no intention to cause anybody trouble, but it is not afraid to face up to troubles,” he said. “Should anyone risk crossing the bottom line, the PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies.”