In an anticipated major policy address in Singapore on June 1, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned China that “behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.”

At the same time, America’s top defense official stopped short of demanding countries take sides in the US-China economic and military face-off and said that there is still a chance for the two superpowers to come to terms.

“The United States does not want any country in this region to have to choose or forgo positive economic relations with any partner,” Shanahan said, adding in a veiled reference to China that “some in our region are choosing to act contrary to the principles and norms that have benefitted us all.”

US officials had flagged that Shanahan would label the region a “priority” theater, an obvious fact given the sheer span of the Indo-Pacific and given the United States’ pre-existing global military reach.

“In the past we didn’t have the resources and the funding,” Shanahan said, talking up what officials had hinted in the run-up to the speech would be a revamped Indo-Pacific policy.

As Shanahan’s speech ended, the US Defense Department released a new “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report,” which accused China of seeking “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and, ultimately global preeminence in the long term.”

Without naming China, Shanahan cited a “a toolkit of coercion” – listing US grievances about Chinese activity in the region, including “deploying advanced weapons systems to militarize disputed areas” and “state-sponsored theft of other nations’ military and civilian technology.”

“No one nation can – or should – dominate the Indo-Pacific,” Shanahan said. Asked if the US-China face-off was deteriorating, he replied: “Is there face-off? I pick up a newspaper and I see a trade war, I don’t see a trade war, I see trade negotiations that are going on.”

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks with Chinese defense officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, May 31, 2019. Photo: Simon Roughneen

Ian Storey of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a regional political and economics research organization based in Singapore, said Shanahan’s “speech was part reassurance, part calling out China, it held out the hope that the US and China could resolve their differences.”

“The expectation was that he would get into more detail about operationalizing the free and open Indo-Pacific, which he didn’t really do,” Storey said.

Shanahan was speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defense ministers from Asia, Europe and North America held in Singapore and run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British security think-tank.

Among the audience was Shanahan’s Chinese defense counterpart Wei Fenghe, who will speak on Sunday morning and is expected to tout the benefits of close relations with China, which is expected to overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy over the coming decade.

Though the two defense ministers had what Shanahan said was “a very good” meeting on Friday night, though Wei was said to have raised what he perceived as “un-constructive” US words and actions over Taiwan.

Tensions between the two giants over the self-ruling island China sees as a renegade province are likely to rise in the coming days.

US Vice-President Mike Pence is set to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown with what could be a reprise of a hard-hitting October 2018 speech that claimed that China “wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.”

An F18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea, April 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Karen Lema
An F-18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea, April 10, 2018. Photo: Twitter

The term “Indo-Pacific” was introduced into the diplomatic lexicon by Japan more than a decade ago, but only took off after the Trump administration sought to use it as a replacement for the longer-standing “Asia-Pacific” – a rhetorical signal of a nascent anti-Chinese grouping loosely known as the “quad” encompassing India, Japan and Australia.

It remains to be seen to what extent other regional countries fall in line with the US, particularly those in the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), several of which have close military and economic ties with both China and the US.

At the launch of a regional security report on Friday, the IISS’s William Choong cautioned that though ASEAN has adopted the Indo-Pacific term, “what ASEAN understands is different from what the US thinks.”

Opening the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Friday night, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said smaller countries preferred not to have to choose sides in great-power disputes and appealed to the two giants to come to terms, claiming that “there is no irreconcilable ideological divide between the US and China.”

One of the main theaters of Chinese-US rivalry is the South China Sea, most of which China claims, not only putting it at odds with neighboring claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines but threatening to undermine the sea’s status as an international waterway.

In response to China’s claims and its construction and militarization of artificial islands, the US continues to undertake so-called freedom of navigation operations on the sea, while last week a group of senators raised the prospect of sanctions on businesses with ties to China’s military operations in the South China Sea.

Lee said China’s activities in the sea should be done “through diplomacy and compromise rather than force or the threat of force, while giving weight to the core interests and rights of other countries.”

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the opening of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore, May 31, 2019. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Shanahan’s speech comes as the US and China impose new tariffs on each other’s exports, with 25% duties imposed on US$200 billion worth of Chinese exports to the US and on $60 billion of America’s sales to China, after US President Donald Trump’s May 15 announcement on Twitter that 10% tariffs on Chinese goods imports would be increased.

Concerning the trade and technology disputes that have recently dominated US-China relations, including fifth-generation (5G) telecom technology, Shanahan said: “I don’t like when intellectual property is stolen, there’s a host of issues we have to address.

“Huawei is too close to the government,” he said, referring to laws that require Chinese businesses to share information with the government if so required. “China has national policies and laws where data is required to be shared. That is too much risk for the department.”

The stakes in the technology and trade war were further raised on Friday by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who suggested during a visit to long-standing ally Germany that countries that deal with Huawei, the Chinese 5G market pioneer, could mean being cut off from some intelligence sharing.

“We can’t permit private-citizen data from the United States or national-security data from the United States to go across networks that we don’t have confidence, that we don’t view as trusted networks,” Pompeo said.

Last month, the US announced new restrictions on Huawei that have forced some technology companies to rethink ties with the mobile tech giant, but Asian countries such as Malaysia have stated that arrangements with Huawei will remain intact.

As its economic and strategic face-off with China intensifies, the US has increasingly adopted a “with us or against us” stance in how third countries deal with Huawei, prompting concerns that this approach could be extended to military and diplomatic ties.

“I thought it was smart that the secretary did not play into the ‘with us or against us’ approach” in his speech, said IISS deputy director general Kori Schake, a former Pentagon and State Department official. “American interests are best served by saying we’re not going to make our friends choose.”