China still top defence priority for Washington: US official

US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan believes that the US and China can still have "very candid discussions" over intellectual property theft, the militarisation of the South China Sea or any other impending issue.
US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan believes that the US and China can still have "very candid discussions" over intellectual property theft, the militarisation of the South China Sea or any other impending issue.PHOTO: AFP

US acting defence chief says he looks forward to talks with Chinese counterpart in S'pore

China remains a top defence priority for the United States despite mounting tensions with Iran over Teheran's missile programme and nuclear ambitions.

"The implementation of the National Defence Strategy is my top priority (and) China is the priority within that National Defence Strategy," said US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

The US official added that this was why he is looking forward to talks with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, which begins today in Singapore.

"It will be another opportunity to meet with General Wei," Mr Shanahan told reporters on Wednesday while en route to Indonesia for bilateral talks as part of his visit to Asia.

"The nice thing about being able to meet face to face is that we will probably be able to talk about how do we really have an ongoing dialogue. To me, an ongoing dialogue communication is very important."

His comments on China come amid testy relations between Washington and Beijing in the past year - first over the disputed South China Sea, and more recently due to an intensifying trade war between the two economic giants.

Mr Shanahan said he believes that the two are separate issues, and the US and China can still have "very candid discussions" over intellectual property theft, the militarisation of the South China Sea or any other impending issue.

 
 
 

"The trade runs a separate track and they will solve that - it is too important not to solve, but those are difficult negotiations," he added.

"I want to identify areas where we can cooperate... and then we will probably talk about the things that I think are important for us to be transparent and candid about."

Some observers have questioned whether recent developments in Iran would detract from the Pentagon's plan on Russia and China.

"The greatest way to kill the National Defence Strategy and its focus on long-term competition and preparing for the possibility of conflict with China and Russia is to start another war in the Middle East," former Pentagon official Mara Karlin told Reuters.

In January last year, the US military placed China and Russia at the centre of its new National Defence Strategy, which at the time represented a marked shift in priorities after a war on terror that lasted over 15 years.

When Mr Shanahan was appointed Acting Defence Secretary a year later by President Donald Trump, he told US officials to focus on "China, China, China".

On Wednesday, Mr Shanahan said that while the threats in the Middle East and North Korea may "consume time", the Trump administration will not let up on Russia and China.

"This gets back to the alliances and the relationships that we want to forge, and they don't happen in weeks or days or months - it really takes years, and it is that dedicated time that allows those things to happen and I invest that time," he said.

During his address at the annual defence forum in Singapore this weekend, Mr Shanahan is expected to reassure allies in the Asia-Pacific of US commitment to the region.

Asked if the US has the capacity to deter Beijing's military build-up in the South China Sea, Mr Shanahan said: "Look at our presence and look at the investment that we are going to make in capability."

Yesterday, Mr Shanahan met Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu in Jakarta where they discussed, among other things, cooperation in defence and the "Our Eyes" intelligence-sharing platform among six Asean states, and the South China Sea disputes.

Mr Ryamizard said he looked forward to Indonesia's Special Forces resuming ties with the US military, after Washington banned the commandos - better known as Kopassus - in 1999 from bilateral military training over allegations of human rights abuses in then East Timor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2019, with the headline 'China still top defence priority for Washington: US official'. Print Edition | Subscribe