SINGAPORE - In the midst of the United States' escalating rivalry with China that has set off alarm bells worldwide, acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan asserted that the Indo-Pacific region was a "priority theatre" where the US would support partner nations against domination attempts by any one nation.
"I am here to affirm the United States' enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and to the values that keep it secure and prosperous, free and open," he said in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday (June 1), the annual gathering of defence ministers, military officials and security experts in Singapore.
“The Indo-Pacific is our priority theatre. We are where we belong,” he said, underlining that the US has a “natural presence” in the Asia-Pacific.
“Our shared geography has spurred the integration and linkage of our economies: America’s annual two-way trade here is US$2.3 trillion (S$3.2 trillion), and US foreign direct investment is US$1.3 trillion, more than China’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s combined.”
While not mentioning China by name, his words often seemed to be directed at some attempts by Beijing to portray the US as an outside power provoking disquiet in the region.
In his speech, marked both by a hard line against China and the frequent reiteration of America's security, economic and trade linkages in the region, Mr Shanahan also called on Asia-Pacific nations to do their part to maintain their ability to make decisions in their own interest.
He touted the "real progress" the US was making to "usher in a new age of technology, partnerships, and posture that presents an unprecedented opportunity for our Indo-Pacific network of allies and partners."
“Partners who pursue interoperability with us as part of a regional security network will be able to access much of these technologies and benefit from the compounding effects of US investments and progress,” he said.
He also listed longstanding American security alliances in the region and noted that the Trump administration had reversed Obama-era budget cuts to invest in military modernisation.
"We are investing in the region. We are investing in you, and with you. And we need you to invest further in yourselves.
"We need you to invest in ways that take more control over your sovereignty and your own ability to exercise sovereign choices," he said.
In the process of building a shared security order, he said: “No one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific.”
CHALLENGES TO REGIONAL ORDER
Mr Shanahan’s speech was peppered with pointed criticism that the Trump administration has often raised against China which has acquired a higher profile in the region under President Xi Jinping.
"Some in our region are choosing to act contrary to the principles and norms that have benefited us all," he said, going on to describe what he called a "toolkit of coercion" that was manifested in a range of behaviours and activities throughout the Indo-Pacific.
These included militarising disputed areas, threatening the use of force to compel rivals into conceding claims, using influence operations to interfere in the domestic politics of other nations and undermining the integrity of elections, he said.
"If the trends in these behaviours continue, artificial features in the global commons could become toll booths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful."
Without mentioning Mr Xi’s signature project by name, Mr Shanahan also raised Washington's objections to China's US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative through which Beijing is investing in large infrastructure projects across Asia and Africa. The US has described these as "debt traps" through which China extends its strategic influence.
"Some seem to want a future where power determines place and debt determines destiny," he said, contrasting it with the US blueprint for a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific."
This includes the Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development, or the Build Act, enacted by Congress last year through which up to US$60 billion will be channelled into what the US says will be transparent and privately-steered projects.
“We know the inter-dependence of security and economics, that economic security is national security. That’s why we want the Indo-Pacific to remain free and open,” he said.
"The US does not want any country in this region to have to choose or forgo positive economic relations with any partner," he added.
He presented his Indo-Pacific vision as one that the US had long offered. "This is not new nor exclusively an American vision; this is an inclusive and enduring approach, embraced by almost all of us who call the Indo-Pacific home.
"Nations are empowered through their relationship with the US and others in this common bond. They remain free to choose their destiny, as strategic partners, exercising strategic independence.
"Regional institutions, like Asean, retain their centrality," he said in an acknowledgement of the South-east Asian grouping's insistence that Asean remain in the driver's seat in the region where both the US and China have vital roles to play.
COOPERATE AND COMPETE
China could still have a cooperative relationship with the US, he maintained. “It is in China’s interests to do so: no country has benefited more from the regional and global order than China, which has seen hundreds of millions lifted from poverty to increasing prosperity.
“We cooperate with China where we have an alignment of interests, from military-to-military dialogue to develop risk reduction measures, to tackling transnational threats such as counterpiracy, to enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea.
“And we compete with China where we must.
“But competition does not mean conflict. Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules,” he said.
China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region, too, he added.
“But behaviour that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.
“Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow, and parochial vision of the future, and we stand for the free and open order that has benefited us all - including China.”