News Analysis

US to China: Velvet glove or knuckle duster, you choose

SINGAPORE - Think of him as the good cop forced to turn bad cop in the interests of his nation.

In the days he worked for The Boeing Company, Acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan would often take people into the company's manufacturing facilities outside Seattle and point out, proudly, that one in three of the aircraft tails taking shape bore Chinese livery.

These days, his job is not to highlight the economic prospects of the China market but to call out Asia's dominant power for its assertiveness and global ambitions, and point to the potential hazards of allowing this to go unchecked.

This is what Mr Shanahan did on Saturday (June 1) at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the region's premier security conference.

"When a country makes a pledge and does not follow it, you should worry. When that same country makes no pledge… You should really worry," he told the overflow audience.

Both at the conference and in a report on the US Indo-Pacific Strategy simultaneously released to the media, the US laid out its own vision for the Indo-Pacific - one where it stands against nations that employ a "toolkit of coercion" to bend others to its will and at the same time, gathers allies as "respected partners finding security and prosperity in a mesh of interconnected peoples, economies, and security relationships".

China, he made it clear, did not fit in this group and his implied message was two-fold. First, as the Victorian-era jingoistic line goes, the US does not want to fight. But, by jingo, if it does - "we have the ships, we have the men, we have the money too".

The other signal he sent: It is not too late to repair the situation.

Indeed, this was the distilled meaning behind the dossier that Mr Shanahan handed to his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe when the two met in a 20-minute pull-aside shortly before Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his keynote speech on Friday night.

That dossier, which Mr Shanahan described as an "album", carried precise and graphic details that the US, and other Western intelligence agencies, had gathered on the secretive ship-to-ship transfers meant to thwart United Nations sanctions on North Korea, and other black operations unearthed in the region.

China, Mr Shanahan implied, could be as much a partner as any of the other countries in helping to check all these.

The US, he said, did not fear competition from China, provided it was played by internationally set rules. Neither did the US want to curb Chinese influence in the region.

"China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region too. But behaviour that erodes other nations' sovereignty and sows distrust of China's intentions must end, he added, calling such behaviour "myopic".

"I say now that China could still have a cooperative relationship with the United States."

SPH Brightcove Video
The Straits Times associate editor Ravi Velloor highlights key takeaways from the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday (June 1).

The opening day of defence summits are awaited with much anticipation because they have lately featured robust exchanges between the US and Chinese delegations. In the build up to this meeting, which comes amid worsening anti-China rhetoric from the Trump administration, more than one Western analyst had predicted that the man who presides over the world's most powerful military would deliver "fireworks".

Instead, Mr Shanahan largely avoided calling out China by name, leaving that to the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.

Ms Bonnie Glaser, a respected analyst from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the speech had the briefest references to the South China Sea she had heard in recent years from a US defence secretary at the Shangri-La dialogue.

Indeed, Mr Shanahan's remarks may even have caught the Chinese by surprise. Unlike the exchanges of the past, the military delegation from Beijing responded with a notably anodyne query about prospects for a "shared future".

None of this means that the US is easing up on its pressure on China, for which the Pentagon is both spear and shield if things really get worse. Just as India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi did last year on the morning of his keynote speech to the summit, Mr Shanahan also seemed to have dialled down the tenor of his remarks, perhaps as a concession to regional sentiment.

That said, he did not leave anyone in doubt about America's seriousness of purpose.

Many analysts, including military voices in Beijing, have recently pointed out that China's military expansion, particularly in the naval arena, outpaced that of every other major power.

Mr Shanahan had a counter to those who think Chinese military domination in the Indo-Pacific is inevitable.

Never before had the US Congress been so supportive of a presidency that was swivelling round to confront the threat to US dominance.

In the next fiscal year, the US would spend US$104 billion (S$143 billion) just on research and development alone, much of it aimed at "unique operational challenges in this theatre". This included artificial intelligence, hypersonics and laser. Another US$125 billion will go to operational readiness.

With 370,000 pairs of military-related boots in the region, 2000 aircraft, as well as 200 ships and submarines, the US Indo-Pacific Command has four times the assigned forces as any other geographical US command. And more is to come; including assets placed in space.

"The highest-end, most capable assets are being placed in the Indo-Pacific - right where they belong," he said, describing the region as "our priority theatre".

The choice he presented to countries in the region was that they could choose to walk with the US, or face the emerging challenges alone. Partners who pursued interoperability with the US as part of a regional security network would be able to access much of these technologies as well as the US investments and progress that would accompany them.

Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said at the 18th Shangri La Dialogue that the US did not fear competition from China, provided it was played by internationally set rules. PHOTO: REUTERS

Although the issues between the US and China will not go away, or be resolved too soon, the temperature was decidedly warmer when the US and Chinese delegations met at the ministerial lunch hosted by Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Asean defence ministers present at the meeting came away significantly reassured and some had trouble believing that they were in the midst of what could well turn out to be a crisis yet.

"If it were a silent move, you would not know there was a dispute," said Mr Ng.

Yet, the issue remains that regardless of how sensible the top echelons of militaries are, at the end of the day they are but the sword arm of the commander-in-chief. In America's case that currently is the very unpredictable Donald Trump, who turns on allies and foes alike at whim.

Just this week for instance, his Department of Treasury accomplished the unbelievable when it put Singapore, which runs a large trade deficit with the US, on a watch list of countries that manipulate their currencies to gain an unfair trade advantage. Other nations on the list include treaty allies Japan and South Korea, as well as Vietnam and Malaysia.

This disconnect between economics and geopolitics is one of the bizarre aspects of the Trump administration's grand strategy.

Three years ago, then-Defence Secretary Ash Carter described the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a high quality trade deal, as the economic equivalent of having one more aircraft carrier battle group.

Then Mr Trump came along and pulled the US out of TPP on his first day in office.

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