The United States raised a notable and sensitive issue at the Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend in Singapore, where it warned China on Saturday against threatening the sovereignty of its neighbors.
The forum gathered the defense ministers and top military officials from around the world, so its discussions are consequential.
Speaking through acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, the US told the forum:Advertisements
“China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region…. But behavior 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.”
Shanahan added that the US is willing to cooperate with China and welcomes competition. “Competition does not mean conflict,” he said. “Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules.”
Until this statement, it had been difficult to decipher America’s precise intentions or objectives in the region because of changes and lurches in its defense and foreign policy. Under President Barack Obama, the talk was about a pivot to Asia and rebalancing. Under President Donald Trump, the policy change has to be fully explained, except for the fact that President Trump has held summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Secretary Shanahan’s words in Singapore address the concerns of countries in the Asia Pacific over China’s militarization of the South China Sea. China has built installations to strengthen its presence in the area and has run roughshod over the rival claims of various other Asian countries, notably Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Philippines has much to say in this regard because of intrusions into its Unclos 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Shanahan disclosed something new at the forum. He said the US was investing heavily in the Indo-Pacific region to maintain its military superiority and capability to defend its Asian allies.
“The Indo-Pacific is our priority theater. We are here where we belong. We are investing in this region.”
He revealed that the Pentagon has requested $104 billion globally — its biggest ever — for research and development in the next fiscal year and $125 billion in operational readiness.
China replied quickly at the Shangri-La forum during a meeting between its Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe and Shanahan on the sidelines of the conference.
A Chinese defense ministry spokesman said the two defense secretaries had reached some consensus on issues of common concern, adding that Wei stressed the Taiwan issue during the meeting. China’s ruling Communist Party maintains that Taiwan is part of China.
Wei said that on the issue of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the US should not underestimate the determination, will and ability of the Chinese military.
As a matter both of principle and prudence, it is welcome and good news that the US has professed keen interest in the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific region. That US move is a statement that no country should delude itself into thinking that it can achieve political objectives by military force.
It could also have a moderating effect on any growing militarization efforts amid rival claims in the region.