Pentagon nominee focuses on China despite Mideast tensions

Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press
In this March 20, 2019 file photo, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Shanahan arrived Wednesday in Asia on a high-profile weeklong trip that is intended to reinforce that China is the administration’s main foreign policy priority.

Jakarta, Indonesia – Tensions may be high in the Middle East, but the man chosen by President Donald Trump to run the Pentagon is turning his focus to China.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrived Wednesday in Asia on a high-profile weeklong trip that is intended to reinforce that China is the administration’s main foreign policy priority. It comes as the U.S. deploys thousands of more troops and military assets to counter Iran in the Middle East, and will test the Pentagon nominee ahead of his expected Senate confirmation hearing.

In his five months as acting secretary, Shanahan has tried to focus on implementing a new national defense strategy that shifts away from fighting extremist groups to what he calls “great power” competition with China and Russia.

But instead, much of his time has been spent juggling a host of other issues: Iranian threats, North Korean missile launches, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the battle against Islamic State militants, and a divisive struggle to cobble together billions of dollars for Trump’s wall on the southern border.

Even as he prepared for the Asia trip, Shanahan shuttled back and forth to the White House for meetings on how much more military might he should send to the Middle East in coming weeks to protect American forces and interests from Iranian threats.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Asia on Wednesday, Shanahan acknowledged the competing interests, but insisted he spends “quite a bit of time” on China issues.

“Implementation of the national defense strategy is my top priority,” he said, adding that the department has “the capacity to spin a lot of plates.”

Trump has not yet sent Shanahan’s formal nomination as defense chief to Capitol Hill, but he is expected to do so in the coming days. If that happens, the Senate could hold a hearing and vote on Shanahan’s confirmation some time later next month.

The acting defense chief’s Asia trip will take him to Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, where he will attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, a national security conference. And he said it will give him a week “solely dedicated to the issues of the region.”

One key meeting at the Singapore conference will be with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. For the first time since 2011, China is sending a top level leader to Shangri-La, and it’s unclear what triggered the change.

Observers suggest the move underscores Beijing’s desire to re-engage with neighbors in the region, perhaps at a time it believes the U.S. is distracted by strains in the Middle East and hampered a bit by Shanahan’s status as acting secretary.

Asked about his goals for the meeting, Shanahan said he wants to identify areas where the two nations can cooperate, and “talk about things that I think are important for us to be transparent and candid about.”

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have spiked in recent months, as the Trump administration set off a trade war with China, raising tariffs on billions of dollars of imports. The U.S. also sanctioned Chinese tech giant Huawei and approved a weapons sale to Taiwan, the self-ruled island the Communist mainland claims as its own territory.

Two U.S. government reports this year criticized China over its militarization of manmade islands in the South China Sea and its continued campaign to steal high-tech trade secrets from defense programs. And defense intelligence officials expressed worries that China’s growing military might could lead to an attack against Taiwan.