News from Shangri-La 2019: Shanahan's test; DOD's INDOPAC report; UAE's tanker request

A special edition of D Brief brings news and notes from the 2019 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The U.S.-China relationship always dominates headlines at Shangri-La. They’re the big dogs, after all. Last year was a bit of an anomaly, when North Korea commanded the spotlight in anticipation at the time of President Trump and Kim Jong-un meeting shortly after the gathering.

What’s different this year: For the first time in a decade, Beijing sent one of its high-ranking officials, China’s minister of national defense, Gen. Wei Fenghe, to give a keynote speech on Sunday morning (local time; Singapore is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Time), notes Prashanth Parameswaran in The Diplomat. But first U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan gets the traditional opening keynote slot, on Saturday morning. Here’s video of Shanahan getting to work, entering his first delegation meetings on Friday morning, posted by Singapore’s defense minister Ng Eng Hen.

Shanahan and China’s Wei already met briefly on Friday. Here’s a picture from Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams, who flew in on the SecDef’s plane to cover his four-country Asia trip. And more from Reuters’ Idris Ali, here,

Prelude: Just before this meeting, "Shanahan tells reporters that Chinese militarization of the islands in the South China Sea ‘looks like it’s a bit overkill. Surface to air missiles. Long runways. Seems excessive" to be defensive,’“ Williams tweeted. "As for Shanahan's speech tomorrow, he says he'll lay out what concrete steps the U.S. has taken to advance its strategy in the Indo-Pacific. And, he adds, ‘this part might be viewed as spicy...I call out good behaviors and bad behaviors.’ Does that mean China? Shanahan says yes.” Read her thread, here.

There’s more. Reuters has seen a draft of a new 55-page DOD report on Indo-Pacific also being released on Saturday morning here that calls out China. “The People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order,” Reuters reports. For a preview of what’s behind that report and Shanahan’s speech, check out the transcript of this press conference in May with the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randy Schriver, on China, here.

About that Acting SecDef: Shanahan has not been confirmed by the Senate, but the man sure is acting like he is. Does it matter? The U.S. has never sent an acting cabinet official to such a high-profile event. It’s a big test for Shanahan. If he makes no news, handles the press well, meets with the Chinese without causing an international incident, delivers his speech and gets out of Singapore unscathed, his nomination is all but assured.

If he screws it up, will Senate Armed Services Committee members – particularly the Republican majority – care enough to remove him from contention, take the political hit, and throw the U.S. military further into leadership disarray? Well, that’s unlikely, given that SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., already has backed Shanahan’s nomination publicly. It would take one helluva a gaffe for Republicans to turn heel now, we agree, right?

Enter the USS John S. McCain: “Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan is walking a fine line,” is Williams’ lede in her Friday dispatch from Singapore detailing why the yet-to-be-officially-nominated placeholder has put himself in a precarious position. The scandal—White House staff asked the Navy to hide sight or mention of the late-senator’s namesake ship during Trump’s Japan visit earlier this week—“has reignited simmering questions about Shanahan’s leadership. Now, Shanahan must soothe the outraged senators who will judge his fitness to serve as SecDef, even as he avoids explicitly criticizing Trump’s White House for issuing the directive.” But so far, it seems Shanahan has done just that. More here.

“As in medicine, the first rule of Shangri-La is to do no harm.” writes Joel Wuthnow, research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University, in National Interest. He says Shanahan’s big speech has to strike a balance somewhere between “vanilla rhetoric” and something stronger to “keep China on the defensive.” Since Shanahan said “China, China, China,” Asia watchers have wanted more, he says and several delegates told Kevin Baron, at #SLD19.

“He should connect with the Shangri-La audience, which will include representatives from many smaller and less developed Asian countries, about the particular challenges that China poses to weaker and more vulnerable states,” Wuthnow writes. In other words, Shanahan should call China out on their South China Sea intimidation (Wuthnow calls it “continued Chinese bullying in the Asian littoral”), on Uighur “concentration camps,” and more.

From Defense One

Naval Task Groups Are Proliferating in the Indo-Pacific // IISS’ Nick Childs: France’s aircraft carrier is back in the region, leading a small flotilla, and it’s not alone.

Still 'Acting' Shanahan Faces Test With China Face-off and USS McCain Scandal // Katie Bo Williams: Raising the stakes for the would-be SecDef, the White House has not yet sent formal nomination paperwork to the Senate.

Welcome to this special Shangri-La edition of The D Brief by Kevin Baron, Bradley Peniston, and Marcus Weisgerber, coming to your inbox direct from the largest annual conference of Asia-Pacific defense ministers, in Singapore.

Hundreds of stakeholders, from heads of state to military commanders, legislators, government staffers, policy academics, and industry corporate leaders have gathered for valuable face time, policy shifts, and, well, news on the ever-changing security balance of the vast region. New this year: Defense One is working with IISS to cover Shangri-La and create a new editorial series featuring the extensive research of its annual Military Balance+ database of the world’s capabilities, through articles, podcasts, events and newsletters like this. We hope you’ll find it informative and useful.

Thanks for reading! And if you like what you see, consider subscribing to Defense One's weekday D Brief here.

What the U.S. Delegation Will Be Talking About

U.S. officials attending the Shangri-La Dialogue are expected to tout America’s engagement in the region and the $1.8 trillion in bilateral trade it’s conducted the region since 2017 when in unveiling a new Indo-Pacific Strategy. “This vision focuses on three areas: economics, security, and governance, and relies heavily on cooperation with like-minded allies and partners throughout the region,” a U.S. State Department official said.Last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pledged $300 million in additional security funding for the region. Among the countries slated to get that money: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

“The funding is focused on four areas of cooperation that are critical to ensuring a free, open, and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific: maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, peacekeeping capabilities, and countering transnational crime,” the State Department official said.

U.S. officials are also expected to continue their courtship with India as Washington looks to deepen ties with New Delhi. A year ago, the U.S. military changed the name of U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to recognize those deepening ties.

In September, the U.S. and India signed a military communications pact, which the State Department official said “will facilitate greater interoperability between our forces, enhance information and intelligence sharing, and ensure that India has access to top-tier U.S. military technology.”

U.S. defense firms have been angling for opportunities to sell to India, which is expected to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new weapons in the coming years. U.S. and European firms are currently competing to sell fighter jets India.

UAE Says It Wants Boeing Tankers: The Middle Eastern nation wants three Boeing-made KC-46 tankers, the same ones being purchased by the U.S. Air Force, a Jeff Shockey, the company’s vice president of global sales for defense, space and security, executive told reporters on the sidelines of the Shangri La Dialogue, Defense News reports.

Why this matters: UAE already has three Airbus A330 tankers, according to the IISS Military Balance. The European tanker is the main competitor to the KC-46 in the international market. In November 2016, the U.S. military stopped refueling UAE and Saudi Arabian warplanes part of a bombing campaign in Yemen.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: In the opening dinner’s keynote address, Lee said smaller countries like his are watching U.S.-China tensions with worry, and he let them have it, according to Defense One’s Kevin Baron, who was tweeting in the room. “Like everyone else, we in Singapore are anxious,” he said, recounting the city-state’s unique history. “Southeast Asia is no stranger to the great game of nations,” he said. “How the two work out their tensions and frictions will define the international environment for decades to come.” In short, China’s military build-up is natural and understandable, but Beijing should resolve disputes “peacefully...through diplomacy and compromise” not force, or the threat of force. The United States, for its part, must learn to accept some truths. “The bottom line is that the U.S. and China need to work together to bring the global system up to date and not upend the system,” Lee said. “The fundamental problem between the U.S. and China is a mutual lack of strategic trust,” but tensions can’t continue to rise. “To go down the present path would be a serious mistake on both sides.” Lee’s speech was lengthy but unflinching. “It’s the responsibility of political leaders to head off these extreme outcomes.” Read more from the Straits Times, here.

Industry in Attendance
The roll of defense executives at Shangri-la includes Leanne Caret, CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, Mr. Linden P. Blue, CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.