JAKARTA, Indonesia — Amid questions about the U.S. strategy for dealing with China, and as the Pentagon prepares to dispatch more troops to the Middle East, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan is in Asia this week on his first major international trip since being tapped by President Trump to hold the position permanently.
In a few days, Shanahan is expected to deliver a major policy speech at the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, detailing the Pentagon’s implementation of a 2018 strategy document that called for the United States to shift focus from counterterrorism toward competition with China and Russia. But his visit began just days after the Trump administration announced that it would send another 900 troops to the Middle East because of alleged threats from Iran.
Senior Pentagon officials deny that the Defense Department has been distracted by potential conflict in the Middle East. Shanahan told reporters traveling with him to Asia on Tuesday that he is “extremely disciplined that part of managing my time and the department’s time.”
“The most important thing we can do with the National Defense Strategy is execute it at this point,” Shanahan said. “We have the capacity to spin a lot of plates… There are strategic priorities and then there are operational priorities. And you have to be able to do both.”
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A senior defense official told reporters on Friday that Shanahan’s eight-day trip to the region — including to Shangri-La, the largest gathering of Asia-Pacific defense ministers — “underscores the importance and the commitment that we have to the region.”
“Our strategy and our commitment to the [Indo-Pacific] region is more comprehensive, it’s more than just military,” the official said.
The visit comes amid heightened tensions with China. The Trump administration has launched a burgeoning trade war, while the U.S. military has recently sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and conducted other operations meant to send various signals to Beijing.
Shanahan said Tuesday that he expected U.S. officials to discuss trade and security concerns with China on different diplomatic tracks.
“I think the two are separate and we can have a very candid discussions about intellectual property theft or militarization of the South China Sea,” he said. Trade negotiations “are difficult issues, but I don’t believe they’ll spill over into our dialogue and discussions on defense.”
There are tensions as well in the United States-Japan relationship, long a bulwark of U.S. security policy. On a visit to Tokyo earlier this week, President Trump publicly contradicted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the recent testing of short-range ballistic missiles in North Korea. Trump said that the recent test “doesn’t matter,” while Abe called it “a regrettable act” and a threat to Japanese security. On Tuesday, Shanahan appeared to back Abe’s position that the missile test violated United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Shanahan’s speech is expected to coincide with the release of a Pentagon report about efforts to follow the National Defense Strategy unveiled by then-Secretary Jim Mattis. It will lay out “how we’re making sure we’re investing right in armed forces capabilities, capacity, and geography across the region to maintain deterrence and respond to any contingency,” the senior defense official said. “It’s a lot more than freedom of navigation and overflight. It’s a lot more that Taiwan strait transits. It’s about using investments to empower like-minded countries to be able to defend their interests and be able to support our common vision.”
In December, when Shanahan took over for his hustled-out-the-door predecessor, he said that the Pentagon’s focus would be “China, China, China.” Now the acting secretary will meet with his Chinese almost-counterpart on the sidelines of Shangri-La. “The implementation of the national defense strategy is my top priority. China is the priority within the National Defense Strategy,” he said Tuesday.
Shanahan is also scheduled to visit Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, but officials laid out no specific deliverables from the eight-day trip. Asked what message he would have for the Chinese defense minister, Shanahan said the meeting was about having a dialogue.
“The value of these trips is really to spend time on the relationship. It’s the bilateral exchange and identifying priorities,” he said. “I’m not there to sell.”