China-US relations

‘China, China, China’: Trump’s new Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan sets US defence priorities

  • Patrick Shanahan tells Pentagon staff to focus on the US National Defence Strategy that highlights the ‘Great Power competition’ with Russia and China
  • The strategy views China as ‘a strategic competitor’ seeking Indo-Pacific regional hegemony and to displace the US in global pre-eminence
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 12:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 9:46pm

Patrick Shanahan, the acting US defence secretary, singled out China as a key priority in a “great power competition” on his first full day in his new role at the Pentagon on Wednesday, continuing a course set by his predecessor.

Shanahan, who replaced James Mattis on Tuesday, told Pentagon staff members to focus on the National Defence Strategy, a broad review that highlights a new era of “Great Power competition” with Russia and China.

“While we are focused on ongoing operations, Acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember China, China, China,” an anonymous defence official was quoted as saying.

The US accuses Beijing of a continuing pattern of military and economic espionage and has criticised China's ambitious “Belt and Road” trade and infrastructure initiative as being a form of economic coercion.

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“In 2019, the National Defence Strategy remains our guide. America's military strength remains our focus,” Shanahan said in a New Year's message on Twitter. 

The national defence strategy, released by Mattis in January last year, describes China as “a strategic competitor” that “will continue to pursue a military modernisation program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future”.

“The most far-reaching objective of this defence strategy,” it continued, “is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.”

Shanahan provided his view of long-term competition with China and Russia while speaking at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association event last February.

“We all hear about how our competitiveness has eroded,” Shanahan said. “Our strategy is about how to sharpen and strengthen our competitiveness.”

He told the audience that “there are no such things as fair competitions – there’s just competition”. And he acknowledged that the US would “operate in a contested environment” in the great power rivalry.

“The National Defence Strategy is [Mattis’] strategy,” Shanahan said. “The department put it together, but it has his fingerprints, and we’re all behind it to bring it home."

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Shanahan attended Trump’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the president's first of 2019. 

Little known outside business and Washington circles, Shanahan takes the world stage at a time of tumultuous changes and unpredictable foreign policy moves under Trump.

Shanahan did not serve in the military but since July 2017 has been the deputy defence secretary. Before that, he spent more than 30 years at Boeing.

Among the most immediate issues on his plate will be the pace at which the US pulls 2,200 or so troops out of Syria, after Trump's decision last month to exit the war-torn country.

According to US officials, Trump is also considering a 50 per cent drawdown in Afghanistan – another move that has left some lawmakers and international allies fearing what might come next.

Shanahan also announced that Pentagon comptroller David Norquist would perform the duties of deputy secretary of defence.