Pentagon Chief: Beijing’s South China Sea Military Occupation ‘Overkill, Excessive’

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan delivers remarks during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on May 27, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan met with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a major Asian security summit held in Singapore.

U.S. officials described their meeting as “constructive and productive,” while the Chinese complained about “unconstructive” U.S. opposition to Beijing’s agenda, such as American support for Taiwan.

Looming over the talks between Shanahan and Wei was the impending release of a Pentagon report on Indo-Pacific strategy said to be highly critical of China’s actions across the Pacific region. The Pentagon document states that China “undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.”

Shanahan said his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday will roll out the Pentagon report, previewing his remarks as a “spicy” effort to “call out good behaviors, bad behaviors.” He said one of those bad behaviors is China’s militarization of disputed South China Sea islands.

“They argue that it is defensive,” Shanahan told reporters. “It looks like it’s a bit overkill: surface-to-air missiles, long runways – I mean, it seems excessive.”

Shanahan’s criticism echoed that of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who on Wednesday pointed out that China reneged on a promise Communist Party leader Xi Jinping made to then-President Barack Obama in 2016 to avoid militarizing the islands.

“What we see today are 10,000-foot runways, ammunition storage facilities, routine deployment of missile defense capabilities, aviation capabilities, and so forth,” Dunford said. “So clearly they have walked away from that commitment.”

For his part, Wei said he and Shanahan found common ground on issues such as denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, but he criticized recent “negative words and deeds” of the United States regarding Taiwan.

“On the issue of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the U.S. should not underestimate the determination of the Chinese military, will or ability,” said Wei, alluding to China’s persistent threats to use military force against Taiwan if it declares independence from the mainland. The United States is stepping up efforts to help the Taiwanese defend themselves against such an attack. China was outraged this week when White House National Security Advisor John Bolton met with the chief of Taiwan’s National Security Council, a high-level meeting unprecedented in the past 40 years.

Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow William Choong anticipated a “clash of two visions” at the summit, with Shanahan presenting the American and Japanese ideal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” while China pushes its “Asia for Asians” strategy, a model that would make China the new Great Power regional hegemon. Defense Minister Wei is the highest-ranking Chinese official to attend the dialogue in a decade, a signal that China takes this opportunity to promote its strategic vision seriously.

The Diplomat saw other summit attendees looking either eagerly or apprehensively at the prospect of making final decisions about whether they are aligned with the U.S. and Japan or China. A few of them are balanced on such a fine edge that the competing sales pitches from Shanahan and Wei could help them make up their minds.

The Washington Examiner offered the more dour observation that China’s militarization of the South China Sea is effectively complete, and it is very close to developing a surface navy with capabilities comparable to the U.S. Navy, so the rules-based order and free Indo-Pacific championed by the United States is already a dead letter. Shanahan may sharply criticize what China has done, but has little chance of reversing it.

Shanahan said on Friday that the United States must find ways to express its commitment to the Pacific region more clearly to the Chinese.

“I do think we have to up our game on talking about interactions. Our responsibility is to show them what we’re actually doing,” he said.

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