Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told top Pentagon officials in his first meeting as department chief that he wants them to remember “China, China, China.”
The large group discussion meeting on Wednesday included all service secretaries and under secretaries of defense, according to a senior defense official.
“Acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to focus on the National Defense Strategy and to keep this effort moving forward. While we’re focused on ongoing operations, Acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember China, China, China,” the official said.
The meetings typically take place on Tuesday or Thursday, but since it was Shanahan’s first full workday as acting defense secretary after taking over from former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he decided to hold it on Wednesday, the official said.
The order sheds some insight on Shanahan’s priorities, as he takes the reins of the Pentagon from Mattis.
Shanahan, the deputy defense secretary, was thrust suddenly into the position, after Mattis announced in mid-December he would resign in February, but was ousted early by President Trump.
Shanahan, a business executive who has spent the last 30-plus years at Boeing, represents a break from Mattis in not having any particularly strong ideological views.
Mattis had strongly held beliefs about maintaining and respecting allies, which he cited in his resignation letter to Trump.
Shanahan, on the other hand, during his 17 months at the Pentagon considered himself the “chief operating officer” of the building, and focused on running the building versus policy.
But defense officials say he will represent some continuity from Mattis, since he helped craft the department’s National Defense Strategy — which shifts the Pentagon’s focus from counter-terrorism to great power competition with China and Russia.
Shanahan’s focus on China will be in lock-step with President Trump and other members of the Trump administration, who have taken on China as the top economic threat to the country’s future.
As a longtime defense industry executive, Shanahan would be no stranger to issues that are preoccupying the administration, such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers from U.S. companies doing business in China, China’s rapidly modernizing military, and the U.S.’s eroding military technological edge.
In his first statement issued as acting defense secretary, Shanahan said:
Under the direction of President Trump, the Department of Defense remains focused on safeguarding our nation. We have deep respect for Secretary Mattis’ lifetime of service, and it has been a privilege to serve as his deputy secretary.
As acting secretary of defense, I now look forward to working with President Trump to carry out his vision alongside strong leaders including the service secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the combatant commanders, and senior personnel in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Later on Wednesday, Shanahan sat next to Trump at a Cabinet meeting, in a sign of the president’s confidence.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in June 2017, he pointed at China when asked what his thoughts were on how the U.S. should move forward in the Asia-Pacific theater.
“I think the Chinese have been modernizing quite significantly in recent years, and that threatens our ability for freedom of movement. And it is really important that we find ways to maintain the security architecture of the Pacific Rim,” he said.
“It is very important that we support our allies and partners there and reassure them of our commitments,” he said.