WASHINGTON—Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told civilian leaders of the U.S. military on Jan. 2 to focus on “China, China, China,” even as America fights militants in Syria and Afghanistan, a U.S. defense official said.
The comments came during Shanahan’s first meeting with secretaries of the U.S. military branches since taking over for Jim Mattis, who left office on Dec. 31 after resigning as defense secretary over policy differences with President Donald Trump.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate on Shanahan’s views on China or what other guidance he gave during the meeting.
Other officials have described Shanahan as an advocate of the Pentagon’s toughening stance toward Beijing. The 2018 National Defense Strategy document branded China as a strategic competitor.
The Pentagon has said he played a critical role in developing the strategy, which singled out China and Russia as top threats, saying they wanted to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”
The document said: “Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the Department, and require both increased and sustained investment.”
The defense official said Shanahan told Pentagon leadership to follow the document’s guidance, particularly regarding China.
“While we’re focused on ongoing operations, acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember, ‘China, China, China,'” the official said.
Relations between the world’s two largest economies have plumbed new depths, with a trade war and disagreements over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The United States is Taiwan’s top weapons supplier, something that has long irked China, which claims the self-ruled island as its own.
Earlier on Jan. 2, Chinese leader Xi Jingping warned that China reserves the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control but will strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, had been Mattis’ deputy and it was unclear how long he will remain acting secretary.
Trump acknowledged that Shanahan could be in the job for a long time. The Pentagon appeared to be taking steps to prepare for an extended tenure. This included naming David Norquist, the Pentagon’s comptroller, to perform deputy defense secretary duties provisionally as well as retaining his current title.
Shanahan sat next to Trump during a cabinet meeting on Jan. 2. In a statement on Jan. 1, shortly after taking over the job, Shanahan said he looked “forward to working with President Trump to carry out his vision.”
Shanahan, best known for his focus on internal Pentagon reform and his private-sector experience, had spent three decades at Boeing and was general manager for the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet before he joined the Pentagon last year.
By Phil Stewart & Idrees Ali