Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan suggested on Saturday that China was responsible for a range of destabilising activities in Asia, stirring already heightened tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
In a wide-ranging speech in front of regional defence chiefs at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Shanahan called on Asian allies to increase their security spending, while emphasising the United States’ commitment to the region.
He did not specifically name China when making the accusations.
“Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” Shanahan said in his first major speech since taking over as acting defense secretary in January.
“If the trends in these behaviours continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths, sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful.”
His reference appeared to be to artificial islands built by China in the disputed South China Sea, a strategic waterway claimed almost wholly by Beijing.
Shanahan’s comments come as the United States and China are locked in an escalating trade war and at odds over a range of issues from the South China Sea to democratic Taiwan, which China says is part of its sacred territory.
China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe is due to address Asia’s marquee security summit on Sunday when he is expected to criticise the United States over its implied support for a democratic Taiwan.