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International relations

Security concerns rise as US denounces China at Asian forum

Washington accuses Beijing of seeking to 'reorder' Indo-Pacific region

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe shake hands before the start of their meeting in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- The U.S. pledged its full commitment to the Indo-Pacific region in a direct swipe at China at an annual Asian defense forum Saturday, sparking concerns that the escalating trade tensions between Washington and Beijing could spill over into the security arena.

Speaking at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan railed against China for "behavior that erodes other nations' sovereignty and sows distrust of China's intentions."

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released on the same day, the U.S. Department of Defense said China "seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations."

"The Indo-Pacific increasingly is confronted with a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic, and security interests," the report said.

America's new Indo-Pacific strategy aims to strengthen alliances and partnerships with countries and regions such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Taiwan is among those partnerships, according to the strategic report. "Our partnership is vital given China's continued pressure campaign against Taiwan," said the report, warning against Beijing's patrol activities around Taiwan. China views the self-ruled island as a wayward territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take back control.

This year's Shangri-La Dialogue comes amid an intensifying U.S.-China trade war as the two countries have recently exchanged tit-for-tat sanctions among other measures. The U.S. blacklisted Huawei Technologies for security concerns, in effect banning providing American technology to the Chinese equipment maker.

Shanahan touched on America's concerns over Huawei products during his session on Saturday, saying the Chinese telecom giant is "too close to the [Chinese] government." He pointed that China has national policies that require data to be shared, therefore "we can't trust that those networks are going to be protected."

The annual conference brought together defense ministers from across the world including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and France. China also sent its defense minister to the gathering for the first time in eight years in an apparent move to counter America's influence in the region.

China's Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe will deliver a keynote speech on Sunday. He is expected to speak about China's role in the Indo-Pacific region in response to Shanahan's remarks and the new strategy report.

Another focus of the annual three-day conference was the range of security concerns affecting Asia, from North Korea's denuclearization to cyber attacks and terrorism.

Some countries called for more constructive cooperation between the U.S. and China, hoping to avoid prolonged U.S.-China tensions that could damage the economy and stability in the region.

"Even short of outright conflict, a prolonged period of tension and uncertainty will be extremely damaging," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday.

Lee noted that many serious international problems such as the Korean Peninsula's situation and climate change cannot be tackled without the full participation of the U.S. and China. He also said prolonged tensions would result in a loss of huge benefits of globalized markets and supply chains.

"We should therefore do our utmost to avoid going down the path of conflict, and causing enmity on both sides that will last for generations," Lee stressed.

For the U.S. and China, the Singapore conference was also meant to reduce risks of mutual misunderstanding that could lead to a serious conflict. Shanahan and Wei had a meeting on Friday, where they agreed to a stable military-to-military relationship between them.

Shanahan also mentioned cooperation with China in his Saturday speech. "We cooperate with China where we have an alignment of interests, from military-to-military dialogue to develop risk reduction measures, to tackling transnational threats such as counter-piracy, to enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea."

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