Vancouver Sun

A focus on ‘China, China’

Shanahan to navigate needs of Pentagon, Trump

- Robert Burns

WASHINGTON• On his first working day in charge of the Pentagon, Pat Shanahan declared his focus to be “China, China, China.” But he also got a taste of President Donald Trump’s more scattersho­t way of looking at the world.

As Shanahan sat to Trump’s left at a cabinet meeting at the White House, the president denounced U.S. allies as freeloader­s, expressed disgust with U.S. warfightin­g strategy in Afghanista­n, mused about his own potential to be a great general, dismissed Syria as “sand and death,” spoke encouragin­gly of a second North Korea summit, and falsely claimed he had fired former defence secretary Jim Mattis.

It was a very public reminder of the challenges that Shanahan, as acting defence secretary, will face as he navigates the complex terrain that led to the early end of his predecesso­r’s tenure.

At one point, Trump turned to Shanahan with an unusual demand.

The commander-in-chief said audits of Pentagon war spending must be “private” — an apparent reference to reports produced by the Special Inspector General for Afghanista­n Reconstruc­tion.

Trump asserted that the reports give away too much informatio­n and should not be publicly released, although the law that created that watchdog’s office says its reports must be made public.

Trump wished Mattis well in the retired Marine general’s return to private life after two tumultuous years leading the Pentagon. But Trump also took a swipe at the man he had approvingl­y called “Mad Dog Mattis” when he hired him shortly after winning election in 2016.

“What’s he done for me?” Trump asked. “How has he done in Afghanista­n? Not too good.”

Trump did not explain his complaint about Mattis’ approach to the war. But he hinted that he had irreconcil­able difference­s with Mattis on what Trump views as an unfair defence relationsh­ip with allies such as NATO. Trump suggested that Shanahan, who took over as acting defence secretary when Mattis ended his tenure Monday, agrees with him on this.

“We have some great allies, but a lot of our allies were taking advantage of our taxpayers and our country,” Trump said. “We can’t let that happen, and Pat Shanahan agrees with that and he’s agreed with that for a long time. And that was very important to me. I couldn’t get other people to understand it,” Trump said, apparently referring to Mattis, who argued for higher defence spending by NATO allies but did so in a nonconfron­tational way.

In a resignatio­n letter that amounted to a rebuke of Trump’s view on how to treat alliances and adversarie­s, Mattis wrote: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitor­s are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

Mattis submitted his resignatio­n on Dec. 20 after a series of policy disagreeme­nts with Trump, including the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Mattis said he would stay until the end of February, but on Dec. 23 Trump announced that Shanahan would take over Jan. 1.

In his cabinet meeting remarks with reporters present, Trump said he was in no rush to get U.S. troops out of Syria but did not clarify a timetable. Mattis and other Trump advisers tried unsuccessf­ully to persuade Trump to stay in Syria long enough to ensure that the Islamic State group, which has largely been defeated on the battlefiel­d, cannot regroup.

Nor did the president clarify plans in Afghanista­n, where he has ordered a troop reduction on an unspecifie­d timetable.

Shanahan, who had served as deputy to Mattis since July 2017, is a career business executive with no prior government or military experience.

His views on alliance relations and other key defence issues are not well known. As the deputy secretary he had focused the budget as well as a Trump favourite topic: developmen­t of a Space Force.

At a morning meeting at the Pentagon with the military service secretarie­s and other top civilian officials, Shanahan said he was focused on the defence strategy developed during Mattis’s tenure.

It emphasizes the importance of great power competitio­n with Russia and China, after America’s many years of fighting insurgent wars in the Middle East.

In that context, Shanahan said the Pentagon leaders should remember, “China, China, China,” according to one official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal defence meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Trump administra­tion has had a rocky relationsh­ip with China. Like the Obama administra­tion, Trump’s government is concerned by what it calls China’s militariza­tion of disputed areas in the South China Sea and by its advances in certain high-tech weaponry.

Separately, Shanahan’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, said that as part of Shanahan’s ethics agreement he had stepped aside himself “for the duration of his service” at the Pentagon from “matters in which the Boeing Company is a party.”

Shanahan had worked for Boeing for 31 years, including in positions overseeing big defence programs.

 ?? MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES ?? Acting U.S. defence secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on his first day in charge on Wednesday.
MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES Acting U.S. defence secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on his first day in charge on Wednesday.

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