By Idrees Ali
JAKARTA (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Wednesday that tense trade negotiations between China and the United States should be treated separately from military talks between the two countries.
Tensions between China and the United States have intensified in the past year over an ongoing trade war, the disputed South China Sea and U.S. support for self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
In a week-long trip that will take Shanahan to a number of Asian countries, his talks are likely to be dominated by China, with questions from allies about increasing tensions with Iran and stalled talks with North Korea.
“The trade runs a separate track and we’ll solve that, it is too important not to solve,” Shanahan told reporters en route to Jakarta, Indonesia.
“I don’t believe they’ll spill over into our dialogue and discussion on defence,” he added.
Talks to end the trade dispute collapsed earlier this month, with the two sides in a stalemate over U.S. demands that China change its policies to address a number of key U.S. grievances.
Shanahan, who will give a major policy speech in Singapore, will meet his Chinese counterpart later this week.
He said the goal for his meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe was to find areas of cooperation while being transparent and candid about areas where they may not agree.
During a recent trip to Japan, President Donald Trump expressed optimism over prospects that North Korea would give up its nuclear programme, and repeated that he was not bothered by recent missile tests, which he indicated he did not believe flouted United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Shanahan appeared to agree with National Security Adviser John Bolton, saying that the recent short-range North Korean missile tests did violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“These were short-range missiles and those are a violation of the (U.N. Security Council resolutions),” Shanahan said.
North Korea will be a major topic of talks when Shanahan heads to South Korea and Japan next week.
During his trip, Shanahan will also likely be asked by nervous Asian allies about the United States’ commitment to the region amid growing tensions with Iran.
Last week the Pentagon announced the deployment of 900 additional troops to the Middle East and extended the deployment of another 600 service members in the region, describing it as an effort to bolster defences against Iran.
Those deployments are small compared with the nearly 70,000 American troops stationed across the Middle East and Afghanistan and are not enough to tilt the Pentagon’s focus away from Asia. But a period of protracted tensions could set it back.
Shanahan said the additional troops would be going to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Without giving details or evidence, he said that while Iran’s posture had changed recently, the threat remained.
Shanahan added that sending military assets into the region, like deploying bombers, Patriot missiles and accelerating the movement of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East, had helped deter attacks against Americans in Iraq.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Dan Grebler)