SINGAPORE — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sought to lower the temperature on the Trump administration’s stew of hostilities with China on Friday, saying it is imperative to look for ways for the two competing militaries to “create upside” in their relationship, even in the middle of a trade war.
In fact, the deep tensions between Washington and Beijing showed no signs of abating on Friday. China remained on track to impose retaliatory tariffs of 20 to 25 percent on a slew of American products starting Saturday. That move makes China a full combatant in the trade war launched by President Trump.
During a 20-minute meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Shanahan asked that the Chinese military work to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Mr. Shanahan’s spokesman, Col. Joe Buccino, said in a statement that the two men had “discussed ways to build military-to-military relations that reduce the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation between our nations.”
Those are standard talking points for meetings between top officials who don’t have much to say to each other, and the Pentagon statement did not mention a list of contentious issues, including tariff increases, the fight over the Chinese technology giant Huawei, American weapons sales to Taiwan or China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
In Beijing, a former top Chinese official denounced what he called the administration’s “bullying and America first” policy. According to Reuters, Dai Xianglong, a former chief of the Chinese central bank, told a seminar in Beijing that President Xi Jinping of China and Mr. Trump would find it “difficult” to make much progress in the trade fight when they meet in a few weeks.
And Mr. Shanahan himself was preparing to air American complaints to Asian nations about China’s military buildup in the South China Sea when he delivers a big speech Saturday morning at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore.
Mr. Shanahan told reporters, just before meeting with China’s minister of defense, Wei Fenghe, that he would call out bad behavior by China. He complained — as American officials routinely do — that China’s installation of surface-to-air missiles and long runways for military aircraft on disputed islands in the South China Sea is “overkill.”
Of course, the Chinese defense minister will be making his own speech in Singapore, on Sunday, so he gets to follow Mr. Shanahan. And he also was expected to complain about what China views as American expansionism on its doorstep.
After the meeting on Friday between Mr. Shanahan and Minister Wei, American officials released a statement calling the session “constructive and productive.”
Mr. Shanahan, the statement said, “hopes to build on this evening’s discussion with future engagements.”
That’s the same thing Mr. Shanahan’s predecessor, James N. Mattis, said last October, when he met with Mr. Wei in the same room of the same Singapore hotel and posed for pictures with him in front of what looked to be the same potted plants. At that meeting, held on Oct. 18, 2018, Mr. Mattis even invited Mr. Wei to Washington for a visit.
But two months later, Mr. Mattis had resigned his post and now, five months after that, Mr. Wei was going through the same protocol with a new American defense secretary, albeit one who has not yet been confirmed.
Mr. Shanahan’s confirmation hearing is expected in June, but no date has yet been set. He may face an uphill battle given concerns over his lack of military experience and his deep ties to Boeing, where he worked for 30 years.
Kori N. Schake, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush and deputy director-general for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted that for the past two years, when Mr. Mattis attended the same conference in Singapore, his speeches were followed by skeptical questions from audience members, which include Asian defense ministers wanting to know whether he spoke for Mr. Trump when he talked about allies in the region and great power competition.
Mr. Shanahan wants to use his speech Saturday, which is in essence his Asia debut, to convince Indo-Pacific allies that their interests lie with the United States, not China. Defense officials said he would unveil what the Pentagon is touting as yet another “new” strategy for the region, meant to show how much the United States is focusing on Asia now after 18 years of fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Whether the Asian allies will believe him is unclear. Ms. Schake noted the Trump administration’s recent decision to send an additional 900 American troops to the Middle East to combat what the administration is describing as a rising Iranian threat. That makes it hard, she said, for Asian allies to accept that the United States is really ready to shift its military priority to great power competition with China in Asia.