On his first full day on the job, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told senior leaders at the Pentagon on Wednesday to "remember China, China, China," a US defense official told CNN.
"While we're focused on ongoing operations acting Secretary Shanahan told the team to remember China, China China," the official said.
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Shanahan made the comments during a special meeting of all the military service secretaries and the undersecretaries of defense.
His decision to urge the Pentagon's leadership to focus on the threat posed by China came just hours before he attended a Cabinet meeting at the White House, where he sat next to President Donald Trump as Trump slammed Shanahan's predecessor James Mattis and the ongoing US military missions in Syria and Afghanistan.
"What's he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good. I'm not happy with what he's done in Afghanistan and I shouldn't be happy," Trump said of Mattis, adding that he had "essentially" fired the retired general.
Shanahan stepped into the job after Mattis resigned following Trump's decision to pull US troops from Syria, a move that went against the advice of his most senior military and diplomatic advisers.
By focusing on China as opposed to operations in Syria or Afghanistan, Shanahan is possibly seeking an issue where Trump's views more closely reflect those espoused by the Pentagon's National Defense Strategy.
The Trump administration has sought to counter China in a variety of areas as Beijing has stepped up its military activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
During the public portion of the Cabinet meeting, Shanahan touted the Defense Department's role in another priority of Trump's, helping to secure the southern US border.
He said his team is working "closely" with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and her department, noting that military engineers were working to restore fences and looking to build additional miles of wall.
"The Army Corps of Engineers is dialed in on doing this cost-effectively, quickly and with the right amount of urgency as to where we can build additional standup walls quickly and then get after the threat. The threat is real, the risks are real. We need to control our borders," he said.
Trump told Shanahan he was "such a pleasure" to work with and that he had "done a really fantastic job" with regard to the border.
Shanahan also told the Pentagon leadership Wednesday that he had selected the current comptroller, David Norquist, to "perform the duties of deputy secretary of defense."
"As Department of Defense Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller for the past 19 months, David Norquist has had insight into virtually every tenet of this department. I have the greatest confidence in his abilities to lead a phenomenally talented team while performing the duties as Deputy Secretary of Defense," Shanahan said in a statement issued later on Wednesday.