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Aerospace & Defense

US defense chief prepares for 'great power competition' with China

Esper calls on allies to unite as Beijing and Moscow 'undermine' international law

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks about the Pentagon's defense priorities and policies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. (Photo by Howard Heyman/CFR)

NEW YORK -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Friday that China and Russia were the Pentagon's top two priorities, as they pose a challenge to the world order through their rising military power and various tools of influence, such as Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

"Both nations are rapidly modernizing their armed forces and expanding their capabilities into the space and cyber domains," Esper said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Beijing and Moscow are not only violating the sovereignty of smaller states, but they're also attempting to undermine international laws and norms to advantage themselves at the expense of others," through measures such as Belt and Road, he said.

Esper said he is reminded "just how much nations in [the Indo-Pacific region] desire American presence and leadership." He said that during a visit to Bangkok last month, defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations "repeatedly though privately" condemned Chinese coercion and intimidation and "applauded the U.S. for its willingness to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific."

The American approach "continues to prove itself superior to China's" in the region, the defense chief said.

However, when asked about the U.S.-China trade talks, the defense secretary said he does not want China to be an adversary and it is "premature" to say the two nations are in a cold war.

The two countries announced Friday that they have reached a partial trade deal, marking a step toward the end of the tit-for-tat tariff war that has dragged on for over a year. China's Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen said the U.S. had promised to cancel additional tariffs on Chinese products that were planned for Sunday and that Beijing will cancel its own planned tariffs.

"We certainly have entered this era of great power competition where we are competing with [China]," said Esper. "There's no need for them to be an enemy. ...I think the more we can build bridges to China, whether it's economically, diplomatically," or military to military, the better, he said. "I reached out early on to my counterpart in China to open up a dialogue with him. I think all of those things are important to make sure that China heads in the right direction over the coming decades and becomes part of the rules-based order and not to be disruptive."

At the same time, Esper warns that the U.S. and NATO need to be ready for China and Russia if the relationships go south.

Esper last week participated in the NATO leaders summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, where the defense chief claims that many allies told him the U.S.'s leadership is "critical to getting them back on track."

NATO allies have agreed to invest an additional $130 billion every year in defense and expect to reach $400 billion a year by 2024. Nine member states currently meet NATO's commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense, and roughly 10 more members are on the path to reach that goal four years from now.

"There can't be any free-riders [or] any discount plans," said Esper. "I'm committed to our alliance with Japan and Korea. But again, I don't think it's asking too much, American people easily get it, that all countries should contribute to defense."

"If we're going to meet the challenges of our day, in terms of great power competition, whether it's Russia or more importantly China, we have to work together," Esper continued. "We all have to contribute together to make sure that we are prepared if the worse comes to worst to defend our way of life."

Esper also said that it is important to develop fifth-generation wireless technologies to counter China's 5G developments. NATO member states "must be vigilant" in adopting equipment and systems that could "undermine our ability to share intelligence, conduct planning or communicate securely" with each other.

In terms of growing partnerships in Asia, Esper said that he has signed a joint vision 2020 with Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in order to expand military exercises and training between the two countries, and that the U.S. will provide Vietnam a second high-endurance cutter to enhance its security and build trust between the two sides.

On the subject of North Korea, Esper assured the audience that Pyongyang has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile or conducted any nuclear testing in some time, which are the two steps it needs to do in order to have the ability to threaten the U.S. But Washington is still worried about the short-range ballistic missile tests, he said.

"We're trying really hard right now at the State Department [to] get them back to the table because the only way forward is through a diplomatic and political agreement," said Esper. "War on the peninsula would be horrible. Nobody wants to see that."

Esper also explained that he has two jobs regarding North Korea -- prepare for trouble while helping the diplomats.

"I think we're going to be tested here soon and tested in the sense of this next stage, trying to get them back to the negotiating table and hopefully not back on the other path," said Esper.

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