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U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned that China is moving further outside the international order as the world’s second largest economy pursues aggressive economic and military policies at the expense of other nations.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China “is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction –- more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and, most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture,” Esper said at the Munich Security Conference Saturday.
“It is essential that we -– as an international community –- wake up to the challenges presented by China’s manipulation of the long-standing international, rules-based order,” said Esper.
With the comments, Esper became only the latest senior American official — after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Bill Barr — to highlight what the U.S. perceives as the threat posed by China.
The two powers have been locked in a trade war during the administration of President Donald Trump and are competing for economic influence and military advantage in the Asia-Pacific region. Their inability to cooperate on the coronavirus is one sign of how much the relationship has deteriorated over the past few years.
Esper was joined at the Munich conference by Pompeo, who spoke earlier and pushed back against allies that have question America’s reliability as a partner, telling the gathering that the demise of transatlantic partnership is “grossly exaggerated.’
Pompeo singled out statements from the last few years by senior officials from Canada, Germany and France suggesting that the U.S. is no longer interested in global leadership or turning away from the international community.
“I’m sure there are a lot of folks here who would call themselves foreign policy realists,” Pompeo said. “Let me give you an idea of what’s real: the West is winning.”
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of Trump’s staunchest critics, was also present.
Esper has made the Asia-Pacific region a key focus for the Pentagon since taking office. The Pentagon chief wants to redeploy U.S. forces from other areas, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, to confront a growing military competition with China.
The U.S. recognizes “this critical challenge as we adapt and prepare our forces to deal with China in this new era of great power competition,” Esper said.
While Trump often touts his relationship with Xi, competition between the countries has only deepened since they signed their “phase-one” trade deal last month. The U.S. this week charged members of China’s military over one of the biggest data thefts in American history.
Pompeo further irked China with a speech this week in which he warned U.S. state governors that their pension funds could be investing in companies that help China’s military and repress Muslims in its western Xinjiang region. China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, said the accusation is “totally” wrong.
The U.S. also raised the stakes in its fight with Huawei Technologies Co. this week, charging the telecommunications equipment company with racketeering to engage in intellectual property theft. A company representative said the new charges “are without merit and are based largely on recycled civil disputes.”
The U.S. has warned that NATO allies utilizing 5G telecommunications networks with Huawei hardware could put military and intelligence relationships at risk and were essentially giving Beijing some control over their own communications systems.
“We can’t let information go across networks that could be hijacked by the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said. “The Chinese Communist Party presents an enormous risk not to the place of the west but to the idea of the West.”