At the recent Munich Security Conference held in Germany, United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made a few fascinating but relatively ignored (at least by the mainstream media) comments on China and the American approach to the new leading partner in the global order in his speech to the conference attendees.
Let's start by looking at what Secretary Esper had to say about conflict with China. Here are three quotes of interest:
"Let me state up front, though, the United States does not seek conflict with China."
"Again, make no mistake, we do not seek conflict with China."
"The United States does not want an adversarial relationship with China."
No less than three times in his short speech, Esper states that the United States is not seeking conflict with China no matter what is said by various players in Washington like Mike Pompeo and the current President.
Now, let's look in more detail at Esper's criticisms of China. He opens his speed by noting that the Pentagon's top concern is the People's Republic of China. Washington's roadmap for dealing with China was clearly outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) document which serves as the de factor template for America's strategic posture in the Far East until 2022 when the next edition is released. Here is a quote from the summary of the NDS:
According to Esper's speech, the NDS states that
"…we are now in an era of Great Power Competition with our principal challengers being China, then Russia, and that we must move away from low intensity conflict and prepare once again for high-intensity warfare."
Does that mesh with his repeated comments about not seeing conflict with China?
Let's look at his arguments for conflict with China:
1.) Economic –
"Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of a decision that fundamentally altered the course of international affairs: China’s admission into the World Trade Organization.
I was working in the United States Senate at the time, and two competing arguments over China’s membership dominated the public debate.
The prevailing notion of the day was that, if we allowed the PRC into the WTO and other multilateral institutions, China would continue on its path of economic reform and eventually become a market-oriented trading partner.
More broadly, increased engagement with the liberal world order would also spur political opening and help transform the PRC into a responsible global stakeholder.
The more skeptical voices argued that, if granted membership, China would use the benefits of free trade and an open international order to grow its economy and access the technology required to build a strong military and security state capable of expanding the reach of their authoritarian rule.
These were both credible arguments, but we all know which one is winning right now.
It's not the former."
2.) China's Military Strategy –
"Over time, we have watched them seize and militarize islands in the South China Sea, and rapidly modernize their armed forces, while seeking to use emerging technologies to alter the landscape of power and reshape the world in their favor ….and often at the expense of others….
By 2035, the PRC intends to complete its military modernization, and, by 2049, it seeks to dominate Asia as the preeminent global military power….
While the PRC develops and deploys long-range fires to intimidate and threaten its neighbors, we are investing in both conventional and advanced missile defense capabilities to protect the homeland, our interests, and our allies.
And while Communist China is weaponizing the space domain through the development of directed-energy weapons and killer satellites, the Pentagon is standing up its first new military service in over 70 years – the United States Space Force – to ensure freedom of use, commerce and navigation in, to, and through space, for all."
3.) China's Belt and Road Initiative –
"Through its Belt and Road Initiative, for example, the PRC is leveraging its overseas investments to force other nations into sub-optimal security decisions.
This has wide-reaching ramifications for the United States and our allies in critical areas like data security, interoperability, and military readiness."
4.) Technological Theft –
"Regrettably, rather than change course, Party leadership continues its rampant technology theft, while resolving to eventually end its reliance on foreign innovation altogether, independently develop its own systems, and then dominate critical sectors and markets.
Huawei and 5G are today’s poster child for this nefarious activity…
Among these concerns is a dependence on emerging technologies that could inject serious risk into our defense cooperation.
Reliance on Chinese 5G vendors, for example, could render our partners’ critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation, and espionage.
It could also jeopardize our communication and intelligence sharing capabilities, and by extension, our alliances.
To counter this, we are encouraging allied and U.S. tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions, and we are working alongside them to test these technologies at our military bases as we speak.
In the long run, developing our own secure 5G networks will far outweigh any perceived gains from partnering with heavily subsidized Chinese providers that ultimately answer to Party leadership.
In short: let’s be smart; let’s learn from the past; and let’s get 5G right so we don’t regret our decisions later.
5.) China's attitude toward the international rules-based order –
"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 that has benefited all of us for many decades.
The Communist Party and its associated organs, including the People’s Liberation Army, are increasingly operating in theaters outside its borders, including Europe, and seeking advantage by any means, and at any cost….
The PRC’s growing economic, military, and diplomatic power often manifests itself in ways that are threatening, coercive, and counter to the rules-based international order…
…we want China to behave like a normal country that adheres to the international rules and order that generations before us have fought hard to protect and preserve."
Let's conclude with this final excerpt from Esper's speech:
"China’s rapid ascent has stirred much debate over the primacy of the United States and the West in the 21st century…
China’s growth over the years has been remarkable, but in many ways it is fueled by theft, coercion, and exploitation of free market economies, private companies, and colleges and universities.
American and European institutions and corporations face the brunt of these malign activities, and we have seen a multitude of examples where our economies and companies have suffered as a result.
But Beijing’s bad behavior will only take them so far.
The world is increasingly aware of its motives – and responding in turn." (my bold)
Just in case you were curious, here is a brief excerpt from China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi's response to Mark Esper:
Let's close with this interesting graphic from the report issued by the Munich Security Conference:
As you can see, the vast majority of Europeans believe that their home nation should remain neutral if a conflict were to break out between China and the United States and that, other than Denmark, Italy and Poland, less than one-fifth of each nation believe that their country should side with the United States.
When you put these excerpts from Secretary Esper's entire speech into context, you can only draw one conclusion. If China does not "toe America's line in the sand", Washington and, in particular, the Pentagon, is preparing itself for a hot war with China with the ultimate goal of reclaiming its post-World War II global preeminence despite its protestations that it does not seek conflict with the world's most populous nation.
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