Pentagon head says China has become top US military priority, moving past Russia

Lee Jeong-ho

Even as US and Chinese officials were reducing global economic tensions on Friday by confirming they had reached a “phase one” trade deal, the top US military official said that the Pentagon has put China on the top of its priorities – ahead of Russia – owing to Beijing’s “brazen efforts” to undermine the territorial claims of its neighbours.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper condemned China for undermining international laws and violating the sovereignty of smaller states.

“Today, the international rules-based order that America and its allies have worked hard to establish is being tested … China first and Russia second are now the department's top priorities,” Esper said.

“Both nations are rapidly modernising their armed forces and expanding their capabilities into the space and cyber domains, emboldened by the growing strength of their militaries. Beijing and Moscow are not only violating the sovereignty of smaller states, they are also attempting to undermine international laws and norms that advantage themselves,” Esper said.

In 2017, laying out ambitious plans for the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the PLA must modernise by 2035 and become a top-ranked military by 2050.

Beijing has also invoked its “nine-dash line” claim to what it says are its historic rights in the South China Sea, and has built artificial islands, reclaimed land and installed airstrips and military equipment in the waters. It is involved in acrimonious disputes with several Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, over the territory.

“China's brazen efforts to coerce smaller states and assert illegitimate maritime claims threaten its neighbours' sovereignty, undermine the stability of regional markets and increase the risk of poverty,” Esper said, reinforcing that what the US calls the Indo-Pacific region remains to be the US' priority theatre.

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Esper also said China is not obeying the existing norms in the South China Sea, thus breaking the regional status quo.

The US has been implementing an Indo-Pacific strategy, a combination of military and geoeconomic policies in the hopes of containing China's military expansion in the Pacific and the Indian oceans. Its other objective is to curb Beijing's flagship Belt and Road Initiative by providing alternative development models to economies in the region.

Esper said that China's “behaviour stands in stark contrast to the United States vision, one that respects and provides an opportunity for all nations, large and small.

“Our approach continues to prove itself superior to China's, as evidenced by our growing partnerships across the Indo-Pacific.”

Esper's concerns about Beijing's growing influence reflected those raised in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress, released in May, on China’s military power and development.

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“Over the coming decades, [Chinese leaders] are focused on realising a powerful and prosperous China that is equipped with a 'world-class' military, securing China's status as a great power with the aim of emerging as the pre-eminent power in the Indo-Pacific region,” the report found.

Esper added that the US would contain China – and re-ensure the existing international rules and orders – by further strengthening relations with its traditional allies.

“The United States network of alliances and partnerships provides us an asymmetric strategic edge that our adversaries cannot match … not only because of our superior military capabilities and equipment, but also because of our values.”

“We offer something our competitors do not respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations, adherence to international law and norms, and the promotion of individual liberty and human rights.”

The US Congress has recently passed bills to safeguard the human rights of people in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, despite Beijing's heavy protests.

Esper said he had visited the Indo-Pacific twice since becoming defence secretary in July. “Throughout my discussions with my counterparts. I'm reminded just how much nations in that region desire American presence and leadership.

“They look to us to deter aggression, to ensure a free and open access to the vocal comments and uphold long-standing international rules and norms,” Esper said.

“We have entered a new era of great-power competition.”

Trade war breakthrough: US and China reach phase-one deal

While Esper spoke, Washington and Beijing confirmed on Friday they had reached a “phase-one” deal in their 17-month trade war. Wang Shouwen, China’s vice-minister of commerce, called the deal a breakthrough, with an agreement that would halt further tariff increases by the US and lower some others already in place.

Despite the news on the trade front, though, John Sitilides, geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors in Washington, said that the US-China rivalry was here to stay.

“Parallel to this provisional deal, the US and China will remain engaged in a global power competition in which their geopolitical rivalry in Asia and worldwide will ensure that the mutual political, economic and technological mistrust of the past several years will only intensify in the decade ahead,” Sitilides said.

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Sean King, a senior vice-president at the political consulting firm Park Strategies, noted that Friday’s “minimalist” trade deal announcement did not result in Esper seeing a need to “ease up” his narrative.

King, however, also said that Washington must treat its allies better if it wishes to realise its objectives of containing China.

“The US shouldn’t be haranguing allies South Korea and Japan over defence costs,” he said. “Rather, we should be drawing in our friends and allies even closer at times like these – not pushing them away.”

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