LONDON — The Chinese threat to Europe is real and growing and is likely to dwarf the danger faced by NATO allies from Russia, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today.
“The Chinese are very aggressive around the world, trying to advance their Belt and Road initiative, which is ostensibly about partnership,” Esper said in an interview. “I’m not sure that’s the case, but is certainly the means by which they’re trying to gain influence if not control over countries.”
Esper said increased Chinese actions to get raw minerals from Africa, gain access and control shipping lanes, and in some cases, such as in the South China Sea, be confrontational, are the foundation of their strategy.
“Russia and China are bracketing us — being United States and Europe — in terms of how they’re trying to change their aggressive actions on the world stage or challenging the international rules-based order,” Esper said. “We all need to kind of wake up and realize that that may look further out but if you keep delaying your time of action it only gets more difficult.”
Esper is on a three-country trip to Europe, his first visit to the continent since being confirmed as defense secretary on July 23. He has met with U.S. commanders based in Germany and meets today with British defense officials. Tomorrow he is to meet with his French counterparts.
Thursday night he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Today Esper is to address the Royal United Services Institute. Founded in 1831, RUSI is considered by many as the world’s oldest independent think tank on international defense and security.
Esper said he will stress in his remarks that all nations “need to be more robust on China” — particularly about “just standing up and asserting rights and liberties.” He cited how China is not living up to the 1997 agreement for the hand-over of Hong Kong, which he said is typical of their behavior.
“So it’s stuff like that we got to be very conscious of, and again with the country growing at the rate it’s growing, the size of its population, its demographics, their ambitions, everything else — we just, we need to stand firm in terms of defending, you know, again the economic rules, the diplomatic rules,” he said.
According to his prepared remarks for today, Esper plans to tell the think tank audience that 2019 is akin to 1973, when the U.S. had to make a strategic pivot to confront the realities of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
“All of this is necessary because there are new threats on the horizon. Strategic competitors have modernized their forces, professionalized their militaries, and are using their military power to intimidate, coerce, and threaten the sovereignty of weaker nations. To counter these growing threats, the United States – and its allies – must act now. The year I am talking about of course…is 1973,” he plans to say.
That year represented a strategic inflection point for the United States, which noted how, among other things, the Yom Kippur War demonstrated the lethality of modern anti-armor weapons, “much like Russia’s action in Ukraine proved how drones, cyber-attacks, and artillery could be used to find, fix, and destroy modern military forces,” he plans to say.
In response, the U.S. military adapted by modernizing formations, equipment and doctrine across all services, the success of which was demonstrated in the 1991 war with Iraq, Esper notes — a war he fought.
“To counter our traditional advantages (Russian and China) are investing heavily into military modernization, while expanding their capabilities in the space and cyber domains,” Esper plans to say. “And while the cumulative power of the NATO alliance remains unmatched, some of our comparative advantages have been diminished.”
He noted that “China’s technology theft for military gain is staggering” and that “every Chinese company has the potential to be an accomplice in Beijing’s state-sponsored theft of other nations’ military and civilian technology.”