BANGKOK – The Chinese government is undermining the international system and trying to alter it through coercion and malign influence, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told me during his four-nation tour of Asia this week. The new Pentagon chief is trying to reorient the U.S. military to make competing with China its top priority, as the United States faces its own daunting challenges both at home and abroad.
In a meeting on the sidelines of an annual gathering of Southeast Asian defense ministers, Esper confronted Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe over his country’s perpetual reluctance to adhere to the international rules-based order. Before he met with the defense ministers of Japan and South Korea, Esper called on U.S. allies to join together to push back on China’s pattern of intimidation and coercion in the Indo-Pacific region.
In an interview, Esper told me that the region is waking up to Beijing’s use of its rising power and influence to bully smaller countries and abuse the international system — contrary to the Chinese government’s protestations that it aims for a “peaceful rise.”
“When we talk about the rules-based order, they clearly want to change the rules of the game, to favor them. They don’t like what was set up in the aftermath of World War II,” Esper said. “They are either trying to manipulate the rules-based order or use it against us and other countries to advance their own agenda.”
He places much of the blame directly on Chinese President Xi Jinping, who, Esper said, took China in an ominous direction after he assumed office in 2013.
“We’re not the ones looking for a Cold War. All we are asking is for China to follow the rules, live by the international norms, live up to your commitments and obligations,” he said. “If China wants to do it, China can do it. But China is either choosing not to or ignoring it.”
Esper is not new to the China issue. He served on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission a decade ago and worked on China for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before that. He was present in Hong Kong in 1997 and attended the handover ceremony when China took over control of the city from Britain. China’s failure to adhere to its commitment to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and respect the right of Hong Kongers to protest peacefully is a prime example of China’s failure to be a responsible world actor, according to Esper.
The U.S. government has warned Beijing not to use military troops to crush the protests, Esper said. “There would be rich international outcry about the heavy hand of China,” he said, adding, “it would reveal that one country, two systems is a farce.”
The U.S. military has been bogged down in other regions and must now refocus on the Indo-Pacific region, a mission Esper said is his No. 1 priority as Defense secretary.
“That means a much greater focus on China, pivoting resources and activities and all those other things,” he said.
That means bringing troops back, primarily from the Middle East and Africa, he explained. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have begun a worldwide review of U.S. military deployments with an eye toward redeploying from places where U.S. armed forces are no longer needed. Under the rubric of “dynamic force deployment,” Esper said big platforms such as aircraft carriers and bomber fleets could be returned to the homeland, making them more flexible and therefore more operationally unpredictable.
On his second trip to the region since becoming Defense secretary in July, Esper called on smaller nations to join together with the United States to push back on the Chinese government’s strategy. Yet his message has been complicated by the Trump administration’s insistence on confronting allies over what President Trump sees as imbalances in our own relationships — even as many of them worry that Washington’s commitment to the region is waning.
In Seoul, Esper and his South Korea counterpart played down reports the United States is demanding that South Korea more than quadruple its payments in support of U.S. troops there. The Trump administration is also demanding huge increases in payments from Japan. The administration failed to send a senior official here earlier this month for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, leaders’ summit.
The United States has offered Southeast Asian countries scant protection from Beijing’s coercion and few alternatives to China’s massive economic outreach program known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which plies smaller countries with infrastructure (but usually ends up delivering debt and corruption, as well). It’s hard to argue when Chinese propaganda outlets point out the lack of U.S. substance to back up its calls for regional support.
The Chinese media outlet Global Times had this comment on Esper’s visit to the region: “Trump has been cranking up ‘America First.’ Its allies have realized that if they annoy China by doing the U.S. bidding, Washington will not come to their rescue, letting them suffer the consequences.”
Esper offers three responses. First, he says, Congress has failed to provide the Pentagon with stable funding. (True.) He also notes that the shift on China will take a long time to implement. (Fair.) And he argues that this administration’s pivot to Asia is serious, unlike the previous one’s. (We’ll see.)
What distinguishes this administration is the belief that decades of U.S. engagement with (and assistance to) China, in the aim of helping it to become a responsible world power, have failed. Beijing’s policies toward Uighurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwan and its neighbors mandate a new approach.
“[For decades,] people thought that China would come around,” Esper said. “Xi took the country clearly in a different arc.”
The Trump administration is right to call out Beijing’s attempts to undermine our system to its advantage, but that’s just the first step. Next, Esper and others must actually do what’s necessary for our security and values to prevail.