Published: 7:00pm, 27 Aug, 2020 SCMP
Mark Esper said the US defence department was increasingly focused on China as a threat in the Indo-Pacific and globally. Photo: AP
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has called on countries to work with the United States to more effectively counter China in the Indo-Pacific, saying the region has become an epicentre of power competition with Beijing.
In an address on Wednesday in Hawaii, Esper said the US defence department was increasingly focused on China as a threat in the Indo-Pacific and globally, in response to what he described as Beijing’s undermining of the international order and aggressive modernisation of its People’s Liberation Army. The US strategy would include strengthening alliances, bolstering US military capabilities and expanding a network of like-minded partners, he said.
“The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of a great power competition with China,” he said. “We’re not going to cede this region – an inch of ground, if you will – to another country, any other country that thinks their form of government, their views on human rights, their views on sovereignty, their views on freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, all those things, that somehow that’s better than what many of us share.”
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His remarks reflect the rapid deterioration of relations between China and the US, as Beijing has more aggressively expanded its global influence while Washington has pushed back more strongly against Beijing on trade, technology, human rights, the coronavirus pandemic, and its sprawling claims in the South China Sea. Esper is scheduled this week to fly to Guam and the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, one of the 15 remaining diplomatic allies for democratic Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper this week plans to fly to tiny Palau, which no Pentagon chief has ever visited. Photo: APOn Wednesday, he also warned that the PLA’s bid to become a world-class military would “undoubtedly embolden” its actions in the East China Sea and the resource-rich South China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with several others in the region.“We see Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea area, is where China seems to be flexing its muscles the most and conducting some of its worst behaviour,” he said. “Our robust network of allies and partners remains the enduring asymmetric advantage we have over near-peer rivals, namely China, that attempt to undermine and subvert the rules-based order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others.”
Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions
The US defence secretary had said in July that he wanted to visit China this year to improve “crisis communications” channels, though US President Donald Trump had reportedly said he wanted to replace Esper in the position if he was successfully re-elected in November.On Wednesday, the US also sanctioned dozens of Chinese companies for their role in helping China build and militarise artificial islands in the South China Sea. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strengthened the US position to align with a 2016 international tribunal ruling against most of Beijing’s claims in the sea.
Beijing said it would take countermeasures to the latest US sanctions, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Thursday decrying them as “hegemonic logic and power politics”.
“China’s construction on its own territory is entirely within the scope of its sovereignty, and has nothing to do with militarisation,” he said.
On Monday, Esper wrote in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal – titled “The Pentagon is prepared for China” – that US national defence strategy had placed China as its principal focus. Zhao hit back, saying the piece was “groundless”, and insisted that China’s defence policy was defensive in nature.