The United States defence secretary, Mark Esper, has cast China as a rising threat to world order – eliciting a strong response from Beijing which accused Washington of engaging in a “smear campaign” against it.
Esper used an address at the 2020 Munich Security Conference in Germany on Saturday to give a comprehensive condemnation of China that he said topped the Pentagon’s list of potential adversaries, followed by Russia and “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran.
“They have said that by 2035, the PRC intends to complete its military modernisation, and, by 2049, it seeks to dominate Asia as the pre-eminent global military power,” he said, using the initials of China’s official name, People’s Republic of China.
Esper alleged that China represses its people and threatens its neighbours, accusing it of stealing Western know-how and seeking an “advantage by any means and at any cost”.
“We want China to behave like a normal country,” Esper said, adding “and that means the Chinese government needs to change its policies and behaviours.”
“The Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction – more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture,” he said.
He also accused Beijing of deploying a “nefarious strategy” through the telecommunications firm, Huawei.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at the conference later in the day, dismissed the US criticisms, and accused Washington of engaging in a “smear campaign” against Beijing.
Wang said that Esper’s comments about Beijing’s intentions were “not based on facts”.
“I can categorically say that all accusations against China are lies,” Wang said, adding: “But if we replace the subject of the lie from China to America, maybe those lies become facts.”
Pompeo’s remarks on the West
Separately, speaking at the same conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure European leaders that President Donald Trump‘s foreign policy and “America first” rhetoric does not mean the West is weakening.
Pompeo said: “I’m happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly exaggerated.”
“The West is winning, and we’re winning together,” he said as part of a speech that listed US steps to protect liberal democracies.
Pompeo was, in part, responding to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who during the opening day of the conference on Friday accused the US, Russia and China of stoking global mistrust.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Westlessness”, which organisers say points to the continued unease about the identity and purpose of the West.
Pompeo’s comments were quickly met with rebuke by French President Emmanuel Macron.
“There is a weakening of the West,” the French leader told the conference. “There’s an American policy that started several years ago and not just under this administration that includes a certain kind of withdrawal, of a rethink of its relationship with Europe.”
However, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who also took to the stage in Munich, joined Pompeo in voicing dismay at the gathering’s pessimistic tone.
“There is a competition out there in so many areas, with so many different actors, but simply lamenting that we have lost our way will not provide us with a way forward,” Stoltenberg told the audience.
“Europe and North America are indispensable partners – two sides to the same coin. Together, we are half of the world’s military might and half of the world’s economic might,” he said.
Despite the Trump administration’s criticism of NATO and introduction of tariffs on European goods, Pompeo defended the role of the US, saying Europe, Japan and other American allies were united on China, Iran and Russia, despite “tactical differences”.
He reiterated Washington’s opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under construction between Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea, a project backed by the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Citing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, cyber threats in Iran and economic coercion by China, Pompeo said those countries were still “desiring empires” and destabilising the rules-based international system.