China’s communist government is the greatest foreign threat facing the United States, according to former defense secretary Mark Esper, who also said that the regime should be considered an adversary.
“Today, I would describe [China] as our adversary,” Esper said during a July 14 talk at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
“To me, it’s clear that’s what they are.”
Esper said that there were innumerable potential conflicts that could erupt in the Indo-Pacific, many of which could involve China and would carry global significance if allowed to boil over. As such, he said, the United States would need to maintain vigilance in its mission to deter aggression from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Notably, Esper said that northeast Asia could be the most volatile place on earth due to the intermingling of complex and powerful economic, diplomatic, and military actors. The United States, China, and Japan, he noted, were the three largest economies on earth.
“Any type of conflict involving those three countries is going to ripple globally,” Esper said.
He added that Taiwan and South Korea were both bastions of technological advancement in their own right. China and North Korea, meanwhile, were both nuclear-armed communist powers looking to expand their influence.
“The greatest strategic flashpoint in the world is northeast Asia,” Esper said.
“We have to look at that and pay attention to it and keep it under control as best we can.”
To that end, Esper said that it was imperative the United States take a proactive role to manage and deter the most pressing scenarios for potential conflict in the region.
Taiwan in a ‘Fight for Survival’
“The number one scenario, of course, is Taiwan,” Esper said.
The CCP, which currently rules mainland China as a one-party state, maintains that Taiwan is a breakaway province. Taiwan has been self-governed since 1949, however, and has never been controlled by the CCP.
While relations between the two powers have never been friendly, Esper said that recent efforts by the CCP to press expansionary claims in the region were a cause for concern. Specifically, he said that the regime’s new efforts to behave as if there were no international waters between the two bodies was worrying, and signified a broader conflict between Taiwan’s democratic way of life and China’s communist aggression.
“This comes down to communism versus democracy,” Esper said.
It comes down to “the international rules and norms and values that we all share as democracies and a different view being perpetrated by China on the world,” he added.
Esper said that he did not believe China was yet capable of making a direct amphibious assault on Taiwan but that the danger was growing. He announced that he would be visiting the island state soon and would encourage Taiwan’s leadership to continue investing in asymmetric weapons systems and to broaden its conscription practices in order to better deter CCP aggression.
He added that a majority of the island’s people now considered themselves to be Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and that any war over Taiwan’s independence would necessarily be a war for the survival of the Taiwanese people.
“I want to believe that any people will fight for their own survival, and a Chinese invasion would be for survival, because there’s no such thing as ‘one country two systems’,” Esper said. “That’s already been disproven by Hong Kong.”
“Unlike Ukraine, if you get invaded by a big neighbor, there’s no crossing over into Romania or Poland or somewhere. You’re on an island”
‘Strategic Ambiguity’ No Longer Useful
In terms of what the United States could do to prevent such a disastrous war from erupting, Esper said that strategic ambiguity, the longstanding U.S. policy of neither confirming nor denying whether it would defend Taiwan from an invasion, had “run its course.”
As such, he said, Congress should debate the issue and hold a vote to do away with the policy.
Further, he said, it was vital that the United States stake out an unambiguous stance against tyranny to dissuade further expansionary aggression from the CCP.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t stand up to countries, autocracies like China, they read it as a green light,” Esper said.
“At some point you’ve got to stand up and say we’re not putting up with this anymore.”
When asked if he believed regime change would be required in China before peaceful relations could be assured, Esper said that the person currently leading China was of greater importance than the form of government that existed there.
CCP leader Xi Jinping, Esper said, took China in a “much darker direction” since coming to power in 2012. Positive relations would not be likely to be renewed between China and the United States, he said, until Xi was out of power.
Xi aside, Esper clarified that whomever reigned in China, he believed the Chinese people deserved the same rights and freedoms as were enjoyed in the West, and that a representative form of government would do better to preserve the rights and culture of the Chinese people than communism.
Strategy Must Address Threats, Not Challenges
Esper commented on the legacy of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which first identified China as the nation’s “pacing threat.” That language, he noted, was apparently watered down by the Biden administration, which has thus far refrained from casting the CCP as an adversary of the United States.
“When I became secretary of defense in 2019, my focus was warfighting,” Esper said. “That’s the mission of the United States military, to fight and win our nation’s wars.”
“Secretary Austin has continued the notion of China as our pacing threat, although they now call it the ‘challenge’.”
Current leadership was still carrying important parts of the Trump administration’s groundwork for a China strategy forward in spirit, Esper said, but could do more. National strategies, he said, were easy to write well, but only implemented with great difficulty.
“You’ve got to give the Trump administration credit, I think, for finally consolidating and forming consensus within the United States government that China was our strategic competitor,” Esper said.
Still, given the stakes, Esper said the current administration was not delivering fully on the promise of the strategy.
“Too often, strategy documents get caught up in buzzwords and catchphrases that don’t have much meaning. It’s hard for people to understand and implement,” Esper said.
To that end, he lambasted the current administration’s failure to release an unclassified version of its own defense strategy, which has only been briefly described to the public in passing Congressional testimonies.
“You haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it,” Esper said. “There’s a page and a half document online where you can read what it says.”
“I don’t have a good sense of what the lines of effort are,” Esper added. “There’s talk about ‘campaigning’ and ‘integrated deterrence’ but those are just words. You’ve really got to dig deeper.”
Esper said that it was integral to make known the nation’s overall strategy to ensure that the nation’s allies, and its own people, understood what was being sought strategically and why the government and military were making the decisions they were.
Most importantly, Esper said, the administration needed to be clear on its strategy for contending with China, both in terms of ensuring peace and pursuing continued American success.
“We shouldn’t be looking for a fight with China,” Esper said. “What we should be looking to do is to shape China’s ascent in a way that’s more positive for the Indo-Pacific region and globally.”
“China is still our most lethal, dangerous adversary out there.”
The Epoch Times has reached out to the Pentagon for comment.
Reporting by The Epoch Times.