US Defense Secretary Mark Esper cautioned European allies against cozying up to China, arguing on Friday that Beijing seeks greater global influence by leveraging economic power and stealing technology.
“The more dependent a country becomes on Chinese investment and trade, the more susceptible they are to coercion and retribution when they act outside of Beijing’s wishes,” Esper said in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank.
Esper’s assertion that China is seeking to expand its influence at the expense of others has been a common US government refrain for years, including during President Barack Obama’s administration. By taking this message to London, Esper seemed to be suggesting that Europeans do not fully share US concerns, which often center on China’s efforts to militarize disputed territory in the South China Sea and its vast trade surplus with the US.
“I would caution my friends in Europe — this is not a problem in some distant land that does not affect you,” he said.
In a similar vein, Esper blasted Russia for arms control violations and for aggression in Europe, including its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and what he called Moscow’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine. In a question-and-answer session after his prepared remarks, Esper said Russian ground-based cruise missiles aimed at Europe are “probably nuclear-tipped.”
Esper’s audience of defense experts and officials was as interested in Middle East issues as in the main topic of his speech. In response to a question about the US approach to Iran, Esper acknowledged differences with some allies but stressed that President Donald Trump is determined to stay on his course of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions.
He said the goal is to compel the Iranians to negotiate an agreement to replace the 2015 nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew the US last year. Many in Europe consider the US withdrawal a mistake.
Esper said a new nuclear deal would have to assure that Iran “doesn’t pursue or acquire a nuclear weapon not just in 10 or 15 years but forever,” and he suggested that such talks may be in the offing.
“It seems in some ways that Iran is inching toward that place where we could have talks,” he said.