By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In the view of Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, chosen by President Donald Trump to lead the US military, Washington was slow to acknowledge that the United States will be locked in a strategic competition with China in the coming years.
Esper says he focused on Beijing’s growing military might long before the Pentagon implemented a National Defense Strategy in 2018 that prioritized competition with China and Russia over counterinsurgencies in places like Afghanistan.
China has been a personal priority since the 1990s, even as Esper worked as an aide on Capitol Hill after more than a decade in the military, he told Reuters.
“We may be a little late, we are late, recognizing that we are in a strategic competition with China,” Esper said in an interview in April.
He noted that he was a Pacific war planner in the Army General Staff, the branch’s top leadership body, in the mid-1990s. “The China issue, competition with China, China’s capabilities, it is not new to me … That is both the foundation and the configuration of my views on these various issues, because I have watched this evolution for 20 years. “
Competition with Russia has also been a focus. At a recent Atlantic Council event, Esper noted that the superiority of the US military over adversaries like Russia and China has eroded since the end of the Cold War, when the US could decide how and when it wanted to fight.
“Today, Russia and China are aggressively developing formations and capabilities and weapons systems that deny us that advantage that we have long had,” Esper said.
Trump, who has advocated a tougher approach to China, told reporters Tuesday that Esper would likely be his nominee for the top job in the Defense Department. He is expected to assume command in an interim capacity in the coming days, a defense official said.
But his name had long been among the candidates to become secretary in case the current acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, couldn’t get the job. Shanahan, who also sought to prioritize China, announced Tuesday that he would resign.
GOLF WAR, RAYTHEON IN BRIEF
Critics of Shanahan questioned his lack of experience in national security matters and worried about potential conflicts of interest given his past as an executive at aerospace and defense giant Boeing (NYSE :).
Esper’s recent past at defense contractor Raytheon (NYSE :), where he spent seven years as vice president of government relations, raises similar concerns.
“I’m not thrilled that the next acting defense secretary is a former Raytheon executive,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Defense Information Center for the Project on Government Oversight, a nongovernmental watchdog group.
But Esper also has a deep military goodwill dating back to his days at the US Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1986. He served in the 1991 Gulf War as an infantry officer with the 101st. Airborne Division and later commanded an Airborne. rifle company in Europe, according to the Army website. His experience at the Pentagon includes serving as an assistant deputy secretary of defense.
Esper will head the Pentagon at a time when US officials are privately wondering whether escalating tensions with Iran could affect China and Russia’s approach to the National Defense Strategy.
The Pentagon has announced two new troop deployments to the Middle East in recent weeks, totaling about 2,500 troops.
Both are still small in the context of the roughly 70,000 US troops now stationed in a region stretching from Egypt to Afghanistan. But larger deployments could mean fewer resources for the challenge from China and Russia, experts say.
Lawmakers, including Trump’s fellow Republicans, have expressed concern that the Pentagon still lacks a confirmed defense secretary, who would be better able to speak clearly, without fear of a political backlash that could cost him his job.
Shanahan, who made Pentagon history this year as the longest-serving interim defense secretary, took office after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly resigned over political differences with Trump.
Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed his confidence in Esper.
“(Trump) thinks highly of him and knows that I do too,” Inhofe said.
The Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, was also optimistic.
“I have known Esper for years, both as a Hill staff member and in private industry, and I believe the Department would benefit from his leadership,” he said in a statement.