With Esper, Pentagon Inherits an Army Veteran Long Focused on China

June 19, 2019 Updated: June 19, 2019

WASHINGTON—In the opinion of Army Secretary Mark Esper, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. military, Washington was late to recognize that America will be locked in a strategic competition with China for years to come.

Esper says he was focused on Beijing’s growing military might long before the Pentagon rolled out a National Defense Strategy in 2018 that prioritized competition with China and Russia over counter-insurgencies in places like Afghanistan.

China has been a personal priority as far back as the 1990s, including when Esper worked as an aide on Capitol Hill after more than a decade in the Army, he told Reuters.

“We may be a little bit late—we are late—coming to the recognition that we are in a strategic competition with China,” Esper said in an April interview.

He noted he was a Pacific war planner on the Army Staff, the branch’s senior leadership body, in the mid-1990s. “The issue of China, competition with China, China’s capabilities, is not a new one to me … That is both the foundation and the shaping of my views on these various issues, because I’ve watched this evolution for 20 years now.”

Competition with Russia has also been a focus. At a recent Atlantic Council event, Esper noted that the U.S. military’s superiority over adversaries like Russia and China has eroded since the end of the Cold War, when the United States 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 long-held advantage,” Esper said.

Trump, who has championed a tougher approach to China, told reporters on June 18 Esper would likely be his nominee for the top job at the Defense Department. He is expected to take the helm in an acting capacity in the coming days, a defense official said.

But his name had long been among the contenders to become secretary should current acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan fail to get the job. Shanahan, who also sought to prioritize China, announced on Tuesday he would resign.

Esper was the vice president for government relations at the defense contractor Raytheon for seven years prior to being confirmed.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point 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’s website. His Pentagon experience includes serving as a deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed confidence in Esper.

“(Trump) thinks highly of him and he knows I do too,” Inhofe said.

The Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, was also upbeat.

“I have known Esper for years, both as a staff member on the Hill and in private industry, and believe the Department would benefit from his leadership,” he said in a statement.

By Phil Stewart

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