On July 14, Brookings hosted a one-on-one conversation between the Honorable Mark T. Esper, who served as the 27th U.S. secretary of defense from 2019 to 2020 and as the 23rd secretary of the Army from 2017 to 2019, and Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon. They discussed the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the challenges the U.S. faces in this new era of great power competition, especially from China and Russia.
O’Hanlon opened their conversation by asking about Esper’s priorities during his tenure as secretary of defense. Esper explained that his main goal was warfighting and the implementation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy along three lines of effort — lethality and readiness, strengthening alliances and growing partners, and reforming the Department of Defense. He said that strategy documents tend to be sound and well written but too often “get caught up in buzz words and catchphrases that don’t have much meaning,” and it is their implementation that is a challenge. As secretary of defense, he made it his goal to “translate [the] strategy into something tangible.”
Asked by O’Hanlon about what made the 2018 NDS stand out from previous strategies, Esper said that it was the first to identify China as the U.S.’s number one focus country. He said, “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. Again, I would describe them today as our adversary because to me it’s clear that’s what they are.”
Esper underscored that the greatest challenge of the current administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy is that we haven’t seen it. The Pentagon, Congress, people in the defense industry, the broader Washington, DC community, and U.S. allies and partners need to see the strategy to effectively implement it. “I think it’s critically important that [the NDS] be published in greater detail sooner rather than later,” Esper said. “What is required now is to get a really well-defined, well-articulated document… that we can start pursuing and make sure we understand so we can be effective against the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Russians.”
Honing in on China, O’Hanlon asked Esper what kind of contingency worries him the most when looking at Beijing as a potential adversary. The two that Esper cited as his biggest concerns were an incident in the South China Sea and the different scenarios that could play out in Taiwan — whether that be an invasion or a blockade or something else. O’Hanlon followed up and asked Esper if he thought the Chinese were starting to get the message that “the world will never allow it to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.” “I’m worried they really haven’t yet,” Esper said. “I think that’s all the more reason why our freedom of navigation operations should continue.” He then emphasized the importance of working with allies to establish a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific and continue to send the right signals to Beijing.
Broadening his assessment of the region, Esper reiterated his view that “the greatest strategic flashpoint in the world is Northeast Asia.” With three to four of the world’s nuclear powers, top economies, and technological powerhouses, “any type of conflict [in the region] is going to ripple globally.”
Elaborating on the risk of future conflict in Taiwan, Esper argued that Taiwan’s greatest challenges are to increase its defense budget, invest in the right type of technologies — especially asymmetric technologies — and lengthen and toughen its conscription “so that [it has] a true territorial defense force that acts as a deterrent.” He also stressed that the United States has to do its share in helping to deter Chinese aggression in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. “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. “This is why [Russian President Vladimir] Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24. Nobody really ever stood up to him when he invaded Georgia in ’08… annexed Crimea in 2014, and then tried to take all of Donbas in 2014,” Esper said. “And hopefully, that the West standing up to Putin in Ukraine is a signal to Xi Jinping that we will do the same with regard to Taiwan. And I’m hoping that’s a muscle that we’re building also within the Western Alliance.”
O’Hanlon followed up on this last point and asked whether he thought President Xi might believe the U.S. would not intervene and whether he thought our longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity should change. “I think strategic ambiguity has run its course,” Esper said. “It’s not an inconsequential decision, but I think there should be a debate — a national debate… about strategic ambiguity and how far we will go. I think the fundamental basics have changed to the point where the whole issue of One China and the relationship between all the players needs to be reassessed… so there is not this ambiguity that leads Xi Jinping to think ‘I can conduct a lightning strike… and the United States won’t intervene.’”
Esper stressed the importance of AUKUS trilateral security pact and how it facilitates improved technological cooperation between the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. “The big disruption these days is technology, and the Chinese are advancing their own technologies as well. So, we’ve got to get ahead of them… and we have to do so with allies and partners, so tech sharing is critically important. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to share amongst our closest allies like the Brits and the Australians.”
On the subject of the Russia-Ukraine war, Esper noted that the conflict is a strategic failure for Putin and that all the things Putin did not want — more NATO troops on his border, for Ukraine to become more closely aligned with the West, a more unified NATO, and more NATO members — became true. What was most surprising to Esper was “the lack of competence [of the Russian military] at every single level.” Ultimately, however, the war is “a contest of wills,” and Putin “may redefine victory… he cannot afford to lose.” Esper said that he sees the conflict dragging on at least through the end of the year.
Delving deeper into where the U.S. is positioning its forces, Esper said, “I would not necessarily put more troops in Europe; I would just move them further east.” He noted this was the plan he approved and directed in October 2020, as he writes about in his memoir, “A Sacred Oath.” “But we need to retain that focus on Asia because China is still our most lethal, dangerous, strategic adversary… we’ve got to be cognizant of the long-term strategic threat and to me, it’s coming from Asia, not from Russia.”
ModeratorMichael E. O’Hanlon Director of Research - Foreign Policy, Director - Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy