Speaking to reporters in Sydney with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their Australian counterparts, Esper said the United States is “firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behavior, destabilizing behavior from China.”
Esper and Pompeo pointed to Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea and accused it of promoting the state-sponsored theft of other nation’s intellectual property, and “predatory economics.”
The last was an apparent reference to so-called “debt traps” like a 2017 arrangement that gave China control of a port in Sri Lanka. After failing to keep up with its debt payments to China, Sri Lanka handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese government for 99 years.
China has arguably undertaken the largest transfer of intellectual property in human history, according to Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Bowman told VOA that intellectual property stolen by Beijing has been used to modernize Chinese weapons which, in the event of a future military conflict, would be used to kill Americans and their allies.
“The United States will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others,” Esper said.
Pompeo said Sunday the United States was not asking nations to “choose” between the U.S. and China.
However, allies in the region have grown increasingly worried amid increasing economic and military tensions between China and the United States.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne praised the strong “mateship” between the United States and Australia, but added that China is also a vitally important partner for her country.
“It’s in no one’s interest for the Indo-Pacific to become more competitive or adversarial in character,” she said.
Southeast Asian nations grappled with the prospect of choosing sides in June during the annual Shangri-la Dialogue defense forum in Singapore. The question loomed so large that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of smaller countries being “forced” to take sides.