Esper Calls for Honesty from China as Tensions Heat Up

Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses virtual attendees
Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses virtual attendees of the Aspen Security Forum from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2020. (DoD photo/Jack Sanders)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper spent an hour and a half on the phone Thursday with China's defense minister, calling for greater transparency on COVID-19 and expressing concern over Chinese military activity near Taiwan and the South China Sea.

In a briefing with reporters Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe discussed "destabilizing activity" by Chinese forces near Taiwan in the last few months, and the SecDef called on China to "honor its international obligations."

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"Secretary Esper also communicated the importance that the [People’s Republic of China] abide by international laws and rules and norms," Hoffman said.

Over the last several months, China has stepped up its navy and military activity in the South China Sea and near Taiwan -- operations that Taiwanese officials say threaten the island and its independence.

This all has taken place as relations between the U.S. and China have deteriorated. Last month, China ordered the U.S. to close its consulate in Chengdu after the U.S. accused Chinese diplomats of engaging in illegal activity and ordered the country to close its Houston consulate.

The relationship became further strained this week after the White House announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is planning to visit Taiwan in the coming week, heading the first U.S. delegation to travel to the island nation in six years.

Last month, Esper announced that he hoped to visit China by the end of the year to "enhance cooperation on areas of common interest," including establishing needed systems for crisis communications.

But whether that visit will materialize is unknown; Hoffman said Thursday he did not have a date for the visit and could not provide any further details.

"We're still looking to have that complete this year to talk about, as the secretary discussed on his call today some of these incredibly important issues, which we are working through," he said.

The last visit to China by a U.S. defense secretary was in June 2018, when then-Secretary James Mattis spent three days seeking what he called an "open dialogue" with his counterpart and other Chinese defense officials.

A follow-up planned meeting several months later between Mattis and Chinese defense officials was canceled amid rising tensions between the two countries.

President Donald Trump has called his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping "extraordinary," saying in January that they "love each other" and work very well together.

After imposing several rounds of tariffs on Chinese goods during his presidency, Trump and Xi signed the first phase of a trade deal in January.

"Our relationship with China has probably never been better. We went through a very rough patch, but it has never, ever been better," said Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January.

Fast-forward six months and one pandemic later, however, and the relationship has soured. Trump blames China for unleashing what he calls the "horrible plague" of the coronavirus on the world and has said the country is not holding up its end of the trade agreement.

The president has stepped up efforts to ban Chinese technology firms and apps from doing business in the U.S., and he ended preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong in retaliation for China’s decision to implement new national security laws in the city.

"I think our attitude on China has changed greatly since the China virus hit us. I think it changed greatly. It hit the world, and it shouldn't have. They should have been able to stop it. So, we feel differently," Trump said Tuesday during a press briefing.

As of Thursday, the U.S. had recorded 4.8 million cases of COVID-19 and 159,433 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

China reports having 88,423 total cases and 4,678 deaths. U.S. officials and many public health experts say, however, that those figures may be suppressed.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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