On 15 February 2020, representatives from the United States took to the stage at the 2020 Munich Security Conference to deride America’s rivals and to reinforce the nation’s commitment to Western Europe. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper used his address to condemn China, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that American policymakers still cared deeply about the transatlantic relationship. Esper’s speech perhaps holds the greatest significance, particularly as the Secretary of Defense claimed that the People’s Republic of China now outranked former Cold War rival Russia. He outlined a number of key concerns regarding the nation. About the Chinese military, he stated that “they have said that by 2035, the PRC intends to complete its military modernisation, and, by 2049, it seeks to dominate Asia as the pre-eminent global military power”.
At present, the United States is the major military power in Asia, so Chinese pushback would bring the two nations into a ‘Cold War’ style competition. Esper also alleged that China currently presents an antagonistic position in the region. He claims that the nation constantly threatens its neighbours, steals Western knowledge and seeks an “advantage by any means and at any cost”. He attacked the nation’s leadership: “The Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction – more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture.” Speaking later that day, Chinese representatives at the conference claimed that the U.S. was engaged in a smear campaign against the PRC, and that the aforementioned comments were “not based on facts”.
Originally established in 1963, the Munich Security Conference started as a conference on NATO and the transatlantic relationship, evolving into a major global security conference. It often focuses on a theme. This year, that theme was ‘Westlessness,’ the apparent collapse of the Western liberal consensus characteristic of diplomacy throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the perceived withdrawal of the United States from its Cold War responsibilities. Mike Pompeo’s comments rejected this theme. The Secretary of State claimed that despite the nation’s rhetoric, America was not trying to put itself first and still cared deeply about the relationship between the New World, and the Old. Attendees did not necessarily believe this, as French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that U.S. policies of the previous decade have emphasised a withdrawal from transatlantic commitments.
Ultimately, the comments of both Esper and Pompeo have been framed by the theme of the 2020 Munich Conference. In attacking China, Esper may intentionally be forcing a distinction between ‘East’ and ‘West’ to try and bring the Western world back to an American way of thinking. China is a distinctively ‘Eastern’ nation, and follows starkly different practices to the governments of Western Europe. By repositioning it as a foe, Esper and American officials may be attempting to reignite Cold War era fears and competition, splitting the world into two blocs once more. Such an outcome would be devastating to global efforts for peace and should not be allowed to succeed. As for the comments made by Pompeo, only time can tell whether they hold truth: does the United States views Europe as an equal ally against its foes, or is it simply a convenient friend?
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