Defense Secretary Mark Esper has made headlines for pulling troops out of Germany, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

But he spent most of his time during Wednesday's Aspen Security Forum on China and its role as rival to the U.S. in Asia and around the globe.

For decades, Russia was the measuring stick the military brass used to judge the preparedness of the American military, but now that role is China's alone.

The security forum usually draws hundreds of business and government leaders to Aspen each summer for a week of policy talks. This year, the event is running as an eight-hour long daily videconference through Thursday.

Rather than call China a rising power, as his predecessors have done, Esper described the People's Republic as a nation that has already arrived on the world stage as a top military power and diplomatic heavyweight.

"China has been on this path now for many decades," said Esper who moved to the Pentagon's top job from his post as Army secretary last year to replace James Mattis.

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Esper spoke of countering Chinese moves around the globe, even having his top military commander for Africa examining ways to match China's efforts in nations including Kenya, Egypt and Sudan.

Esper also is wary of Chinese moves that could erode American influence in Asia, with China courting traditional U.S. allies including the Philippines and South Korea.

China is using the carrot of valuable trade deals to make friends and its military might to cow its would-be enemies.

"We have seen China become more aggressive," he said.

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Esper said he's working to build partnerships around Asia and the Pacific, including hosting meetings that bring together multiple nations, rather than individual meetings with selected allies.

"That's the best way to push back on China and its bad behavior in the Pacific," he said.

The growing military might of China comes after decades of U.S. military downsizing in Asia that accelerated at the end of the Cold War.

​Chinese threats have been a growing theme of Esper's tenure at the Pentagon a​nd are a key talking point for President Donald Trump on the 2020 campaign trail.

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On Tuesday, Trump described coronavirus as "this horrible, horrible plague that’s been unleashed on our country by China."

China's foreign minister Wang Wenbin fired back Wednesday against recent statements by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking that U.S. leaders "immediately stop making irresponsible remarks, and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs."

The two sides met toe to toe in the South China Sea with dueling military expercises pitting the Navy and American allies against China's burgeoning People's Liberation Army Navy.

Esper said that it has been China that's stepped out of line lately.

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"We see them acting out in a way that is inconsistent with international norms and  rules of behavior," he said.

To counter China, Esper said that shifting forces to free up money and troops to focus on the Pacific is key. He said moves including the proposed cut of nearly 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany will increase Pentagon flexibility to deal with Chinese threats.

"I have to be thinking about the future," Esper explained.

He said the troop drawdown in German drew fire from some in Congress, but responses in Europe were muted.

"When you go through it, you'll see these moves make sense ...," Esper said.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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