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Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, who was chosen by US President Donald Trump to be the new acting Pentagon chief, is a former military man who moved to the defence industry. Photo: AFP

Mark Esper: Donald Trump’s new Pentagon pick is a US Army veteran long focused on China

  • Mark Esper named as new acting Pentagon chief after surprise withdrawal of Patrick Shanahan for family reasons

In the opinion of US Army Secretary Mark Esper, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the US military, Washington was late to recognise that America will be locked in a strategic competition with China for years to come.

Esper says he was focused on Beijing’s growing military might long before the Pentagon rolled out a National Defence Strategy in 2018 that prioritised competition with China and Russia over counter-insurgencies in places like Afghanistan.

China has been a personal priority as far back as the 1990s, including when Esper worked as an aide on Capitol Hill after more than a decade in the Army, he told Reuters.

“We may be a little bit late – we are late – coming to the recognition that we are in a strategic competition with China,” Esper said in an April interview.

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan steps aside after ‘painful’ domestic abuse incidents surface

He noted he was a Pacific war planner on the US Army Staff, the branch’s senior leadership body, in the mid-1990s.

“The issue of China, competition with China, China’s capabilities, is not a new one to me … That is both the foundation and the shaping of my views on these various issues, because I’ve watched this evolution for 20 years now.”

Competition with Russia has also been a focus. At a recent Atlantic Council event, Esper noted that the US military’s superiority over adversaries like Russia and China has eroded since the end of the cold war, when the United States could decide how and when it wanted to fight.

“Today, Russia and China are aggressively developing formations and capabilities and weapons systems that deny us that long-held advantage,” Esper said.


Trump, who has championed a tougher approach to China, told reporters on Tuesday Esper would likely be his nominee for the top job at the US Defence Department.

He is expected to take the helm in an acting capacity in the coming days, a defence official said.

But his name had long been among the contenders to become secretary should current acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan fail to get the job.

Shanahan, who also sought to prioritise China, announced on Tuesday he would resign.

Shanahan’s critics questioned his lack of experience in national security matters, and fretted about potential conflicts of interest given his past as an executive at defence and aerospace giant Boeing.


Esper’s recent past at defence contractor Raytheon, where he spent seven years as vice-president for government relations, is raising similar concerns.

Tomahawk missile maker Raytheon and United Technologies merge to create US aerospace and defence giant

“I’m not thrilled that the next acting defence secretary is a former Raytheon executive,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Centre for Defence Information at the Project On Government Oversight, a non-governmental watchdog group.


But Esper also has deep military bona fides going back to his days at the US Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1986.

He served in the 1991 Gulf war as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division and later commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe, according to the Army’s website.

His Pentagon experience includes serving as a deputy assistant secretary of defence.

US Secretary of the Army Mark Esper (left )visits troops and their families in Fort Bragg along with US first lady Melania Trump and Karen Pence, the wife of US vice-president Mike Pence. Photo: AFP

Esper will lead the Pentagon at a time when US officials privately wonder whether increasing tensions with Iran could impact the National Defence Strategy’s China and Russia focus.


The Pentagon has announced two new troop deployments to the Middle East in recent weeks, totalling about 2,500 troops.

Both are still small in the context of the about 70,000 American troops now stationed across a region that stretches from Egypt to Afghanistan.

But bigger deployments could mean less resources for the China and Russia challenge, experts say.


Lawmakers, including Trump’s fellow Republicans, have expressed concern that the Pentagon still lacks a confirmed defence secretary, who would be more empowered to speak plainly, without fear of political backlash that could cost him his job.

Here is US Defence Secretary James Mattis’ resignation letter to Donald Trump, in full

Shanahan, who made Pentagon history this year as the longest-ever serving acting defence secretary, took the job after Defence Secretary James Mattis abruptly resigned over policy differences with Trump.

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed confidence in Esper.

“(Trump) thinks highly of him and he knows I do too,” Inhofe said.

The Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, was also upbeat.

“I have known Esper for years, both as a staff member on the Hill and in private industry, and believe the Department would benefit from his leadership,” he said in a statement.