Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reportedly ordered a “backchannel” message to reassure China the United States would not be seeking military action in the days leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
News of Esper’s actions come as General Mark Milley has been accused by former President Donald Trump of ‘treason’ for allegedly having said he would warn China if the United States planned to conduct a military strike this past October.
Multiple sources, according to an Axios report, indicate that top officials at the Pentagon were concerned that China was getting bad intelligence about a possible surprise attack by the United States.
“Esper directed his policy office to issue a backchannel message to the Chinese to reassure them the U.S. had no intention of seeking a military confrontation,” Axios writes.
The column interprets the message to be: “Don’t over-read what you’re seeing in Washington.”
Tensions between China and the United States had been rising over increased military support for Taiwan and then-National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien warned in October that the American response to any aggression by China would involve “a lot of ambiguity.”
The Axios report indicates Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s call for “backchannel” communication with China may have been conducted in secret.
“These backchannel communications were handled a couple of levels below Esper,” according to one source. “U.S. officials involved thought the Chinese received the initial message well.”
Adds Axios, “It’s unclear whether anyone at the Pentagon told President Trump or the White House what they were doing.”
Esper was fired unceremoniously just days after the election via tweet.
“Mark Esper has been terminated,” Trump wrote. “I would like to thank him for his service.”
The major shakeup was unheard of for a transitioning administration and was widely speculated to be a result of Esper’s departure from Trump on whether he could use troops to quell BLM protests in Washington, D.C. at the time.
CNN political analyst Josh Rogin says he confirmed the Axios report and that a senior defense official has said Mark Esper’s actions led to General Mark Milley’s extreme response.
Milley, in a quote reported by the Washington Post, indicated he was willing to warn China if the United States had planned a military strike.
“General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time,” Milley purportedly said. “It’s not going to be a surprise.”
Li is General Li Zuocheng, Milley’s rank counterpart in China.
Rogin’s source says it was Esper who orchestrated the series of events that turned top military officials into allies of the Chinese.
“Milley was absolutely not going rogue. Esper took the initiative on this in October,” an official told Rogin. “Esper asked his own policy folks to backchannel the message. Milley’s message followed Esper’s.”
Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin indicates Milley’s call wasn’t a secret and involved at least 15 others.
The current White House has defended Milley’s actions, taken before President Biden assumed office or was even known to have been the victor in the 2020 election.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the China call story as little more than “anonymous unconfirmed reports about conversations with limited context.”
Senator Marco Rubio said Milley’s actions were “a dangerous precedent” that “threatens to tear apart our nation’s longstanding principle of civilian control of the military.”
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