MUNICH - China tops the list of potential adversaries of the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Saturday at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. 

Esper told the audience of world leaders and military chiefs that Beijing posed the greatest threat to the West, followed by Russia, what he called "rogue states," including North Korea and Iran, and extremist groups.

“In fact, under President Xi's rule, 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,” Esper said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks during a press conference on the first day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 14, 2020.
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His warnings were echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who took aim at Chinese telecom firm Huawei.

“Huawei and other Chinese backed tech companies are Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence,” Pompeo said. “We can't let information go across networks that we don't have confidence won't be hijacked by the Chinese Communist Party. It's just unacceptable.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, shakes hands with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, as US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper watches during the 56th Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 14, 2020.

Key ally Britain announced recently that it will allow Huawei to build sections of its 5G mobile network, to Washington’s dismay. Officials in Munich said the U.S. is pushing to develop its own 5G technology.

Pompeo dismissed European concerns over the health of the Western alliance.

“I am happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over exaggerated,” Pompeo said. “The West is winning. We are collectively winning. We are doing it together."

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, also attending the Munich conference, said the U.S. accusations about Huawei were lies.   

“The root cause of all these problems and issues is that the U.S. does not want to see the rapid development and rejuvenation of China, and less would they want to accept the success of a socialist country,” Wang said.

Details of a sideline meeting between Secretary Pompeo and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov were not released.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks on the second day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 15, 2020.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also spoke to the Munich audience Saturday and was questioned about Tehran’s response to the U.S. targeted killing in January of its top general, Qassem Soleimani. Zarif said his country was ready for talks.

"It's not about opening talks with the United States, it's about bringing the United States back to a negotiating table that's already there,” he said. “We met every three months around that negotiating table until April 2018.”

The Munich conference is packed with military top brass. Analysts warn that Western defense capabilities must adapt to modern threats.

In its annual Military Balance survey, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) notes that cyber defense, artificial intelligence and hybrid warfare would characterize conflict in the years to come.

FILE - International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Director-General and Chief Executive Dr. John Chipman.

“The deployment of traditional military power is not in every case an effective counter to the astute deployment of informal force by adversaries willing to operate below the threshold of war,” Director-General of the IISS John Chipman told the conference. “Examples include Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, its use of chemical agents in the U.K., and its election meddling. Iran’s ability to conduct warfare through third parties gave Tehran a strategic advantage over adversaries reliant on conventional capabilities.”

Conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East and Afghanistan were high on the agenda in Munich — but it is China that has found itself at the center of attention, forced to defend its handling of the coronavirus outbreak and faced with intense efforts by Washington to paint Beijing as the greatest global threat.

The annual Munich Security Conference traditionally has focused on grand strategy and the relative military strength of global powers. This year, there appears to be a greater recognition that the battles of the future not only will be fought on land, air and sea, but in the realms of cyberspace and information warfare, where technology outguns military hardware.

The strong words from the U.S. delegation in Munich are just the latest salvo in the long battle ahead for cyber supremacy.