Pentagon Chief Mark Esper Warns Europe: China, Russia Exploiting Coronavirus Emergency

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks at a press conference with British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (out of frame) in the briefing room at the Pentagon on March 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia and China see the coronavirus emergency engulfing Europe as a crisis they can exploit, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday, specifically pointing to Chinese efforts to push Huawei 5G network equipment as malign.

“(The United States) is aware that some (countries) will try to use the pandemic as a way to invest in critical industry and infrastructure, with effect on security in the long term,” Esper told newspaper La Stampa, when asked whether China and Russia were trying to gain influence in Italy by sending aid.

“Potential opponents will almost certainly try to use their interest to put their interests forward and create divisions in NATO and Europe,” he said. “Huawei and 5G are an important example of this malign activity by China.”

As Breitbart News reported, both China and Russia have spent the past two months shipping medical supplies to Italy in an effort to win favor with a country staggering under the weight of coronavirus medical demands.

China in particular is using the pandemic to position itself as a global response leader with Italy and its neighbors proving a first step in Europe.

The Communist state has pledged or provided aid far and wide, from Greece to Italy, Japan, Iraq, Serbia, Spain and even Peru, in an attempt, as the New York Times characterized it, “to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis.”

“The coronavirus pandemic has become a battleground,” said Bruno Maçães, a former secretary of state for European Affairs in Portugal. “I see China focused on using the crisis as an opportunity to play up the superiority of its model.”

“I think this also shows what climate change could look like in the future,” Maçães added, “less an opportunity for global cooperation and more the background for geopolitical competition, with every major actor trying to do better than its rivals.”

Russia is not far behind.

In March it used nine hulking Il-76 cargo planes to send medical personnel and supplies to Italy to help the country’s efforts against the deadly disease.

The mission included eight mobile medical teams along with medical equipment and aerosol disinfection trucks.

More broadly, the U.S. has long advised countries to boycott Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecoms equipment, in setting up new 5G mobile phone networks, and also to scrutinise gear from another Chinese firm, ZTE.

“Dependence on Chinese suppliers could make crucial systems vulnerable to interruption, manipulation and espionage. This would put at risk our capacity to communicate and to share intelligence,” Esper said.

Russia’s assistance, including army medical staff, drew attention to the limited support Italy received from the European Union, and E.U. and NATO diplomats and officials have seen it as a geopolitical move.

On the evidence, both China and Russia see the global coronavirus pandemic as a crisis too good to ignore as they strive to advance their own national interests.

Follow Simon Kent on Twitter: or e-mail to:


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.