New reporting from Jonathan Swann: Milley wasn’t the only one who feared China was consuming bad intel about the possibility of a surprise U.S. strike by Trump. Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered a back-channel message in October to reassure them.
In mid-October 2020, top Pentagon officials grew concerned about intelligence they’d seen. It showed the Chinese were consuming their own intelligence that had made them concerned about the possibility of a surprise U.S. strike against China, three sources familiar with the situation tell Axios.
- One of the sources said: “I think they [the Chinese] were getting bad intelligence… a combination of ‘wag the dog’ conspiracy thinking and bad intel from bad sources.”
Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper worried the Chinese were misreading the situation and that their misperception could lead to a conflict nobody wanted.
- 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. The message: Don’t over-read what you’re seeing in Washington; we have no intention to attack; and let’s keep lines of communication open.
- These backchannel communications were handled a couple of levels below Esper, one of the sources said. U.S. officials involved thought the Chinese received the initial message well. Milley followed up later in the month with a call to his Chinese counterpart to reiterate the message, two of the sources confirmed.
- It’s unclear whether anyone at the Pentagon told President Trump or the White House what they were doing.
Esper learned of the Chinese concerns, he also learned that a long-planned deployment to Asia had been moved up a couple of weeks earlier than previously planned, to accommodate COVID quarantine protocols.
- Esper told colleagues the last thing the Chinese needed to see at that moment — when they were already misreading Washington’s intentions — was more planes, according to one of the sources.
- Esper went so far as to delay this long planned exercise in Asia until after the election, to lower the temperature.