Defense Secretary Mark Esper this week warned of the dangers of China as it vies for global dominance in artificial intelligence (AI) -- including its move to export military drones to the Middle East that can allegedly conduct "lethal targeted strikes," he said.
Esper, speaking at the National Security Commission's Artificial Intelligence conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, said Beijing "has made it abundantly clear that it intends to be the world leader of AI by 2030."
"We have to get there first," said Esper, who added that the U.S. prioritizes China over Russia when it comes to such technology.
“As we speak, the Chinese government is already exporting some of the most advanced military aerial drones to the Middle East, as it prepares to export its next-generation stealth UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] when those come online,” Esper said. “In addition, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable of full autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal targeted strikes.”
Not only does China seek to "leapfrog" over America when it comes to current technologies and transforming warfare across various domains -- including outer space and cyberspace -- but the country also wants to deploy new tech to "strengthen its authoritarian grip over its people," the top Pentagon chief said.
"All signs point to the construction of a 21st-century surveillance state designed to censor speech and deny basic human rights on an unprecedented scale," Esper said. "Look no further than its use of surveillance to systematically repress more than a million Muslim Uighurs."
"Beijing has all the power and tools it needs to coerce Chinese industry and academia into supporting its government-led efforts," he added.
Esper, who took over as defense secretary in June following Jim Mattis' departure, has maintained during his tenure as the nation's top defense official that China is the United States' top concern.
"China is the No. 1 priority for this department," Esper told Fox News in August. "It’s outlined in the National Defense Strategy, why we think it’s a long-term strategic competitor and one that is pursuing a maximization campaign, if you will, throughout the Indo-Pacific Theater, whether it’s politically, economically or militarily. They are clearly professionalizing and expanding the capacity and capabilities of the military in order to push the United States out of that theater."
“They’ve studied us, and they’ve learned about how we employ weapons; they’ve learned about our doctrine,” Esper said at the time. “And so, that is something that we watch very carefully.”
Beijing just released its controversial "morality guidelines," the first set since 2001. Among the mandates for its citizens is one that states to "do a good job in ethical construction of cyberspace."
Esper has repeatedly pointed to China as a nation to keep an eye on in order to safeguard the United States.
While China is considered a "near peer" adversary of the U.S., meaning it is generally thought to be a few steps behind America's capabilities and advancements, some analysts and experts say China is quickly inching closer to "peer" status and could pose a threat in the future.