US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has cast China as a rising threat to world order, saying the world's most populous nation steals Western know-how, and intimidates smaller neighbours.
A frequent critic of China, Esper has used an address to an international security conference in Munich to give his most comprehensive condemnation yet of the communist country.
Esper said China tops the Pentagon's list of potential adversaries, followed by Russia, "rogue states" like North Korea and Iran, and continuing threats from extremist groups.
"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," he said on Saturday.
Esper stressed that the US does not want conflicts with China, and noted that the US government has provided medical supplies to help China combat a coronavirus outbreak that has infected over 67,000 people.
Still, he said Beijing has made clear its long-term intentions and said Europe and the rest of the world must "wake up" to the threats that China poses.
"The Communist Party and its associated organs, including the People's Liberation Army, are increasingly operating in theatres outside its borders, including Europe, and seeking advantage by any means, and at any cost," he said.
" ... They have said that by 2035, the PRC intends to complete its military modernisation, and, by 2049, it seeks to dominate Asia as the pre-eminent global military power."
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the forum that Esper and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "say the same thing wherever they go about China" and dismissed their remarks as lies.
"The root cause of all these problems and issues is that the US does not want to see the rapid development and rejuvenation of China, and still less would they want to accept the success of a socialist country," Wang said through a translator.
He said China had a "right to develop" and if Beijing and Washington worked together, it would benefit the whole world.
Also at the Munich conference, Pompeo refuted assertions that the US under President Donald Trump was rejecting its traditional international leadership role.
"I'm happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over-exaggerated," Pompeo said.
"The West is winning."
Australian Associated Press