Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “improving our lethality and our readiness” and “strengthening our alliances and partnerships” along with funding critical technology are key to Indo-Pacific maritime security as China increases “provocative” behavior in the region.
The U.S. will need to “continue to make these big investments on the next generation of technologies that we think will be critical to making sure we can maintain that deterrent capability for years to come,” the secretary said last week in Honolulu at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies.
Esper said China needs to “honor the commitments it made to the international community,” including to “not demilitarize features in the South China Sea.”
“China’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing has brought economic and ecological damage in the Caribbean and Latin America and Africa and the Pacific islands and beyond,” he said, and the PRC’s “aggressive modernization plan to achieve a world-class military by the middle of the century” will “undoubtedly embolden the PLA’s provocative behavior in the South and East China seas, and anywhere else the Chinese government has deemed critical to its interest.”
The National Defense Strategy, Esper noted, “identifies the Indo-Pacific as the department’s priority theater, given its economic and strategic significance.”
“More than half of all global maritime trade transits through Asia and the region alone accounts for 60 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Moreover, the Indo-Pacific is home to six nuclear nations and seven of the world’s 10 largest standing armies. Further, the Indo-Pacific faces some of the world’s most dynamic security challenges to include a defiant North Korea, violent extremism, and a host of transnational threats such as piracy, human and arms trafficking, natural disasters, and now a global pandemic,” he said.
“But most importantly, the Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of a great power competition with China. In light of this reality, the department is committed to implementing a comprehensive strategy for the region that is based on one, preparedness; two, strengthening our alliances and partnerships; and three, promoting and expanding a network of like-minded partners.”
The DoD is divesting from legacy systems and focusing on modernizing forces as well as platforms “critical to the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific such as submarines, B21 stealth bombers, P8 maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned underwater and surface vehicles, long-range precision munitions, integrated air, and missile defense systems and a new class of frigates.”
Working with nations such as Bangladesh, Mongolia, the Philippines, and several Pacific island nations has been important to help “put like-minded partners on a path toward greater preparedness enabling them to become more confident in their sovereignty,” Esper said. The United States has also provided nearly $400 million of assistance to bolster the maritime security and domain awareness capabilities of partners such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.
Interconnected security partnerships serve as a force multiplier and have included “Japan’s provision of maritime vessels for regional capacity building, the logistical support agreement being finalized between Australia and India, South Korea’s pledge to more than double its developed assistance to ASEAN nations by 2020 and maritime and air patrol coordinated by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to combat illicit transborder activities.”
The Defense Department has established a new office on China led by a deputy assistant secretary, and “we are updating all of our plans” to address the growing threat.
“China and Russia are in all parts of the globe, and we need to be able to deal with them whether it’s in CENTCOM AOR or the Arctic, INDOPACOM or Europe and so what it is is appealing to those like-minded nations to make sure we are doing everything we can to address that,” Esper said.
“…It’s a very exciting time for each of our services as we look ahead and think about how we can continue to maintain peace and stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region and deter China and hopefully continue to work with the People’s Republic to get them back on a trajectory that is more in line with the international rules-based order that we expect of all countries.”
Esper said he sees “a lot of opportunities” to increase cooperation with “very important, very critical” Pacific Island nations, strategically key as “many cut across sea lines of communication critical to navigation.”
“We can’t let the great distances, the vastness of ocean out there be the obstacle to bringing us together,” he said. “We have got to continue to build those relationships, cut across any type of boundaries and obstacles because that is the future I think, and that will ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains free, open, and protected and secure for everyone over the next – make for the rest of the century and beyond.”