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Defense secretary underscores PRC threat, highlights U.S. commitment during Indo-Pacific center’s anniversary speech

Defense secretary underscores PRC threat, highlights U.S. commitment during Indo-Pacific center’s anniversary speech


While near-peer rivals such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) work to advance their own interests, the United States is focused on reforms that enhance partnerships across the region and maintain a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper highlighted that contrast in late August 2020 during a keynote address for the 25th anniversary of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu.

Beijing, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has fallen short of its promises to abide by international laws, rules and norms, despite continuing to reap the benefits of the international systems and free markets, Esper said. The CCP has also failed to honor commitments it made to the international community to safeguard the economy of Hong Kong and not to militarize features in the South China Sea, he added.

“Beijing’s self-serving behavior, however, is not isolated to just the Indo-Pacific region,” Esper said. “Increasingly, our like-minded partners around the world are experiencing the CCP’s systemic rule-breaking behavior. Unlike America’s Armed Forces, the People’s Liberation Army is not a military that serves its nation or its constitution. Rather, it serves a political party.”

Esper, on his way to visit several Indo-Pacific countries, stopped in Honolulu to commemorate the end of World War II and the quarter century of work by DKI APCSS. He spoke candidly during prepared remarks and in answering questions from a virtual audience — which watched on Zoom and Facebook Live — on a range of topics that included the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, North Korea and the U.S.’ expanding relationship with India. (Pictured: U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, answers audience questions from retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Peter A. Gumataotao, director of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.)

DKI APCSS addresses regional and global security issues, inviting military representatives from the U.S. and Indo-Pacific to its comprehensive program of executive education and workshops, both in Hawaii and throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

“For decades, APCSS has leveraged its unique position in the region as part of the Department of Defense to enhance our mission of forging lasting security partnerships across the Indo-Pacific and advancing the security interests of the United States and our allies,” Esper said. “When we reflect on the tremendous sacrifices of the greatest generation, we are reminded that together, America and its allies delivered victory for freedom and built an international order that has brought prosperity and security to the globe for more than seven decades. Today, regrettably, that free and open system is under duress.”

The world is in an era of great power competition, and the Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of that competition with China, Esper said.

“In light of this reality, the department is committed to implementing a comprehensive strategy for the region that is based on preparedness, strengthening alliances and partnerships and promoting an expanding network of like-minded partners,” Esper said.

The U.S. is divesting from legacy systems and instead focusing on modernization to deter, compete and, if necessary, fight and win across all domains, to include air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, Esper said.

To do this, he said, the U.S. is prioritizing game-changing technology by developing and deploying hypersonic weapons, 5G and artificial intelligence. The U.S. is also investing in platforms critical to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, such as submarines, B-21 stealth bombers, unmanned, underwater and surface vehicles, long-range precision munitions, integrated air and missile defenses and a new class of frigates.

“We are transforming the way we fight by developing a new, joint warfighting concept for the 21st century and implementing other initiatives that make us more strategically predictable to our partners and operationally unpredictable to our competitors,” Esper said.

The transformation is underway with allies and partners across the region, and Esper said the U.S. is working to strengthen alliances.

He said the U.S. is providing F-35 aircraft to Japan, Seahawk and Apache helicopters to India and F-16 fighter jets and M1 Abrams tanks to Taiwan. In addition, the U.S. has provided nearly U.S. $400 million in assistance to bolster maritime security and domain awareness capabilities to partners that include Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam, Esper said.

The U.S. and Thailand are working to co-procure Stryker armored vehicles; and in Japan, production has begun on a co-developed ground-based interceptor missile, the SM-3 Block IIA, Esper said.

“In this era of great power competition, the importance of strengthening partnerships and cultivating new relations has never been more pronounced,” Esper said. “Indeed, our robust network of allies and partners remains the enduring asymmetric advantage we have over near-peer rivals, namely China, that attempt to undermine and subvert the rules-based order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others.”

To fully understand the threat, Esper set up a new defense policy office on China and established a China strategy management group to integrate efforts. He also directed the National Defense University to refocus its efforts by dedicating 50% of coursework to China, and Esper tasked military services to make the PRC the “pacing threat” in all military schools, programs and trainings.

Such efforts are critical for preparing future leaders, Esper said.

“The United States has a responsibility to lead,” Esper said. “We’ve been a Pacific country for quite a long time, and we’re not going to cede this region, we’re not going to cede an inch of ground, to another country or any other country that thinks that their form of government, their views on human rights, their views on sovereignty, on freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, all those things, that somehow that’s better than what many of us share and know to be the case of the importance of individual rights and democracy — all those things that we value and we know keep us safe and secure and prosperous.”