There is an alignment of America’s strategic interest with India, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday as he identified China, followed by Russia, as Pentagon’s top two challenges in the coming years.
“Next week in Washington DC, the United States will host the second ever India two-plus-two ministerial, where we will continue to advance our growing partnership as our strategic interests align,” Esper said during his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think-tank.
On December 18, Esper will host his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, at the Pentagon for a bilateral meeting. Following this, he and Singh will drive down to the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the State Department to join External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the second India US 2+2 ministerial.
“As you could see, our resolve to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific is deep-rooted and is only growing stronger in the face of efforts to undermine it,” Esper said.
The defense secretary said the international rules-based order that America and its allies had worked hard to establish was being tested in new and precarious ways.
“We have entered a new era of great power competition,” he said in reference to China.
“China first and Russia second are now the department’s top priorities. Both nations are rapidly modernising their armed forces and expanding their capabilities into the space and cyber domains,” the top Pentagon leader said.
“Emboldened by the growing strength of the militaries, Beijing and Moscow are not only violating the sovereignty of smaller states, but they are also attempting to undermine international laws and norms to advantage themselves at the expense of others,” he said.
Through its Belt and Road initiative, Esper noted, China was expanding its economic ties across Asia, Europe and Africa with a less-publicised objective of expanding the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) influence and reach.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine were evidence of its blatant disregard for state sovereignty and its intent to undermine NATO’s cohesion, Esper said.
He alleged that China’s brazen efforts to coerce smaller states and assert illegitimate maritime claims threatened its neighbours’ sovereignty, undermined the stability of regional markets and increased the risk of conflict.
This behaviour stood in stark contrast to the US vision, one that respected and provided opportunity for all nations, large and small, Esper argued.
“Our approach continues to prove itself superior to China’s as evidenced by our growing partnerships across the Indo-Pacific. For example, during my recent visit to Thailand, the prime minister and I signed Joint Vision 2020, which charts a course for increased interoperability and expanded exercises and training between our forces,” he said.
At the end of the day, Esper told the CFR audience, that the US wanted China to obey those international rules the way US and its allies implemented them, including freedom of navigation.
“I do not want China to be an enemy. There is no need for them to be an enemy. But we certainly have entered this era of great power competition where we are competing with them,” he said.
Responding to a question, Esper said it was premature to call it a “cold war” with China.