Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

Secretary of Defense Virtual Keynote Speech at APCSS (As Prepared)

Aug. 26, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Aloha and good afternoon. Thank you, Admiral Gumataotao, for that kind introduction. It’s great to be with you today in honor of the 25th anniversary of your ongoing efforts to educate, connect with, and empower our partners throughout the Indo-Pacific.

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.

This week, I am traveling throughout the region to highlight our successes when it comes to that mission, and to put it into contrast as we commemorate the end of World War II seventy-five years ago. 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. 

In fact, the vision that the late Senator Inouye had for this institution upon its founding is more relevant than ever in this era of great power competition. The importance he placed on strengthening partnerships and cultivating new relationships has never been more pronounced. 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.

In light of this challenge, the National Defense Strategy guides us as we enhance our lethality, strengthen those alliances and partnerships, and reform the Department to align our resources with our highest priorities. One of the goals that drives our implementation of the NDS is to focus the Department on China. To do this, we have stood up a new Defense Policy office on China, and established a China Strategy Management Group to integrate our efforts.

I also directed our National Defense University to refocus its curriculum by dedicating 50 percent of the coursework to China, and I tasked the Military Services to make the PRC the pacing threat in all of our schools, programs, and training. These efforts are critical to preparing our military’s future leaders for tomorrow’s challenges – one of which I’d like to talk more about today.

Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing has repeatedly fallen short of its promises to:

  • Abide by international laws, rules, or norms – despite continuing to reap the benefits of the international system and free markets; and
  • Honor the commitments it made to the international community, including promises to safeguard the autonomy of Hong Kong and not to militarize features in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s self-serving behavior, however, is not isolated to just the Indo-Pacific region. Increasingly, our like-minded partners around the world are experiencing the CCP’s systematic rule-breaking behavior, debt-backed economic coercion, and other malign activities meant to undermine the free and open order that has benefitted nations of all sizes – China included.

For example, China’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing has wrought economic and ecological damage in the Caribbean and Latin America, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and beyond. Further, Beijing has failed to uphold its obligations under the World Trade Organization, and hampered global efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic due to its lack of transparency with the World Health Organization.

Moreover, the PRC’s destabilizing actions go beyond its subversive political and economic activity. To advance the CCP’s agenda, the People’s Liberation Army continues to pursue an aggressive modernization plan to achieve a world-class military by the middle of the century. This 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 interests.

Unlike America’s Armed Forces, the PLA is not a military that serves its nation, or a constitution – rather, it serves a political entity, the CCP, in its attempts to undermine rules and norms across the globe. In fact, China’s global ambitions include establishing a security presence at strategic access points – such as its base in Africa – to enhance its ability to project power globally, and across all domains.

Clearly, China seeks to undermine the free and open order itself, which impacts every nation supporting and benefitting from this system. That is why this institution’s forward location and unique role on the front lines of our long-term competition here in the Indo-Pacific is so important. Over the past 25 years, APCSS has served as the regional touchpoint for nearly 14,000 practitioners from over 100 countries – playing an important role in the Department’s ongoing efforts to implement the National Defense Strategy, and our Indo-Pacific strategy in particular.

The NDS 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 ten 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. But most importantly, the Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of 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 1) preparedness; 2) strengthening our alliances and partnerships; and 3) promoting and expanding a network of like-minded partners.

First, under preparedness, we are divesting from legacy systems and focusing on modernizing our force so we can deter, compete, and if necessary, fight and win, across all domains: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. Thanks to our largest research and development budget in the Department’s history, we are prioritizing the development and deployment of game-changing technologies, such as hypersonic weapons, 5G, and artificial intelligence.

We are also investing in platforms critical to the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific, such as submarines, B-21 stealth bombers, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned underwater and surface vehicles, long-range precision munitions, integrated air and missile defense, and a new class of frigates. 

In the coming days, I look forward to visiting Guam to see firsthand some of the investments we have made to develop the island as a strategic hub for our presence in the region. This includes the addition of air and missile defense capabilities; advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems; and our ongoing Bomber Task Force missions that prepare us to defend the Indo-Pacific at a moment’s notice.

Moreover, 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. These efforts prepare our military for future conflicts that we hope we won’t need to fight, but must – and will – be prepared to win.

We recognize that many of these concepts rely on close coordination and collaboration with our partners and allies. This is why assisting countries across the region to develop their national security policies, strategies, plans, and laws is critical. This type of work, with nations such as Bangladesh, Mongolia, the Philippines, and several Pacific Island nations, has helped put like-minded partners on a path toward greater preparedness, enabling them to become more confident in their sovereignty. 

That brings me to the second pillar, strengthening our alliances and partnerships – a bedrock of our strategy. U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific region is rooted in our long-standing security alliances, which provide an asymmetric advantage that our adversaries do not have. Our shared security concerns and desire to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific have yielded countless bilateral and multilateral initiatives throughout the region aimed at strengthening and expanding defense cooperation and alignment.

Notably, one of the major ways that we are enhancing interoperability and bolstering our partners’ capabilities is through an improved and expanded Foreign Military Sales program. By streamlining the FMS process, we have lowered costs and accelerated our response time to partner nation requests, allowing us to deliver critical capabilities more quickly and effectively.

Today, there are more than $160 billion worth of FMS projects under way across the Indo-Pacific, including $22 billion in newly initiated projects in this fiscal year alone – which is almost half of all Foreign Military Sales globally. We are providing F-35 aircraft to Japan, Seahawk and Apache helicopters to India, and F-16 fighter jets and M1 Abrams tanks to Taiwan, to name a few examples.  

In addition, the United States has 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. Further, we continue to make progress in deepening our defense relationships across the region. With Thailand, for example, we are co-procuring Stryker armored vehicles. And with Japan, we are moving into the production phase of a co-developed ground based intercept missile, the SM-3 Block 2-A.

Last month, during consultations with my Australian counterpart, we signed a statement of principles that will enhance our defense relationship and posture in the region for the next decade and beyond. Similarly, last fall we renewed a key agreement with Singapore, extending U.S. forward presence and cooperation in the region for another 15 years.

We are also looking to expand our engagement with new and emerging partners throughout South and Southeast Asia. For instance, we have upgraded our defense relationship with India to a Major Defense Partnership, and we held our first-ever joint military exercise with them last year, along with combined naval exercises earlier this summer. Additionally, this past spring, we conducted the second-ever U.S. carrier visit to Vietnam in over four decades – a sign of our deepening relationship.

We also continue to seek opportunities to build upon our relationships with Timor-Leste and Mongolia, as well as the Pacific Islands’ militaries in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga.

Looking to the future, we continue to enhance our cooperation alongside our allies to maintain our technological advantage in the newest warfighting domains: cyberspace and space. One significant milestone was our expansion of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to include cyberattacks as one of the dangers that, under certain circumstances, could warrant an alliance response.

Likewise, the United States and our allies have taken decisive action to counter China’s attempts to manipulate, disrupt, and undermine our technological edge, namely by denying access to its high-risk 5G vendors – something Japan, Australia, and New Zealand did early on. I continue to encourage all like-minded partners to carefully consider their choices regarding telecommunications infrastructure, and assess the long-term, collective risks of using Chinese state-backed vendors.

Our third and final goal in promoting a more networked region is to encourage the growth of inter-connected security partnerships that serve as a force multiplier to advance our shared interests.

A prime example is our ongoing multinational effort to enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolutions and sanctions on North Korea. The combined capabilities of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom, are a powerful show of support, reinforcing the will of the international community.

Other examples include 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 development assistance to ASEAN nations by 2020; and maritime and air patrols coordinated by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to combat illicit trans-border activities in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

These efforts extend to training and exercises as well. This year, the United States and Royal Thai armed forces co-hosted the 39th Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand, for over 9,000 personnel from 29 countries. Meanwhile, Canada and Japan have conducted bilateral military exercises in the Indo-Pacific since 2016; and, for the past five years, Australia, Japan, and the United States have partnered with Timor-Leste for an annual engineering exercise to support capacity building.

Finally, in recent years we have expanded the RIMPAC exercise to include our Western Hemisphere partners, such as Colombia and Peru. All participating nations play a vital role in ensuring interoperability across the Pacific, and I was pleased to witness this cooperation firsthand earlier today. 

Together, we will continue to find new ways to enhance preparedness, strengthen partnerships, and promote a more networked region, which allow us to protect a free and open Indo-Pacific, for all. APCSS will remain an important part of that effort, by encouraging candid and open exchanges on regional security issues, and strengthening the intellectual interoperability we need to be successful.

As we continue to implement our Indo-Pacific strategy, the United States needs our allies and partners to contribute in ways that are fair and equitable. We need them to pursue close alignment in policies that uphold a free and open order, and reject decisions that would benefit malign actors to our collective detriment. And, we need them to make the necessary investments to improve their capabilities so that, together, we can safeguard our interests, strengthen our readiness, and defend our sovereignty and values.

In doing so, we will secure freedom and prosperity for future generations, much like we did seventy-five years ago, when Allied forces fought shoulder-to-shoulder against tyranny. Together, we prevailed in a conflict unlike anything the world had ever experienced. And today, I am confident that we, much like our predecessors, can muster the same strength, resolve, and commitment to deter the threats of today, and overcome the challenges of tomorrow.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your questions.