The secretary tied the trip directly to the National Security Strategy that places great power competition with China and Russia as the foremost threat to the United States and American interests around the world. Esper spoke with reporters traveling to the "2+2" talks with Austrailian allies in Sydney.
The term 2+2 refers to meetings between the U.S. secretaries of defense and state, and their Australian counterparts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Esper meet with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds.
Esper will visit other nations during his trip to the region including New Zealand, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan.
"I want to go out to the theater, visit with some of our longest standing allies, and new partners, and to affirm our commitment to the region to reassure our allies and our partners, and to make sure they understand that it's not just the department's commitment, but my personal commitment and the United States' commitment to this region," he said.
The defense secretary began the trip with a short stop in Hawaii to meet with Navy Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
As Esper journeyed to the Pacific, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after years of Russian noncompliance with the 1987 accord. He said the United States will build and field deterrent forces to the Russian threats and he would like them sooner rather than later.
"We want to develop this capability and making sure we can have long-range precision fires, not just for that theater, but for the theater that we're deploying to as well, because of the importance of great distances we need to cover, and how important an intermediate range conventional weapon would be to the Asia Indo-Pacom theater," Esper said. He emphasized that the weapons would be conventionally armed.
The defense secretary also said that any new treaties should be multilateral. The INF Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- which is still in force -- should include other countries. He also wants to engage Russia in nonstrategic nuclear weapons.
Esper shifted to Operation Sentinel in the Persian Gulf. The operation is envisioned as a multinational maritime effort to increase surveillance of and security in key waterways -- the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and the Bab el-Mandeb strait -- to ensure freedom of navigation. Iran has threatened to close these vital waterways and is acting aggressively in the region. U.S. Central Command held a sourcing conference for the operation and more than 30 countries attended.
"We have various degrees of commitment, so I think we'll have some announcements coming out soon in the coming days, where you'll see countries begin to sign up," Esper said.
Still, the United States will continue to provide air and navy-based maritime surveillance. "Again, the purpose being to maintain freedom of navigation in the straits and to deter some type of unnecessary escalation based on a provocative act, because we are not seeking conflict with Iran at the end of the day," he said. "What we want to do is stay on the diplomatic path. And so we want to grow the coalition to help us with that."