Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper stressed that his trip to the Indo-Pacific region is in direct support of the National Defense Strategy.
The secretary had talks in Australia and New Zealand, and he also traveled to Japan. His further travels will take him to Mongolia and South Korea.
During a short news conference aboard his plane with reporters traveling with him from New Zealand to Japan, Esper noted that the National Defense Strategy's second line of effort is to maintain alliances and expand the network.
The consultations with longtime allies Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are a chance to maintain the vital communications with these allies, the secretary said.
"Mongolia — given its location, given its interest in working more with us, their third neighbor policy — all those things is the reason why I want to go there and engage," he said. "So it's, again, [to] continue to build relationships with key countries in the Indo-Pacific. ... I look on each trip to do more of that, whether it's Mongolia this trip, Vietnam a future trip, Indonesia, other countries who I think are key to making sure [we] look to like-minded countries who believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific, who share the values we do, who believe in respecting one another's sovereignty."
The Indo-Pacific region has benefitted from the rules-based international order in place since World War II. China is seeking to get basing and other rights in a number of countries across the region, Esper said, and the pattern raises concerns in the United States and across the region. China is seeking basing rights in the Indian Ocean, in Oceania and in nations along the African coast.
"It's pretty vast, in terms of where they're going or where they're touching," Esper said. "So this is the competition we've been talking about. We've got to be able to compete with them — left of conflict, of course — to make sure that we are standing up for sovereignty, standing up for freedom of navigation, ... standing up for democracy — all those things that we value."
Reporters asked Esper about the situation in Syria. "We've been heavily engaged with the Turks with regard to their security interests in northern Syria," he said. "Clearly, we do believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable. And so what we're trying to do now is work out with them an arrangement to address their concerns, and I'm hopeful we'll get there."
The secretary said he has spoken with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar about the situation and wants to continue the dialogue with his counterpart.
Esper also addressed the issue of intermediate-range missiles in Asia. He stated that he did not ask the Australians about deploying these missiles in the region. He said the United States is a long way from even making a recommendation on the capability.
"It's going to take ... a few years to actually have some type of initial operational-capable missiles, whether they are ballistic, cruise — you name it — to be able to deploy," he said. "Between now and then, there's going to be ... a lot of dialogue."
During his time in Tokyo, Esper met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and State Minister for Foreign Affairs Masahisa Sato.