America's network of alliances is its greatest combat advantage, and nowhere is that more important than in the Indo-Pacific region, which Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper has called America's ''priority theater.''
Esper is making his second trip in the three months to the region, visiting South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The secretary will hear firsthand from allies and partners on their concerns and their progress and what the United States can do to strengthen cooperation.
The trip also highlights the U.S. commitment to partnerships both old and new. The United States signed a treaty with Siam – now Thailand – in 1837. Today, U.S. and Thai service members operate along with many other nations in the annual Cobra Gold exercises. They have also cooperated in regional humanitarian relief operations.
Relations with Vietnam are relatively new, resuming in the 1990s, and are getting closer. The United States dropped its arms embargo against the one-time enemy in 2014, and the improvement in relations was personified by the port visit of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in 2018.
In addition to Thailand, the U.S. treaty allies in the Pacific are South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Partners in the region include India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and many others.
Maintaining alliances and making new partners is the second line of effort in the U.S National Defense Strategy. The poster child for this is the defeat-ISIS coalition that the United States put together in response to the rise of the Islamic State group in 2014. There are now 80 nations and entities involved in that effort.
The National Defense Strategy is based on the return of great power competition. China and Russia are the two greatest threats.
China, with its fast-growing economy, is the greater threat. It’s investing in China’s People's Liberation Army – which is not a national army, but the military force of the Chinese Communist Party – and modernizing forces, improving training and fielding new capabilities.
These military capabilities – artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, aircraft carriers and more – are designed specifically with the U.S. military in mind. The Chinese studied American military doctrine and operations. Seeing the U.S. deploying to Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Enduring Freedom, they concluded that the U.S. ability to deploy anywhere in the world and supply the forces, is America’s biggest edge. Part of that is the alliance system.
China's response is to build islands in the South and East China Seas to close sea lines of communication. They deployed missiles with stand-off capabilities that would threaten task forces that approach. They have stolen technologies and plans for advanced weaponry.
The Chinese President Xi Jinping has a stated goal of military supremacy by 2050.
But the Chinese military strategy is part of a whole-of-government approach. They use diplomacy, political clout and economic policies in conjunction with military power. The Chinese ''One Belt, One Road'' initiative is a $1 trillion effort to change the current international system that has served the Indo-Pacific so well since 1945, to one that centers everything on Beijing.
At the heart of the U.S. strategy is that America is a Pacific power, also. The Esper trip highlights that. The secretary will meet with officials from South Korea to underline America's long-standing guarantees to that nation in the face of North Korean aggression.
In Thailand, Esper will build on almost two centuries of amity to increase cooperation and interoperability between the two nations.
In the Philippines, Esper will discuss efforts to defeat terrorist groups that threaten the government.
In Vietnam, Esper will seek new ways to cooperate with the nation to promote peace in Southeast Asia.
Esper will discuss Chinese claims in the South and East China Sea. He will reiterate the U.S. desire that any solutions in the disagreements over national claims in those bodies are arrived at peacefully.