Flashpoints | Security

US Defense Secretary’s Recent Speech: Familiar Themes and Unfamiliar Problems

The Trump administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific could end up working in unpredictable ways for the U.S.

Abhijnan Rej
US Defense Secretary’s Recent Speech: Familiar Themes and Unfamiliar Problems

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Secretary of Defense

In a speech at the RAND Corporation on September 16, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper reiterated the Trump administration’s approach to (what it terms) “great power competition” with China and Russia. Noting Chinese and Russian territorial revisionism and coercion as key challenges facing the U.S. military, Esper outlined three ways in which the DOD seeks to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy: “first, enhance our lethality and readiness across the force; second, strengthen our alliances and build partnerships; and third, reform the department to align our highest – our resources with our highest priorities.”

His reiteration of the Trump administration’s plan to build a navy with more than 355 ships – spurred by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) growth – has already received considerable attention, even though he maintained that U.S. naval strength is currently “overmatched” vis-à-vis the PLAN. As Esper noted in his speech, “[e]ven if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas.” (Not many were taken by Esper’s call; for example, one American scholar dryly noted on Twitter: “Has the U.S. Navy ever thought, “Yeah, we probably have enough ships”?”)

In his speech, Esper emphasized the importance of American alliances and networked relationships in the “priority” Indo-Pacific theater, noting that “our relationships with other Nations [is] an asymmetric strategic advantage that no rivals can match. To do so, we are implementing a coordinated plan, the first of its kind, to strengthen allies and build partners.” The 2019 DoD Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) had spelt out the “second” and “third pillar” of strengthening alliance relations and key regional partnerships, alongside building regional networks (the “first pillar” being enhancing U.S. military preparedness) in some detail.

And to the Trump administration’s credit, it has indeed made significant progress in pushing arrangements like the U.S.-Australia-Japan-India quad as well as the U.S.-Japan-India trilateral and, more importantly, obtaining buy-ins from the other nodes involved. But such groupings are yet to provide “a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains,” as the IPSR expects them to.

Part of why that hasn’t happened yet has to do with limited capabilities. While Esper repeated a line that has become quite familiar after Trump’s repeated haranguing of NATO members  – “we urge you to increase your defense spending to at least 2% of GDP, and to make the needed investments to improve your capabilities and capacity” – it is becoming clear that the issue is not just how much U.S. allies and partners spend on. It is more a question of what they spend it on, and whether the U.S. can (or cannot, as the case may be) influence force structures adopted by them in line with the Pentagon’s operational objectives.

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The Japanese decision to suspend its participation in the Aegis Ashore missile defense system program in June this year serves as a case in point. Had Japan agreed to the deploy the Aegis Ashore system, it would have certainly benefited the U.S. as well. As Jeffrey Hornung has written, “U.S. military operators saw Aegis Ashore as a way to free up American Aegis destroyers in the region to shift to other areas where China is active, such as the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Philippine Sea.”

Now take the case of India, a key U.S. partner in the region. While the country’s defense budget is around 2.4 percent of its GDP, it is important to keep in mind that almost 0.9 percent of that goes to pensions and paramilitary forces, as well as other miscellaneous expenses. As I have analyzed elsewhere, spending on new weapons forms a small fraction of the Indian defense budget. Beyond that, the army looms large over Indian military spending in face of the country’s continental threats, primarily from Pakistan but increasingly from China as well. To what extent such a land-centric posture stands to concretely benefit the U.S. – other than perhaps tying up China’s shrinking ground forces – remains to be seen.

Or consider Australia’s new Defence Strategic Update (DSU), widely seen as a landmark document that demonstrates the country’s growing seriousness about the military challenge posed by China. The accompanying financial commitment on Canberra’s part is commensurately robust: an intent to spend more than $416 billion over the next decade on its military. But as I have commented in these pages, the DSU – beyond reaffirming the paramount importance of the U.S. for Australia’s security – did in places hint that Australia intends to rely less on the U.S. going forward. It is also not clear what ultimate effect Australia’s (and perhaps, Japan’s) pursuit of independent strike capabilities will have on the U.S. strategic calculus and its hopes for burden-sharing. For example, it is not improbable that Australia, after having developed the requisite capabilities to put Chinese assets in the South China Sea at risk, may decisively refuse to take part in freedom-of-navigation operations in the area with the U.S. (Australia and the U.S. have never quite seen eye to eye on these operations to begin with.)

Elsewhere, I have noted that Indo-Pacific powers are increasingly welcoming small networked groupings – a key part of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy that Esper reiterated in his RAND speech – both due to China’s muscle-flexing as well as uncertainties about U.S. commitments to the region.

The irony here is this: with robust military spending by, and credible independent capabilities of, key Indo-Pacific powers, as well as growing networked relations between them, it is quite likely we’d see these countries increasingly adopt foreign policies that are agnostic of Washington’s preferences, including engaging Beijing on their own terms. This was already made clear in the recent past in the case of Australia. The problem with the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific approach is how the DOD seems to be in the front seat, with diplomatic efforts complementing but not guiding it.

When the ISPR came out last June, the first thing that stood out for me was the fact that it was a DOD and not an inter-agency product bearing the State Department’s imprimatur as well.