US Defence Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday said China and Russia, by rapidly modernising their militaries, are using their growing strength to "ignore" international law, "violate" the sovereignty of smaller states and shift the balance of power in their favour.
In his address to the Atlantic Council think-tank, Esper also targeted the One Belt One Road Initiative of China, saying Beijing is using the project to expand its financial ties across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas with the "ulterior" motive of gaining strategic influence, access to key resources and military footholds around the world.
"Our primary competitors, China and Russia, are rapidly modernizing their armed forces and using their growing strength to ignore international law, violate the sovereignty of smaller states and shift the balance of power in their favour," said Esper.
"China's militarization of land features in the South China Sea and Russia's attempted annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine demonstrate their brazen attempts to chip away at the autonomy of others and undermine the resilience and cohesion of countries and institutions critical to US security, including NATO," he alleged.
Beijing and Moscow are also using broader, yet more subtle means to exert economic leverage over such nations and institutions and coerce them into suboptimal security decisions, he said.
"In fact, the smaller the nation and the greater its needs, the heavier the pressure from Beijing. For example, Belt and Road investments have created unhealthy economic dependencies in Burma, and they have pushed Laos into an unsustainable debt burden.
"In Cambodia, China has received generous land entitlements to construct ports, airfields and associated infrastructure that could be used for military purposes to extend Beijing's strategic reach," the Defence Secretary said.
"Helping other nations resist aggressive military posturing, financial entrapments and other forms of coercion will require them to break from business as usual. It will require the US to align the department's efforts and resources for maximum impact and influence, and it will require it to think and act more strategically and competitively," he said.
Esper announced Department of Defense Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships or GDAP and defense trade modernization.
"Together these efforts will help us build the capacity and capabilities of like-minded nations and foster interoperability with friendly militaries while promoting a stronger domestic industrial base that can compete in the global marketplace," he said.
First, to meet the demands of 21st-century great power competition, Esper said he has directed the Pentagon's Office of Policy to develop a first-of-its-kind comprehensive strategic approach to strengthen alliances and building partnerships.
"Earlier this month, I'm proud to report that we officially set this into motion when I signed out the GDAP, which will drive this new strategy for how we engage with allies and partners around the globe," he said.
Noting that in the past, international engagements were guided by regional priorities and interests, he said now they are in an era of great power competition that is global in nature.
"This reality requires a common set of priorities across the Office of the Secretary of Defence, the Joint Staff, the services and the Combatant Commands that will drive our interactions with our foreign counterparts and improve our effectiveness," he observed.
"More specifically, the GDAP will enable us to prioritize, align and synchronize our security cooperation activities across Title 10 authorities to build partner capacity, better articulate the department's needs for priority ally and partner war fighting roles through future force planning, focus our efforts to help them shape their militaries into more capable forces and measure and track our progress across a wide range of tools available to the Defense Department," Esper said.
In fiscal year 2019, the US maintained sales of more than USD 55 million for the second consecutive year, which increased its three-year rolling average for sales by 16 per cent. In the Indo-Pacific alone, there are currently worth more than USD 160 billion worth of projects underway, including USD 22 billion in newly initiated projects in this fiscal year alone, which is almost half of all foreign military sales globally, he said.
"The strength of foreign military sales as a tool for advancing our relationships is equal to its potential for unleashing our domestic industrial base for innovation at home and strategic competition in the global marketplace. So, along with the GDAP, we launched a complementary, parallel effort to further prepare the department for great power competition, defense trade modernization," he said.
Esper said that going forward, and in closer collaboration with industry, the department will take a more strategic enterprise approach to foreign military sales and security cooperation. Last month he directed several changes to defence export systems across or key areas.
"As part of these efforts, we are developing a forward military sales dashboard informed by the GDAP that will track the most important cases moving along the process to ensure our partners get the equipment and systems when they need them. Moreover, it will prioritize cases that enhance lethality and interoperability with the US, enable the domestic industrial base, and deny market space to China and Russia," he said.