United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that Washington is counting on Asian partners to help rein in an increasingly aggressive China, as two of the US Navy’s most powerful warships conducted drills with allies in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Esper accused Beijing of bullying nations around the Pacific, depriving countries with claims in the South China Sea of fishing rights and trillions of dollars of oil and gas revenue. He also accused China of “brazen disregard of international commitments.”
“Make no mistake, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has been engaged in this sort of behavior for many years,” Esper said. “But today, its true intentions are on full display for all to see.”
Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, kept up the tough rhetoric against China on Wednesday.
“It’s important to keep Beijing from achieving its goal of overturning the rules-based international order in the pernicious manner in which they’re trying to do it,” Davidson told the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Esper, delivering an online speech to the UK based International Institute of Strategic Studies, said Washington was prepared to uphold its pledge to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific, banking on a three-pillar strategy to do so: “preparedness, strengthening partnerships and promoting a more networked region.”
The partnerships were critically important, said Esper, who called them “a strategic network our competitors cannot match.”
That network was on display around the Indo-Pacific as Esper spoke from the Pentagon.
In the Philippine Sea, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group were joined by Australian and Japanese warships for joint exercises.
And in the Indian Ocean, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group teamed up with four Indian warships to practice communications and air defense drills.
“I want to highlight our increased defense cooperation with India, one of the all-important defense relationships of the 21st century,” Esper said.
Besides India and longtime US allies Japan and Australia, Esper rattled off a long list of Asian nations that are cooperating with the US on military and maritime security issues.
Those included Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam, all nations with claims in the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea, most of which China claims as its own sovereign territory.
Esper said not only were US allies and partners upping their cooperation with Washington, they were also working with each other. The US defense chief cited a recent military base access agreement between Australia and India.
The Indian Navy noted the kind of cooperation Esper was talking about when it tweeted Monday about its exercises with the US Navy. Indian warships had recently completed similar exercises with the Japanese and French navies, it said.
While US partners are putting their military hardware in positions to make a statement with the exercises, they are also being vocal about what they see as a more belligerent China.
In its annual defense white paper released this month, Japan said China had been putting continued pressure around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Daioyu, while also sending more ships and planes on missions around Japanese maritime and airspaces. Tokyo called these “a matter of grave concern.”
It also criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
“China is moving forward with militarization, as well as expanding and intensifying its activities in the maritime and aerial domains, thereby continuing unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion,” Japan’s defense white paper said.
India gets vocal
India has also been more vocal about the South China Sea issue, though unlike Japan it doesn’t regularly deploy military forces there. It has no territorial claims in the region, but like many countries it relies on busy shipping lanes in and around the South China Sea.
Twice in May, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs made statements asserting that the waters of the South China Sea are a global common that should be subject to freedom of navigation rules.
“There’s nothing new in terms of the position, but the tone and tenor of the statement tells you that India is going to speak in a louder voice on what’s happening in the South China Sea,” said Abhijit Singh, a senior fellow and head of Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
In April, the Philippines issued what analyst Richard Javad Heydarian called an “unprecedented solidarity statement” with sometime rival Vietnam after a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk by suspected Chinese Coast Guard vessels.
“I’ve never seen anything like that coming out of the (Philippine) Department of Foreign Affairs,” said Heydarian, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Claims by the Philippines and Vietnam received a boost earlier this month when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US had formally rejected “most” of China’s maritime claims.
Washington had sent the message earlier, by deploying the Nimitz and Reagan carrier strike groups to the region. It was the first time in six years that two US aircraft carriers had converged on the South China Sea.
A US Navy statement at the time previewed the message Esper conveyed on Tuesday.
“Nimitz and Reagan form the most effective and agile fighting force in the world, supporting US commitment to mutual defense agreements with regional allies and partners, and promoting peace and prosperity throughout the Info-Pacific,” the statement said.
However, Beijing says it is Washington that is threatening the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific.
“The international community knows well who is the troublemaker,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press conference Monday, according to the state-run Xinhua news service.
Wang accused Washington of harboring “a Cold War mentality” against China and only abiding by international laws and treaties that advanced its policies, according to Xinhua.
China has been conducting its own drills, which could become more frequent and routine if the US continues to ramp up military provocations in the region, said state-run tabloid the Global Times, quoting analysts.
The article noted reports of PLA fighter jets being deployed to Woody Island in the contested Paracel chain – known as the Xisha islands in China – in the northern reaches of the South China Sea.
Those Chinese jets and fighter bombers engaged in two days of drills attacking maritime targets, the Global Times said.
Because of US actions like the dual-carrier exercises, “China is forced to take countermeasures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Global Times said.
Despite the displays of military might, both Esper and Chinese officials said they do not want to see military conflict in the region.
A US visit to Beijing?
Esper said Tuesday he hopes to visit Beijing before year’s end.
“We are committed to a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China and within our defense relationship to open lines of communication and risk reduction,” he said.
“China is committed to developing a China-US relationship featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Xinhua cited Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang as saying Monday.
But the Global Times, citing Chinese analysts, urged caution in viewing Esper’s hopes to visit Beijing.
“China needs time to find out if such a stance represents genuine goodwill or is just a ‘smoke bomb’” that obscures Washington’s true intentions, the Global Times said.
On Tuesday, the US government abruptly ordered China to “cease all operations and events” at its consulate in Houston, Texas, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in what it called an “unprecedented escalation” in recent actions taken by Washington.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the consulate was directed to close “in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”
CNN’s Maneeva Suri contributed to this report.