The Pentagon chief wants to prioritize the deployment of US forces to the Asia-Pacific region from other areas, including Afghanistan, to confront a growing military competition with China.
“What I want to do is reallocate forces" to the Indo-Pacific Command, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum when asked about cutting troops in Afghanistan.
“That’s my priority theater," Esper said. “I’m not just looking at Afghanistan" but “all these places where I can free up troops" to bring them home or “compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies and to conduct exercises and training."
The Defense Department’s strategy has shifted to confronting China and Russia, as the primary challenges, supplanting the war on terrorism. China, with the world’s second-largest economy, is making major investments in military capabilities to challenge US postwar dominance, and is perceived as a growing threat among US military planners.
“Our war-fighting advantages over strategic competitors are being challenged," Esper said at the forum in Simi Valley, California. “China and Russia, today’s revisionist powers, are modernizing their militaries, while seeking veto power over the economic and security decisions of other nations."
Even as the US tries to make the pivot to Asia, it has added thousands of troops to the Middle East to protect oil-shipping routes and defend Saudi Arabia against Iran. Oil giant Saudi Aramco’s processing plants at Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked on Sept. 14, a strike that the US and Saudi Arabia blamed on Iran. Tehran has denied it was behind the attack.
When asked if that shift to Asia is hindered by the US presence in the Middle East, Esper said, “well sure, I mean I face that, my predecessors have faced that."
The US needs to ensure it has “sufficient force on the ground, again, to reassure our allies, help defend them, defend the international order and deter Iranian bad behavior," Esper said. “We have a strategy but you have to deal with the world you live in, not the world you want on paper."