Five questions for Trump's new defense secretary on first major tour

Five questions for Trump's new defense secretary on first major tour
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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOfficials say Trump to announce withdrawal of more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan soon Trump greeted with cheers at 120th Army-Navy game Overnight Defense: Mattis downplays Afghanistan papers | 'We probably weren't that good at' nation building | Judiciary panel approves two impeachment articles | Stage set for House vote next week MORE will undertake his first major international trip as the newly sworn-in Pentagon chief starting this weekend.

Esper, who took the Pentagon’s top civilian spot earlier this month, will stop in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea to meet with country leaders, counterparts and top military officials in the region.

The trip, on which Esper embarked Friday, will kick off in Sydney at the Australia-United State Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), an annual meeting of top diplomats, defense leaders and government officials from both countries.

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From there, he will travel north through the region, with multiple meetings expected to touch on a wide array of issues spanning from recent North Korean missile launches, joint U.S.- South Korea military exercises, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and policing the Persian Gulf.

A senior defense official told reporters ahead of the trip that Esper “very much wanted to extend the time in the region to talk face to face with key allies and partners,” adding that “those relationships need to be sustained and engagement needs to be sustained.”

Here are five questions ahead of the trip.

Will the joint exercises with South Korea change?

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE in June 2018 shocked U.S. defense officials and South Korean leaders alike when he announced that Washington would be "stopping war games" on the Korean Peninsula in an effort to move denuclearization talks along with North Korea.

The major military exercises with South Korea, held twice a year, include thousands of troops from each country that assemble for military drills. Readiness training occurs fairly regularly, with troops gathered in smaller numbers.

There has been no clear picture since for how future exercises might move forward, even as North Korean this month has held a series of missile launches meant to deter Seoul and Washington from holding further events.

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles Thursday after firing two such missiles a day prior. Pyongyang also held two similar missile tests last week.

The three tests are the first such provocations from North Korea since Trump visited the country in June and are seen as intended to pressure Seoul and Washington to stop its joint exercises, which Pyongyang has called “hostile.”

South Korea has said that it would move forward with the exercises, including a planned drill in August between the U.S. and South Korean militaries known as Dong Maeng. The exercise is expected to be a reduced version of the annual rehearsal previously called Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

Esper, who will be making his first official visit to Seoul, is not expected to propose changes to the drill, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Wednesday.

“No adjustment or change in plans that we’re aware of or are planning,” the official said, adding that “we have to give the diplomats appropriate space for their diplomacy and help create an environment that is conducive to the talks when they resume.”

The official would not say how many U.S. troops will be involved in the exercise but said it would have a large computer-simulated portion, as has been the case in years past.

How will countries react to Esper?

Esper will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea President Moon Jae-In as well as his counterparts in each country.

Esper’s predecessor, Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE, echoed Trump’s repeated calls for countries to increase burden sharing in housing U.S. troops on his own spring trip to the region, unnerving allies and partners. Shanahan also said that resuming joint exercises with South Korea was not necessary because troops on the Korean Peninsula already possess the required military readiness. 

James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Mattis downplays Afghanistan papers | 'We probably weren't that good at' nation building | Judiciary panel approves two impeachment articles | Stage set for House vote next week James Mattis: Afghanistan papers not 'revelatory' Overnight Defense: Watchdog to audit company's border wall contract | Pentagon to step up vetting of foreign students after Pensacola | Report finds former defense official sexually harassed staffers MORE, Shanahan’s successor, had sought to assure leaders of the U.S.'s commitment to the alliance.

Esper will seek to make his own impression, according to the defense official.

“Being an Asia-Pacific power but a nonresident country in Asia, we are very reliant on partners and allies,” the official said. “We need them to have their own capabilities appropriate for the China challenge. We need them for access. We need them for basing.”

Esper already made positive impressions on allies during a trip to Europe in June as acting Defense secretary. There, he met with NATO member defense ministers, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that Esper had “made a very good impression.”

Will Esper win Persian Gulf cooperation?

Esper will travel to Asia in the midst of a push by the Trump administration to convince allies to join a coalition to safeguard shipping lanes in the Middle East amid rising tensions with Iran.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump greeted with cheers at 120th Army-Navy game Judge orders State Dept. to search for and provide more Ukraine docs Pompeo launches personal Twitter account amid speculation over Senate run MORE, who will attend AUSMIN talks in Sydney along with Esper, revealed last week that Washington had asked Australia, Japan, France, Germany and South Korea to contribute to the U.S.-led Operation Sentinel.

European allies have so far demurred, but Australia, Japan and South Korea are reportedly still mulling the idea, making the trip a prime opportunity for Esper.

The senior defense official said the State Department is taking the lead but that “Esper will have the opportunity with some of these countries to further that discussion.”

Tensions with Iran have nearly boiled over after the United States has accused the nation of attacking oil tankers in the Gulf region — including the seizure of a British-flagged tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz — as well as downing a U.S. drone.

Will additional bases be discussed?

Esper, in written testimony for his confirmation, mentioned the need for additional bases in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Such a move would go along with the administration’s National Defense Strategy, released last year, which places China on the list of top threats due to Beijing’s rapid military aggression in the South China Sea and elsewhere around the globe.

The U.S. military already has tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed across the Asia-Pacific, including 28,500 on the Korean Peninsula, more than 45,000 in Japan and 2,500 Marines based in Darwin, Australia, as part of rotational forces. 

Asked if Esper will broach such talks with allies about putting additional bases in their countries, the defense official said Esper will “exchange views and notes on the strategic environment and the growing security challenges, and, if not bases, we need to understand where our points of access might be where we can train, where we might be able to ... access opportunities and contingencies.”

Burden sharing would likely be front and center in such talks, as Trump repeatedly has pushed for countries to foot more of the bill in housing U.S. troops on their soil.

Questioned on whether burden sharing talks are expected to come up with Japan, the defense official deferred, noting it was a State Department-led negotiation.

Will there be a big announcement on Mongolia?

Esper will stop in Mongolia during his trip, marking the first time a U.S. Defense secretary will visit the country since former Pentagon head Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelAlmost 100 former officials, members of Congress urge Senate action on election security GOP Senate candidate said Republicans have 'dual loyalties' to Israel White House aide moves to lobbying firm MORE, who served under the Obama administration, did so.

The stop comes after Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa visited the White House on Wednesday — the first visit of a Mongolian president to the U.S. since 2011 — and Trump’s national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' MORE stopped in Mongolia himself in late June.

The defense official told reporters that Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, is a partner to the United States and a major contributor to peacekeeping and cold weather training.

“They’ve been stalwart contributors to our operations in Afghanistan. Right now I think they have 233 soldiers in Resolute Support. The conversation will focus around our lateral relationship, the training we do,” the official said.

The official would not say whether any announcements may be coming on further military cooperation between the two countries.

“I do think, particularly given where we see the strategic landscape, that they are important and we’ll treat them as such,” he said.

This story was updated at 11 a.m. to correct the Defense secretary's title