Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip

Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration official Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief Watch Out: Progressives are eyeing the last slice of the budget Biden needs to fill the leadership gaps on Day One MORE recently returned from his first major international trip as Pentagon chief a seven-day whirlwind tour of five countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Esper stopped in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea, stressing alliances and the importance of combating Chinese aggression in meetings with military counterparts and heads of state.

The discussions touched on a range of regional and global issues, including Iran’s aggression in the Persian Gulf, North Korean missile launches and patching up relations between major allies Japan and South Korea.

Here are five takeaways from the trip.


North Korean missile tests are likely to persist 

Esper’s trip was essentially bookended by North Korean missile launches, with one on Aug. 5 as he left Australia and another that was reported on Aug. 9, just after he touched down on U.S. soil.

The tests were the fourth and fifth in the past month, and there’s no sign North Korea is letting up.

Esper’s remarks while on the trip indicated the Trump administration has no plans to admonish Pyongyang. 

“While we take these launchings seriously, we monitor them, we try to understand what they’re doing and why,” Esper told reporters traveling with him to Japan. “We also need to be careful not to overreact and not to get ourselves in a situation where diplomacy is closed off.”

President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE has insisted the tests are “very standard” and not in violation of an earlier denuclearization agreement.

He also praised North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnLike his predecessors, Biden faces a formidable task with North Korea North Korea displays ballistic missiles at parade Pelosi's risky blunder: Talking about Trump and nuclear war MORE shortly after the most recent launches, tweeting on Saturday that Kim had sent him a letter seeking a meetup to restart negotiations after the conclusion of U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea that began earlier this month.

“It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises,” Trump wrote, adding that Kim apologized for testing short-range missiles and promised the “testing would stop when the exercises end.”


US-South Korean joint exercises to move forward

The U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, which are expected to last for two weeks, are the root cause of North Korea’s recent missile launches.

Pyongyang insists the joint exercises are in violation of an agreement between Trump and Kim from their first meeting, in June 2018.

That meeting, designed to broker a deal to have North Korea give up its nuclear program, ended with the two sides committing to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But Trump surprised Pentagon officials when he said the U.S. military would pause its biannual, large-scale joint exercises with South Korea. Smaller-scale exercises would remain, the Pentagon later clarified. 

Asked last week whether there are plans to change future military exercises with Seoul, Esper replied, “Not at this point.”

“We’ve made some adjustments after the presidents’ meeting last year and we’re still abiding by those,” he said. “But at the same time we need to maintain our readiness and making sure that we’re prepared.”

The main driving factor for keeping the drills is the fact that the Trump administration hasn’t seen signs of desired progress from North Korea in denuclearizing or pulling back on its own military exercises, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

“We’d like to see them also respond in a way that says that they want to create space for diplomacy and work through these issues at the negotiating table. They haven’t. We’ll see what happens,” the official told reporters during Esper’s trip.


Esper was well received on the international stage

At each stop along the way, Esper emphasized U.S. commitment to its alliances, a message that was welcomed by allies and partners.

The defense chief’s trip was “very well received,” according to Pat Buchan, an Indo-Pacific security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Esper’s credentials and his message played well with foreign leaders who see the new secretary “as a very strongly committed alliance manager,” Buchan told The Hill.

The new Pentagon chief also brought up sensitive subjects when meeting with his counterparts, including cost-sharing for the U.S. troops stationed in the region.

“I think the consistent theme that the president has expressed, I've expressed, is we value our alliances, but there needs to be equitable sharing,” Esper told reporters traveling with him. “We want to make sure that everybody is pulling their fair weight helping us defend these core values, principles out there.”


Committing to policing the Persian Gulf

Esper’s tour came as the Trump administration hopes to press allies and partner countries to form a coalition that would police shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.

The effort, known as Operation Sentinel, is meant to deter Iranian aggression at a time when tensions between Washington and Tehran are near an all-time high.

The U.S. in recent months has accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in the Gulf region including the seizure of a British-flagged tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz and downing an unarmed U.S. drone. The Pentagon, in turn, has said it downed an Iranian drone, something Tehran denies.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoBiden taps career civil servants to acting posts at State, USAID, UN China sanctions Pompeo and more than two dozen US figures China calls Pompeo 'doomsday clown' after its treatment of Uighurs labeled genocide MORE, who was in Sydney along with Esper, said in late July that the U.S. has asked Australia, Japan, France, Germany and South Korea to contribute to the American-led operation to monitor the strait.

While Germany deferred, Esper told reporters traveling with him that the U.S. will soon secure the commitment of several countries.

“We had various degrees of commitment, so I think we’ll have some announcements coming out soon in the coming days where you’ll see countries begin to sign up,” Esper said Aug. 3.

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace told reporters two days later that the U.K. will work alongside the U.S. and other countries to “find an international solution to the problems in the Strait of Hormuz.”

But securing the other agreements is not guaranteed.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Esper reportedly did not discuss the maritime operation, and a senior U.S. defense official said the topic was only talked about in broad terms during meetings with other Japanese leaders.

Esper’s Australian counterpart, meanwhile, would not give an answer as to whether Sydney has agreed to commit naval and air forces or funding to Operation Sentinel.

“No decision has yet been made,” Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said during a joint press conference last week.


New military, economic possibilities taking shape in Mongolia

Esper’s visit to Mongolia as the fourth stopover on his trip marked the first time a U.S. Defense secretary has visited the landlocked country since Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy Hagel15 former Defense officials back waiver for Austin to serve as Defense secretary The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history John Kirby to reprise role as Pentagon press secretary under Biden MORE was there in 2014.

Situated between China and Russia the top two threats named in the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy Mongolia has been a U.S. military partner since 1996 but has only recently been eyed by Washington as having more potential for defense and economic inroads.

Esper’s stop, along with a string of recent high-level meetings between U.S. and Mongolian leaders, seems to reflect this thinking.

Trump last month hosted Mongolia’s president at the White House, the first time a Mongolian head of state has visited since 2011.

Additionally, White House national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonPence, other GOP officials expected to skip Trump send-off NSA places former GOP political operative in top lawyer position after Pentagon chief's reported order After insurrection: The national security implications MORE was in Ulaanbaatar in late June, and tweeted that he was looking forward to “find ways to harness Mongolia’s capabilities in support of our shared economic & security objectives.”

Mongolia hopes to invite U.S. investment to gain stronger economic independence from China — which buys nearly 90 percent of its exports.

Washington, meanwhile, is in the midst of a protracted trade war with China and has made clear it opposes Beijing’s advancing “tentacles around the globe.”

“The U.S. will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others,” Esper said while in Sydney.

He later told reporters that the U.S. must be “conscious of the toeholds that [China is] trying to get into many of these countries, in many of these locations.”

Mongolia, which calls the U.S. its “third neighbor,” has previously partnered with the Pentagon on military endeavors.

The nation has aided the U.S. in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with roughly 233 Mongolian troops now in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

“Mongolia, situated where it is, understands our perspective on Russia and China, uniquely so,” a senior defense official traveling with Esper told reporters.