US Defence Secretary Mark Esper says the United States will expand arms sales to “like-minded nations” to counter efforts by China and Russia to take a bigger share of the weapons market.
The Pentagon chief also said the US needed to help build the capabilities of friendly militaries and boost ties to jointly tackle challenges posed by America’s “primary competitors” – China and Russia.
“[We] must compete with China and Russia, whose state-owned industries can fast-track military exports in ways that we cannot – and would never want to in many cases,” Esper said in an address to the Atlantic Council think tank on Tuesday.
“As Beijing and Moscow work to expand their share of the world’s weapons market, they attract other countries into their security networks, challenge the United States’ efforts to cultivate relationships, and complicate the future operating environment at the same time.”
To better compete with Beijing and Moscow, Esper said his department would take more of a strategic enterprise approach to foreign military sales, a process which has been described by foreign militaries as “too slow, opaque and complicated”.
Reforms to the defence export process would include requiring “early exportability” for critical weapon systems, and prioritising countries or capabilities to capture or keep key markets.
He said the department had put in place a system that “will track the most important cases moving along the process to ensure our partners get the equipment and systems they need, when they need them”.
“Moreover, it will prioritise cases that enhance lethality and interoperability with the US, enable the domestic industrial base, and deny market space to China and Russia,” Esper said.
The US had maintained weapons sales of more than US$55 billion for a second consecutive year in 2019, he said, with almost half of those – US$22 billion – being newly initiated projects.
Esper gave as examples the sales of F-35 aircraft to Japan, Seahawk and Apache helicopters to India, F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, and an additional high-endurance coastguard cutter to Vietnam to strengthen maritime security in the South China Sea.
Responding to the new strategy on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was a “serious strategic misjudgment” for the US to define China as a rival, and that it was sending its resources in the wrong direction.
Beijing also called on Washington to abandon its “obsolete Cold War mindset and zero-sum” approach and instead work to improve relations with China, he said.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said it was unlikely that the US could create a Nato-like alliance in Asia to contain China’s rise.
“The US has been pursuing a ‘wolf pack’ strategy to create a collective alliance by arming its friends and allies to single out and target a rival. And it has become clear that China has surpassed Russia as the US’ biggest rival,” Song said.
“Despite its best efforts to arm Taiwan, it will be difficult for the US to create an alliance with countries surrounding mainland China, because countries like Japan, South Korea and India need to find a balance with their access to the Chinese market.”