America can't risk alienating allies in the new era of great power competition, which will require strengthening military partnerships in a global defensive chain aimed at maintaining an "asymmetric advantage" over China and Russia, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.
"Our global constellation of allies and partners remains an enduring strength that our competitors and adversaries simply cannot match," he said in remarks to the Atlantic Council that rehashed many of the themes he has stressed in what could be the waning days of his tenure at the Pentagon.
The U.S. can't afford to "take our long-standing network of relationships for granted," including relationships with the often-overlooked smallest partners, such as Malta, Papua New Guinea and Palau, Esper said.
He did not comment upon, and was not asked about, pressing issues on the status of his own relationship with President Donald Trump, security for the Nov. 3 elections and the COVID-19 outbreak that temporarily sidelined top military leaders, who went into isolation.
Esper, who has spent much of his time in recent weeks traveling, said he will be on the road again next week in India with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to bolster alliances in the Indo-Pacific.
Trump's "America First" policy and demands for more defense spending by allies have at times rattled NATO partners and South Korea, but Esper said the new plan, called "Guidance for Development for Alliances and Partnerships," or GDAP, is meant to ease strains with "like-minded democracies."
"America's network of allies and partners provides us an asymmetric advantage our adversaries cannot match," he said.
NATO alone has 30 member states while "in fact, China and Russia probably have fewer than 10 allies," Esper added.
A key factor in shoring up alliances will be boosting foreign military sales while easing restrictions on what can be sold, according to the SecDef.
"In fiscal year 2019, we maintained sales of more than $55 billion for the second consecutive year, which increased our three-year rolling average for sales by 16%," he said. "In the Indo-Pacific alone, there are currently more than $160 billion worth of projects under way, including $22 billion in newly initiated projects in this fiscal year alone."
In implementing the plan, the U.S. must not lose sight of the critical role strategically placed smaller nations will play in strengthening the network of alliances, said Esper, who went on at some length about the contribution Malta could make and the historic debt the U.S. owes to the Maltese.
"Most people are familiar with the critical role that America's oldest ally -- France -- played in our nation's founding, but lesser known is the fact that 1,800 knights and volunteers from Malta enlisted in the French Navy to aid Americans in the cause for freedom," he said. "And in the 20th century, the U.S. answered the call after Axis powers waged a relentless bombing campaign against Malta during World War II." That enabled Malta to become a "launching pad for victory in North Africa."
"Today, our two nations remain steadfast partners, and several weeks ago, I visited Malta to see our cooperation in action at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, and discuss the challenges we jointly face in North Africa," Esper said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.