Defense Secretary Mark Esper at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on July 16, 2019.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on July 16, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

LONDON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday called on U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to act alongside the United States in the face of a new era of great-power competition with Russia and China and help challenge their aggressive attempts to exert influence on other countries around the world.

“Russia and China want to disrupt the international order by gaining a veto over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions … we cannot stand idly by while authoritarian nations attempt to reshape the global security environment to their favor at the expense of others,” Esper said during a speech Friday at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank.

Esper, who is meeting this week with senior leaders in Germany, Great Britain and France, spoke of military and economic threats posed by Russia and China, which have been identified as “strategic competitors” to America’s interests and security in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

While America focused on “hard-fought battles” the last 18 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and less on preparing for the future, Esper said Russia and China have used that time to study the U.S. military, modernize their armies, and expand into the cyber and space domains.

“While the cumulative power of the NATO alliance remains unmatched, some of our comparative advantages have diminished,” he said. Esper did not specify which advantages had been diminished.

Russia and China are disrupting international norms and “are using their military power to intimidate, coerce, and threaten the sovereignty of weaker nations,” Esper said.

The defense secretary pointed to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and China’s use of economic influence through infrastructure investment in participating countries of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative as examples of security threats posed by the two countries to the rest of the world.

“The United States is facing this challenge head-on, but if we are to preserve the world all of us have created together through decades of shared sacrifice, we must all rise to the occasion,” Esper said. “It is imperative that freedom-loving nations recognize the threats to our security, and commit to doing their part to keep the world safe.”

During his trip, Esper has emphasized burden sharing in European defense, specifically that NATO members meet their pledge to increase their own defense spending to 2% of their gross domestic product. Some NATO countries not meeting that threshold has been a major point of contention for President Donald Trump.

Esper called out Germany on Wednesday for not spending enough on defense, though it is a “wealthy country.” He said Germany lacked viable plans to meet the 2% goal by 2024 — an agreement reached in 2014 at the NATO summit in Wales. Germany is spending 1.2% of its GDP on defense as of 2018, according to the World Bank.

Esper also said U.S. allies, within NATO and in Asia, should exceed 2% spending for defense.

“In my mind, 2% is the floor. I think given the threats and challenges we face in both regions, it should be higher than that,” Esper told reporters Wednesday.“The United States is contributing well over 3%. So, I actually think it should be above 2%.”

During Esper’s speech Friday, he thanked Great Britain for meeting its defense spending obligation and encouraged it to “continue demonstrating your commitment to security and the rule of law around the world.” Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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