Defense Secretary Mark Esper was in Hawaii this week during a tour of the Pacific that includes trips to Guam and Palau. During his stop he spent time with sailors at sea as they trained during RIMPAC.

This year RIMPAC has been scaled down due to the pandemic and is taking place entirely off shore with 10 countries participating. The exercise takes place as tensions simmer between China and many of the exercise’s participating countries. Several have faced off with China over access to trade routes and fisheries in the South China Sea.

”Your presence out here in the Indo-Pacific is all about making sure we compete with China and … if necessary, that you can fight and beat them anytime, anywhere,” Esper told sailors aboard the USS Essex as he observed training.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, right, and Navy Adm. John Aquilino, the Pacific Fleet commander, watch live-fire demonstrations aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex on Wednesday. John Luke McGovern/U.S. Navy

Esper’s trip to Palau will be the first by any American defense secretary. In Guam, Esper is scheduled to meet with Japan Defense Minister Taro Kono.

This summer the election of a controversial pro-Bejing president in Kiribati and the island nation’s admission into China’s “New Silk Road” has increased concerns among some military analysts that Chinese plans for Kirabati’s island of Kiritmati — sometimes known as Christmas Island — could include stationing Chinese navy ships and warplanes, putting them within closer reach of Hawaii.

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