The commander of the US Pacific Command (Pacom) came under political fire from China last week following recent comments critical of Beijing’s military encroachment in the South China Sea.
The communist party-affiliated Global Times, in a front page report, accused Pacom’s Adm. Harry Harris of “China bashing” and “making waves in the South China Sea” for comments accusing China of regional hegemony made during recent speeches and congressional testimony.
The publication, often used as an official outlet for hardline anti-US propaganda, then issued a veiled threat that harsh comments from the admiral were creating stepped up competition between the United States and China and could lead to conflict.
“If two nuclear powerhouses engage in a competition to test each other’s willpower, the whole world will face the repercussions,” Global Times stated March 4.
The propaganda organ said “Harris’ words and deeds keep reminding us that we have to put more efforts into the building of islands in the South China Sea and deploying more weaponry.”
The same day the unusually harsh attack was published, the Navy announced the aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS John C. Stennis was sailing in the South China Sea on “routine operations” in a major show of force.
Harris finished an around the world tour last week and announced in New Delhi that naval forces from the United States, India and Japan would take part in military exercises in the Philippines Sea, close to disputed waters of the South China and East China Seas where China claims maritime sovereignty.
In his New Delhi speech, Harris praised India for asserting leadership in the Indo-Pacific region. “We are ready for you. We need you. Let’s be ambitious together,” he said.
The Japan-born admiral who took over the Hawaii-based command in May 2015 has not shied away from using blunt language to criticize China. Last month, he testified to the US Congress that China is seeking “hegemony” in the region and is bullying its less powerful neighbors.
I recently asked Harris about the shift in tone coming from both the Pacific Command and the Pentagon on Chinese aggressiveness in the region, and he replied that his views on China have been consistent since he was head of the US Pacific Fleet.
“If you go back to my early statements, in even my change of command to assume the Pacific Fleet back in 2013, I’ve been consistent in my articulation of my concerns in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, including China,” he said. “With regard to what China is doing differently, over the past few years, what they’ve done is reclaimed almost 3,000 acres of bases — military bases, in my opinion — in the South China Sea.”
Harris declined to comment on the Global Times article.
Harris: Beijing tone deaf
Last month, however, Harris rejected comments by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman who said China is the future and the United States is the past and said the remarks reflected Beijing’s “tone deafness” toward the United States.
The contrast between Harris and other Pacific Command leaders is striking.
For example, Harris’ immediate predecessor at the command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, surprised many observers by adopting policies and issuing statements that appeared designed to play down or minimize aggressive Chinese actions.
Locklear was ridiculed after telling a reporter in 2013 that his biggest concern in the Pacific was not Chinese aggression but climate change and rising sea levels.
Locklear also promoted the Pentagon’s apparently unrestricted program of engaging in military exchanges with China, a program that has done little to “build trust” between the US and Chinese militaries despite nearly three decades of visits and programs aimed at improving ties.
Harris drew the ire of the Chinese by reversing Locklear’s policy of halting all freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea because he was concerned the close-in naval maneuvers would upset China.
Locklear failed to press the Obama administration to conduct the naval operations after his requests were bogged down in the interagency review and approval process. When State Department and White House National Security Council officials delayed approval for freedom of navigation operations, Locklear gave up and ended the practice.
The problem surfaced last September when Sen. John McCain angrily criticized the Obama administration during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee he chairs. “The administration has continued to restrict our navy ships from operating within 12 nautical miles of China’s reclaimed islands,” McCain said. “This is a dangerous mistake that grants de facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereignty claims.”
Harris revealed at the hearing he had proposed several navigation operations but was rebuffed. “I’ll just say that Pacom presents military options to the secretary, and those options come with a full range of opportunities in the South China Sea, and we’re ready to execute those options when directed,” he said.
The Senate exchange did the trick. Within a month, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen conducted a passage within 12 miles of Subi Reef in the Spratlys, a built-up reef where China is constructing a military airfield. Then in January the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur transited within 12 miles of Triton Island in the Paracels chain.
China denounced both warship transits as a military provocation.
It is not clear if the Stennis strike group or one of its accompanying warships will conduct a third freedom of navigation operation in the sea in the coming days. The strike group includes two missile destroyers and a cruiser. One of those ships could conduct a navigation passage.
Alternatively, some of the Stennis’ warplanes could conduct aerial over flights of disputed islands as part of US military efforts to assert freedom of navigation in the region.
Chinese Navy shadowing US carrier
The Chinese navy is closely shadowing the carrier group. “We have Chinese ships around us that we normally didn’t see in my past experience,” said Capt. Greg Huffman, commanding officer of the Stennis, adding that “everything I have heard over bridge-to-bridge channels has been good communications between professional mariners.”
Global Times said Harris as Pacific commander plays a decisive role in steering US-China ties.
“However, so far, Harris has not shown any sign of obligation to safeguard peace in the South China Sea,” it stated. “His China-bashing words could be more than what his predecessors said combined. Although China and the US are having a hard time in the South China Sea in recent years, Harris’ performance could easily leave an impression that he is unfriendly to China.”
The party organ said Harris should defend US national interests but “should not fan the flames of confrontation between both sides.”
The publication dismissed plans for joint US-Indian-Japanese military operations as a bluff, stating India will be difficult to persuade, and Japan and Australia “have no guts” for joint operations in the South China Sea.
“We are afraid Harris and his troops will have to go it alone if he wants to make choppy waves in the South China Sea.”
The harsh rhetoric from Beijing is an indication Harris is well along in a larger US government program of reversing the trend of previous Pacific Command leaders and others who were more constrained and unwilling to upset Beijing. The four-star admiral has emerged as an outspoken proponent of asserting American leadership in a region of vital strategic importance to the United States and others nations.
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz
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