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Admiral Harris' Speech at Stanford Center - Peking University, Beijing China

By ADM. HARRY B. HARRIS, JR. | USPACOM Public Affairs Office | Nov. 3, 2015

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

Stanford Center – Peking University, Beijing China

"Remarks as Delivered" on 3 November 2015

 

Thank you for inviting me to speak today and to offer my thoughts on the Indo-Asia-Pacific and our military relationship with China. 

 

I’m especially pleased to chat with Ambassador Baucus’ alma mater.  Between Max Baucus, John Elway, John Steinbeck and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, you all are in the major leagues of academics.

 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by thanking my wife Bruni, who accompanied me on this trip and has provided valuable insights about the friendliness and spirit of the Chinese people.  Bruni is way smarter than I am, and way more forward thinking, as demonstrated by her decision to study in Shanghai as a Cox Scholar in the 1980s. 

 

She knew back then what all American students here in China – and the 275,000 Chinese students currently in America – know now … that expanding people-to-people connections will lead to a more prosperous future for both nations.  So I’m honored to be here to share perspectives with you.

 

Before we get to our discussion, I’d like to broadly cover some opportunities and challenges in this dynamic region and spend a few minutes talking about Pacific Command’s part in America’s whole-of-government Rebalance initiative to this region.

 

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Pacific Command, or "PACOM" as we call it … it's the oldest and largest of America’s geographic military Combatant Commands.  PACOM is responsible for all U.S. military forces and operations … from Hollywood to Bollywood … from polar bears to penguins.

 

When you’re responsible for a region that covers 52 percent of the planet, it’s difficult to provide a quick overview.  So I’ll touch on a few areas to help generate some discussion.

 

PACOM is composed of almost 400,000 military and civilian personnel which includes about 60 percent of our naval forces – in fact, we have two aircraft carrier strike groups operating in the region right now.  I report directly to President Obama through Defense Secretary Carter.  And I consider myself lucky to lead America’s finest Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coastguardsmen and DoD civilians.

 

All of these folks work hard to maintain security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific – a region with the world’s 3 largest and 5 smallest economies.  From a military perspective, the region has 7 of the 10 largest standing armies in the world … 5 nations with nuclear weapons … and 5 of the 7 U.S. defense treaty allies – Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea.

 

There are more people living in this region than outside it … and most projections place 7 out of every 10 people on Earth within the Indo-Asia-Pacific by the middle of this century.  The implications for the world’s food, energy, and infrastructure requirements make the current rules-based international order essential to maintaining peace and prosperity.  These projections not only point to opportunities for cooperation, they underscore the potential for conflicts as well. 

 

Above all else, what these statistics should tell you is that the Indo-Asia-Pacific matters to the United States – which has always been, and will always be, a Pacific nation, a Pacific leader and a Pacific power.  And even as we confront other challenges around the globe, including ISIL’s barbarism in the Middle East, we continue to make progress on the Rebalance to advance our enduring interests in this region.

 

Initiated by President Obama four years ago, the Rebalance is focused on four areas – political, diplomatic, military, and economic.  On the political side, the President hosted India’s Prime Minister Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe in the last several months.  And recently, he hosted China’s President Xi, South Korea’s President Park, and Indonesia’s President Widodo.  And later this month, the President will travel to the Philippines to attend APEC.  So frequent engagements with Asian leaders have been, and will remain, a national priority for the United States.

 

Another part of our Rebalance is the military component – the area I’m responsible for.  The persistent presence of U.S. joint military forces throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific for the last 70 years has safeguarded the rules-based international order … a system that continues to benefit all nations – including China – by setting the conditions for stability, economic prosperity, and peace. 

 

We enhance of our military presence by strengthening treaty alliances, building new partnerships, advancing multilateral cooperation, improving interoperability, and increasing our readiness to respond to crises.  We are expanding many of our bilateral relationships into trilateral and multilateral ones.  And our military is actively involved in the ASEAN Regional Forum.

 

While military activities are the most visible aspect of the Rebalance, the most important facet is economic.  That’s one reason why our leaders are working to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership, one of the largest trade agreements in history and one that represents 40 percent of the global economy.  It will improve the economies of all the member nations and it will act as a buffer to potential conflict among members. 

 

And while PACOM works hard to maintain peace and prosperity, as a military commander I must also ensure that our forces are first and foremost ready to defend our national interests.  We must be ready to fight if called upon.  There are threats to peace in this region.  The biggest one is North Korea – a nation with an unpredictable leader who is on a quest for nuclear weapons and a missile system that can deliver them throughout the region, to include the United States.

 

The persistent threat from North Korea is one of the reasons why our alliances with Japan and South Korea are so important.  For decades, these alliances have been the foundation of peace and security in Northeast Asia and the cornerstone of U.S. engagement in the region.  In fact, I was just in South Korea where I supported U.S. Defense Secretary Carter in consultative talks with our Korean allies.

 

Now, I know everyone here is focused on China-U.S. relations, so let me address it now.  Some pundits predict a coming clash between our nations.  I do not ascribe to this pessimistic view. 

 

While we certainly disagree on some topics – the most public being China’s claims in the South China Sea and our activities there – there are many areas where we have common ground.  For example, President Xi and President Obama just reiterated our nations’ commitment to realize the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in peaceful ways.  China participated in the world’s largest maritime exercise – RIMPAC – last year and will do so again next year.  As I address all of you today, Chinese Navy ships are making a port visit to Mayport, Florida, home of the U.S. 4th Fleet; while the Chinese Hospital Ship Peace Ark is visiting San Diego, home of the U.S. 3rd Fleet.  And later this month, not only will USS Stethem visit Shanghai, so too will Admiral Scott Swift, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander.  In fact, there are 33 separate military exchanges in the next two weeks from 4-stars to cadets.

 

As Susan Rice recently said, part of our strategy is to deepen engagement with China at every level so that we can maximize cooperation on areas of mutual interest while confronting and managing our disagreements.  I agree with many of my Chinese counterparts who have emphasized cooperation over confrontation.  I worked to advance this goal during my last trip to China in April 2014, where I was part of a delegation that approved the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES … an important confidence building measure approved by 21 nations of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium that includes the U.S., China, Australia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, and many others.

 

Discussing issues of mutual interest and increasing cooperation for militaries to operate together are essential.  This allows us to more effectively respond together during crisis.  This was never more evident than the search to locate missing Malaysian Air Flight 370.  Led by our Australian allies, last year’s multinational response included China, the U.S. and many navies.  This flight had 239 souls onboard, including 152 from China, and I want to express my personal condolences to all those here in China, in Malaysia and all nations, including the United States, who lost loved ones.  We can never know where the next tragedy will strike this region, but PACOM is working to build bridges that allow us to effectively respond in cooperative ways.

 

But as recent news headlines indicate, there remain areas of tension.  In my opinion, this is when military-to-military dialogue is needed most.  Sustained people-to-people contact is one of the best ways we can avoid misunderstanding and military miscalculation.  Just last week, the head of the Chinese Navy and the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations talked frankly for an hour about our recent freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.  And I continue to have personal and candid conversations with Chinese military leaders, which is why I’m in China this week.

 

Free and open access to all shared domains is a fundamental principle of the rules-based international order.  And as Secretary Carter just said a couple of days ago, the rules-based international order faces challenges from Russia and, in a different way, from China – with its ambiguous maritime claims to include the so-called 9-dash line that encompasses nearly all of the South China Sea.

 

To prevent the decomposition of international laws and norms, the United States continues our long tradition of taking a global stand in support of freedom of navigation – one of the pillars that protects unimpeded passage on the high seas for the trade that has allowed all nations to develop and fueled the global economy that has lifted millions out of poverty … including here in China.

 

International seas and airspace belong to everyone and are not the dominion of any single nation.  By matching our words and our diplomacy with routine freedom of navigation operations, we're making it clear that the United States continues to favor peaceful resolutions to ongoing disputes, and that our military will continue to fly, sail, and operate whenever and wherever international law allows.  The South China Sea is not - and will not - be an exception.

 

We’ve been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no one should be surprised by them.  And we’ve executed these operations while avoiding military conflict – that remains our goal, to include coast guard and civilian vessels that might attempt to act in an unprofessional manner in the future.

 

I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation.  These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.  The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea and we encourage all claimants to solve disputes peacefully, without coercion, and in accordance with international law.

 

That said, we must not allow the areas where China and the U.S. disagree to impact our ability to make progress on the areas where we do agree.  Both nations have many mechanisms in place to help ensure they don’t – from CUES, to the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, to our recently signed confidence building measures for maritime and aerial operations.  All of these mechanisms help strengthen our relationship and enable us to better manage areas of disagreement.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll wrap up my formal remarks by telling the story of a guy who went on holiday in the Himalayas.  While he was there, he got the rare opportunity to visit a monastery.  Now, this monastery was on top of a steep mountain and the only way you could get to it was to be pulled up the side of a 300-meter cliff … in a basket. 

 

As he looked up at the rope, he noticed it was fraying a bit, so he asked the monk sitting next to him …“How often do you guys replace the rope?” 

 

The monk replied …“Every time it breaks.”

 

Now, that kind of logic doesn’t work for most of us.  There’s simply too much at stake.  We can’t allow the rope to break.  We’ve got to remain proactive in this region in order to be ready for the challenges we see today and tomorrow.  And, although these challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable.

 

During President Xi’s recent visit to the White House, President Obama talked about how there will be times where there are differences between our two countries.  That’s inevitable.

 

But he also spoke about how we can draw encouragement from the ties that have long connected our people so that we can expand cooperation between our two nations.  He spoke about the past and how American military airmen during World War Two were sheltered and fed by Chinese villagers.  He spoke about valuable ties that are forged today … and he specifically mentioned you – students and academics who cross the Pacific to learn from each other.  So while my work as a military commander requires me to look through a darker lens and drink through a glass half empty, I encourage you to be optimistic … to drink from glasses half full … and to continue your work – building people-to-people ties at academic centers of excellence like Peking University and Stanford that expands future cooperation between the United States and China.  Again, thank you for inviting me to speak, and with that, we can take a few questions and share perspectives.

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