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Admiral Harris Addresses the 2015 Halifax International Security Forum

By Admiral Harry B. Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command | Nov. 21, 2015

 Halifax International Security Forum 
 Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. 
 Commander, U.S. Pacific Command 

 As Delivered - November 21, 2015 
 Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada 

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. 

Aujourd'hui, nous sommes tous Parisien. 

That's Tennessee-French for "Today, we are Parisian."

For the second time this year, terrorists have struck Paris... but because of its resolute, proud citizens, we know that the City of Lights will never be extinguished. 

The United States stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our French allies and the rest of the free world against those who would use barbarism to create terror and kill civilians. Our hearts and prayers are with the victims of recent mass terror attacks in Paris... in Mali... in Beirut... and in the skies over Egypt.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during my change of command ceremony just six months ago, "security is like oxygen - when you have enough of it, you pay little attention to it. But when you don't have enough, you can think of nothing else."

That's why I'd like to personally thank all of you here today for your constant vigilance on security matters. I applaud your efforts to provide the oxygen that enhances the rules-based security architecture that has served all our nations so well... especially in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

It's also why venues like the Halifax International Security Forum are so important -- where the brightest minds gather to discuss perspectives and share valuable strategic thinking.

The only person in Halifax who is clearly not so bright is the one who invited me to speak to such an accomplished group of scholars and leaders. I'll try not to make you regret this obvious blunder. 

Thanks, Peter, for the kind introduction. Let me also take a moment to acknowledge: [additional acknowledgments]

I'd also like to share my appreciation with the organizers for including the Indo-Asia-Pacific as a focus during this year’s forum. Like the United States, Canada is a NATO nation and a Pacific nation with national interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. 

The U.S. / Canada relationship is a celebrated one... where we are each other’s number one trading partner... where we share a deep and abiding commitment to peace and prosperity... where we share the largest undefended border between nations in the world. The man who helps defend our shared security is my good friend Admiral Bill Gortney. After participating in a thoughtful panel discussion yesterday, Bill quickly departed this morning because he's heard me speak before.

Bill’s NORAD command is a truly remarkable endeavor linking our two nations. As part of Canada’s Remembrance Day earlier this month, we recalled how we fought, bled and died together during World War I and II, and in the Korean War. And during my career, I’ve seen this teamwork continue during the Cold War, the Gulf War, in the Balkans, in Libya, and in Afghanistan. Today, in Northern Iraq, we are again working together as part of a broad coalition to destroy ISIL or DAESH. 

Canada and the United States have also served together on the high seas around the world, and always to the same ends: to uphold the rules-based order that that has enhanced and protected global peace and prosperity.

That's why we conduct multinational exercises like the Rim of the Pacific. RIMPAC 2014 was the largest in the exercise’s 43-year history, with 22 nations and six observer countries. Canada played a lead role in this exercise, as Admiral Couturier of the Royal Canadian Navy commanded the Combined Force Maritime Component. And Canada will again have a leading role in RIMPAC 2016.

So long ago, I learned that anyone whose title includes the words "Supreme, Lord, or Great" ought to be listened to. So it was Wayne Gretzky, the "Great One" himself, who said: "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been." Sage advice, indeed - not only for Canada’s national sport, but also for how we must think about security. So let me briefly talk about how the United States aims to skate to where the puck is going to be in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

Now, many of you probably haven’t heard the story about a tourist on holiday in the Himalayas who got the rare opportunity to visit a little-known monastery there. 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 200-meter cliff... by a rope.

As he looked up, he noticed the rope 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 to wait for the rope to break. Particularly when the rope is the rules-based security architecture upon which our very economies are built.

This is especially critical in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, which is fast becoming the center of gravity for the global economy. That’s why President Obama skated to where the puck was going to be by initiating America's strategic rebalance to this vital region. 

Over the past 70 years, the Indo-Asia-Pacific has been one of the world’s great success stories. Completely transformed since the end of World War II, the region is now home to the world’s three largest economies and seven of the eight fastest growing economies. 

In my opinion, this has been made possible, in large part, by the security architectures in the region -- supported by seven decades of U.S. forward military presence and underpinned by America's five bilateral security alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand... and enabled by our growing partnerships across the region with nations like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Although the region also contains 7 of the world’s 10 largest armies, including a belligerent, hostile, and unpredictable North Korea, it has experienced decades of relative peace and stability. This has facilitated an increase in prosperity unequaled in human history. 

Most of the countries in the Indo-Asia-Pacific have recognized the extraordinary benefit of the long-established international system of laws and norms to their economic growth and national security. Perhaps the country that has benefited the most is China.

As China’s economy has grown, so too have its ambitions. But how China behaves will be the true test of its commitment to peace and security. That’s why nations across the region are watching China's actions and why the Halifax Forum is devoting time to discuss this important issue.

The region is also paying close attention to the U.S. / China relationship – how our countries interact, how we cooperate, and how we deal with areas of disagreement. I believe that the U.S. / China relationship is more constructive than destructive. While those areas where the U.S. and China work together don’t get as much press as those areas where we disagree, our countries do collaborate on many security challenges. 

For example, our nations are both committed to the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Our militaries are working together to address medical issues - treating diseases, avoiding pandemics, and sharing best practices. Since 2008, our navies have been working together to counter piracy off of the Horn of Africa and around the Strait of Malacca. We’re also working together in a multinational way. China was a first-time full participant during RIMPAC 2014 and we have invited the P.L.A. Navy back for RIMPAC 2016. Our ability to work together in a multinational way was put to use during last year’s search for Malaysia Airlines Flight M.H. 370 off the coast of Australia.

China's military ambitions are also growing commensurate with its economy. So to avoid potential miscalculations, the United States has worked closely with China to enact confidence building measures focused on the notification of major military activities while ensuring our air and maritime encounters are safe and professional... 21 nations including the U.S., China, and Canada have implemented CUES – a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea – which standardize safety procedures, basic communications and maneuvering instructions.

But let me be clear. We will not give China – or any nation – a free pass to fray the rules-based security architecture that has benefited all of us, including China.

This is a message I conveyed to P.L.A. leaders earlier this month while I was in China. I appreciated the hospitality of my hosts and our candid discussions because, in my opinion, American and Chinese commanders have a responsibility to ensure friction points in policy don’t become friction points at sea and in the air. During our lengthy discussions, I spoke about substantive issues where we clearly disagree with China's exclusionary and absolutist views on the South China Sea.

For decades, China embraced Deng Xiaoping's formula for addressing disputes: essentially, be patient. And this formula arguably served China well. Deng said that his generation was not wise enough to find common language on disputes involving the East China Sea and Taiwan, so he deferred these vexing issues to later generations. 

China’s recent actions appear to be walking away from Deng’s desire to find "a solution acceptable to all." In fact, China has transitioned from a patient nation to a nation in a hurry. This was demonstrated in 2014 when this generation of Chinese leaders suddenly launched a massive building spree I called "a great wall of sand" in the disputed waters of the South China Sea – shared waters where 5.3 trillion of unimpeded global sea-based trade traverses every year.

Longtime U.S. policy is clear that we don't take sides in disputes over sovereignty. That said, we are also clear about our strong stance that all claims be based on international law and that these disputes be addressed through diplomatic or legal means without coercion or threat.

The principles that are the foundation of the rules-based order – the peaceful resolution of disputes; freedom of navigation and overflight, including for military ships and aircraft; and unimpeded lawful commerce – are not abstractions, nor are they subject to the whims of any one country. They are not privileges to be granted or withdrawn. They make sense because they have worked for decades to keep the peace while creating prosperous economic conditions to lift more than a billion people out of poverty. 

So, tensions in the region were significantly heightened when China created more than 3,000 acres of artificial islands on disputed features and started building runways and port facilities to support possible militarization of an area vital to the global economy. As Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel recently said, this move infuriated other claimants, and raised concerns amongst other Indo-Asia-Pacific nations including the United States and Canada.

And, as compellingly captured by independent news crews, Chinese military units are now warning ships and planes operating in accordance with international law near these man-made outposts – these sand castles in the sea – that they should not enter China's so-called "security zone" … a zone that does not exist in international law. 

Meanwhile, Chinese civilian and military leaders have publicly made veiled threats that China has shown "enormous restraint" to not forcibly take all disputed territory to back up its claim to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea – the so-called "9-dash line." It’s the extreme scope of China’s claims that prompted the Philippines to bring a case before the Arbitral Tribunal established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – UNCLOS. 

This type of legal, peaceful arbitration supports the rules-based order that we have all fought so hard to establish and maintain. It’s why President Obama endorsed the arbitration process while calling this week to "halt further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas." 

Whether China accepts the outcome of the tribunal's decisions will say a lot about how it views its commitments under international law. 

Adherence to international law and standards has brought prosperity and peace to the region. So we will not simply agree to disagree with the destabilizing actions taken by China. And that's why the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows. The South China Sea is not - and will not be - an exception. 

Last month, USS Lassen conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the Spratly Islands. This operation was part of a freedom of navigation program that our military has been conducting around the world for decades in support of international law. So no one should be surprised by these operations. We've done them before in the South China Sea, and we'll do them again. 

There is one global standard for freedom of navigation – not a double standard by which China can fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows while other nations cannot. International seas and airspace belong to everyone and are not the dominion of any single nation. By matching our public 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. 

So why are people noticing these freedom of navigation operations now? As Secretary Carter said earlier this week, they're not noticing because the United States is doing anything new... they're noticing because China is doing something new. 

I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation – and this assertion is backed up by the fact that we've avoided conflict while conducting them for decades. These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.

By now, I’m sure the person who invited me to speak is really regretting the length of this speech; so I’m reminded of a baseball story from this year, where the visiting team was getting pounded in the 1st inning by the Toronto Blue Jays. The manager walked out of the dugout and headed directly to the mound, where he took the ball from the pitcher. 

The pitcher protested, "Coach, I’m not tired." 

The manager – with a practiced eye – said "Yeah, I know, son… but the outfielders sure are." 

So, for all you outfielders out there, let me close with this thought.

While I’m not a soothsayer, I don’t believe conflict with China is inevitable. But I also believe it will take considerable engagement between our countries. Therefore, the U.S. and China must move forward with our relationship deliberately and with an eye on the long-term while we continue to address many of the immediate challenges. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in an interconnected world of shared domains: the oceans, the air, outer space, and now, cyberspace. These spaces enable the free flow of goods, services, thoughts and ideas. They are the connective tissue that holds together the global economy and more importantly, a civil society. Access to shared thoroughfares is at risk due to increasing competition, and unfortunately, the provocative actions of nations like China.

We must skate to where the puck is going to be. That’s why the United States, Canada, and all our allies, partners and friends must anticipate challenges to the current rules-based security architecture and take preemptive action to avoid skating where the ice is really thin. 

As Ambassador Dave Shear said this year during testimony before the U.S. Congress, "Our regional friends and partners should rest assured – we will continue to protect security and promote prosperity of the Asia-Pacific and above all, we will honor our commitments."

There are three great ships that sail the high seas – friendship, partnership and leadership. And forums like this are the rudders that steer these ships towards cooperation and a more prosperous future.

Folks, thanks for your attention and I hope my comments spur some lively discussion during the next session. 

Merci and thank you.
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