Adm. Harry Harris
Commander, U.S. Pacific Command
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
June 28, 2017
It’s great to be back at this prestigious venue. I appreciate the chance to discuss our shared challenges and opportunities; and how I believe the Australia-U.S. alliance must continue to innovatively approach this dynamic and vitally important region.
Folks, I’m truly honored to join this accomplished group of leaders and scholars here at ASPI. Your informed opinions are part and parcel of the incubator of ideas that makes Brisbane such an impactful place. I’m very impressed by this non-partisan organization. Since 2001, you’ve not only inspired dialogue and ideas across Australia, but in America as well.
Forums like this help all of us dig deep to analyze the issues that impact Australia, the United States, the Indo-Asia-Pacific region – indeed, the world – something especially needed in this age of instant news that only scratches the surface... like this 20-minute speech from a U.S. admiral.
So in our short time together today, I’ll try to be noteworthy and not newsworthy. As Ken Gillespie mentioned in his introduction, I obviously failed in that objective the last time I visited ASPI. So, probably to the chagrin of the press here in the room today, I’m going to follow my new ironclad rule of giving out only one pithy line per think tank per country per day.
For those keeping score, this is my third time speaking at ASPI in the last four years. I’m familiar with the Australian saying ‘Third time lucky.’ I’m rarely ever invited back to speak at the same venue even twice…but three times? So I must attribute Peter’s invite to either abject curiosity, or utter desperation.
At any rate, I really am glad to be here. Before I get started, I’d like to acknowledge:
The Honorable Kim Beazley… Mr. Ambassador, it’s great to see you again, sir.
Fellow flag and general officers… especially General Greg Bilton.
Distinguished guests… ladies and gentlemen… allies.
Ladies and gentlemen, this afternoon, I have the ‘Matador’s Challenge’ ahead of me: I need to make a point here, and a point over there, and hope there’s not a lot of bull in between.
So let me start by saying point blank: as General Gillespie said, I’ve visited Australia three times in the past seven months because what happens in Australia matters to the United States of America. And what happens here matters to the world.
But don’t take my word for it. Two months ago Vice President Pence visited Sydney and said “Australia is, and always will be, one of America’s closest allies and truest friends. We are partners in security, we are partners in prosperity, and together we are bound by our historic alliance.”
And earlier this month in Sydney, I attended our annual AUSMIN meeting led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis, who said that they were there to strengthen the bilateral relationship because, quote: “we don't take this alliance for granted.” Unquote.
That’s exactly right. For those of us who’ve spent our adult lives strengthening the bonds between America and Australia, I assure you that we take this alliance very seriously, indeed. It takes hard work by our politicians, by our diplomats, by our defense officials, and by concerned citizens like those of you at ASPI. But this hard work is juice worth the squeeze.
In early May, I was honored to take part in a ceremony in New York City attended by Prime Minister Turnbull and President Trump to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea – a pivotal battle that literally turned the tide of war in the Pacific. As many of you know, my father fought in that battle aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.
The Lexington did not survive, and today, rests at the bottom of the Coral Sea… one of many alliance sacrifices to include HMAS Perth, which lies at the bottom of the Sunda Strait; HMAS Sydney that lies on the sea floor off Western Australia; and many others. We remember these ships and those who fought and died aboard them in world-changing battles because we must never forget the heroism that guaranteed the freedoms we enjoy today. We remember that Australians and Americans have fought side-by-side for freedom’s cause in every major conflict this past century – including the fight against communism in the hot wars of Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Fighting together in the Gulf War and in the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fighting together, today, against the nemesis to humanity known as ISIS.
But as Senator McCain rightly said during yet another senior American leader visit to Australia last month, we don’t bring up our shared history on the battlefield to bask in sentiment, but rather to raise a fundamental question – why are we allies? As the Senator so eloquently stated, quote: “The answer transcends narrow materialism. That alone is not why, time and time again, our citizens have left their beloved homelands, and ventured forth into the world, and endured the horrors and deprivations of war, sometimes never to return. No, the animating purpose of our alliance is that we are free societies, founded by immigrants and pioneers, who put our faith in the rule of law, and who believe that our destinies are inseparable from the character of the broader world order.” Unquote.
Powerful words. Words that remind us that freedom is an idea worth fighting for, and if need be, worth dying for. Words that remind us that alliances matter. Words that prove why the Australia-U.S. alliance is as important today as it has ever been. It’s important that we consider that Australian and American interests and values have intertwined our histories. Our alliance is both defined by its storied past and invigorated by its boundless future. We look at the past with reverence for sure. And we look to the future with hope, excitement and anticipation. In the here and now, no one issue defines us. It’s because of our mateship that emboldens us to overcome any future challenges, together.
Our opportunities here in the Indo-Asia-Pacific are abundant, but the path is burdened by several considerable challenges, including North Korea, China, and ISIS.
Why is North Korea – far away in Northeast Asia – a challenge for the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region? The answer is simple: Kim Jong-Un’s missiles point in every direction. North Korea made this clear when they threatened Australia with a nuclear strike just a couple of months ago.
Today, North Korea stands out as the only nation in this century to have tested nuclear weapons. Contrast this with a free South Korea – an economic giant with endless opportunity led by a democratically elected President. Meanwhile, Pyongyang – toxic, despotic, erratic – is ruled with an iron fist by a reckless dictator… a man who values his pursuit for power over the prosperity and welfare of his own people.
Now I want you to stop for a minute and really think about this. Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of Kim Jong-Un is a recipe for disaster. I know there’s some debate about the miniaturization advancements made by Pyongyang. But PACOM must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take him at his word. I must assume his claims are true – I know his aspirations certainly are.
So we must consider every possible step to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. That’s why we regularly deploy Carrier Strike Groups with AEGIS ships and the world’s best submarines to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. That’s why we maintain a formidable continuous bomber presence in the region. That’s why we continue to debut the newest and best military platforms like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the P-8, and the MV-22 in Australia and throughout the region. And that’s why we continue to emphasize multinational cooperation against a North Korean threat that endangers us all.
I firmly believe that every nation who considers itself to be a responsible contributor to international security must publicly and privately work to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees. And that’s why we continue to call on China to exert its considerable economic influence to stop Pyongyang’s unprecedented weapons testing.
That brings me to our second challenge – and that’s China.
Some might find it a bit odd that in successive sentences, I’m asking for China’s assistance on North Korea on the one hand and then calling China a challenge on the other. But as I like to say, I believe great powers can walk and chew gum at the same time.
By that, I mean that I think we can praise Chinese efforts to help, even as we rightly criticize and hold them accountable for actions that run counter to international rules and norms – especially in the South China Sea. I think we can do both. I think we should do both.
And I think China, as a great power, can handle that criticism on the one hand while they're dealing with this important international security issue of North Korea on the other. While the United States has a clear economic relationship with China, in my opinion, our two nations are in competition. So for the last few years, I’ve advocated dealing with China realistically – as it is, and not as we would wish it would be.
China is using its military and economic power to erode the rules-based international order. As I indicated during my last visit to ASPI, I believe the Chinese are building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in South China Sea… where they are fundamentally altering the physical and political landscape by creating and militarizing man-made bases. Ladies and gentlemen, fake islands should not be believed by real people.
Now, I'm not a lawyer, but even I know that China's 9-dash line claim and unprecedented land reclamation in the South China Sea were invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration's tribunal ruling last year. While the U.S. has no claims in the South China Sea – and it's our policy not to take positions on sovereignty over disputed land features – we resolutely oppose the use of coercion, intimidation, threats, or force to advance claims. These differences should be resolved by international law.
Folks, some people focus on the witty criticisms I say about China; it makes for better headlines, I suppose. But I’ve always believed and I’ve always emphasized that we must not allow the areas where China and the U.S. disagree to impact our ability to make progress on the areas that we do agree. The United States – in fact, all Indo-Asia-Pacific nations – should try to cooperate with China where we can. And the basis of the cooperation should begin and end with international law.
For example, I personally applaud ASEAN and China for trying to make meaningful progress towards finalizing a comprehensive Code of Conduct based on international law to establish clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements.
The U.S. seeks to cooperate with China as much as possible: from working on North Korean threats and our mutual goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula, to CUES, to counter-piracy, to disaster response – such as the Australian-led search for a missing Malaysian airliner a few years ago – to the assistance provided this month to our friends in Sri Lanka after devastating floods there.
So I was pleased to see the first-ever Diplomatic and Security Dialogue take place between the U.S. and China just last week. Led by Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis, this effort elevates our diplomatic and defense engagements, and builds upon the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and our confidence building measures for maritime and aerial operations. All of these dialogues and mechanisms help us narrow our differences while expanding cooperation.
Our goal remains to convince China that its best future comes from peaceful cooperation, meaningful participation in the current rules-based international order, and honoring its international commitments. But I’ve also been loud and clear that we won’t allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally. So we’ll cooperate where we can, but remain ready to confront where we must.
Ultimately, the U.S. seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China. This will benefit America, our allies – especially Australia – and our partners, while pressing China to abide by international rules and norms.
And now the third challenge – and that’s ISIS.
ISIS is a clear threat that must be defeated. The main geographic focus of the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition has rightfully been in the Middle East and North Africa. But as I’ve been saying for more than a year now, as our military operations continue to deny ISIS territory, radicalized and weaponized terrorists there will inspire new fighters in this region, and some will try to relocate to Indo-Asia-Pacific countries from where they came.
Sadly, we’re seeing some of this come to fruition right now in the Southern Philippines, where in (2016), Isnilon Hapilon, a commander in the Abu Sayyaf Group, was named ISIS emir of Southeast Asia. In just a matter of months, Hapilon started uniting elements of several violent extremist organizations – building a coalition under the ISIS black flag. These terrorists are using combat tactics that we’ve seen in the Middle East to kill in the city of Marawi in Mindanao – the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this kind of scale in this region.
Ladies and gentlemen, Marawi is a wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Foreign fighters are passing their ideology, resources and methods to local, home-grown, next-generation radicals. So we must stop ISIS at the front end and not at the back end when the threat can become even more dangerous. But we cannot do it alone. Only through multinational collaboration can we eradicate this ISIS disease before it spreads further in this region.
While I’ve been the PACOM commander, I’ve emphasized the need to enhance multinational partnerships – or ‘partnerships with a purpose’ as I like to call it. These partnerships advance national interests outside the confines of the old U.S. hub and spoke model.
For example, we can counter violent extremist organizations like ISIS by collaborating with regional allies and partners that may have elements in their countries sympathetic to ISIS’s cause. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. could be a natural partnership with this purpose in mind.
To combat the persistent North Korean threat, I’ve emphasized the urgent need to enhance tri-lateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
The growing U.S.-India relationship – where Prime Minister Modi is visiting President Trump in Washington this week – has also inspired my thinking about partnerships. There are those who question the motives for the increasingly cooperative relationship between the U.S. and India. Some have said that it’s to contain China. That’s simply not true. The U.S.-India relationship stands on its own merits. That’s why I made enhancing our relationship with India a major line of effort when I took command of PACOM.
Like our Australian alliance, America’s deepening cooperation with India is based on shared values and shared concerns. So I’ve spoken about the clear benefits of a ‘democracy quadrilateral’ that enhances security cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. I could use ASPI’s help to make such partnerships a reality.
In addition to looking at new and improved multinational partnerships, we’re also continuing with our important military exercise series. In fact, one of the reasons I’m here in Australia this week is to kick off Talisman Saber tomorrow, where more than 33,000 Americans and Australians are training together at multiple locations in the U.S. and Australia. This realistic, high-end and challenging exercise provides endless opportunities for our nations’ to innovatively prepare for our shared regional and global security challenges I’ve spoken about today. Together with exercises like Malabar and the Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, we can continue to innovate and work together for the common good.
That’s why I need you smart folks in this room to help our joint and combined forces to move forward with these ideas.
Alright, I know I’ve been up here for some time now. Hopefully I’ve given each of you something to think about. I’ll wrap this up with a challenge and a call to action before taking a few questions.
I believe we’re approaching an inflection point in history. We’re certainly not approaching anything resembling the end of history. Freedom, justice, and the rules-based system hang in the balance. And the scale won’t tip of its own accord simply because of wishful thinking.
Now, I’m a big believer that anytime you can work Winston Churchill in to a speech, you always sound smart. So I’ll quote the great man himself in saying “There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe to be right.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe the U.S. and Australia are doing what’s right for the security of this region, and as an influential policy institute, we need your support to keep us on course.
Thus, my challenge to all of you is simple: don’t be passive.
You all have what I call ‘skin in the game.’ Our economies continue to flourish because our collective respect for – and adherence to – international rules and standards have produced the longest era of peace and prosperity in modern times.
These conditions are not happenstance. In my opinion, they have been made possible by a security order underwritten by seven decades of robust and persistent U.S. military presence, alongside a robust network of allies and security cooperation partnerships – alliances like the one we’ve shared with Australia for the greater part of a century.
Our alliance is so important that Australian Army Major General Roger Noble is the Deputy Commanding General for Operations at U.S. Army Pacific – he followed Greg Bilton. That’s right; an Aussie General Officer is a fully integrated partner at the top of one of my service component commands.
Leading U.S. troops is a responsibility that I take very seriously and isn’t something we just give away. In fact, the first offensive action by American Expeditionary Forces serving under non-American command was during World War I in the Battle of Hamel under the overall command of the Australian commander Lt. Gen. Sir John Monash. So I’d also be remiss if I didn’t also mention Australian Navy Commodore Phil Champion, our PACOM deputy J-5 – and Mr. Richard Gray, the Deputy Director for Intelligence; both of them represent their country and our alliance very well. At the end of the day, friends help friends… and it’s an honor and privilege to have our Australian friends working alongside us every day.
We’re also blessed to have informed leaders like each of you, who are aware of the challenges, opportunities, and dangers we face in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
Now that I’ve given you my challenge, here’s my call to action: “Fate rarely calls upon us at a moment of our choosing.” Think about that – pretty cool words. “Fate rarely calls upon us at a moment of our choosing.” That’s a line from the movie Transformers 3. So if you remember nothing else, just remember that you were at ASPI the day when the PACOM Commander stole a line from Optimus Prime.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for everything you’re doing to keep the U.S.-Australia alliance strong. Our alliance matters. It matters to our two great nations, it matters to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and it matters to the world – because just as Australia and the United States stood together against tyranny and oppression in the 20th Century, the world expects no less in the 21st.
May God bless each of you. May God bless Australia and the United States, and may God keep our alliance as a pillar of strength for years to come. Thank you very much, and I look forward to your questions.