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Home : Media : Speeches / Testimony
NEWS | June 28, 2017

International Military Operations and Law Conference

By ADM Harry Harris U.S. Pacific Command

Adm. Harry Harris

Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

International Military Operations and Law Conference

Brisbane, Australia

June 28, 2017

As Delivered


It’s an honor to be here in Australia for the second time this month. Like the United States, Australia is a Pacific nation and a global leader. Unlike the U.S., Australia is an Indian Ocean nation, too, and that’s terribly important for the 21st Century. It’s fitting that we meet in Brisbane for the 30th annual International Military Operations and Law Conference which underscores the fact that Australia, the U.S. and our allies then won the peace by establishing the rules-based international order, which has enhanced global peace and prosperity. It’s my hope that, with your help, we will continue to protect the rules-based order that has served the Indo-Asia-Pacific region so well for so long. 

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, with all the excellent lawyers in attendance today, it’s a shame I don’t need any legal advice this morning… but as I’m just starting my remarks, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Stacy knows I always speak my mind, so it’s good that I have such a brilliant legal mind by my side.

Many of you know that I’m a fisherman, so I’m reminded of a lawyer friend of mine who caught a fish and had it mounted on the wall in his den. The inscription on the plaque read: "If I hadn't opened my mouth, I wouldn't be here." Good reason to keep my remarks brief.

Shared values such as respect for the rule of law, and a remarkable willingness to fight to protect them, have always been the cornerstone of the Australia-U.S. alliance. So I’m glad to see everyone made it to Brisbane. This city played a significant role in the allied campaign during World War II. In fact, Brisbane was where U.S. 7th Fleet was formed in 1943 – and it served as the South West Pacific headquarters for General MacArthur and the Allied Pacific Forces during the war. And today, this global city has a large and thriving population, many from Indo-Asia-Pacific countries. So this is an especially appropriate venue to discuss matters that concern all our regional neighbors during this vitally important time.

I know all you legal types are trained to spot lies or half-truths, so I promise I’m gonna tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And the whole truth is that 70-plus years of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific didn’t just happen on its own. It happened because of a fundamental understanding and commitment among like-minded nations that the law sits above the military and not the other way around.

So I'm pleased to have such a diverse group of legal experts and senior military leaders in the same venue, all focused on a specific set of challenges that impact the stability of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

I applaud your commitment to have an intellectually honest discussion about security and legal aspects of the rules-based international order that has served this region so well for so long. Your attendance at this conference matters, and I appreciate it.

For three decades, this International Military Operations and Law Conference has enabled us to transparently discuss legal, operational and policy initiatives that further the region’s security framework. That we don’t always agree is expected. But what makes this conference so important is that we can disagree without becoming disagreeable, and we can move forward, together, with a shared understanding of points of contention.

Over that 30-year period, the role of the military lawyer or judge advocate has evolved greatly as both counsel and counselors. My JAGs play a critical role in advising me and my senior staff from the strategic to the tactical level every day.

Although the scope and focus of this conference varies from year to year, a key underlying principle remains the strength of our partnerships and the ability to come together to discuss ways to underpin lasting peace and security. Partnerships play a vital role in resolving global challenges, from maintaining peace and security to mitigating the impacts of natural disasters or terrorist incidents.

No single government, no matter how powerful, can find definitive solutions on its own. Harnessing the wealth of capabilities represented by the nations here today is a priority. I daresay it’s a necessity in order to successfully address the range of transnational threats throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific. 

This year’s theme is fitting: "Promoting the adherence of Rule of Law for thirty years through partnership, cooperation and communication." A little wordy, perhaps, but fitting nonetheless. As much as I value cooperation, I also encourage a professional cross examination of national policies in the context of international law. 

For the three people who aren’t lawyers in the audience, that means it’s okay to respectfully disagree with each other. But let’s commit to look at ways to resolve differences while adhering to the rule of law.

So far you’ve already talked about topics like countermeasures in gray zone conflicts; forced labor at sea; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and the ISIS terrorist threat in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, to name a few. The legal framework that drives policy makers to take action is vital to our collective ability to stop I.U.U. fishing and forced labor at sea, to mitigate the possibility of kinetic responses during gray zone conflicts, and to share sensitive intelligence to stop the festering of ISIS ideology to prevent terrorist attacks.

I need you to think critically during this conference. Your governments sent you here to debate what is, and what is not, in line with international norms and the rule of law, and to help resolve disagreements or misunderstandings so we can move forward to further promote peace and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

You still have a couple of days to do a deep dive on topics like the legal framework for medical engagements, changes to defense legislation and policy, and cyber operations and the law – topics I think we can all agree are important to our shared security.

There’s also a panel on competing territorial and maritime claims in the Pacific – a topic that has been one of my top concerns the last several years due to the possibility of miscalculation and the instability it causes, especially ongoing militarization in the South China Sea. I believe it’s in the best interest of all nations to continue following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. The U.S., while not a signatory, has a long-standing policy to adhere to the provisions in UNCLOS. 

UNCLOS helps ensure that freedom of navigation is preserved and secured through reasoned, deliberate and international rules. So the U.S. adheres to it because it reflects customary international law. It’s this shared framework that allows all nations to peacefully operate on our world’s oceans and waterways.

The rules-based order of UNCLOS provides for the safe and efficient movement of commerce and people as well as the foundation of our shared maritime freedoms. And I look forward to hearing the legal perspectives of our next panel of experts from the United States, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia.

With all of the media coverage on the heightened tension in the South China Sea, I'd like you to go into the next panel with a purely legal view – don’t let your professional interpretation of international law be encumbered by news headlines, political agendas or propaganda. After all, fake islands shouldn't be believed by real lawyers. Now, I'm not a lawyer, obviously, 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 – which is why your work is so important.

Ladies and gentlemen, most people only focus on the valid criticism I say about China – it makes for better headlines, I suppose. But I’ve always believed – and emphatically stated  that we must not allow the areas where China and the United States disagree to impact our ability to make progress on the areas where we do agree.

So for the last several years, I’ve publicly emphasized that the United States and 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 United States 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 we saw this month to assist our friends in Sri Lanka after some devastating floods there.

So I was pleased to see the first-ever Diplomatic and Security Dialogue take place between the U.S. and China earlier this month. Led by Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis, this effort elevates our defense engagement 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.

Ultimately, the United States seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China that benefits America, our allies – especially Australia – and our partners, and presses China to abide by international rules and norms while contributing to international security.

That’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Okay, I think I’ve given you something to talk about in the next session… and Stacy isn’t rushing the podium trying to say "what the Admiral really meant to say was…"

So I want to talk a bit about why this conference matters to U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM. Indeed, this conference provides a great opportunity to exchange ideas and figure out ways we can work as a team to address the multitude of regional friction points and threats. 

PACOM is America’s oldest and largest military combatant command. Headquartered in Hawaii, it’s made up of about 380,000 personnel – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and Department of Defense civilians – who defend American interests across half the Earth. From Hollywood to Bollywood, from penguins to polar bears. What happens in the Indo-Asia-Pacific matters to the United States. And the region needs a strong America  just as America needs the region to be strong.

The collective respect for – and adherence to  maritime rules and law by like-minded nations keeps the Indo-Asia-Pacific strong. In fact, the rules-based order has produced the longest era of peace and prosperity in modern history. In my opinion, this has been made possible by a carefully crafted security architecture in the region, supported for 70 years by a persistent and stabilizing U.S. military presence. Our forces continue to fly, sail and operate throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific in accordance with international law.

Regional security has also been underpinned by America's five bilateral alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.

We're also proud of our partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Bangladesh – a nation I look forward to visiting next week. These and so many other growing partnerships have strengthened regional peace and security.

As Vice President Pence said during his visit to this region in April, America’s enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of the Indo-Asia-Pacific is based on ‘shared values of freedom, free markets, and a strong and vibrant economic partnership.’ 

And earlier this month at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary of Defense Mattis said that this region is a priority for the United States. As he reminded everyone, large nations and small nations can all thrive in a rules-based order.

That’s exactly right. I firmly believe, more than ever, that America’s future security and economic prosperity are indelibly linked to this dynamic region. And the future of this region requires multinational cooperation. So I challenge everyone to maximize this opportunity and think about ways to expand partnerships so that we can tap into resources that will underpin regional security and reinforce our rules-based international order.

I need critical thinkers from right here in Australia, and all around the region, to be the intellectual foundation for rule of law and a rules-based international order that continues to benefit every nation represented here today.

And I say that with a sense of urgency because 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 or simply because of wishful thinking. It will happen only if we, collectively, work together through conferences like this one to strengthen our mutual commitment to international law and global security.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m a big believer that anytime you can work Winston Churchill into a speech, it’s always better. So let me close by quoting 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."

Sage advice, and appropriate for today. For I believe the U.S., Australia and our allies are doing what’s right for the security of this region and, as influential lawyers, we need you to do what you believe to be lawful and right.

We’re blessed to have professionals like each of you here, who are managing the legal challenges and dangers we face in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and beyond.

I’d also like to thank those who had a hand in organizing this conference. I have a huge appreciation for the intellectual power all of you bring to bear; your ideas, thoughts, and discussions are invaluable as we work to secure the stability and livelihood of the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Please keep doing what you’re doing! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what we can do together to address our shared challenges in this region, because we’re in this together.  Enjoy the conference, and thank you very much.


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