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Home : Media : Speeches / Testimony
NEWS | July 24, 2015

ASPEN Security Forum Remarks by Adm. Harris

By USPACOM Commander

ASPEN Security Forum (23 July 2015)  - Panel: “China Assertiveness in the South China Sea: Harbinger of Things to Come?”

I’d like to thank the Aspen Institute for continuing these Security Forums.  Events such as these offer a rare opportunity to have a robust dialogue on significant challenges and opportunities around the world.  Thank you for inviting me to participate in this year’s forum.

I’m impressed with all that Aspen does.  I completed The Aspen Seminar last February and was enriched by the process.  As much as I’d like to talk about Antigone, Billy Budd, and Omelas, instead, I’m going to continue to talk about real world events in the South China Sea.

I believe this particular topic is one that, until recently, hasn’t received enough global attention and so thanks for giving us the opportunity to raise awareness on the issue.

Before discussing the specific actions that China has undertaken in the South China Sea, I’d like to start off with my perspective on why it’s important, and why the everyday American citizen should care about this issue.

To the American public, this land reclamation by China may seem like a strange endeavor in a far away place…and a minor concern to the U.S.  However, I believe that China’s actions to enforce its claims within the South China Sea could have far reaching consequences for our security and economy by disrupting the international rules and norms that have supported the global community for decades.  We must address this…even here in Colorado.

Each year, over $5.3 trillion in global sea-based trade relies on unimpeded sea lanes through the South China Sea.  The Strait of Malacca alone sees over 25% of oil shipments and 50% of all natural gas transits each day.  This is made possible through the regional countries’ adherence to longstanding customary international law which protects freedom of navigation. 

Southeast Asian countries have been able to manage the resources within the waters adjacent to their countries because of the internationally accepted definitions for territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs).   International recognition and protection of freedom of navigation are fundamental to the global economy and our way of life here in the United States.  Unilateral attempts by any nation to disrupt freedom of navigation place the international system and global economy at risk. 

The South China Sea is front and center in the tug-of-war between the majority of regional nations that want to maintain the status quo and China that wants to change it to suit its narrow self-interest.  This is why Deputy Secretary of State Blinken recently compared the aggressive actions of China in the South China Sea to Russia’s actions in Crimea.  They both demonstrate desire by individual actors to change the status quo. 

Most countries choose to pursue diplomatic means to address their disputes.  China, on the other hand, is changing the status quo in the region through aggressive coercive island building without meaningful diplomatic efforts toward dispute resolution or arbitration. 

China is changing facts on the ground…essentially creating false sovereignty… by building man-made islands on top of coral reefs, rocks, and shoals.  In doing so, China’s actions are destroying the surrounding underwater environment.  And that severe environmental impact is one aspect of China’s land reclamation that I don’t believe has received enough attention because protecting our fragile environment is a global responsibility. 

But don’t believe me – after all, I barely graduated from the Naval Academy and I fly airplanes. So instead, believe University of Miami marine biologist John McManus, who has said that China’s building of man-made islands on top of coral reefs and shoals has led to “the most rapid rate of permanent loss of coral reef area in human history.”

We now know that the oceans are not, as Marine Biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle writes, “too big to fail.” The oceans require the same kind of stewardship that we now apply to our vulnerable rain forests, grasslands and wetlands.  At the same time that our president is designating an additional 490,000 square miles as marine sanctuary in the Pacific, China’s destructive activities will result in the permanent loss of coral reef in one of the most important reef systems in the Pacific. 

While Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan have also conducted land reclamation in the South China Sea, their total…approximately 100 acres over 45 years…is dwarfed by the size, scope, and scale of China’s massive buildup.  In only 18 months, China has reclaimed almost 3,000 acres. 

To give you a visual, Sports Authority Field at Mile High takes up about 20 acres; China in the past 18 months as piled enough sand on top of these fragile coral reefs and shoals to build almost 150 stadiums.  You can’t claim to care about the environment when you engage in that kind of wanton destruction to those sensitive areas. 

But besides inflicting severe environmental damage, these activities also threaten the shared principles that have ensured security and prosperity in the region for decades.  Secretary of Defense Carter stated at last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue that “China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion.” 

Let me close by saying that throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific today, countries that were in some cases bitter enemies are coming together to settle disputes and identify opportunities for future cooperation.   Countries are collaborating to address shared concerns and challenges such as natural disasters, pandemic diseases, and piracy. 

These are the reasons that the U.S. has called for peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes, an end to attempts to unilaterally change the status quo, and an immediate halt to land reclamation by all claimants.  These activities are harming the environment and will not strengthen any country’s legal claims to disputed areas in the South China Sea. 

We call on China to use the mechanisms of international dispute resolution in good faith, and to abide by those decisions as so many of its regional neighbors have already done.  China has in the past accused the U.S. of “pursuing international hegemony” and adopting a “Cold War mentality” toward China.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is China’s actions that are inducing its South China Sea neighbors to build stronger relationships with each other and the U.S., driven not by a sudden U.S. effort to increase stability and security within the region, but by China’s conspicuous failure to do the same.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.


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