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Home : Media : Speeches / Testimony
NEWS | May 16, 2016

International Military Operations and Law Conference

By ADM Harry B. Harris, Jr. U.S. Pacific Command

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr.
Commander, U.S. Pacific Command
International Military Operations and Law Conference
Vancouver, Canada
May 16, 2016
As Delivered

Thanks, Stacy, for the kind introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. It's a great pleasure to be here in Canada. Like the U.S, Canada is a NATO nation and a Pacific nation with national interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Canada and the U.S. have served together in combat and 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.

I’d like to acknowledge many of our distinguished attorneys present:
  • Admirals Hannink, Anderson, Crandall, and Kenney
  • Generals Wilson, Rockwell, Bin, Mam, Karube, and Bartlett
  • Ms. O’Connor, Mr. Tanner, Ms. Brennan, Mr. Cunliffe, Mr. Taylor, and Mr. Sisifa

You know, with these brilliant legal minds here, it’s a real shame I don’t need any legal advice this morning.

I’d also like to acknowledge all the esteemed members of the consular and diplomatic corps here today. 

And finally, a big shout out to my good friend Rear Admiral Gilles Couturier, Commander Maritime Forces Pacific, Royal Canadian Navy.

I’m glad to see everyone made it to spectacular Vancouver. This city’s long-standing history of embracing Asian culture dates back to the 19th century. And today, this global city has a large and thriving population of citizens from many Indo-Asia-Pacific countries... so this is a very appropriate venue to discuss matters that concern all nations in this dynamic region.

Being in beautiful B.C. reminds me of a fishing story I once heard about the famous U.S. author Mark Twain. He was riding a train near the U.S.-Canada border where he’d had some amazing luck on a three-week fishing trip – even though the fishing season was closed at the time. Visiting with the only person on the train, he went on and on and on about his huge – but illegal – catch.

But to his great surprise the other passenger grew increasingly glum and downright disapproving of his fishing tale. When Twain finally asked him who he was, the stranger explained he was the game warden. 

“Who are you?” the warden asked, as he was getting ready to write an arrest warrant.

“To tell the truth,” Twain quickly said... “I’m the biggest liar in the whole United States.”

Well, in the presence of a whole bunch of attorneys today, I promise I’m going to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And the truth is that 70 years of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific didn’t just happen on its own. It happened because of an 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 order that has served this region so well for so long. Your attendance at this conference matters... and I appreciate it.

For nearly three decades, this International Military Operations and Law conference has enabled us to communicate legal, operational and policy initiatives that further the region’s security framework. Although the scope and focus 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 critical role in meeting global challenges, from maintaining peace to mitigating the impacts of natural disasters. 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 prevalent throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific. 

This year, our theme is "The increasing complexity of military operations in the dynamic environment of the 21st century.” Over the next few days, you’ll hear discussions on terrorism, cyber activities, illegal commercial fishing, and the need to use plain language to define features in maritime disputes consistent with UNCLOS – something I think we can all agree is important. 

There's a panel on Peacekeeping Operations, or PKO. Considering that many of the military forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific are conducting more frequent PKOs, you’ll not want to miss this discussion. It will feature experts on Australia's Joint Operational Law Training, or JOLT – a cool acronym that couldn’t have possibly been thought of by a lawyer – which ensures both Australian and partner-nation lawyers are prepared to support multi-domain operations on the modern battlefield.

Okay, wait a minute... Stacy, is this another way of saying we better have plenty of lawyers on hand before we increase the amount of joint patrols in the Indo-Asia-Pacific?

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. So I challenge everyone to maximize this opportunity and think about ways to expand partnerships so that we can tap in to resources that will underpin regional security.

These issues matter to the U.S. Pacific Command – or PACOM as we call it. PACOM is America’s oldest and largest military combatant command. Headquartered in Hawaii, it’s made up of nearly 400,000 personnel – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and Department of Defense civilians – who defend American interests over half the Earth... from Hollywood to Bollywood; from penguins to polar bears.

When referring to our area of operation, I prefer using the term Indo-Asia-Pacific, as this more accurately captures the fact that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are the economic lifeblood that links India, Australia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, Oceania, South America and North America.

Oceans that once were physical and psychological barriers that kept us apart are now maritime superhighways that bring us together as one global economy.

Strengthening that economic connective tissue through security, legal, political and diplomatic partnerships is what America’s strategic Rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific is all about. Enhancing our collective prosperity is a big reason why President Obama initiated the Rebalance in 2011.

The collective respect for, and adherence to, maritime rules and law by like-minded nations have 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 have flown, sailed, and operated throughout the Western Pacific in accordance with international law for decades and will continue to do so.

Regional security has also been underpinned by America's five bilateral alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand, as well as our NATO alliance with Pacific nations like Canada and France. 

We're proud of our partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Bangladesh... and Mongolia – a nation I look forward to visiting at the end of this week. These growing partnerships have strengthened regional security. 

Most of the countries in the Indo-Asia-Pacific appreciate the extraordinary benefits the long-established international system of laws and norms provide to their own economic growth and national security. Ironically, perhaps the country that has benefited the most is China. 

China is one of five evolving challenges identified by my boss – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter – that are driving current U.S. defense planning and budgeting. The others are Russia, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism, specifically ISIL. Four of the five challenges are in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, which in my opinion, means we can’t Rebalance fast enough.

Secretary Carter has called this region the single most consequential region for America’s future... where China is rising, which is fine, but behaving aggressively, which is not.

As China’s economy has grown, so too has 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 closely watching China's actions in the South China Sea. And I'm glad that China is well represented here today.

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 we work together don’t get as much press as those areas where we disagree, our countries do collaborate on many security challenges. 

China's military is also growing commensurate with its economy. So to avoid potential miscalculations, we’ve worked closely with China to enact confidence-building measures focused on the notification of major military activities. 

This helps increase the likelihood of safe and professional air and maritime encounters. Nearly two dozen nations including the U.S., China, and Canada have implemented CUES – a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea – which standardizes 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 nations. We seek cooperation with China where we can... and manage competition with China where we must and from a position of strength – this is the best course to ensure that the remarkable stability and prosperity that’s been achieved in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and around the world can endure. 

Again, to quote Secretary Carter – “trade requires safe passage... investment requires stability... innovation requires freedom... and each of these requires security.” 

Nowhere in the region is this truer than the South China Sea, where approximately $5.3 trillion in annual global trade depends upon unfettered sea lanes; $1.2 trillion of this sea-based trade is destined to or from the United States.

Freedom of navigation for civilian and military ships and aircraft is essential. Since 1979, the U.S. Freedom of Navigation program has demonstrated non-acquiescence to excessive maritime claims by coastal States all around the world. The program combines diplomatic action and non-confrontational assertions of navigation and overflight guaranteed under international law.

Just last week we conducted our most recent Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea. The USS William P. Lawrence sailed well inside 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands to challenge excessive maritime claims of several claimants that restrict the navigation rights of all nations.

It did not challenge territorial sovereignty claims to land features. The U.S. takes no position on competing territorial sovereignty claims among the parties to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea.

We do, however, take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations and that all maritime claims must comply with international law as reflected in UNCLOS.

FONOPs are not about deterrence; it's not about any one nation. We conduct these operations not only for the U.S., but to support international law... the great equalizer among nations, including Canada - and yes, including China. As my good friend, Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel recently asked, if the world’s most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to navy ships of smaller countries? 

Thanks to the rules-based order, all nations – regardless of size, economic stature, form of government or military strength – have an equal voice.

Folks, that’s the key to ensuring that peace and prosperity are maintained in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. And it’s why the U.S. supports the peaceful resolution of disputes and the need for all countries, large and small, to comply with their obligations under international law. When it comes to competing maritime claims, two peaceful paths available to claimants are negotiation and arbitration. Countries across the region in fact have resolved maritime and territorial disputes peacefully and cooperatively, whether through direct negotiations or through dispute settlement mechanisms.

Just a few examples: Indonesia and the Philippines recently agreed on their maritime boundary; Malaysia and Singapore used international court and tribunal proceedings to resolve disputes concerning the Singapore Strait; and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delimited the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Burma.

As this audience knows, there's currently an arbitration case pending under the Law of the Sea Convention centered on the South China Sea. 

How nations react after this ruling will tell a lot about their respect for the rule of law.

Ladies and gentlemen, the current rules-based order that we enjoy was the product of those who came before us – people just like you in the room today. 

Now, it’s your turn to make a difference. That’s why the significance of this conference cannot be understated. We need your voice to guide discussions and find rules-based solutions to complex challenges.

This reminds me of a sightseeing story that speaks directly to your mission over the next few days. A foreign traveler got the rare opportunity to visit a little-known, remote monastery in the Rockies. Now, the only way to get to gain entrance was to be pulled up the side of a 200-meter cliff in a basket – by a single rope.

As he looked up, the tourist noticed that 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 stoically: "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 the global economy is built.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t let the rope break under our watch. We’ve got to remain proactive in this region in order to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. With all of the expertise and talent at this conference, I’m confident you’ll discover ways to reinforce that rope. 

I’ll conclude my remarks by saying thanks to 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. 
Now more than ever, we must work together in a spirit of multilateralism to solve the security issues that we face in this region and throughout the world.

Indeed, we are stronger together.

For decades, the U.S. Pacific Command has demonstrated a strong commitment to the collective security of this region. And we stand ready to work with all of you on new ideas that continue that commitment. 

I appreciate your time and attention, enjoy the conference and thank you very much.


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