Washington, DC – North Korean nuclear capabilities, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria making inroads in the Philippines are the three major challenges facing the Pacific community, the commander of US Pacific Command said at the 4th Japan-US Military Statesmen Forum here last week.
These are the threats that Pacom must face and adapt to as the pace of change in the region — indeed the world — increases, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said.
Japan’s ambassador to the United States Kenichiro Sasae, who hosted the event at his residence, and retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of the leaders of the forum, both emphasized the need for stability in an uncertain world.
Harris didn’t disagree and ticked off one-by-one the changes that prove this to be a volatile time in the region.
He noted that in September, North Korea tested yet another nuclear device. On July 4, Kim Jong-Un successfully launched his first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile.
Second, “China increased aggressive maneuvers in the East China Sea, and continued its unabated militarization of the South China Sea,” he said.
Finally, he noted that earlier this year, ISIS proved it is a true global threat as violent extremist organizations banded together to occupy Marawi City in Mindanao in the Philippines.
“That’s a lot of change in the last 12 months,” Harris said. “But I’ll point out three truths that have not changed.”
First, the Indo-Asia-Pacific region remains a top priority for the United States. “The US remains laser-focused on the region because our interests there are enduring,” the admiral said. “US key leader engagements with the region — to include Japan – prove our actions back up those words.”
Two: America is and will remain a Pacific power and a Pacific leader. “Just as we have for the past 70 years, Pacom joint forces will maintain a robust and stabilizing military presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” he said.
Finally, the strength and necessity of the Japan-US alliance has not changed. “In a world crying out for leadership at the global level, the need for our alliance has never been stronger,” he said. “Today, the ties that bind our countries together have never been more robust. And I submit that those ties have never been more vital than they are today because of the mutual threats we face.”
North Korea is “a clear and present danger” to global peace and stability, Harris said. Kim Jong Un’s regime is not only a threat to South Korea, Japan and the United States, but to China and Russia and US allies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. “[North Korea is] a threat to the entire world because North Korea’s missiles point in every direction,” he said. “It’s the reason why we call for all nations to implement far stronger economic sanctions against Pyongyang.”
North Korea now has an ICBM capability that can reach North America and Hawaii. “While I don’t know if those missiles can hit what they’re aimed at, but like in horseshoes and hand grenades, getting close is all that’s needed when you’re dealing with nuclear weapons,” the admiral said.
Harris expects North Korea’s capabilities to improve with time, so now is the time “to study and consider every possible step to increase the defense of our homelands with the best, most effective solutions possible,” he said.
Japan, South Korea and the United States are working to apply economic and diplomatic pressures aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms program. Credible combat power backs up the diplomatic and economic efforts. “That’s why we deploy carrier strike groups with Aegis ships and the world’s best submarines to Northeast Asia,” Harris said. “That’s why we maintain a formidable continuous bomber presence in the region. That’s why we continue our ironclad defense of Japan, to include deploying our newest and best military platforms like the F-35 [Lightning II] joint strike fighter, the P-8 Poseidon and the MV-22 Osprey.”
Harris also emphasizes multinational collaboration against a North Korean threat that endangers all nations. “This includes increasing trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea — a partnership with a purpose if there ever was one,” he said.
Harris stressed that every nation “must work diplomatically and economically to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees.”
That includes calling on China to do more to exert its considerable economic influence to stop Pyongyang’s unprecedented weapons testing. “North Korea only has one ally — that’s China; and vice versa,” Harris said. “That means Beijing has exponentially more influence on Pyongyang than anyone else, which makes China the key to a peaceful outcome on the Korean Peninsula.”
The world needs Chinese help with North Korea, but China also must work to tone down its own aggressive behavior on the water and in the air, he said. While most of the interactions between US and Chinese aircraft and ships are professional and safe, there have been instances — this week in fact — where Chinese pilots have acted irresponsibly and dangerously.
“Some might find it odd for me to advocate cooperation with China on one hand while criticizing Beijing on the other, but as I like to say, great powers can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Harris said. “By that, I think we can praise Chinese efforts for help on issues like counter-piracy, even as we rightly hold them accountable for not doing enough to influence their North Korean allies. I think we can and should do both.”
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, the admiral said. “They are fundamentally altering the physical and political landscape by creating and militarizing manmade bases,” he said. “As I’ve said before, fake islands should not be believed by real people.”
China has operated vessels in America’s economic exclusion zone, and the Unted States doesn’t complain when they do so, because these are international waterways, Harris said. Yet China complains when American vessels and planes do the same things Chinese ships and planes do, he said. “China can’t have it both ways,” the admiral stated. “In my opinion, Beijing’s desire to pick and choose when it comes to international law demonstrates that China is a strategic competitor for the United States and Japan.”
This does not mean war is inevitable, he said. “But because we are in competition, I’ve advocated dealing with China realistically — as it is, and not as we would wish it would be. I’ve repeatedly emphasized that we can’t allow the areas where we disagree with China to impact our ability to make progress on the areas where we do agree.”
For Pacom, the goal remains to convince China that its best future comes from peaceful cooperation and meaningful participation in the current rules-based international order. “But I’ve also been loud and clear that we won’t allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally,” Harris said.
ISIS in Philippines
Harris shifted to ISIS, calling the terror group a clear threat that must be defeated. The Middle East and North Africa are the main areas of conflict against the group, but it is trying to expand and is having some success in Southeast Asia.
“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,” the admiral said. “In just a matter of months, Hapilon started uniting elements of several violent extremist organizations — building a coalition under the black flag of ISIS.”
Using tactics learned in Iraq and Syria, the group attacked the city of Marawi in Mindinao. It is “the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this kind of scale in this region,” he said. “It’s clear that foreign fighters are passing their ideology, resources and methods to local, home-grown, next-generation radicals.”
Marawi should be a wake-up call and a rallying cry for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, Harris said. “Only through multinational collaboration can we eradicate ISIS and other violent extremist organizations before they spread,” the admiral said. “Japan has done its part as a staunch member of the coalition to defeat ISIS. It has also helped by agreeing to provide the Philippines with patrol vessels and maritime surveillance aircraft.”
The US is also supporting its Philippine ally. It just delivered two new Cessna-208 aircraft to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “The aircraft will significantly enhance the AFP’s counterterrorism operations with the capability to locate terrorist groups operating in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago,” Harris said.
The aircraft are part of the more than $300 million in military aid granted to the Philippines in the last five years.
India, Australia, Japan and the US
“While these bilateral activities are helpful, even better are multinational initiatives — or ‘partnerships with a purpose’ as I like to call it,” he said. He noted recent exercises that brought together the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
“Unfortunately, there are some who question the motives for the increasingly cooperative relationship between the US, Japan, Australia and India,” he said. “To this I say our partnerships stand on their own merits. Deepening military cooperation between these four great democracies 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 India, Australia, Japan and the US.”