Pacific Commander Notes China’s Aggressive Push to Supplant U.S. Leadership in Region
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities are the greatest immediate threat to the United States in the Indo-Pacific theater, but China is using its growing military and economic power to reshape the region to its interest and to supplant America as the dominate power, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said Feb. 14.
Russia’s military forces and activities in the Western Pacific continue to grow and it is doing everything it can to raise the cost to America, including by “acting as a spoiler” in the efforts to use sanctions to force North Korea to end its nuclear and missile programs. And the months-long occupation of the Philippine city of Marawi showed that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants pose a growing threat in the region, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee.
Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, noted that Harris confronts four of the five U.S. security threats identified in the National Security Strategy, absent only Iran.
In what could be his last congressional appearance as head of the largest U.S. combatant command, Harris thanked Congress for its approval of the two-year budget agreement that overruled the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending limits and promised substantially increased defense funding.
He noted that one of the risks he faces is the widespread “impression that the United State is a declining power.” A strengthened military presence in the region “will send a strong signal” to the allies and partners who are vital to effort to counter those four threats, Harris said.
Harris said North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities currently are not a direct threat to the U.S. mainland, but its “capabilities will eventually match its rhetoric,” and America and its allies must be prepared for that threat.
In response to questions, Harris said the ballistic missile defenses (BMD) in his theater currently are adequate, but would not be in three or four years given North Korea’s expected increased capabilities. He supported installation of a powerful new BMD radar in Hawaii to augment the ground-based missile defense systems in California and Alaska, and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system protecting Guam. But he said the proposed Aegis Ashore system would not be an adequate defense for Hawaii against North Korean missiles.
Harris disputed the view that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is pushing nuclear and missile capabilities solely to preserve his regime, suggesting that he saw them as tools to achieve the unfulfilled goal of his grandfather and father to unify the Korean peninsula under the communist regime.
The admiral spent considerable time on China, noting that its aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea are “unabated” despite the ruling by an international court that those claims were invalid. He said China’s “impressive military buildup” will threaten U.S. capabilities without additional American forces, and its rapid progress in some military fields, including hypersonic weapons, has surpassed U.S. technology.
In addition to its drive to overcome America’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific region, Harris said, “I’m concerned that China will work to undermine the rules-based international order” that has enabled its massive economic growth.
Having worked continuously during his tour in Pacific Command to improve relations with Beijing, Harris said his goal has been to convince China that its best path for the future is to sustain the international order that its economic progress depends on.
Asked his top requirements, Harris listed additional munitions, more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and more submarines, noting that only half of his requests for sub presence can be met.
Because its allies and partners are so important to countering the multiple threats in his theater, Harris opposed the proposed cuts to the State Department, advocating a “whole of government” approach to the region.