Adm. Harris Details Growing Asia-Pacific Concerns in Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing about the numerous growing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region took a hard turn to the far north, as the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command warned about China’s open grasp for the vast undeveloped resources in the Arctic.
The discussion about the Arctic also resulted in renewed debate about the long-ignored 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), when Adm. Harry B. Harris warned that the United States’ refusal to ratify UNCLOS will leave it at a disadvantage to China and Russia, who are parties to the treaty, in future international negotiations on exploiting the Arctic’s mineral resources as the polar ice cover shrinks.
The March 15 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee also delved into two other treaties, when Harris lamented the U.S. abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and urged modifications to the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty to allow development of land-based conventional-armed cruise missiles to match China’s growing arsenal.
In what is likely to be one of his last congressional hearings as commander of the largest U.S. military theater, Harris restated his concerns about the security threats posed by China’s rapidly modernizing and expanding military capabilities and North Korea’s recent progress in ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, which he said has extended the “shadow” of nuclear attack to the continental U.S.
Asked about the possibility of direct talks between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, Harris said he could not predict what would come from the meeting, but said Kim seeks “respect, security and unification of the peninsula under his regime.”
In discussing China, Harris saw the threat to the U.S. position as “the strategic partner of choice” in the region as much from China’s massive economic growth and its willingness to invest billions of dollars in neighboring countries as part of its “one road, one belt” economic program, which forces some traditional U.S. friends and partners to choose sides.
The discussion turned to the Arctic when Harris said China’s recent declaration of a “polar silk road” addition to the road and belt policy, showed that it “clearly sees the Arctic as a target.” He noted that China, which has no territory close to the Arctic “is putting its money where its mouth is,” with four icebreakers and building a fifth. “Why? Because it wants the resources.”
“China is interested in the resources in the Arctic,” Harris said, while Russia, which has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, is more interested in the security of its vast Arctic regions and “is using UNCLOS to its advantage.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., asked if the U.S. failure to sign UNCLOS was a mistake. Harris said he has always argued for the U.S to join the treaty.
Although every president and many national security leaders since Ronald Reagan have supported signing UNCLOS, congressional Republicans have refused to approve it, even though the nation adheres to all the rules governing territorial claims to offshore waters.
Questioned about the TPP, which Trump rejected, Harris noted that China quickly led an effort to have the remaining 11 Asian nations sign the treaty, leaving the U.S. out of what could be the world’s largest trading bloc. He suggested that the U.S. seek some way to join the partnership, which includes nearly all our Asian allies and partners.
Harris also noted that due to the restrictions of the U.S.-Russian INF treaty, “we are at a disadvantage,” because “China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our bases in the Western Pacific and our ships. … We have no ground-based missiles that could threaten China because of INF.
“I’m not calling on us to pull out of INF, but we should consider ways to work within it to develop a response to China,” he said.