Monday June 1, 2020


May 29, 2015

This week, four-star Admiral Harry Harris, the highest-ranking Asian-American in the U.S. Navy, took command of the United States’ oldest and largest geographic combatant command. Adm Harris assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) from Adm Samuel Locklear in a ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii on Wednesday.

Harris is familiar with the region and well-prepared for the role. Born in Japan, Harris has operated from Japan and Hawaii, attended graduate school to study East Asia security and served as aide to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Japan before taking over the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT). “At PACFLT, he helped bring our most advanced capabilities to the Asia-Pacific and shift 60 percent of our naval assets to the region,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during the ceremony. “He also stressed and maintained the readiness that’s at a premium in this dynamic region. For all those reasons and many more, Harry’s the PACOM commander we need for the next phase of the rebalance.”

During his own speech, Adm Harris made it clear that he believes that the greatest challenges PACOM forces face are North Korea, “with its quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally,” China’s “preposterous claims to and land reclamation activities in the South China Sea,” and a “resurgent Russia” in the Pacific. The most forceful part of his remarks came when he insisted that, “If called upon, we would fight tonight to defend American interests in the vast Indo-Asia Pacific. This is not aspirational; it’s in our DNA.”

When asked about China in an interview with TIME earlier this week, Harris said he had been critical of Beijing’s “provocative actions”, including its “lack of clarity on its outrageous claim…to 90 per cent of the South China Sea.” He added that China’s actions “make its neighbors nervous, increase tensions in the region, and I think they are destabilizing for peace in the region.” However, he also mentioned that, “I’ve always tried to give China credit when they act in responsible ways that adhere to international law and norms, and enhance stability.” He affirmed that while Japan is an important U.S. ally, he is an American, not Japanese. And he concluded the interview by asserting that it is North Korea, not China, that keeps him “up at night.”

Rather than focusing on the region as a whole, during the ceremony Secretary Carter took the opportunity to issue some of his strongest statements on China to date. “China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus in favor of non-coercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes,” he said. In a message clearly directed at the Asian power, he added that the United States intended to remain “the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”

In response to Carter’s statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged Washington to avoid any “alienating or provocative words and actions” and reasserted that the United States should avoid getting involved in the South China Sea. However, overall Chinese reaction to what would typically be seen as inflammatory U.S. sentiment was rather subdued. Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said Washington is making the situation a hot topic and seeking to internationalize it. “The biggest factor behind this is its anxiety” because “the U.S. is not as confident as it was”, Jin said. In this case, it appears that China has chosen to treat Carter’s words as rhetoric rather than reality. Given the differences between Carter’s statement and those of the new PACOM commander, this choice may be ultimately proven to be wise.

For more information on this topic:

TIME – The New Head of the U.S. Pacific Command Talks to TIME About the Pivot to Asia and His Asian Roots

China DailyNo One Tells Us What to Do, Beijing Says

TodayUS Pacific Command Welcomes New Leader

The Diplomat – Top US Officials Heat Up Rhetoric on China’s South China Sea Behavior

USNI News – In Dual Ceremony, Harris Takes Over PACOM, Swift Assumes Command of PACFLT

China News – 美太平洋司令部换将 美防长再提”未来在亚太”

网易新闻 – 美军首名日裔太平洋司令部司令上任

Compiled and edited by Emily O’Brien