A Pacific Admiral Takes China’s Measure

A Pacific Admiral Takes China’s Measure

The U.S. can show support for the U.N.’s ruling on the South China Sea by ‘flying, sailing and operating everywhere international law allows.’



Aug. 5, 2016 6:28 p.m. ET

Beijing has a consistent explanation for the rising tensions in the South China Sea: It’s America’s fault. As Chinese leaders tell it, their country is the victim of a U.S. bullying campaign designed to keep China down by uniting Asian states against it. For proof they cite episodes such as the recent United Nations arbitration case filed by the Philippines and cheered by the U.S., Japan, Vietnam and others, which ended last month in a rebuke of China’s aggressive maritime claims and practices, including building artificial islands in international waters and harassing foreign ships.
An arch villain in China’s narrative is Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, who last year had the gumption to warn that Beijing is building a “Great Wall of Sand” in the South China Sea. The four-star former reconnaissance flight officer also happens to be the son of an American father and a Japanese mother, a fact oft-noted by Chinese state media as proof of malign intent. “To understand the American’s sudden upgraded offensive in the South China Sea,” Xinhua has said, “it is simply impossible to ignore Admiral Harris’s blood, background, political inclination and values.”
Such racial innuendo is merely one illustration of China’s harsh anti-American propaganda. But in his first interview since last month’s landmark U.N. arbitration verdict, the 60-year-old admiral is consistently conciliatory, taking no victory lap and finding the bright side of several trouble spots. As the Obama era winds down, top U.S. leaders are still holding out hope that China will mellow as it rises and integrate peacefully into the global order.
“I don’t want to talk in terms of winners and losers because that’s not helpful,” Adm. Harris says of the U.N. ruling as he visits Tokyo to meet defense officials and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He allows that the verdict “was sweeping in its nature” and helpfully “eliminated some of the ambiguities” concerning China’s sea claims and artificial islands, but he stresses that “the United States is not a party to the ruling.” “We’re at the point where it’s up to China and the Philippines to start talking about it,” he says, citing Secretary of State John Kerry, “then we’ll see where it goes.”
And what can the U.S. and its partners do to back the verdict, seeing as the U.N. tribunal has no enforcement power of its own? “I don’t think we have as a mission enforcing tribunal rulings,” Adm. Harris says, “but we can show support for the rulings” rhetorically and by exercising freedom of navigation: “the idea of flying, sailing and operating everywhere international law allows.”
This formulation has been a mantra of U.S. officials for more than a year, even as the U.S. Navy has conducted only three freedom-of-navigation operations (Fonops) through Chinese-claimed waters, all under the ambiguous minimalist doctrine of “innocent passage.” Adm. Harris has pushed his bosses for clearer and more frequent Fonops, according to the Navy Times and other outlets, but so far has been rebuffed.
If Adm. Harris fears the U.S. and its friends have lost the post-tribunal initiative by failing to carry out new Fonops, he isn’t saying. But concerns are mounting among Asian officials and South China Sea watchers who note that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed even to mention the verdict in a recent joint communique, while the new government of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has played it down. Could this muted response embolden China to escalate, perhaps by trying to build an artificial island at Scarborough Shoal?
Building atop Scarborough, which China seized from the Philippines in a Putinesque move in 2012, would give Beijing a foothold 120 miles off the strategic Philippine port of Subic Bay and near the Luzon Strait, a key gateway to the open Pacific. China appeared poised to start construction there in March but backed off as President Obama and other U.S. officials issued private warnings to Beijing and Adm. Harris’s Pacific Command moved additional assets to the area, including A-10 ground-attack aircraft.
Now Adm. Harris reports that since the tribunal verdict “there hasn’t been any demonstrable change in Chinese behavior around [Scarborough] in terms of dredging or any of that activity. So I think we’re at a place where truly we have to wait and see.”
He argues with satisfaction, though, that U.S. friends are more reassured by U.S. policy today than they were even six months ago: “I think that the idea of the ‘rebalance’ has now taken hold.” He notes that the U.S. is advancing toward its goal of placing 60% of its air and naval assets in the Pacific by 2020, and though defense budgets haven’t grown, the Navy is building to a fleet of 308 ships, from 287 five years ago. “So I can stand in front of anybody and tell them what I believe-the military component of the rebalance is real.”
Various aspects of China’s record, meanwhile, aren’t as bad as they may seem. Yes, Chinese fighter jets have recently made several unsafe intercepts of U.S. surveillance planes in international airspace, but Adm. Harris assesses that these were caused by “poor airmanship, not some signal from Chinese leadership to do something unsafe in the air.”
He also touts the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea signed by the U.S. and Chinese navies two years ago, even though Beijing has refused to apply similar protocols to its coast guard and law-enforcement fleets that do most of its bullying at sea. “We recognize that there’s a gap there,” but “we shouldn’t discount the positives because there are still negatives. We should embrace the positives, continue to work on them, and then work on the negatives.”
Some might see this as a risky standard of low expectations, yet Adm. Harris emphasizes that China’s military arrived on the global stage recently, so a little acceptance can go a long way. Hence the U.S. decision to include China’s military for the second time in the multinational Rimpac naval exercise that concluded this week off Hawaii, and to welcome its role in everything from counterpiracy patrols off the Horn of Africa to the removal of chemical weapons from Syria and the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“These are positive things” that “demonstrate how far China has come and where we are welcoming their arrival,” Adm. Harris says. “We don’t want China to be isolated. Isolation is a bad place to be. . . . It’s dangerous.”
U.S. leaders clearly hope this message may chasten China. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently adapted Adm. Harris’s coinage, warning Beijing that its aggressive behavior could leave it stuck behind a “Great Wall of Self-Isolation.” Whether Chinese leaders are sensitive to this risk remains to be seen, and much of the evidence isn’t promising, but U.S. outreach seeks to convey that the choice is theirs.
“It’s on China not to be isolated,” says Adm. Harris. “It’s on them to conduct themselves in ways that aren’t threatening, that aren’t bullying, that aren’t heavy-handed with smaller countries.”
Which raises a basic question: At what point is it prudent to conclude that China is committed to the path of bullying and revanchism? After all, its top diplomat boasted in 2010 that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” and its posture has hardened since.
Adm. Harris isn’t losing faith. “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia,” he told Congress in February, but he says this observation isn’t incompatible with the ambition that China become a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal, rules-based international order. “We want China to be a strong power that adheres to and supports the rule of law,” he says.
It would be nice if the U.S. presidential campaign discussed these issues, but that’s apparently too much to ask. Adm. Harris, who knows Hillary Clinton well from serving as her military aide from 2011 to 2013, declines to offer any message to the candidates or voters. But his remarks are peppered with points that the next president would be well-advised to consider.
“We have to maintain credible combat power,” he says, citing assets including fifth-generation fighter aircraft, intelligence capabilities and submarines, which he calls “the biggest asymmetric advantage we have over any adversary we might face.”
He also implies that defense budgets are too tight, especially as he looks past this year and next. “I’ve been accused of having an insatiable desire for stuff,” he says. “That’s only because the president has an insatiable desire for security.” On nuclear issues he defers to his Naval Academy classmate Adm. Cecil Haney,commander of U.S. Strategic Command, but notes that the U.S. nuclear “deterrent is a must-do, a must-have, whatever the cost.”
Then there’s what Adm. Harris calls “the main battle”: diplomacy. Deepening ties with India is a “huge opportunity,” he says, and all the more so if Australia and Japan are involved too, as leaders in the four countries have discussed on and off for a decade. The “most important” diplomatic opportunity he sees is expanding cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korea, which recently held trilateral missile-defense exercises for the first time. This is crucial both for defending against North Korea and signaling to China that U.S. alliances are robust.
Finally there’s the U.S. economic role in Asia, which Adm. Harris says is less noticed but more important than its military presence. He avoids mentioning the pending trans-Pacific trade deal that has been pilloried by presidential candidates of both parties, but last year he said it would reduce instability and cement U.S. influence in Asia.
Mrs. Clinton used to agree. She’d have sound strategic reasons to reconsider if she wins the Oval Office.
Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong.

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