U.S.-Australia Alliance Has Boundless Future, Pacom Commander Says

By Terri Moon Cronk | | June 29, 2017

WASHINGTON -- The critical nature of the U.S.-Australia alliance is defined by its storied past and is invigorated by its boundless future, U.S. Pacific Command commander Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Brisbane, Australia, today, June 28, 2017.

The admiral said the partnership between the two nations enables them to overcome future challenges together.

Harris’ remarks echoed those of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said the United States does not take its alliance with Australia for granted when he spoke at the 27th Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultation at the Government House on Sydney Harbor, June 5.

“Our opportunities here in the Indo-Asia-Pacific are abundant,” Harris said, “but the path is burdened by several considerable challenges, including North Korea, China, and [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria].”

North Korea

North Korea is a threat to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region because its missiles point in every direction, he said.

“North Korea made this clear when they threatened Australia with a nuclear strike just a couple of months ago,” the admiral said.

Every possible step to defend the U.S. homeland and its allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea must be considered, Harris said.

“That’s why we regularly deploy carrier strike groups with Aegis ships and the world’s best submarines to the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” he said. “That’s why we maintain a formidable continuous bomber presence in the region. That’s why we continue to debut the newest and best military platforms like the F-35 [Lightning II] joint strike fighter, the P-8 [Orion], and the MV-22 [Osprey] in Australia and throughout the region. And that’s why we continue to emphasize multinational cooperation against a North Korean threat that endangers us all.”

Harris said he believes every nation that considers itself a responsible contributor to international security must publicly and privately work to stop North Korean provocations.

“That’s why we continue to call on China to exert its considerable economic influence to stop Pyongyang’s unprecedented weapons testing,” he told the audience.

China

China can be praised for its efforts to help dissuade North Korea’s weapons testing, even as America rightly criticizes and holds China accountable for actions that run counter to international rules and norms, especially in the South China Sea, the admiral said.

“I think China, as a great power, can handle that criticism on the one hand, while they're dealing with this important international security issue of North Korea on the other,” he said.

Yet, China is using its military and economic power to erode the rules-based international order, Harris said.

He added, “I believe 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 the South China Sea, where they are fundamentally altering the physical and political landscape by creating and militarizing man-made bases. … Fake islands should not be believed by real people.”

Harris reminded his audience that China's nine-dash line claim and unprecedented land reclamation in the South China Sea were invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration's tribunal ruling last year.

“While the U.S. has no claims in the South China Sea -- and it's our policy not to take positions on sovereignty over disputed land features -- we resolutely oppose the use of coercion, intimidation, threats, or force to advance claims. These differences should be resolved by international law,” the Pacom commander said.

“Our goal remains to convince China that its best future comes from peaceful cooperation, meaningful participation in the current rules-based international order, and honoring its international commitments,” Harris said. “But I’ve also been loud and clear that we won’t allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally. So, we’ll cooperate where we can, but remain ready to confront where we must.”

Ultimately, he said, the United States seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China, which will benefit America, its allies -- including Australia -- and its partners, while pressing China to abide by international rules and norms.

ISIS

Meanwhile, “ISIS is a clear threat that must be defeated,” Harris said of the terrorist organization.

“The main geographic focus of the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition has rightfully been in the Middle East and North Africa,” the admiral said.

He added, “But as I’ve been saying for more than a year now, as our military operations continue to deny ISIS territory, radicalized and weaponized terrorists there will inspire new fighters in this region, and some will try to relocate to Indo-Asia-Pacific countries from where they came.”

Harris referred to the Southern Philippines, where in 2016, Isnilon Hapilon, a commander in the Abu Sayyaf Group, was named ISIS emir of Southeast Asia.

“In just a matter of months, Hapilon started uniting elements of several violent extremist organizations, building a coalition under the ISIS black flag,” the admiral said. “These terrorists are using combat tactics that we’ve seen in the Middle East to kill in the city of Marawi in Mindanao, the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this kind of scale in this region.” Harris said Marawi is a wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

Foreign fighters are passing their ideology, resources and methods to local, home-grown, next-generation radicals, he said.

“We must stop ISIS at the front end and not at the back end when the threat can become even more dangerous,” Harris said. “But we cannot do it alone. Only through multinational collaboration can we eradicate this ISIS disease before it spreads further in this region.”

Multinational Partnerships

The admiral said as Pacom commander, he’s always emphasized the need to enhance multinational partnerships to carry out such goals as countering violent extremist organizations such as ISIS by collaborating with regional allies and partners that could have elements in their countries sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause, he said.

“The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. could be a natural partnership with this purpose in mind,” Harris said.

“To combat the persistent North Korean threat, I’ve emphasized the urgent need to enhance tri-lateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea,” he added.

“The growing U.S.-India relationship has also inspired my thinking about partnerships,” Harris said.

Like the U.S.-Australian alliance, America’s deepening cooperation with India is based on shared values and shared concerns, he said.

Military Exercises

“In addition to looking at new and improved multinational partnerships, we’re also continuing with our important military exercise series,” Harris said, noting that another reason for his presence in Australia this week is to kick off Exercise Talisman Saber tomorrow, where more than 33,000 Americans and Australians are training together at multiple locations in the United States and Australia.

He called the exercise a “realistic, high-end and challenging exercise [that] provides endless opportunities for our nations to innovatively prepare for our shared regional and global security challenges.”

The admiral thanked audience members for helping keep the U.S.-Australia alliance strong.

“Our alliance matters,” Harris said. “It matters to our two great nations. It matters to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and it matters to the world -- because just as Australia and the United States stood together against tyranny and oppression in the 20th century, the world expects no less in the 21st.”