Pacific Command: China Seeking to Control South China Sea

Harris calls for buildup of U.S. missiles, weapons in region
Adm. Harry Harris / AP

Adm. Harry Harris / AP

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China has completed its land reclamation in the South China Sea and is now putting military facilities on the disputed islands, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command warned Congress on Tuesday.

“I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia. Simple as that,” Adm. Harry Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Harris said tensions with China are escalating as Beijing moves ahead with military deployments on new islands in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which some $5.3 trillion in global trade passes annually.

Island building was completed in July, Harris said, and now the Chinese are in the process of militarization, something China’s leader Xi Jinping said in September would not take place.

“China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea and you’d have to believe in the flat Earth to think otherwise,” Harris said. “China’s surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, the new radars on the Cuarteron Reef, the 10,000-foot runway on Subi Reef over here and on Fiery Cross Reef and other places, these are actions that are changing in my opinion the operational landscape in the South China Sea.”

As a response, Harris called for expanding U.S. warship patrols to include international naval forces in the sea to counter the Chinese encroachment.

“We should continue to exercise our rights on the high seas and in the airspace above it,” he said. “And we should encourage our friends, partners and allies to do the same,” Harris said.

China also has been sailing warships and flying military aircraft near Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Harris said the United States has said it would defend those islands, which China claims, as “we would defend Tokyo” under a U.S.-Japan defense treaty.

Separately, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, testified at the hearing that the threat from North Korea is increasing and efforts by China to rein in the rogue state’s nuclear and missile programs have failed.

China has “underestimated the danger of [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] at this point and he is clearly confident in his ability to provoke and control the situation,” Scaparrotti said. “I would encourage them to reconsider that at this time but obviously they still, despite these recent events, appear to be reluctant to take some serious steps which they certainly could.”

China provides most of North Korea’s fuel oil but fears instability on its border if it pressures the Kim regime, the four-star general said.

Scaparrotti said tensions in Korea have never been higher. “If deterrence fails, full-scale conflict in Korea would more closely parallel the high intensity combat of the Korean War than the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, adding that any conflict will significantly increase the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Harris said North Korea has nuclear weapons, but also that he is not convinced the underground nuclear test carried out in January involved a new and larger hydrogen bomb.

“I think they’ve posed a very distinct and real threat, not only to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula but globally,” Harris said of the North Koreans.

“They’re on a quest for nuclear weapons and a means to militarize them and the means to deliver them intercontinentally; they pose a real threat to Hawaii and to the West Coast of the mainland United States and soon to the entire U.S.”

Scaparrotti said the flight test Feb. 7 was a Taepodong-2 missile, not a space launch as Pyongyang claims.

North Korea is close to deploying new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles and developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

On China, Harris warned that its long-range missiles threaten U.S. ships and forces in the Pacific and urged building new missiles and weapons to counter them.

“Today, China is ‘out-sticking’ U.S. air and maritime forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region in terms of ranges of anti-ship weapons,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “I need increased lethality, specifically ships and aircraft equipped with faster, more lethal, and more survivable weapons systems. We must have longer range offensive weapons on every platform.”

The threat of weapons designed to push U.S. forces out of the region is “significant” and “pacing the threat is not an option in my playbook,” Harris said.

“We must outpace the competition which requires continued investment in development and deployment of the latest technology to USPACOM,” he said, using the acronym for the U.S. Pacific Command.

Harris said the Pacific Command has a shortage of weapons. “Critical munitions shortfalls are a top priority and concern,” he said.

The commander wants additional and improved weapons to deter and defeat aggression. Pacific forces need long-range and standoff strike weapons, longer-range anti-ship weapons, advanced air-to-air munitions, theater ballistic and cruise missile defenses, and cluster bombs.

“When I started flying P-3s back in the late ‘70s, we had the Harpoon missile,” Harris said. “And that’s the same missile we have today, and we need to have an increased lethality and reach and speed.”

China has developed supersonic anti-ship missiles and land-based weapons that can range further, hit harder and fly faster than the Harpoon, he said, urging the rapid deployment of a new long-range anti-ship missile.

Funding for the advanced missiles and additional F-35 fighters was included in the pending defense budget for fiscal year 2017.

Ballistic and cruise missile defense enhancements are needed to protect the U.S. homeland and key regional sites, Harris said.

Beneath the water, Harris called for modernizing and improving U.S. torpedoes and naval mines to maintain submarine warfare advantages.

He added that additional submarines are needed in the Pacific.

“My requirement for submarines is not met but that’s our principle asymmetric advantage over China and any other adversary, and I think we have kept after it,” Harris said.

A new U.S. ballistic missile submarine and long-range strike bomber, which is under development, also are needed for Asia, he said.

The Chinese military threat is not limited to conventional forces. It includes Beijing’s nuclear buildup, which includes four nuclear missile equipped Jin-class submarines now deployed that can strike the United States, Harris said.

“These are submarines that we have to, we must keep them at risk, whenever they are underway and on patrol,” he said.

Both Scaparrotti and Harris said they favored the deployment of advanced U.S. missile defenses in South Korea, despite Chinese opposition.

Harris criticized the Chinese for opposing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as THAAD, that was requested by Scaparrotti in 2014 but held up by the South Koreans because of Chinese opposition.

“I find it preposterous that China would try to wedge itself between South Korea and the United States for a missile defense system designed to defend Americans and Koreans on the peninsula,” Harris said.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said the Obama administration strategy toward Asia has not stopped China from bullying regional neighbors or militarizing the South China Sea through deployment of HQ-9 anti-aircraft missiles and a new radar.

“Despite U.S. efforts to rebalance to the Asia Pacific, U.S. policy has failed to adapt to the scale and velocity of the challenge we face,” McCain said.

China’s rapid military buildup and expansion is making it more difficult for the United States to defend allies from military aggression.nav“Simply put, the administration’s policy has failed,” the senator said.

“Beijing has been willing to accept a high level of risk to achieve its strategic goals. Meanwhile, the White House’s risk aversion has resulted in an indecisive and inadequate policy that has confused and alarmed our regional allies and partners.”

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