National Security

Commander Outlines Trump’s Asia-Pacific Challenges

Adm. Harris prepares to serve Trump amid provocations from China, North Korea

Adm. Harry Harris walks past a photograph of Chinese island-building in the South China Sea / AP

The head of U.S. Pacific Command underscored his willingness to serve Donald Trump's administration in order to tackle mounting security challenges posed by China and North Korea.

Adm. Harry Harris said Tuesday that the U.S. military will continue its "steadfast commitment" to allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region during the presidential transition. Harris also swatted away the characterization of President Obama as a "lame duck" commander in chief.

"As we enter into this transition period, we don't have a lame-duck commander in chief or a lame duck national command authority. I will continue to serve President Obama until January 20, at which point I will serve President Trump," Harris said at an event in Washington, D.C., hosted by Defense One. "He will be my only commander in chief at that point. Until then, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on potential policy initiatives of the next administration or certainly for me to wade into politics."

"That said, I have no doubt that we will continue our steadfast commitment to our allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific," Harris continued. "The need for and the value of American engagement in the Indo-Asia-Pacific is convincing, and it is proven over decades as part of the long history of the U.S. commitment to the region."

Experts worry that potential adversaries, including China and Russia, will exploit the presidential transition period with aggressive actions. Trump's team is currently carrying out the transition, filling top jobs and crafting policies to prepare for his arrival in Washington.

Harris assumed leadership of Pacific Command in May 2015 after commanding the Pacific Fleet. The admiral also worked as a senior military adviser from the Defense Department to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in the race for the White House last week.

Harris outlined a number of challenges facing the next administration during his remarks on Tuesday, spotlighting North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, China's island-building in the South China Sea, and the emergence of ISIS in Southeast Asia.

"I remain concerned about North Korea—it's weapons and nuclear testing—Chinese assertiveness in the region, and the potential for the cancer known as ISIS to spread to the region," Harris said, while reiterating the United States's commitment to promoting security and rules-based order in the region.

Trump will assume office and immediately confront a number of defense and foreign policy challenges, including the U.S.-led mission against ISIS, the civil war in Syria, and the ongoing American involvement in Afghanistan. The president-elect has already been in touch with a number of foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Trump is expected to phone Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday.

Harris spoke on Tuesday about current and emerging challenges in the Asia-Pacific that demand American commitment.

Harris said that China is "seeking hegemony in East Asia," citing its construction on seven artificial island "bases" in the South China Sea as well as its aggressive actions in the East China Sea. He noted that Beijing has invested in military modernization by rolling out the new J-20 stealth fighter jet, declaring its aircraft carrier operational, and building its first overseas military outpost in the east African nation of Djibouti.

Harris stressed the need for continued freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to preserve freedom of movement through international waters and airspace. At the same time, he cheered the military relationship between the United States and China, pointing to disaster management drills the two countries are undertaking in southwest China this week.

When asked whether he believes North Korea possesses the capability to target the United States with nuclear weapons—namely, intercontinental ballistic missiles and miniaturized nuclear weapons to arm them—Harris said that he must "assume" that it does.

"I believe as a military commander that I have to assume that they have it. I believe it when Kim Jong Un expresses his intent, so I believe him. And then I have to be ready for the eventuality that they either have it or they're going to have it," Harris said. "As a military commander, I don't have the luxury of distinguishing between the two. So I assume the worst case and prepare for it."

The admiral pointed to the U.S. missile defense system THAAD as a key deterrent in the region to protect Japan, South Korea, and U.S. interests from Pyongyang's threats. Harris anticipates that the missile defenses will be installed in Korea sometime next year, likely seven to 10 months from now.

The admiral underscored the strong partnership between the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other allies in the region. He also spoke optimistically about U.S. military cooperation with the Philippines, despite comments by President Rodrigo Duterte signaling a break with Washington.

Harris said he has not seen a decline in relations or military cooperation with the Philippines, though Duterte has called for the departure of U.S. special operations forces from the southern Philippines and an end to joint military exercises in the region. While Duterte walked back his pronouncements, they nevertheless raised alarm over the fate of relations between the two allies.

Harris said that the only change in military relations between the United States and the Philippines was the delay of mutual defense board meetings from October to November. Harris will travel to Manila to attend the bilateral meetings this weekend.

"What I have seen is some statements that are, to be frank, concerning to me coming from the new president there," Harris said. "But, despite what he has said, there has been no change in anything with the Philippines."

"We haven't been asked to remove U.S. forces from the Philippines, including special operations forces in Mindanao," he said.