WASHINGTON, March 15, 2018 —
The United States faces the most “complex and volatile” security environment in the Indo-Pacific region in recent memory, with North Korea the top threat, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command said today.
In a Senate Armed Services Committee fiscal year 2019 budget hearing, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. outlined concerns about North Korea, China and Russia, as well as the threat from violent extremists.
America’s security and economic prosperity, the admiral said, are “indelibly linked to this critical region, which remains at a precarious crossroad where tangible opportunity meets significant challenge.”
A principal problem is overcoming the perception that the United States is a declining or disinterested power in the region, he said.
“A fully resourced defense budget leading in the long-term budget stability will send a strong signal to our allies and partners and all potential adversaries that the U.S. is fully committed to preserving a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific,” Harris said.
Harris thanked lawmakers for the bipartisan efforts to raise the budget caps for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
“I and many others have regularly highlighted the negative impacts of sequestration in the Budget Control Act leveled against the military,” he said adding, “so I would ask Congress to make these bipartisan measures permanent and end sequestration for good.”
Harris, who has been nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Australia, said it was his honor to appear before the committee for perhaps the last time as Pacom’s chief. It is his privilege, he said, to represent the 375,000 military and civilian personnel who serve with him in the largest and most diverse geographic U.S. combatant command.
North Korea ‘Shadow Looms’ Over Homeland
“North Korea remains our most urgent security threat in the region,” Harris said, noting a “rapid and comprehensive improvement” in North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, despite international condemnation and U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Harris said he is “encouraged” by recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, including the possibility of a summit between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The command will continue to fully support Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and “be ready to respond with our allies and partners to the full range of contingency scenarios,” he said.
The admiral listed activities of concern by the North: the detonation of its largest nuclear device, first ever launches of two different intercontinental ballistic missiles, and six launches of an intermediate range ballistic missile.
Pyongyang, he said, “emphatically states” all those weapons would target the United States, including Guam.
“The Republic of Korea and Japan have been living under the shadow of North Korea’s threats for years — now that shadow looms over the American homeland,” he stated.
U.S. Must Keep Pace with China
Harris described China’s activities in the East and South China Seas as “coordinated, methodical and strategic.” China is using its military and economic power to erode the free and open international order, he said. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea continues unabated, he said.
“China is leveraging military modernization influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific to their advantage,” he said.
The admiral said China’s “impressive military buildup could soon challenge the United States across almost every domain.” China’s advancements, he said, include significant improvements in missile systems, developing 5th generation fighter aircraft capabilities and increasing the size and capability of the Chinese navy.
He noted Chinese investments in the next wave of military technologies, including hypersonic missiles, advanced space and cyber capabilities, and artificial intelligence.
“If the U.S. does not keep pace, Pacom will struggle to compete with the People’s Liberation Army on future battlefields,” he said.
China’s intent is “crystal clear and we ignore it at our peril,” he said, noting that country’s stated ambitions to be the global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.
Increased Russian Activities in Region
Russian operations and engagements throughout the Indo-Pacific continue to rise, both to advance strategic interests and undermine the U.S., Harris explained.
“Russia intends to impose additional costs on the U.S. whenever and wherever possible, playing the role of spoiler, especially with respect to North Korea,” Harris said. “Russia also sees economic opportunities to not only build markets for energy exports, but to also to build or in some cases rebuild arm sales relationships in the region.”
He pointed out Russian efforts to build presence and influence in the High North, explaining Russia has more bases north of the Arctic Circle than all other countries combined and is building additional ones with distinctly military capabilities.
Capacity Building to Fight Extremists
Harris noted with concern violent extremists in South and Southeast Asia, saying localized threats can quickly transform into international causes. “An early effective response is vital to control the fight and own the narrative,” he said.
However, counterterrorism operations are complex, and most regional forces are poorly equipped for such fights, he said. That is why the U.S. will remain focused on enabling regional forces and building capacity, Harris explained.
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)