Complex situations in the Asia-Pacific region have forced the United States to both rely on China as a partner in deescalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and admonish as an aggressor, with the U.S. vowing to push back with upcoming Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea and pushing other countries to do the same, U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris told lawmakers today.
Harris called China “aggressive” and said the country does not “seem to respect the international agreements they’ve signed.” Although last year a Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal rejected China’s claim to the “nine-dash line” – a territorial claim that encompasses most of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands – “despite being a signatory to the convention, China ignored this legally binding peaceful arbitration. In fact, China continues its methodical strategy to control the South China Sea.”
Not only is China building up artificial islands, it is also militarizing them despite previous assurances it wouldn’t do so. These islands can now support long-range missiles, aircraft hangars, radar towers and barracks for troops, the PACOM commander said, adding “China’s militarization of the South China Sea is real.”
The U.S. does not officially take sides in territorial disputes, but Harris said the U.S. military would be taking steps to push back against Chinese actions in the South China Sea and would be urging other regional partners to do the same.
On U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations, Harris said “I think we’ll be doing some soon.”
On South China Sea neighbors such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, Harris said “I think we need to encourage them to stand up to China and we need to backstop them where we can, especially with countries we’re allied with.”
Despite this tension with China, dealing with North Korea will require U.S. cooperation with Beijing. Harris said North Korea’s ongoing missile tests and nuclear tests are an urgent international threat, noting “this week North Korea threatened Australia with a nuclear strike, a powerful reminder to the entire international community that North Korea’s missiles point in every direction.”
“With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a preemptive nuclear strike capability against American cities,” Harris said.
“Defending our homeland is my top priority, so I must assume that Kim Jong Un’s nuclear claims are true – I know his aspirations certainly are.”
Due to the urgent nature of the North Korean problem, “that’s why we continue to call on China to exert its considerable economic influence to stop Pyongyang’s unprecedented weapons testing. While recent actions by Beijing are encouraging and welcome, the fact remains that China is as responsible for where North Korea is today as North Korea itself.”
Harris added that the international community needed a range of credible military and diplomatic solutions, but he made clear that “we want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees.”