Speaking at a think tank in Australia, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), said that the United States would not allow China to block access to the South China Sea, where Beijing is mired in a range of disputes with other claimants including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
“We will not allow shared domains to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial islands in the South China Sea,” Harris said. “We will cooperate where we can but we will confront them where we must,” he continued.
“As China’s navy grows bigger and has a more global reach, they’re going to appreciate the freedom of navigation concept in other countries and other regions in the world,” he said.
The United States has emphasized the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, where Beijing has protested regular military activities by the U.S. Navy in accordance with international law.
China’s activities in the South China Sea have gained international scrutiny since early 2014, when Beijing’s construction of seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands accelerated. China currently possesses three air strips in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea — on Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef — capable of handling all military aircraft in its inventory.
Harris, in his remarks, suggested that an “increasingly assertive China” would face the choice of contributing to the rules-based international order in the Asia-Pacific or defying it.
Harris additionally addressed the U.S.-Australia alliance. His remarks were the first from a senior U.S. Navy official in the country since the election of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on November 9 — an event that sparked concerns about potential changes to U.S. alliance posture in the Asia-Pacific.
On the alliance, Harris said that “it’s based on shared respect, shared values and shared resolve… and I believe it will be the same with the incoming thirteenth administration across this alliance.”
“No one should doubt the staying power of this alliance to maintain security, prosperity, and peace,” he added.
During his remarks, Harris confirmed that he and Australia’s Air Force Chief had signed an agreement on a bilateral “force posture initiative” that will see the “greater integration of fifth generation fighter deployments to Australia.” Harris added that the two countries expect to “see significant activities in 2017.”
“So we are going to bring down some F-22s (Raptors) to work with Australia to demonstrate the airplane and some of the unique maintenance and other aspects of fifth generation airframes,” Harris continued.
Harris, as the commander of U.S. PACOM, is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Pacific Ocean region, extending into the broader Asia-Pacific region.