The nominee to become the next commander of U.S. Pacific Command told Congress today that North Korea is the most volatile and dangerous threat in the Asia-Pacific region.
North Korean Threats
Kim Jong Un is opportunistic, unpredictable and ruthless as he seeks to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally, Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said during his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And, he added, Kim is likely to take advantage of a weakened U.S. presence in the region if sequestration returns in 2016 as scheduled and forces the Navy to make cuts to its carrier strike groups.
“I believe that if there's no relief to the sequester, it will, in fact, increase risk,” the admiral noted. “It will increase risk to the lives of service men and women ... [and] it will affect the strength and the reach of our rebalance to the Pacific.”
North Korea's destabilizing efforts extend beyond the maritime realm and into cyber, he said.
“I believe that North Korea is seeking asymmetrical advantages over us and our allies in the Pacific, and cyber is just one of those methods by which they're seeking to get that advantage,” the admiral said.
China an “Enduring Challenge”
Harris, currently serving as the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, told the committee that in addition to the threats posed by North Korea's activities, “The dramatic rise of China's military, the uncertainty about how it will use its growing capabilities and its provocative actions in the region represent our most enduring challenge.”
“I believe that a strong China, of itself, a strong military in China of itself is not a bad thing, and we welcome the rise of a strong China that participates in the international arena,” he said.
Harris said that while he's concerned about China's provocative behavior in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, he wanted to acknowledge and applaud China's efforts in other areas. China assisted in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, he said, and in counter-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden region. “Their work in the search for the Malaysian airliner, MH-370, their work in supporting the Philippines during the [Haiyan] typhoon disaster last year. These are positive things,” the admiral said.
But, Harris added, China's anti-access/area-denial strategies are worthy of a hard look. The greatest advantage the U.S. has in the region, he explained, lies in its submarine fleet. While fighter aircraft are the key to “being able to get in there to do the missions,” submarines provide “indisputable leverage” over China and any other adversary in the Pacific for the foreseeable future, Harris said.
India Key to Regional Security
And India's importance to regional security shouldn't be overlooked, Harris said.
“I believe that India is a key nation in the region,” he said. “I refer to my responsibilities as a Pacific Fleet commander as covering the Indo-Asia-Pacific. I use that term intentionally, because I believe in the strategic value or the strategic balance that's offered by India.
“It's a critical country and it's an important country, and I believe an important friend to the United States,” the admiral said.
“As we continue to defend our national interests abroad, our efforts are bolstered by our teammates in the State Department and across government,” he said. “Our collective efforts amid the challenges I have mentioned underscore the importance of America remaining strong and engaged in the region.”
“American leadership does matter,” Harris said. Since the strategic rebalance was announced, he said, the U.S. has broadened its operations with Japan, deployed Marines rotationally to Australia and improved missile defense and cooperation with South Korea.
“We've also signed an important security agreement with the Philippines,” the admiral added.
“The rebalance is real and, although we all have concerns about the fiscal landscape, I believe that America has the staying power to sustain it,” Harris said.
But more can be done, he said, vowing that, if confirmed, he will “remain laser focused on deepening our regional alliances and partnerships to increase our combat agility and readiness.”
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @roulododnews)