China’s military provocation in the Pacific an accident waiting to happen
by GREG SHERIDAN
Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, has a reputation as a plain-spoken American military leader. In a long discussion with The Weekend Australian in his Hawaiian office this week, Harris amply fulfilled this high accolade.
To render some of the take-outs in their starkest form: Harris thinks China is engaging in destabilising and provocative conduct at sea. He is worried that this could lead to an incident which escalates dangerously. He thinks the American navy can defeat any Chinese missile threat. He is delighted at the intensified US-Australia military co-operation. He thinks the idea of a Japanese submarine with an American combat system, which the Australian government is considering as its Collins Class replacement, sounds great. And he thinks the US Navy needs to be a force of about 300 ships — it’s just below that now — and, despite budget cuts, the US will continue to fund the navy at that strength.
But it’s unfair to provide these bold statements out of context. Harris is an immensely sophisticated military leader. He has all the military campaign experience you would expect, having commanded the US seventh fleet in the Mediterranean, commanded naval forces in NATO and taken part in key US operations in the Middle East.
But like many at the top of the US military, he is also a four-star intellectual, with graduate degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Georgetown universities. The son of a US sailor father and a Japanese mother, he holds the highest rank any Japanese American has held in the US Navy.
So his tough-minded bottom line judgments deserve to be rendered with some of the nuance and balance he frames for them.
He approaches China, for example, through the experience of the Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercises which the US has just concluded.
“I thought it was terrific,” he says. Some 22 countries participated with a further six observers. The exercise involved 50 ships, six submarines, 200 aircraft and some 25,000 service personnel.
The exercise also saw Australians in a lot of command positions: “More so than for any other RIMPAC, we put our partner nation leaders in key leadership roles. The deputy commander for the whole thing was Rear Admiral Simon Cullen from the Royal Australian Navy.”
Beyond Cullen, the RAAF’s Air Commodore Chris Westwood led the Combined Air Forces component and Commodore Peter Leavey was commander of the Expeditionary Strike Group.
But the most remarkable aspect of this year’s RIMPAC was China’s participation. In Harris’s view this participation showed both the good and the bad of the Chinese military.
“China was a full participant,” Harris says, “they sent their best ships, a frigate, a destroyer, a hospital ship. But here is the Chinese conundrum. They also brought with them an AGI spy ship.”
An AGI is an auxiliary general intelligence ship. Harris says the Chinese did not tell the Americans they were bringing it, though of course the Americans tracked it across the Pacific.
“The AGI operated in our exclusive economic zone but stayed outside our territorial waters, which accords with international law. I don’t have any issue with the AGI being there, nor with China’s right to have it there. My only issue is that it seems odd that they would bring an intelligence collector when we have invited them to participate and they have accepted our invitation.”
In other words it is slightly bizarre, though Harris of course doesn’t use that word, to spy on an exercise which you are taking part in yourself as an invited participant.
And their motive?
“You’d have to ask the Chinese why they brought the AGI. I don’t know why they did. I’d encourage you to ask them straight out — they might tell you.”
Harris says the Chinese performed well in their tasks in the RIMPAC exercise: “They’re not Australia, but they’re not beginners either.”
But in Harris’s view the Chinese are provocative and dangerous in their behaviour in the Pacific, although he balances this by acknowledging the good and positive things they do as well.
Harris doesn’t mince words: “China is responsible, in my opinion, for increasing tensions in the South China Sea. They are provocative in some of their actions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It concerns me.”
At the same time, he says, “we see China doing great things for the common good, like when they provided escort and security for the ships that carried chemical weapons out of Syria. They are involved in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. They were involved in the search for (missing Malaysia Airlines) MH 370. They sent their hospital ship to The Philippines (for disaster relief work).”
But Harris is deeply concerned about the trend of Chinese military behaviour in the Pacific. Given the gravity of Harris’s position, and that he would be among the best informed three or four people on the planet about this subject, this is a concern which should command the deepest attention.
US military commanders are particularly concerned at incidents where Chinese vessels and aircraft harass US, Japanese or other Asian planes and ships, buzz them in the air, sail across their path, try to intimidate them into changing course. I ask Harris whether the scale and nature of these incidents is steady, improving or getting worse.
“Just in the nine months I’ve been here (as Commander of the Pacific Fleet) I think it’s increasing.”
Harris is explicit here, provocative incidents in the air and on the sea, initiated by Chinese vessels or planes, are both getting worse.
Why does he think Beijing is doing this?
“In my view they have a maritime sovereignty campaign where they want to take control of the areas of the South China Sea and the East China Sea that they view as theirs.
“I had a good interaction with the Chinese at the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue a few months ago. They view this as their right. They view the Western powers — Australia, the US and so on — they view us as the source of tension in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and that if we were gone and it were all left to China, all would be calm.
“That’s ridiculous in my view. It’s because of their actions I think that our relationships with Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, The Philippines have improved. Their (China’s) actions are making it harder for them to realise their aspirations. I think the facts speak for themselves.”
Harris thinks this combination contains real dangers, not of intentional armed conflict but of some terrible accident leading to escalation: “The danger is in that accidental interaction that results in a loss of equipment or life on the high seas or in the air. I don’t think there would be an intentional attack on a US ship, for example. But I think it’s quite possible you might find an over zealous young captain on a small combatant or fishing boat that might find himself in an extreme situation at sea.
“Accidents happen. Unfortunately today because the tensions are so high, especially in the East China Sea, I worry about an incident at sea that could result in a loss of life and then escalate into something much bigger than the situation would normally warrant.”
Harris emphasises that the US makes a massive effort to consult Beijing and have the broadest and deepest dialogue possible with its leaders, both civilian and military. RIMPAC is just one part of that. But so far, while the dialogue has certainly had positive results, the provocative behaviour continues,
I ask Harris about a longer term Chinese challenge to the American naval presence in the Pacific, and that is the development by Beijing of ballistic anti-ship missiles which can hit US aircraft carriers at a range beyond that of the fighter aircraft on those carriers.
Some analysts argue that this is a game changer, which could even render aircraft carriers, the chief instrument of US military power in the Pacific, obsolete. This would reprise the experience of giant battle ships, which despite their fire power became obsolete because they could too easily be hit and destroyed.
Harris rejects this line of analysis absolutely: “I guess you’d have to ask the Chinese why they are building so many aircraft carriers of their own. If they think them so vulnerable, why would they want to have more of them? Finding an aircraft carrier at sea when it doesn’t want to be found is a very hard proposition, very complicated.
“We are very well aware of the capabilities that China has and is trying to develop and I’m very confident we would be able to carry out any mission that we have to.”
Harris says he can’t tell me of the nature of US anti-missile technology, but: “We work on it every day. I’m confident of our ability to defeat any Chinese missile threat and to be able to do whatever we need to do.”
Harris says he is deeply engaged in the development of the US air sea battle plan, which is an organisational concept designed to defeat an enemy that tries to implement what the boffins call anti-access and area denial warfare, that is, simply to make it too dangerous for US carriers to operate near its coast.
Although the air sea battle concept is notionally not directed at any one nation there is really only one nation that is implementing such policies directed at the US on a big scale and that is China.
Harris believes the US needs a navy of about 300 ships and, despite sequestration, the funding cuts mandated in a deal between congress and the Obama administration, he believes the US will always fund the navy at that level
He is a huge enthusiast for the continued US-Australia defence integration and believes momentum for it is continuing: “The momentum for integration and increased inter-operability is accelerating and I think it’s good for both countries.
I ask him about the widely discussed idea of Australia buying Japanese conventional submarines and integrating US combat systems into them.
His response? “Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
I ask him about proposals for eventually home porting one or more US ships in Perth and it is perhaps the only subject I raise on which he declines to offer an opinion: “I’m going to stay away from home porting because that’s a policy decision.”
The US Navy has been central to Australian security for well over 100 years, at least since the Spanish American war at the end of the 19th century transformed the US into a great Pacific power and a great naval power. In nine months in his new job, Harris has visited Australia three times. There are Australians all over the US Pacific forces headquarters in Hawaii. Indeed the deputy commander of the US Army in the Pacific is an Australian, General Ric Burr.
Harris is not looking for a conflict with anybody. His job is keeping the peace. But the message he projects is one of American strength and commitment. In the Pacific, that has always meant the American navy.