Adm. Harris speaks at MRE conference

Military Reporters and Editors (MRE) Conference

ADM Harry B. Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command

“As prepared for delivery” on 9 October 2015

Washington D.C.

Telling a military MRE joke to the M.R.E. is like telling a lawyer joke at a lawyer convention – you’ve heard them all before. So I’ll just say that I was looking forward to some chili mac and the universal condiment – tiny Tabasco bottles. Hopefully you have some of those bottles handy to stay awake after the big lunch you just finished so I’ll try to keep my remarks short and then take a few questions.

MRE Keynote Speaker Adm. Harris

Because this is my first time ever speaking at this event and meeting many of you, I want to start by sharing some of my perspectives on how I try to contribute to your profession. And if you’ve read some of my public on-the-cuff, as well as my off-the-cuff remarks, lately you know I’ve contributed a lot!

Often, people will come up to me to thank me for my service. So I want to begin today by thanking all of you for your service to our nation.

When you’re in any high profile public position in the military, a Service Chief, say, or Combatant Commander or commander of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s easy to become cynical and view the world through an “us versus them” lens when dealing with the press corps.

In my own experience, for example, I was detailed to be the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo in 2006. Working with the press was a big part of the job and, honestly, I was a novice at it across many levels. Fortunately for me, I had a terrific Public Affairs team. But more importantly, there were some very professional reporters covering the Gitmo beat like Carol Rosenberg from the Miami Herald, Carol Williams from the L.A. Times, Jane Sutton from Reuters, and others who taught me that an adversarial relationship with the press helps no one. It’s not “us versus them” when you realize you both have jobs to do, and the desire to do them well and professionally.

While I did get some headlines such as “Gitmo has driven Harry Harris insane,” and “Admiral Harris’ comments reveal a profound disassociation from humanity” from some outlets, I felt that, overall, the reporting was well-researched and fair. Professional journalists have a strong desire to tell the truth. Carol, Carol and Jane cut me no slack in Gitmo, but they were not personally vindictive. They kept me on my toes and I respected them for it. They represent the best of your profession.

My experience at Gitmo reinforced something that I already knew – that freedom of the press ensures America remains a strong democracy. Marvin Kalb drummed that in to me when I took his “Press and Public Policy” class at the Kennedy School 24 years ago.

In my commands post-Gitmo, I’ve done my best to engage the media because I think senior military leaders have an obligation to ensure the American public knows how we’re spending their tax dollars and how we’re caring for their sons and daughters. So as I continue to engage the press while at PACOM, I’ll do my best to be as forthright as possible, while letting you know when I can’t be, and that’s usually because of classification or future operations.

With that, I’ll get on with what you invited me here to do: to provide an overview of what’s going on with our U.S. joint forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, a subject that requires at least a few minutes considering that the region encompasses 52 percent of the planet.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Pacific Command, or “PACOM” as we call it it’s the oldest and largest of America’s geographic Combatant Commands. PACOM is responsible for all U.S. military forces … from Hollywood to Bollywood … from polar bears to penguins.

PACOM is composed of almost 400,000 military and civilian personnel, about 60 percent of our naval forces, and nearly 2,500 aircraft. I report to President Obama through Secretary of Defense Carter. And I consider myself lucky to work with the world’s finest Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coastguardsmen and DoD civilians.

Within the Indo-Asia-Pacific are the world’s 3 largest economies and the 5 smallest. The region contains the most populous nation, China; the largest democracy, India; the largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia; and the smallest nation, Nauru. From a military perspective, the region has 7 of the 10 largest standing armies, 5 nations with nuclear weapons, and 5 of the 7 U.S. defense treaty allies: Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. The only other two U.S. defense treaties are the Rio pact and NATO.

Most projections place 7 out of every 10 people on Earth within the Indo-Asia-Pacific by the middle of this century. These forecasts have significant implications to the world’s food, energy, and infrastructure requirements but these projections also demonstrate a significant opportunity for our nation’s economy.

What all of these statistics should tell you is that the Indo-Asia-Pacific matters … it matters on Main Street in small towns like the one where I grew up in Tennessee and it matters on Wall Street. That’s why we’re conducting a whole-of-government rebalance to this region. Even though the world gets a vote, like ISIL and the ongoing crisis in Syria, we continue to make real progress on the rebalance and advancing our national interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

Initiated by the President almost four years ago, the rebalance is focused on four areas – political, diplomatic, security, and economic. Engagement has been the key to success during our strategic rebalance. On the political side, President Obama just hosted China’s President Xi last month. Next week, the President will engage South Korea’s President Park and later this month, Indonesia’s President Widodo visits, and those I believe merit significant press coverage.

Diplomatically, Secretary Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel, U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian, and so many others continue to engage early and often throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific. I supported Secretary Kerry and former Secretary Clinton during one of my recent Flag tours, and I developed a deep appreciation for the awesome work conducted every day by our Foreign Service teammates at the State Department, especially in our Embassies. There should be no doubt that the diplomatic component of the rebalance advances U.S. interests.

Of course, the part of our rebalance that all of you know well is the military component. The presence of our joint military forces in key locations throughout the region underpins the rules-based international order and provides opportunities to engage with other countries while being positioned to respond to crises.

As Secretary Carter recently said, America’s rebalance has always been about promoting a regional security architecture where everybody wins because peace and prosperity are maintained.

The rebalance has strengthened our treaty alliances and partnerships, increased partner capacity and cooperation, improved interoperability, and increased security capabilities in the region.

There are many success stories involved with our military rebalance across the 36 countries we engage with. I won’t spend much time on these because all of you are subject matter experts on the military. But let me specifically call out a few items.

For decades, our alliances with Japan and South Korea have been the foundation of peace and security in Northeast Asia and the cornerstone of U.S. engagement in the region. Not only do we share common values and common concerns, we face a common threat in North Korea.

I know a lot of you have questions regarding North Korea’s recent provocations. So let me reiterate that my approach to North Korea is to be ready for all outcomes from a position of strength which is one reason why the United States welcomes Japan’s ongoing efforts to play a more active role in regional and international security activities an effort reflected in new security legislation and the recently revised Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation.

I commend Japanese leaders in securing the passage of the defense legislation that will allow the United States and Japan to do even more as an alliance, both in the region and beyond.

This is a very exciting time for the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the recent steps taken by Japan show a willingness to assume a greater role in regional security. As for what specific role Japan should play globally, that’s for the people of Japan to decide.

I will personally continue to look for opportunities to expand cooperation, to include trilateral defense activities between Japan, South Korea and the U.S., which I believe will more effectively contribute to peace and stability throughout the region.

Trilateral cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and Australia is also a growing priority, as we continue to deepen our alliance with our friends down under. Part of the reason I am on the East Coast this week is to attend AUSMIN. That’s Pentagon-ese for the Australia-U.S. ministerial talks.

On Monday, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford will meet with their Australian counterparts in Boston to reaffirm our alliance and discuss opportunities for greater cooperation in the region. Australia and the U.S. share a world view that is governed by international law and norms and we cooperate on a wide range of issues. The U.S. and Australia continue to explore ways to more effectively respond to shared challenges, both regionally and around the world.

As Pacific nations, Pacific leaders and Pacific powers, the United States and Australia will continue to build on our active presence in the region. American Airmen and Marines in Darwin train with their Australian counterparts to sustain a stable security environment and regional order rooted in economic openness, respect for international law and norms, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for universal rights and freedoms.

Now, I know the elephant in the room is whether our military actions with regional allies and partners are somehow directed at China. It might be hard for skeptical editors and reporters to believe, but our rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific isn’t about China. It’s about us and what we believe as a nation and the values we hold dear. It’s in the best interests of the United States that we continue to enhance our relationships with everyone in the region, including China. While I’ve been known to be critical of China’s provocative military activities the past two years – thanks for covering that accurately – I’ve also acknowledged when China has been helpful such as counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa and the search for Malaysian Airliner M.H.-370 off Australia. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice recently said, part of our strategy is to deepen engagement with China at every level so that we can maximize cooperation on areas of mutual interest while confronting and managing our disagreements.

That’s why I continue to have personal and candid conversations with Chinese military leaders. Just last week at my headquarters in Hawaii, I hosted a Chiefs of Defense conference for military leaders from 26 nations including China. As we all explored cooperation on mutual security challenges, I made it clear that the U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere that international law allows… even as we continue to strengthen the relationships and rule of law that enabled the peaceful development of every nation in the region, including China. To my Chinese counterpart, I expressed my commitment to sustained military-to-military dialogue with them… something that I hope to continue when I visit China in early November.

America’s fundamental interests include the primacy of international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce. The history of our nation from its very beginnings is rooted in protecting these interests.

Obviously one of the topics of ongoing discussion is my continuing concern of what I call China’s “sandcastles in the sea” in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Militarization by any claimant in the area makes it harder to resolve disagreements diplomatically.

I know someone here will ask about the current speculation regarding future freedom of navigation operations – so I’ll ask you to remember my earlier statement about how forthright I can be. Let me try to save a little time by reiterating what I said during recent Congressional testimony. To reaffirm our ironclad commitment to international law, I think we must exercise freedom of navigation operations throughout the region and around the globe. Geography is destiny.

Part of my responsibilities as the PACOM commander is to give options to the President and to the Secretary. And I’m comfortable knowing those options are being considered, and we’ll execute as directed. But I can’t get in to any specifics with you, and I know you understand this.

While China rightfully gets a lot of press attention, I’d like to see more coverage on how the rebalance has set the conditions for enhancing our alliances with Thailand and the Philippines… and partnerships with nations like New Zealand… with Singapore, a great friend that hosts the rotational deployments of our littoral combat ships… with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia and with Taiwan. I fully understand my obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act and I will do all I can to meet those obligations.

I’m also excited about our burgeoning relationship with India. As the world’s two largest democracies, we are uniquely poised to help bring greater security and prosperity to the region and the rest of the world. As the U.S. rebalances west to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, India is implementing its “Act East” policy. As these two visionary initiatives coincide, I think Prime Minister Modi has it right in saying that “our destinies are linked by the currents of the Indian Ocean.”

Both of our nations have significant interests in the region and I’m doing everything I can to strengthen our partnership – a partnership that is one of our most important strategic opportunities, and a reason why I’ve made India a priority line of effort at PACOM. This past year, our militaries participated in several major exercises and 62 smaller military exchanges, including YUDH ABHYAS, a humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercise that just finished in Washington State. We look forward to participation by the Indian Air Force in exercise RED FLAG-Alaska next year.
And we are looking forward to next week’s trilateral MALABAR exercise between Indian, Japanese and U.S. maritime forces, including the aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Thanks to the 2015 U.S.-India Defense Framework, we’ve broadened cooperation on maritime security and technology. At some point in the next decade, India will launch its next generation aircraft carrier and the United States will have played a direct role in its development.

The reason why I speak about the Indo-Asia-Pacific so often is because India and other countries that border the Indian Ocean – including our staunch ally Australia – are critical to our theater strategy. The fact that Japan is part of exercise MALABAR is a great example of how the Indian Ocean, Asia and the Pacific Ocean are interconnected. We must work with these like mined-nations to safeguard freedom of navigation, to deter conflict and to ensure international law and standards are upheld.

Now, while military activities are the most visible aspects of the rebalance – due in large part to the press coverage they receive – the most important aspect of the rebalance is economic. While it’s compelling press copy to have footage of our military aircraft and ships on patrol in the South China Sea it’s difficult to get the average American excited about global economics – after all, signing a trade deal doesn’t exactly make for gripping video.

So my challenge to all of you today is to use your expertise on military issues to paint the larger picture of what U.S. forces bring to the Indo-Asia-Pacific – security, stability, and an adherence to international law which underpin economic prosperity for all nations in the region, including the U.S.

That’s why the economic aspect of the rebalance is the most important… because the foundation of our security is our economy… and the economic future of our country lies in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. That’s one reason why I believe the economic ties generated through the Trans-Pacific-Partnership agreement will also enhance security and stability in a region that covers half the Earth.

Now, as a country boy from Tennessee, the fiscal challenges of a trade imbalance between moonshine and tobacco wasn’t something taught in the rural schoolhouses I attended.

So I don’t pretend to be an economist. I’ll simply reiterate what Secretary Carter recently said “TPP will help reduce regional instability and cement American influence and leadership in this fast-growing region of the world.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been speaking for a while, which always reminds me that the greatest speech ever given was the 2-minute Gettysburg address by President Lincoln. And then I’m reminded that Julius Caesar gave one of the longest speeches in recorded history and his friends killed him.

So as I see some of you searching for tabasco bottles, I think I’ll stop there so that I can take a few questions before I have to head on to my next meeting. Thank you.

The admiral took questions from MRE conference attendees.