China has reacted with surprising restraint to the appointment of tough naval commander Admiral Harry Harris as the next US ambassador to Australia.
The appointment is the latest signal that Washington plans a tougher tack to regional security, including in the contested South China Sea.
In August, China’s nationalistic Global Times newspaper labelled Harris the “most prejudiced” American military leader since World War II, and accused him of seeking publicity and “sowing discord” with his hawkish comments.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang was more guarded after Harris’ appointment, saying only that that Beijing hoped “policies adopted by relevant countries and their relations could be conducive to safeguard and promote peace, stability, development and prosperity in the region.”
The admiral has been a constant thorn in China’s side as chief of the US Pacific Command since 2014, overseeing a force of 375,000 personnel, 200 ships and more than 1,000 aircraft. Before that he was commander of the US Pacific Fleet and assisted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A forceful defender of freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea, Harris scathingly criticized China in 2005 for building a “Great Wall of Sand” in the maritime passage — a reference to defensive positions China has constructed on artificial islands.
Most of the islands are in territory that is also claimed by other Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.
Harris is also a strong supporter of the Pentagon’s alliance with Australia. The choice of the military heavyweight as ambassador is undoubtedly intends to send a message to both Beijing and Canberra as US President Donald Trump rolls out the newly-unveiled US National Defense Strategy.
Acknowledging that “inter-state strategic competition” is now the dominant issue in US national security, the document lists China ahead of Russia and North Korea as countries of concern. China is described as “a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.”
Australia’s role in advancing US interests in the region is also written in stone, but Trump has sent mixed messages to Canberra, not least by waiting 16 months to fill the ambassadorial post.
Trump’s introductory phone call to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 was excruciatingly bad, with Trump slamming a deal agreed to by his predecessor Barack Obama for the US to resettle 1,250 asylum seekers from Australia’s offshore detention centers.
“I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal, that I would have never made,” Mr Trump said. “It is an embarrassment to the United States of America and you can say it just the way I said it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day,” he added. He finally reluctantly agreed.
The relationship is much stronger at a security level, with Australia viewed by the US as the main Pacific portal in the Five Eyes intelligence network, an information-sharing arrangement that also involves the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.
Australia’s biggest contribution to the intelligence alliance is the four listening posts it maintains as part of Keyscore, a program run by the US National Security Agency that searches and analyzes vast amounts of internet data.
Pine Gap satellite station, operated jointly by the US and the Australian Signals Directorate in the Northern Territory, is regarded as the most important American military facility outside of the US itself.
Established in the 1960s, the ground control station collects and analyzes data from signals intelligence satellites operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency. China and North Korea are known to be among the Asian nations that it monitors.
Pine Gap also provides early warning of ballistic missile launches, targets nuclear weapons, provides battlefield intelligence data for US forces fighting in countries like Afghanistan, plays a critical role in supporting US and Japanese missile defenses, aids in arms control verification, and contributes targeting data for US drone attacks, according to the Nautilus Institute, a think tank.
Australia has hosted US Marines at a Darwin base on a rotational basis since 2011 under the former Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy that would have been partly overseen by Harris. There are reports the rotation, now set at 1,250 personnel, might rise in March under an escalation that could see Marine Corps Expeditionary Units being sent to East Asia.
Some commentators in China are speculating that the selection of Harris, whose mother was Japanese and who was born in that country, might foreshadow a tripartite alliance between the US, Japan and Australia that would feed on Beijing’s traditional fears of encirclement.
“Being a hawkish Japanese-American admiral, his appointment to the ambassador’s position will possibly play a crucial role in strengthening military cooperation among the US, Australia and Japan,” Zhou Fangyin, a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies, wrote in the Global Times.
“It is likely that he will encourage Australia to enhance its military strength, consolidate its defense collaboration with the US and adopt a tougher policy of counterbalancing China.”
China’s state news agency Xinhua added: “Some may say an over-emphasis on the Japanese background about an American general is a bit unkind. But to understand the Americans’ sudden upgraded offensive in the South China Sea, it is simply impossible to ignore Admiral Harris’s blood, background, political inclination and values.”
India, another of China’s regional rivals, is also being courted by Washington. Last month Harris met with Indian, Japanese and Australian counterparts in New Delhi to discuss measures to counter China’s increasing military assertiveness, which he described as a “disruptive transitional force.”
For now, India is unlikely to risk antagonizing Beijing by joining a collective naval response, but it has stepped up training exercises with both the US and Australia. Japan, which has signed new defense treaties with the same two countries, will mostly capitalize on their diplomatic muscle.
Harris’ nomination as ambassador still has to be confirmed by the US Congress, but he has strong backing from both sides of the political aisle. With Australia also supportive, Harris should take up the post by mid-year.