One of America’s top military figures has been made the next U.S. ambassador to Australia at a time of growing concern over China’s sway in the Asia-Pacific region.
The White House made an announcement on February 9 that Admiral Harry Harris – currently the 24th commander of U.S. Pacific Command – would be taking the role in the Australian capital of Canberra, a “great” move casually welcomed by Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on twitter.
“Look forward to seeing you in Canberra, Harry!” Turnbull tweeted.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) February 10, 2018
The White House described Harris as “a highly decorated, combat proven Naval officer with extensive knowledge, leadership and geo-political expertise in the Indo-Pacific region.
“During his 39-year career, he served in every geographic combatant command and has held seven command assignments, including the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Sixth Fleet.”
As commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Harris has a history of plain speaking over Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute in late 2016, he said Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea were among the security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beijing, he said, has to make a choice.
“They can choose to disregard the rules-based international order or they can contribute to it as responsible stakeholders. The U.S. obviously prefers that they chose to respond responsibly,” Harris said.
— US Embassy Canberra (@USAembassyinOZ) February 10, 2018
At the heart of the issue is that Beijing claims most of the South China Sea as its own. That’s a 1.4-million-square-mile chunk of open ocean where some $5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes through annually.
Around 3,000 acres of new territory has been built on seven reefs.
“No one, including me, wants conflict,” Harris said during his speech at the Lowy Institute.
“I’ve been loud and clear that I prefer cooperation so we can collectively address our shared security challenges, but I have also been loud and clear that we will not allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally,” he said.
“No matter how many bases are built on artificial features on the South China Sea. I say this often but it is worth repeating we will cooperate where we can but we will be ready to confront where we must.”
Dougal Robinson, a researcher at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said that Harris is best known for his tough views on China.
“He’s been labelled Beijing’s least favorite American, having described China as ‘provocative and expansionist,’ and coined the term ‘Great Wall of Sand’ to illustrate its island-building in the South China Sea,” Robinson wrote in an analysis for United States Studies Centre.
“China will already have made its displeasure about Harris’ candidacy known in the halls of Australia’s parliament,” he wrote.
“As ambassador, Harris will face a range of challenges for which he is well prepared. His first challenge will be to navigate Australia’s febrile China debate,” he wrote.
“As ambassador, every one of Harris’s China-related utterances will attract media scrutiny.
“Harris has shown considerable awareness of Australian political sensitivities in his current role, having remained carefully neutral on questions of Australian foreign policy, particularly over potential Australian freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.”
In April last year, Beijing asked U.S. President Donald Trump to sack Harris from the top navy post, a demand that was spurned.
The selection of Harris as ambassador shows that the U.S. places a priority on Australia, said Andrew Shearer, a former Australian national security adviser.
Shearer described Harris as being down to earth and well liked by Australians.
He added that Harris shouldn’t be considered hardline when it comes to China.
“What China’s done in the sense of militarizing those features in the South China Sea is pretty extraordinary and concerning, and I think it was part of his job as Pacific commander to call it as he saw it,” Shearer told the ABC.
“The idea that he’s a bull in a China shop, so to speak, is well wide of the mark,” he said.
— M. Taylor Fravel (@fravel) February 5, 2018
Australia shares American concerns over Beijing’s actions in the disputed water way, a difficult situation for Canberra given that the Chinese are the Australian’s number one trading partner.
Over the past few years, there have been growing concerns in Canberra over reports of Chinese Communist Party interference in Australian affairs — in its economy, society, and political spheres.
Last month, sources told 9 NEWS that China topped Australia’s domestic spy agency’s list on a secret country-by-country counter-intelligence index as the most extreme threat to the country’s national security.