WASHINGTON — "The rise of China is not a bad thing, but it's how that power is used that is a concern to me," the top US military officer in the Pacific said Wednesday.
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, told a Washington audience that China's intentions "remain clouded." He highlighted the South China Sea land-reclamation projects that threaten to alter the balance of power in the region.
"There are five countries involved in land-reclamation projects in the last 40 years" in the South China Sea, Harris told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "and we have called on all of them to stop."
China's efforts, he pointed out, "far outstrip all the others." Harris put up a chart showing that together, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have reclaimed 215 acres of land over the past 40 years, while China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres in the past 18 months.
"If they are to build out all their reef projects, they will control all of the South China Sea militarily with the exception of the US," Harris warned.
Harris visited China in early November, days after the US destroyer Lassen conducted a freedom of navigation passage near Subi Reef, now a reclaimed island built by the Chinese in the South China Sea. Harris described his meetings with top Chinese naval and military leaders as "a pretty interesting exchange."
"We talked about opportunities to decrease tensions between US and Chinese forces in the region," Harris said, but noted "they are pretty rigid in their view of the ownership of islands in the South China Sea and the resources that can be gained from them. I made clear my personal view that those islands do not belong to China, and that their actions in the region are increasing tensions and are provocative."
Altogether, he said, "they act in ways I think a great power should not."
But, Harris said, "China and their military have done good things globally." As examples, Harris cited China's nearly two dozen naval anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, the evacuation of foreign nationals from Yemen, assistance in removing chemical weapons from Syria, the cruises of the hospital ship Peace Ark, and providing the largest naval contingent in the hunt for a missing Malaysian airliner.
"These are positive things, indicative of what any of us would expect from a great power," Harris observed.
Despite the tensions, Harris noted that during his trip to China "they were terrific hosts and they treated me with utmost respect."
Speaking of other countries in the region, Harris noted that most US relationships were bilateral in nature.
"But I'm an advocate of changing the relationships to multilateral. I think we're stronger together," Harris declared. He cited trilateral relationships between Japan, the Republic of Korea and the US; India, Japan and the US; and Australia, Japan and the US as examples of wider cooperation.
Improved relations with India has been a major goal of Pacific Command under Harris. "I've made improving our military-to-military relationship with India a formal part of my time at PACOM," he said. "I see nothing but optimism and excitement in our mil-to-mil relationship with India."
To highlight the importance of the country and the Indian Ocean, Harris noted he expanded the discussion of the Pacific region to refer to the Indo-Pacific region. "I try and use that term to describe the region at all times," he said.
One country seeing a lessening of contacts is Thailand, where a military coup in 2014 has resulted in widespread human rights repression.
"I think we are leveraging our mil-to-mil with Thailand today," Harris said in response to a question from the audience.
"We have some big disagreements with Thailand over important, fundamental issues. I think we need to maintain that position and explain to our Thai allies – and they are our allies in Asia – our opposition, and encourage them to move back to democracy and a better place than we're in now."