WASHINGTON — The US will continue to conduct Freedom of Navigation exercises near disputed lands claimed by China in the South China Sea, and will look to do those exercises in new ways going forward, the head of US Pacific Command said Thursday.
"I think we need to, and we must, continue to exercise our rights of freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace, and encourage others — encourage that like-minded network of nations to do the same," Harris told press at the Pentagon, before adding that he would like to see the "complexity" of those operations go up as well.
"With regard to complexity, I think there are many things we could do in terms of increasing the complexity of these operations, such as picking other formations to go through, to go near, and the like," he said. "We can continue to increase that complexity and level of operation, in my opinion."
Harris also defended the importance of the exercises, which some on the Hill have said are not doing enough to stop China from militarizing the island chains around the South China Sea.
"I think the impact of these operations are seen in China's public statements after the operations themselves, and the impact is felt in the region as we receive many expressions of support from the countries in the region," Harris said. "So I'll leave it at that for the impact."
However, he acknowledged that so far, the exercises have not halted the expansion of Chinese assets in the region. In fact, since the start of the first exercise last year, China has continued to militarize the island chains it claims, including recently placing surface-to-air missile batteries and jet fighters on Woody Island.
If left unchecked, Harris said, China will "rise to the level of having operation control, tactical control of the waterways and airways in the South China Sea…short of war with the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea, if they continue to outfit the bases that they've reclaimed there."
He also preemptively pushed China not to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea as "destabilizing and provocative."
"We would ignore it just as we've ignored the ADIZ that they put in place in the East China Sea," Harris said. "Let's give China a chance here and see if they'll opt for a more stabilizing, less tense situation or whether they'll opt to be a provocative destabilizing influence in the region."
THAAD Concerns 'Preposterous'
Each THAAD unit consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 49 interceptors, a fire control and communications unit, and an AN/TPY-2 radar. It is the radar that concerns China, with has expressed concerns the US could use it to spy into Chinese territory.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Thursday, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi denied attempting to meddle in what he called "ROK internal affairs, but said "I must point out that the x-band radar associated with THAAD system has a radius that goes far beyond the Korean peninsula and reaches into the interior of China."
"In other words, China's legitimate national security interests may be jeopardized or threatened," Wang said through an interpreter. "So after the news broke that the US and the ROK may discuss the deployment of THAAD, we believe China's legitimate security concerns must be taken into account, and a convincing explanation must be provided to China. I don't think it's too much to ask. It's a reasonable position."
For Harris, that's simply not the case.
"China's interference in a decision that's to be made between alliance partners — the Republic of Korea and the United States — their inference in that process is preposterous, especially when you consider that THAAD is not a threat to China," Harris said.
"But it's there in order to defend the Americans that are in Korea, their families and the Koreans," the admiral added. "And if China wanted to exert a lot of influence on somebody to prevent THAAD from being considered going into Korea, then they should exert that influence on North Korea."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.