Adm. Harry B. Harris, head of the United States military's Pacific Command, said on Tuesday (22/08) that it was more important to use diplomacy to counter North Korea's missile threat rather than consider what actions by the reclusive country might trigger a preemptive strike.(Photo courtesy of the US-Indonesia Society)

North Korea, China and ISIS Pose Challenges for Asia Pacific: US Navy Commander


AUGUST 08, 2017

Jakarta. As North Korea's nuclear development becomes increasingly worrying, China plays a key role in its denuclearization, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., who leads the United States Pacific Command, said during a special forum in Jakarta on Monday (07/08).

"China is key to a peaceful outcome on the Korean Peninsula, but China is not the key to all outcomes," Harris said, adding that the threat in Northeast Asia is a challenge for the entire Asia Pacific region.

Harris referred to Kim Jong-un's efforts to combine nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology as a "recipe for disaster," warning that North Korea's defense capabilities "continue to improve."

Tensions in the Korean Peninsula escalated with Pyongyang's two successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles carried out last month.

In response, the United Nations Security Council on Saturday unanimously adopted new sanctions on North Korea, expected to slash a third of its $3 billion annual export revenue.

The US-drafted resolution bans exports of coal, iron and ore from North Korea, prohibiting countries from issuing new work permits for North Korean citizens and creating new joint ventures with the country or increasing investment in the existing ones.

"While China supported renewed UN sanctions against North Korea, we remain cautious of its sincerity to hold the regime accountable," Harris said.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea's total trade volume.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, reports that "China is currently North Korea's only economic backer of any importance."

While China-North Korea relations reveal the extent of Chinese influence on Pyongyang, and the US has earlier shown willingness to pursue a peaceful outcome by working with China, the Trump administration has recently said it remains open to other options.

"If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will," Trump said, as quoted by Financial Times in an April interview.

Responding to criticism over continued joint military exercises of the US and South Korea, Harris said the practice and the combined military operations are crucial in the wake of North Korea's improving capabilities, adding that the United States is obligated to defend South Korea under a mutual defense treaty.

Other Challenges

In his speech, Harris also highlighted other challenges facing Asia Pacific, including those coming from China and the Islamic State.

"I remain very concerned about Beijing's increasingly assertive actions that run counter to the international rules-based order," Harris said, alluding to China's island-building and continued militarization on the disputed South China Sea waters.

"China's response to continuing claims that are in conflict with other countries demonstrate what kind of country China is," he added.

In 2016, an international tribunal in the Hague said China's expansive claim to sovereignty in the disputed waters had no legal basis. Although the ruling is said to be "final and binding," it has not helped solve the conflict due to the lack of an enforcement mechanism.

Beijing refused to recognize the ruling and continued its activities on the resource-rich waters.

With regard to the increased terrorist threat from the Islamic State, Harris said Indonesia and the US must continue to counter it, but with international support.

"We can't do it alone. Only through multinational collaboration can we eradicate ISIS and other violent extremist organizations before they spread. This is a partnership with a purpose," Harris said.

The region has seen an increase in multilateral efforts to combat violent extremism, including joint patrols by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the Sulu Sea.

US Pacific Command

The Pacific Command is America's oldest and largest military command, and has headquarters located in Honolulu, Hawaii.

According to Harris, the command has enjoyed good relations with the Indonesian Military (TNI), with which it has conducted numerous joint exercises over the years – demonstrating the forces commitment to cooperation and bilateral security.

In September, the US and Indonesian navies will carry out the 23rd Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), which is part of a broader exercise program that the US conducts bilaterally with nine partner navies in South and Southeast Asia.

CARAT involves an exchange of the best naval tactics and development of maritime domain awareness.

The special forum on Monday was organized by the United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO) and the American Chamber of Commerce.