Military commander offers sobering look at U.S.-Asia relations

Admiral Harry Harris

EDITOR’S NOTE: At the National Conference for Community Bankers in Honolulu in February, American Bankers Association President and CEO Rob Nichols interviewed Admiral Harry Harris, who leads the U.S. Pacific Command. Harris, who is set to retire, recently was nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador to Australia. Harris delivered a 20-minute speech and then sat down for a 25-minute Q&A with Nichols. Following are edited excerpts from that interview:

Q: North Korea recently participated in the Olympics. What do you make of that?
Adm. Harry Harris: The jury is still out. There is such a thing as the Olympic spirit … As far as diplomatic outcomes of the counter offensive between North and South Korea, it is really too early to tell.

Q: In terms of threat, where do you put North Korea?
Adm. H.H.: The most imminent threat that faces the United States is North Korea. The biggest long-term challenge that we face is China. Russia remains an existential threat to the United States. And ISIS is here, in the Pacific, and we have to deal with that. So again, the most pressing inland threat we face today is North Korea.

Q: If there were to be a conflict, how would that happen? What would that look like? Do you have any doubt about the outcome?
Adm. H.H.: I don’t want to be speculative, but it will involve a lot of killing and the outcome will be that — if it comes to full conflict — destruction will occur.

Q: How is technology changing the way you manage the fleet?
Adm. H.H.: Technology has certainly changed how we do warfare. In terms of communications, weapons, speed of communications, all that kind of stuff, and there are weapons invented that are part and parcel technology-centric. … Clearly, how we do war is changed by technology but the nature of warfare, I don’t think has changed. The nature of warfare is force on force, country on country, person on person, leadership, and everything that involves; cowardice and everything that involves.

Q: I had a tour of the USS Gabrielle Giffords. Our newest warships have about one-third the crew, are made of aluminum, and are much faster. Is that the future?
Adm. H.H.: The Littoral Combat Ships, of which the Gabrielle Giffords is one, is a class of ship that has some very special capabilities. But it is not the sole shape of the U.S. Navy. We have destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers, and all the rest. We will build bigger and better aircraft carriers, as the Gerald R. Ford is now commissioned and the John F. Kennedy is in the build.

Q: How would you describe our relationship with China?
Adm. H.H.: I think we are coming to a realization that China has long viewed the United States as a competitor, and we are now coming to the view that China is our competitor. I won’t say they are the enemy or anything like that, but China is a competitor on the world stage, across all avenues of relations between nations. There are positive aspects to Chinese behaviors and actions … They were involved in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria a few years ago, they have hospital ships like we do, they were involved in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner off the coast of Australia, and on and on. So there are things China does in an international space which are positive that we should commend them for. There are also things they do in the international space which are aggressive and provocative and … are not in accordance with international laws and rules of behavior. In those areas we should criticize China … If they do the right thing, I will be the first to give them a shout-out, even as I call them out if they do things that are disruptive.

Q: What can you say about their military capability?
Adm. H.H.: They have some fine ships and aircraft which I deal with on a regular basis. A country that has the economic power that China has can build the military they want. But it is how they use it.

Q: There are 350,000 people in your command. That is a huge labor force. What kinds of leadership lessons would you share that you have learned along the way?
Adm. H.H.:Never take yourself too seriously. If you can’t laugh at your own foibles and mistakes, then people might laugh at you, so you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. You ought to empower the people who work for you as much as you can. Understand, of course, that you can delegate responsibility but not accountability. So you delegate responsibility at your own peril. … I think there is no horse so dead you can’t kick it some more. The devil is in the details, so you better understand all the details before you delegate the responsibility away. That’s my point of view.

Q: When you realized you were rising in the ranks of the military, how did you prepare?
Adm. H.H.: Every job prepares you for the next job. I am a little suspect of people who start out as an ensign and plan to become an admiral at that moment. You just have to do the best you can and listen to all the other people and then take it one step at a time. We call it “in due course” in the military. You should get promoted in due course, not early and certainly not late, just in due course.

Q: Assuming the Senate confirms you, what are the broader economic issues with Australia that would concern you as Ambassador?
Adm. H.H.: There are a lot of opportunities between the United States and Australia. There are a lot of entities that are focused on that. The American Australian Leadership Dialogue, the American Australia Association — these are all organizations that serve to improve the relationship across the board. From the get-go, the U.S. and Australia have stood shoulder to shoulder, side by side for over a century. The first Americans to fight in war under a foreign commander were the U.S. forces in Europe in World War I when they fought under General John Nonash from Australia. Since then, Australian and U.S. forces have fought together in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War 1, Gulf War 2, Afghanistan… The cultural ties are very close; everyone wants to be in Australia, and me too. I think there is only opportunity.