China’s Foreign Ministry has labeled as “fake news and not worth refuting” a report that Beijing urged Washington to fire the top U.S. naval commander in the Pacific in return for boosted pressure on North Korea.
The report, published Saturday by Kyodo News, said the Chinese leadership had made the request through its ambassador to the United States to dismiss Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, who has been known for his hard-line stance on China-related issues, including the South China and East China sea disputes.
Citing a source it described as “close to U.S.-China ties,” the report said Beijing’s envoy to the United States, Cui Tiankai, had conveyed the request to the U.S. side to coincide with the first face-to-face meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Florida last month. The Trump administration, the source added, was believed to have rejected the proposal.
Asked about the report during a regular news conference Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang issued an unusually blunt condemnation of the Japanese news agency, apparently implying that financial considerations might have motivated the company to report what he termed “rumors.”
“I thought Kyodo News, as a relatively large news agency, would have cherished its reputation,” Geng said, according to a transcript of his comments posted to the Foreign Ministry’s website. “Yet for the above-mentioned report, I’m wondering whether it is because Kyodo News was so naive that it believed the appointment and removal of the U.S. military personnel would be discussed on diplomatic occasions … or it is because Kyodo News was in such a depressed condition that it had to depend on plotting groundless stories for a living, or it is because there were some ulterior motives behind Kyodo News’ spreading of rumors?”
These comments were echoed in at least one report in China’s state-run media that alleged the Japanese press and government feared marginalization and hoped to contain China by adopting a “sinister mentality.”
“Japan’s diplomatic thinking has become more and more distorted,” the stridently nationalistic Global Times, which does not represent official government views, said in a commentary late Monday. “It seems that Japan bases its national interests on a disorderly Asia-Pacific.”
The commentary said that the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula “seems to have invigorated Tokyo,” while adding that improving Sino-U.S. ties under Trump had left Tokyo feeling “somewhat lost.”
Contacted by The Japan Times, a spokesman for the Pacific Command was mum on the Kyodo report, but said Harris had long been a subject of interest for China.
“I don’t know anything about this reported request, but for years, there’s been a lot of Chinese propaganda directed at Adm. Harris,” U.S. Pacific Command chief spokesman Capt. Darryn James said. “Adm. Harris doesn’t pay much attention to it and stays focused on protecting America’s interests in his area of responsibility across half the planet.”
Much of this vitriol stems from his outspoken comments on China’s maritime behavior in recent years, including a March 2015 speech in which he denounced Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the South China Sea, likening the effort to the building of a “great wall of sand.” Under the administration of President Barack Obama, Harris had also reportedly urged a more muscular response to China’s island-building, a view that had apparently been at odds with the White House.
But while Beijing has railed against Harris’ tough approach to security issues, it has also used his background as a means of denigrating him.
Harris is the son of a Japanese mother and an American father who was a U.S. Navy chief petty officer stationed in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. His half-Japanese heritage has made him an attractive target for a Chinese leadership that routinely blasts Japan over an alleged lack of atonement for its brutal wartime past, often as a means of whipping up nationalist sentiment.
China’s state-run media has routinely used his ethnicity to tarnish Harris’ image, including in a February 2016 commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency.
“Some may say an overemphasis on the Japanese background about an American general is a bit unkind,” Xinhua wrote in the commentary. “But to understand the American’s sudden upgraded offensive in the South China Sea, it is simply impossible to ignore Adm. Harris’s blood, background, political inclination and values.”
According to Jessica Chen Weiss, author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations” and an associate professor at Cornell University in New York, Chinese domestic news media often factor in race, ethnicity, and even gender in analyzing American officials and politicians.
Weiss cited former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke’s Chinese ancestry, which she said “also provided fodder for much media speculation in China.”
Still, said Weiss, Beijing was well aware that derogatory comments such as the Xinhua report would do little to further their agenda with audiences abroad.
“Adm. Harris has personally said the islands in the South China Sea do not belong to China, a tougher stance than official U.S. policy not to take a position on which country has sovereignty in these disputes,” she said. “Although Chinese media sometimes invoke his half-Japanese heritage to explain his hard-line stance, Chinese officials also recognize that these analyses don’t go over well with foreign audiences.”
Amy King, a senior lecturer at Australian National University and expert on Chinese foreign relations, said Harris’ case was similar to Beijing’s criticism of Japanese judge Shunji Yanai, who sat on an arbitration tribunal that ruled last year that China had no “historical rights” based on its “nine-dash line” map to its claims in the South China Sea.
“In both cases, Beijing has partly focused on the Japanese heritage/nationality of the individual,” King said.
However, in both, “the more important factor for Beijing is the actual security issue at stake,” she said.
Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, noted that while China’s dislike for Harris was abundantly clear, it was not necessarily because of his Japanese heritage.
“Rather, it is his approach toward the South China Sea issues,” Zhang said. “The Chinese see him as a troublemaker.”
Zhang said this was seen most clearly in Harris’ request that the U.S. Navy be permitted to conduct so-called freedom of navigation operations near the flash point Scarborough Shoal — despite a deal by the two parties most directly involved, China and the Philippines, to shelve the dispute.
“In the eyes of the Chinese, Harris is obsessed with an anti-China agenda,” Zhang said.
Still, Zhang was dubious about the reported Chinese push for the admiral’s head.
“China is not that stupid as to interfere with U.S. national security decision-making,” he said.