Asia Pacific / Politics

White House considering Pacific Command chief Harry Harris for Australian ambassador post: report

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Amid surging tensions in the Asia-Pacific region — including over Chinese moves in the East and South China seas and North Korea’s nuclear program — the White House is reportedly considering naming the top U.S. military commander in the region to be ambassador to Australia.

Citing three officials in the administration of President Donald Trump, The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Adm. Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, was being discussed for the role, though a decision had yet to be made.

Pacific Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Japan Times.

Harris is in the last year of his three-year tour and is set to retire early next year.

He has been known as an outspoken backer of a strong response to China’s aggressive maritime moves, coining the term “Great Wall of Sand” to describe Beijing’s strategy of building up and militarizing disputed features in the South China Sea.

Naming Harris for the slot had been pushed strongly by then-White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, The Post reported, adding that the admiral had also been discussed for other senior roles in the administration.

Appointing Harris as envoy to Australia would be seen as reassuring a key ally and strengthening the administration’s Asia team, which remains full of vacancies.

U.S. officials say the Australian government is growing more and more concerned that Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador there, more than seven months into the administration, The Post reported.

The admiral is known to have strong ties with military and political leaders in the country, having visited several times as Pacific Command chief.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Harris is “very well known to us” and Canberra would welcome his posting, according to the Brisbane Times.

“He is a very capable, competent man who knows Australia well, but we haven’t had any official confirmation that he is to be the next ambassador to Australia,” Bishop was quoted as saying.

Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said that having Harris in the post “would be a positive” for the U.S.-Australia relationship, but noted that “he would need a strong advisory team under him to help navigate the potential traps.”

In May, Kyodo News reported that Beijing had urged Washington to fire Harris in return for boosted pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea, citing an anonymous source.

Harris, who is half-Japanese and was born in Japan, has long been a subject of interest for China. Beyond his March 2015 speech in which he denounced Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the South China Sea, his heritage has also 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.”

Graham said that there could potentially be some concern on the Australian side “that the Chinese would seek to bait him and cause complications in the relationship with Beijing.”

Despite being Australia’s top trading partner, China has come under fire recently over its “soft power” push in the country, including claims of illicit political influence and censorship.

A Harris appointment would prevent Washington from drifting away from a key ally in the Asia-Pacific amid the ongoing foreign policy vacuum in the Trump administration.

“On the key priority of keeping the U.S. engaged on Australia and its region, Harris would bring helpful drawing power,” Graham said.