The top U.S. military officer in the Pacific said the potential deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery to South Korea is none of China’s business and called its interference “preposterous.”
Adm. Harry Harris, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, said the decision to station the Lockheed Martin [LMT] built air defense shield is a bilateral one between the United States and South Korea. The two nations are in discussions over whether to deploy THAAD in direct response to provocations from North Korea, Harris said Feb. 25 during a press conference at the Pentagon.
“We haven’t agreed…to put a THAAD in Korea,” Harris said. “What we have agreed to do is consult about it, think about it, talk about it and discuss it. The decision to discuss it is not necessarily a decision to do it. Not yet.”
China balked when the U.S. and South Korean governments announced they would enter discussions about a THAAD deployment, saying it could threaten Beijing’s regional strategic interests. Harris cried foul on Feb. 25, saying the anti-ballistic missile system poses no threat to China.
“China’s…interference in that process is preposterous, especially when you consider that THAAD is not a threat to China,” he said. “It’s there in order to defend Americans that are in Korea, their families and the Koreans. 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.”
THAAD might not be a direct challenge to China’s ascendant hegemony in the South China Sea region, but U.S. naval and air presence there is directly aimed at preserving freedom of navigation through the area from Chinese interference.
Harris accused China of militarizing the South China Sea by reclaiming 3,000 acres of military bases on contested islands dotting the area. Chinese expansionism threatens the free flow of $5 trillion in annual trade that flows through the sea, he said.
If China continues to arm all of the bases they have reclaimed in the South China Sea, they will change the operational landscape in the region. And short of war with the United States, they can rise to the level of having operational control, tactical control of the waterways and airways in the South China Sea.
“If China continues to arm all of the bases they have reclaimed in the South China Sea, they will change the operational landscape in the region,” Harris said. “And short of war with the United States, they can rise to the level of having operational control, tactical control of the waterways and airways in the South China Sea.”
To counter Chinese expansionism and protect trade routes, the U.S. military maintains a nearly continuous presence of naval ships in the South China Sea region and flies regular surveillance patrols as well, Harris said. DDG-51 destroyers, cruisers and Littoral Combat Ships have all transited the South China Sea and patrolled near contested islands in freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), as well as aircraft carriers and their escort ships.
Air Force B-52 bombers recently buzzed a group of islands claimed by China and several other nations, creating an international stir. Harris maintained such exercises were legal because they are performed in international waters.
“The role they play is presence operations,” Harris said. They are there to do presence operations and when called upon, we ask them to do freedom-of-navigation and other specialized operations. …I’m very confident in the military capabilities that are resident in PACOM.”
China is developing cruise missiles with terminal guidance capabilities that threaten U.S. warships in the region. Harris would not comment on Chinese weapons directly, but said the U.S. military must keep up development of its own weapons, as a way to lessen the threat posed by potential adversaries. He mentioned expanded use of the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) and Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) as projects that will ensure overmatch for the U.S. military in the Pacific.
“Of course I am concerned about the weapons that our potential adversaries field,” Harris said. “I think we need to also field the best capability we have not only to defend ourselves, but also for offensive capability. These are all capabilities that I think we need. We need to build these up so that these threats are minimized in the future and I think we’re on the right path.”