Hoping to renew U.S.-Filipino defense ties amid strained political relations, the head of U.S. Pacific Command said Nov. 15 that he plans to travel to Manila next week to meet with his counterparts and iron out plans for next year’s joint military exercises.

Navy Adm. Harry Harris said that despite anti-American comments made by new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, military cooperation between the two countries remains robust, and he is optimistic the relationship will not change after his Nov. 22 visit.

Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. (File photo courtesy of U.S. Pacific Command)
Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command (File photo courtesy of U.S. Pacific Command)

“Our exercise program, so far, remains on track,” Harris said. “We haven’t been asked to remove U.S. forces from the Philippines, including special operations forces operating in Mindanao, [a terrorism hotbed]. We haven’t been asked to not put our P-3s and P-8s at Clark [Air Base] to do surveillance there. Those are all encouraging things.”

Harris, who spoke at a Defense One event in Washington, D.C., said military relations with China are also “good,” evidenced by a recent disaster management exercise that the U.S. Army Pacific participated in in China. But he remains concerned about China’s increasing assertiveness and military modernization. China recently announced that its first aircraft carrier is operational, and it has built seven bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea.

“We should try to cooperate where we can, but we have to be ready to confront if we must,” he said. “We have to plan for the worst. That applies to China,” as well as North Korea and other potential adversaries.

Harris also shared his thoughts on several new weapon systems that are being deployed to the Pacific. He said he has “faith” in the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program despite a recent series of equipment problems, and he looks forward to giving LCS more missile types to provide “a real punch.”

The admiral called himself a “huge believer” in the new F-35 and said the Marine Corps’ upcoming deployment of the stealthy jet to Japan is a “powerful signal that we’re sending our very best fighter aircraft to the Indo-Asia-Pacific first, before we deploy anywhere else.”

Harris endorsed Army plans to send a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery to South Korea next year, describing it as “one of the key pieces” to deter North Korea. He also backed Army efforts to modify its long-range artillery missile to hit moving targets at sea.

“I think the Army should be in the business of sinking ships with land-based, surface-to-ship missile systems,” he said. “Other countries do this,” including Japan.

Before visiting the Philippines, the admiral will speak on a panel at the Halifax Security Forum in Canada. After Manila, he will travel to Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Australia. He recently visited Japan, Mongolia and Vietnam.

Harris said the Navy plans to send the destroyer USS Sampson (DDG-102) and its two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to New Zealand to support earthquake recovery efforts. A Navy P-3 is already there.