At Halifax Forum, Cautious Optimism About U.S.-China Relations

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

HALIFAX, Canada — The United States continues efforts to improve its relationship with China, but it is proceeding cautiously, leaders said Nov. 21.

“I do not believe that conflict with China is inevitable,” said Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “The U.S. and China must move forward with our relationship deliberately and with an eye on the long term.”

Tensions have been increasing rapidly in the Asia-Pacific region since China began developing man-made islands in disputed territory in the South China Sea, Harris said in remarks at the Halifax International Security Forum. .

“Longtime U.S. policy is clear, that we don’t take sides on disputes over sovereignty. That said, we’re also clear about our strong stance that all claims be based on international laws,” he said. He called China’s efforts to build these islands the “Great Wall of Sand.”

Harris said no one should be surprised that at U.S. Navy vessel was near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea recently.

“The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international allows. The South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” he said. “No one should be surprised by these operations, we’ve done them before in the South China Sea and we’ll do them again.”

China must follow the same rules as everyone else, he added.

“There’s one global standard for freedom of navigation, not a double standard when China can fly, sail and operate whenever international laws allows while other nations cannot. International seas and airspace belong to everyone and are not the dominion of any single nation,” he said.

He noted that U.S. operations in the regions shouldn’t be considered a threat.

Harris said the United States’ shift to the Asia-Pacific region comes at the right time. He referenced a quote by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky who said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

“President Obama skated to where the puck is going to be by initiating America’s strategic rebalance to this vital region,” he said.
U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific are carefully watching the relationship between the United States and China, he said.

“I believe that the U.S.-China relationship is more constructive than destructive,” he said. The “areas where the U.S. and China work together don’t get as much press as those areas where we disagree.”

For example, China and the United States both want to find a peaceful way to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, he said.

Adm. Mike Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, said he is hopeful that China will stop launching cyber attacks against the United States.
China has become known for hacking computers to steal intellectual property and create an economic advantage for its country, he said. Rogers noted that he was “somewhat surprised” that Chinese President Xi Jinping committed to President Obama that his country would step away from such cyber attacks during a meeting in September.

“We’re two months into this. We’ll see how it plays out over time,” he said, while noting it was a positive development. 

“I openly acknowledge [that] I am interested in understanding advanced military technology around the world, technology that could potentially be employed against the United States and its interests or allies and friends,” he said. “At the same time as I generate those insights, I do not turn to the private sector of the United States — pick a large company, Boeing or Lockheed Martin or whatever — and say, ‘Let me share with you what country X is doing right now, that this is what you’re going to have to compete with.’”

Rogers warned his Chinese counterparts that they aren’t the only ones who can launch cyber attacks. “I would remind them increasingly that you are every bit as vulnerable as any other major industrialized nation state,” he said.

The United States does want a good relationship with China, he added.

“We want a constructive relationship with China. It is in the best interest of the Chinese. It is in the best interest of the United States,” he said.

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence, Cyber, Cybersecurity, Defense Department

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