The four-star commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific doesn't think twice about standing in line at Subway and buying his own sandwich.
PACOM staffers are occasionally amazed to see Adm. Harry Harris, one of the most powerful officers in the military, waiting in line with them for lunch at the cafeteria, especially for a man who comes from the hierarchical, rank-has-its-privileges tradition of the Navy, where even the most junior officers are waited on by enlisted sailors at meal times.
But people who have worked with Harris say that's consistent with the officer they know. A likable and outgoing man who trusts his staff and will go out of his way to show loyalty, Harris, they say, delegates to his subordinates but knows when to step in and provide guidance. And, despite garnering a reputation for bellicose rhetoric, those who have served with him say he is a remarkably discrete man who knows when to push and when to keep quiet.
Yet Harris has also developed a reputation for occasionally going too far to advance his views. During the last two years of the Obama administration, he pushed a more hard-line view of Chinese island building in the South China Sea, and has at times pushed harder than some in the previous White House were comfortable with.
While Harris regularly cites North Korea as the single greatest threat to peace in the region, for the past two years Harris's name is more deeply tied with the standoff with China's maritime claims in the East and South China seas. In China, the 60-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate is widely distrusted, and his half-Japanese heritage has made him the target of racism in Chinese state media. At one point, the state outlet Xinhua claimed he is taking Japan's side in maritime disputes because of his "blood, background, political inclination and values."
Now, as Harris comes to Capitol Hill to testify Wednesday, he'll have the attention of not just the lawmakers but of the entire Asia-Pacific region, which is on edge from rising tensions between North Korea and the U.S. that threaten to bubble over into a regional conflict. And there is good reason for that. The new administration has signaled that they see North Korea, a state protected and sponsored for years by the Chinese government, as the single greatest threat to U.S. security in the world. That puts Harris at the center of regional forces that could end in catastrophe if not carefully managed.
In contrast with his predecessors at PACOM, Harris has been a strong and provocative voice, regularly challenging China's actions in the region and pushing for ever-stronger U.S. moves there. When asked in 2013 what was the greatest threat to security in the region, then-PACOM Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear responded "climate change." But Harris has far more assertive in his views.
"In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea," Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2016. "You'd have to believe in a flat earth to believe otherwise."
That kind of blunt rhetoric has become Harris's trademark, experts say.
"He speaks his mind and he speaks truth to power but he does it publicly, so he's something of a rarity," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "There were people in the [Obama] White House at the time who were uneasy with that kind of rhetoric because they weren't there yet."
He shot to the forefront of the tensions with China on March 31, 2015, when then-Pacific Fleet Commander Harris shook the region with the strongest rhetoric to date coming from a U.S. official in regards to China's actions in the South China Sea. Starting in earnest in 2014, China rapidly built out islands atop sandbars, reefs and outcroppings in the Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea, a set of features claimed by nearly every power in the region.
China was attempting to bolster claims of maritime rights to virtually all of the South China Sea, and has claimed historic dominion over the body of water through a post-World War II map it submitted to the U.N. in 2009 — known in international circles as the "nine-dash line." China has been deliberately vague about what they think the nine-dash line means, but Harris, the four-star Pacific Fleet commander, thrust himself into the debate, pointing the finger at China for destabilizing the region through expansive claims and outlandish construction projects.
"China is creating a great wall of sand, with dredges and bulldozers, over the course of months," Harris told the audience at a conference in Australia. "When one looks at China's pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states — the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law and the deep asymmetry between China's capabilities and those of its smaller neighbors — well, it's no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raise serious questions about Chinese intentions."
The catch phrase "great wall of sand" had a predictable effect — it took off. Publications around the world reported it, elevating a little remarked-upon Chinese construction project in the South China Sea out of the Washington and Asian think tank and national security world and into the mainstream consciousness. Newspapers and media throughout the world covered his remarks and major networks began running segments on China's islands in the South China Sea.
Those who know Harris said he's not one to talk tough for the sake of talking tough. Even from his earlier days as a naval flight officer in the P-3 community, he always had a strong sense of discretion.
"He knew when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut," said Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval flight officer and analyst with the Center for a New American Security who knew Harris when he was a lieutenant commander. "That's why I was a bit surprised by his 'great wall of sand' speech. But you can be sure that if he said it, he'd thought about it for a long time beforehand."
Harris's tough speech made some in the Obama White House — eager to work with China on a host of other issues including climate accords and trade — uneasy. His consistently sharp rhetoric concerning China's intentions in the South China Sea was a continual source of disquiet inside Obama's famously bureaucratic and controlling National Security Council.
In early 2016, Harris and other U.S. military leaders were directed by then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice to back off the harsh China rhetoric ahead of a meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a move that many saw as indicative of just how uneasy the public criticisms from the Pacific commander were making the White House.
But behind closed doors, Harris continued to wage a campaign to increase U.S. presence in the South China Sea, and that summer the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group spent three months showing the flag in the hotly contested body of water, playing host to senior defense officials from both the U.S. and the Philippines during its closely watched patrol. Harris also pushed for an increase in Freedom of Navigation Operations, where U.S. ships patrol inside of 12 miles from the islands China claims there, a routine Navy operation that Obama's White House ordered canceled in 2012 in a concession to China.
The FONOPs made a comeback in late 2015. Harris took command at PACOM in May, and by October he obtained permission to have the destroyer Lassen make a close pass of a Chinese construction on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, a move that challenged China's maritime claims and asserted freedom of the seas in that area. The patrol aggravated China, and again put the country's island-building campaign on center stage internationally. There would be more FONOPs to come, however.
Harris's tireless campaign to draw attention to China's actions in the South China Sea gradually convinced the Obama administration, which began taking a much harder line with China during its waning days, some observers say.
"I think over the course of the later days of the Obama Administration, they came closer to where Adm. Harris started in regards to China," Glaser said.
In China, Harris is largely viewed with deep suspicion. China's government has long sought to undermine him and portray him as out-of-step with U.S. policy towards China — a loose cannon in the Pacific.
"The Chinese have been used to very different kinds of PACOM commanders, they were used to them being a little more low-key," Glaser said. Harris "came out swinging in a very public way."
Part of that is his hawkish views of China's island building and maritime disputes in the region, and part of that is a racist tendency to believe because he's half Japanese, and is acting on their behalf, said Zhiqun Zhu, professor and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University.
"His 'Great Wall of sand' comment on China's reclamation efforts in the South China Sea stings to the Chinese," Zhu said in an email. "He is also perceived to be siding with Japan in the East China Sea dispute.
Zhu said that there is "a racist view in China that Adm. Harris is half-Japanese and is therefore pro-Japan and anti-China."
Harris has also met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is "widely considered by the Chinese as an unrepentant conservative politician who harbors no good feelings towards China," Zhu noted, adding that those meetings don't sit well with some in China.
Harris will be in charge of PACOM for at least another year, meaning that he'll be highly influential in helping guide the new Trump administration's thinking on the region, which has so far been singularly focused on North Korea. Harris's PACOM has drawn up plans to continue to press China on their island construction and excessive maritime claims, which include more freedom of navigation operation. But it's unclear whether anyone at Trump's White House has made that a priority, especially as the administration puts much of its focus on the growing North Korean threat to U.S. allies and the U.S. itself.
Experts who spoke to Navy Times agreed that forming a plan to address China's aggressive behavior in the region and maintaining U.S. commitments there will be a crucial part of Harris' legacy at PACOM.
"Adm. Harris certainly will be known for his views on China," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense and national security analyst with the Brookings Institution. "Yes they are hawkish but on balance he's kept his cool and U.S. policy has been generally measured. I am not sure I see a long-term vision, however, for where we can realistically curb China's ambitions, where we can learn to live with them, and how we can push back without risking war. So I see it as a fairly good but incomplete agenda. I am also curious to see when the next FONOPs happen, and how, and by what vessel. That's a crucial, unresolved question."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.