Adm. Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii and President Donald Trump’s choice to be the next ambassador to Australia, is being diverted at the last minute to instead become ambassador to South Korea, multiple media sources reported today.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on its website that today’s confirmation hearing for Harris’ appointment to Australia has been “postponed.”
Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo decided to move Harris to South Korea ahead of possible talks between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, CNN reported today.
The Washington Post, the first to report the switch, said Harris already has indicated that he is willing to become the envoy to South Korea.
The diplomatic jobs have long been vacant in South Korea and Australia. For 16 months, Mark Knapper, the charge d’Affaires, has been overseeing the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, the Post said.
The White House, in announcing Harris’ nomination for the Australia job, said he is a “highly decorated, combat-proven Naval officer with extensive knowledge, leadership and geo-political expertise in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Harris is a hard-liner against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and frequently has faced the wrath of Beijing over his criticism of the rising Asian nation’s territorial claims and island-building in the disputed region.
Known for a colorful turn of phrase, Harris said in 2015 in Australia that China was “creating a great wall of sand” and taking provocative actions toward smaller claimant states in the South China Sea.
Australia, meanwhile, has been frustrated that the United States has not had an ambassador to that country since September 2016.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted in February that it was “great” to see Harris’ nomination. “Look forward to seeing you in Canberra, Harry!” Turnbull wrote.
The Canberra Times quoted Thomas Wright, a senior fellow and foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, as saying the last-minute change sends a “terrible” message to Australia. “The message it sends to Australia is unfortunate because it says that (Australia) is not a priority,” Wright said in the piece.
Harris graduated in 1978 from the U.S. Naval Academy. He became head of Pacific Command, which covers about half the globe and includes seven of the world’s 10 largest armies, on May 27, 2015.
Adm. Phil Davidson, the nominee to lead U.S. Pacific Command and the current head of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command on the East Coast, testified last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee and is expected to be approved to lead the command.
Davidson noted ballistic missile challenges from North Korea and a militarily modernizing Russia and said China “is no longer a rising power but an arrived great power and peer competitor.”
The United States should respond by adding military forces in the Pacific, he said.