On May 27 Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. becomes the U.S. Navy’s highest-ranking Asian American ever when he assumes leadership of the U.S. Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Harris will be responsible for all military operations in a region stretching from California to the Indian Ocean, and from the Arctic Sea to Antarctica. He takes over at a critical time, as the U.S. “rebalances” to Asia and confronts an erratic and nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly powerful and assertive China.
It’s a job that takes Harris, 59, full circle. He was born in Japan to a Navy-enlisted man and Japanese mother, and raised on a subsistence farm in Tennessee. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Harris did postgraduate studies at Harvard, Georgetown and Oxford and spent much of his career as a naval flight officer aboard P-3 patrol planes, including three tours in Japan. Affable, direct and with a confessed weakness for “both kinds of music — country and western,” Harris talks to TIME contributor Kirk Spitzer about taking on one of the most challenging jobs in the U.S. military.
You’ve said that the most important event in your life was World War II, yet you weren’t even born then. What do you mean by that?
My dad had four brothers and all of them served in World War II, mostly in the Navy, in the Pacific theater. In fact, my dad was on the aircraft carrier Lexington just a couple of days before Pearl Harbor. They pulled out O.K., but the Lexington was sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea. Growing up in Tennessee, where he and all his brothers lived, they told sea stories about the war throughout my whole life. So I just knew that I was going to serve in the military.
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The other thing is, in this job and living in Hawaii, World War II is all around you. I live in the Nimitz House, which was built for Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. He was in charge on Dec. 7, 1941. So not a day goes by that I don’t remember that one of the primary lessons of World War II is to be ready to fight and win the nation’s wars — and to be ready to fight tonight.
You’ve said that your mother had a great influence on your life. She was born into a wealthy family in Kobe, Japan, but ended up living on a small farm in America. How did that happen, and how much of an influence did she have on you?
I learned a lot from her. She lost her home, her school, members of her family and friends to bombing raids. After surviving that, she had nothing and she went to live with an aunt in Yokohama who helped her get a job on the big American naval base in Yokosuka. My dad was posted in Japan and Korea from 1946 until he retired in 1958. They met sometime in the early 1950s and got married and then I came along and they moved to Tennessee.
My dad bought a subsistence farm, with no running water or electricity. So that was pretty rough. But she adapted, and she adapted with a lot of grace. She became an American citizen in the mid-1970s and she always told me that her proudest moments were voting and jury duty. She was really thrilled that I went to the Naval Academy, of course. She never taught me the Japanese language because we had moved to a tiny town in the South, and she didn’t want me to be any more different than I already was. She wanted me to focus on being an American. But she taught me to be proud of both my Japanese roots and my Southern roots. And she taught me about the Japanese concept of giri, which means duty. I carry this with me to this very day.
You are the first Asian American to reach four-star rank in the Navy and the first to head U.S. Pacific Command. Did you have role models when you were young?
I can tell you that being a Japanese-American kid in Tennessee in the late 1950s and early ’60s, there weren’t a lot of role models out there. So that’s when my mother started telling me about the American nisei soldiers during World War II. They left a segregated nation — to fight for a segregated nation. They had no guarantee that when they got back home the things they had fought for would be returned to them. We’ve come a long way in the past six or seven decades because of them and folks like them who fought for what’s right. Their courage made a great difference in the lives of a whole bunch of people at that time, and even today. I’ve always said that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I mean it.
Before being named commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 2013, you worked as a military representative to two Secretaries of State: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. What did you learn in that job?
I got to visit and meet with leaders from about 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and that’s really important to me in my present job and even more so in my next job. It reinforced something that I already knew, and that is that American leadership matters and it matters greatly to our friends, partners, allies and competitors abroad.
Your appointment as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and more recently as head of Pacific Command, was met with great approval in Japan, but perhaps not so much in China, where there still seems suspicion of all things Japanese. Will it be difficult for you to manage expectations, on both sides?
People know when they look at me that I’m an American first, last and everything in between. I’m only ethnically [Eurasian] or ethnically [half-]Japanese. Protecting American interests is my focus. No doubt, Japan is a great ally of the United States and I do hope that my personal background has helped me enhance our relationship. But I think my background has also helped me forge critical relationships with South Korea, another important ally. My father served in the Korean War and I grew up with a deep appreciation for Korean culture.
And I can tell you that I was warmly received in China when I went there last year to finalize a new agreement among navies of the region to help communications at sea during unplanned encounters. This was an important step forward to help reduce tensions at sea and help avoid miscalculations. I’ve always tried to give China credit when they act in responsible ways that adhere to international law and norms, and enhance stability.
The Obama Administration has talked about an economic, diplomatic and military “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region. Some skeptics wonder if it’s real, or just rhetoric.
Not only is the rebalance real, but the military part is well on its way. We’ve strengthened our security alliances and partnerships throughout the region. The Navy has already brought our newest and most capable platforms to the area, like the P-8 surveillance airplane, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Virginia-class submarine and new amphibious ships like the U.S.S. America. The Marine Corps has brought the V-22 Osprey out here to great effect and we’ll have the Joint Strike Fighter out here soon. The Navy has set a goal of moving 60% of the Navy out here by 2020 and we’re at about 55% in terms of surface ships now. So I can tell you the rebalance is real.
In your new job you’ll be responsible for an immense and diverse region: “From Bollywood to Hollywood, from polar bears to penguins,” as Pacific Command puts it. What are your priorities?
Our war-fighting readiness, our ability to fight tonight, will always be my top priority. We have to be ready for the unexpected. We have to be ready to prevent strategic surprises. When you are responsible for an area that covers half the worlds’ surface, you need friends. So building stronger relationships and working with our allies and partners, to foster a collective to the security challenges — that’s important.
You’ve expressed deep concern about recent Chinese actions, including construction of a string of artificial islands in the South China Sea — a “great wall of sand,” as you put it. Why should the U.S. be concerned?
I have been critical of China for a pattern of provocative actions that they’ve begun in the recent past. Like unilaterally declaring an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea, parking a mobile oil platform off the Vietnam coast, and their lack of clarity on their outrageous claim — preposterous claim, really — to 90% of the South China Sea. All these examples, I think, are inconsistent with international laws and norms. They make China’s neighbors nervous, it increases tensions in the region, and I think they are destabilizing for peace in the region.
More than $5 trillion — that’s trillion with a t — of shipborne trade passes through the South China Sea annually. Freedom of navigation is critical. That’s why what China is doing in the South China Sea is troubling. They have manufactured land there at a staggering pace just in the last months. They’ve created about 2,000 acres of these man-made islands. That’s equivalent to about 1,500 football fields, if I get my math right, and they’re still going. They’ve also made massive construction projects on artificial islands for what are clearly, in my point of view, military purposes, including large airstrips and ports.
What do you worry about most? What keeps you awake at night?
The greatest threat we face is North Korea. They have an unpredictable leader who is poised, in my view, to attack our allies in South Korea and Japan. He is on a quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally. He kills people around him who disagree with him, and that’s something we should always keep in mind. North Korea keeps me up at night.