Harry Harris, a retired admiral who led U.S. Pacific Command — now named U.S. Indo-Pacific Command — and the Pacific Fleet, served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2018 to 2021.

Harry Harris, a retired admiral who led U.S. Pacific Command — now named U.S. Indo-Pacific Command — and the Pacific Fleet, served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2018 to 2021. (Benjamin Parsons/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. needs a government-wide China policy that emulates its approach toward the former Soviet Union and should prioritize diplomacy despite the recent downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon, experts told House lawmakers on Tuesday.

Retired Adm. Harry Harris, a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said it was a shame Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned visit to China after a Chinese balloon encroached into U.S. airspace last week and he urged Congress to nurture diplomatic relationships with partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

“We maintained communication with the Soviet Union so I hope we can get on some diplomatic footing with the People’s Republic of China,” said Harris, who led U.S. Pacific Command, now named U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, from 2015 to 2018 and served as a U.S. ambassador to South Korea until 2021.

Harris appeared before the House Committee on Armed Services as its new chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., vowed to make China the focus of the panel under Republican control. The House last month voted to create a select committee on China, which it deems Washington’s top strategic competitor and the Pentagon’s “pacing challenge.”

“Make no mistake, that balloon was intentionally launched as a calculated show of force,” Rogers said of the spy balloon. “We have to stop being naive about the threat we face from China.”

Some lawmakers have raised alarm over a litany of Chinese advancements in recent years, including China’s buildup of the largest army and navy in the world and its impressive advances in hypersonic technology and artificial intelligence.

Rogers added another worrying accomplishment to the list, announcing Tuesday that the Defense Department had just notified lawmakers that China now has more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the United States.

Harris pointed out China has made great strides in the diplomatic realm as well, seeking security partnerships with nations around the world and aggressively expanding a diplomatic presence in countries that the U.S. had left empty.

He offered multiple examples of the U.S. failing to appoint ambassadors in a timely fashion, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. mission to the Maldives is covered by the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, he said. There has been no U.S. ambassador to India in two years and it took five years to get an ambassador in Singapore, he said.

“That’s on us,” Harris said. “It affects our relationships with these countries.”

Alliances and partnerships are key to deterring China militarily, he said, and will become even more crucial as China potentially embarks on a campaign to invade and occupy Taiwan. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., cautioned Tuesday that such a scenario is not a certainty despite various U.S. defense officials warning that an attack could come in the next few years.

China has long laid territorial claim to Taiwan, a self-ruled island democracy.

“I do worry about the inevitability comments because these words get played up in China and then China’s like, ‘Well the U.S. is coming for us, so we might as well go for them,’” said Smith, the committee’s top Democrat.

Still, lawmakers debated how soon an invasion could come and how the U.S. should prepare for it. The U.S. has not supported Taiwan’s independence for decades but has pushed in recent years to shore up the island’s defenses.

Melanie Sisson, a foreign policy fellow with the Brookings Institution think tank, told lawmakers that the U.S. needs to nudge Taiwan to adopt a defense concept. The plan should take advantage of the island’s terrain and call for naval mines, fast-attack missile boats and other anti-ship defenses to counter an invasion. It should also ready Taiwan’s population for a potential blockade, she said.

“We need to get them to be as prickly of a porcupine as they can be,” Sisson said.

The U.S. in the meantime needs to exude calm and confidence in the region and show cohesion with its allies, she said. Harris praised the U.S. for signing an agreement last week to boost the American military’s presence in the Philippines as well as the trilateral security pact between the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia known as AUKUS.

The deal with Australia will provide the country with its first nuclear-powered submarines, the “crown jewel” of America’s military technology, according to Harris.

“It will help the U.S. dramatically and change the balance in the Indian Ocean,” he said.

The plan for acquiring the submarines for Australia is set to go public for the first time next month and could potentially take decades to implement. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said Congress will work on loosening export control barriers on nuclear technology to speed up the process.

Harris and Sisson said the U.S. has moved closer to a unified policy on China across all its government agencies but still has work to do. For too long, each agency viewed China through its own lens — the Pentagon saw it as a military operation, the Treasury Department looked at it as a lender, the Commerce Department looked at it as a trading partner, Harris said.

The U.S. now needs to take the same approach it used during the Cold War, when even a Park Ranger would be able to say the Soviets were “the bad guys,” he said.

“I don’t think we have that comprehensive policy, but I think we’re much further along now than we’ve ever been,” Harris said.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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