SYDNEY, Australia — The commander of United States military operations in the Asia-Pacific region said on Wednesday that America’s commitment to the region would continue after Donald J. Trump became president, as would its opposition to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
“You can count on America now and into the future,” Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the United States Pacific Command, said in a speech at the Lowy Institute, a research center in Sydney, Australia. He said that “reports of America’s abandonment of the Indo-Asia-Pacific have been greatly exaggerated” and called the area “the most consequential region for America’s future.”
Officials and diplomats in the Asia-Pacific have wondered how Mr. Trump might change American policy toward China and the rest of the region, especially since his surprise phone call this month with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, which alarmed Beijing and broke with decades of United States diplomatic practice. Meanwhile, recent visits to Beijing by the leaders of Malaysia and the Philippines have underscored the possibility that countries in the region are drawing closer to China.
Admiral Harris declined to speculate on how United States policy might change after Mr. Trump takes office next month, saying he was “not in the business of giving advice to the president-elect.” But he said America’s interests in the region were “enduring” and called its 65-year alliance with Australia “more important than ever before.”
But Australia has also resisted pressure to join the United States in naval patrols meant to demonstrate that the waters are open to international traffic. Admiral Harris said that deciding to participate in such efforts was up to each country in the region, but he reiterated that America “will not allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally, no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea.”
During his Australia visit, Admiral Harris signed an agreement increasing the scope of the two countries’ military cooperation. Besides increasing the number of joint exercises carried out with about 1,250 United States Marines based in the northern city of Darwin, it allows for American F-22 jets to be deployed in the area for those exercises in 2017, likely to be followed by F-35 jets the year after.
In his speech, Admiral Harris said the Islamic State posed a “clear threat” to the Asia-Pacific region, saying it was likely that extremists would return home “radicalized and weaponized” from the Middle East after fighting alongside the group there. “It is clear to me that ISIL is trying to rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” he said, using an alternative name for the militant group. “So we must stop them now.”
He also cited North Korea, a “revanchist Russia and an increasingly assertive China” as significant challenges. “Both Moscow and Beijing have choices to make,” he said. “They can choose to disregard the rules-based international order or they can contribute to it as responsible stakeholders.” He said the United States would “cooperate where we can and be ready to confront where we must.”