The most senior U.S. military commander in the Pacific region had harsh words for China as he retired Friday after nearly four decades of service.

Adm. Phil Davidson spoke during a change of command ceremony at Pearl Harbor during which Adm. John Aquilino took charge of the Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. military’s largest theater of operations.

Davidson’s tenure was defined by historic shifts, the unexpected challenges of the coronavirus pandemic that began last year and rising tensions with China.

“The strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific is not between our two nations. It is a competition between liberty — the fundamental idea behind a free and open Indo-Pacific — and authoritarianism, the absence of liberty, and the objective of the Communist Party of China,” he said.

US Indo-Pacific Command change of command ceremony as right, Admiral Philip Davidson gives knuckles to the incoming commander Admiral John Aquilino.
Outgoing U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Philip Davidson (right) fist bumps incoming commander Adm. John Aquilino during a change of command ceremony at Pearl Harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Davidson, 61, is one of the Navy’s longest serving officers and received an award for valor during an amphibious combat mission during Operation Desert Storm.

“I have been stationed in Hawaii longer than any other place during my time in uniform,” he said during the ceremony, which included Gov. David Ige, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and civilian and military officials from around the world.

Davidson began his tenure at Camp Smith in 2018 when the Pacific Command was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command to emphasize the interconnected nature of politics and trade in the region and India’s rise as a major economic and military power.

He was an outspoken advocate of strengthening missile defense systems in Guam and Hawaii, pushing for the construction of the $1.9 billion Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii.

Davidson spent much of his tenure bolstering U.S. military ties with Pacific Island nations where Beijing has sought to extend its influence.

Last year Kiribati — just south of Hawaii — joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative while Palau signed an agreement with the U.S. to build an American base there.

“Make no mistake, the Communist Party of China seeks to supplant the idea of a free and open international order for the new order. One with Chinese characteristics. One where Chinese national power is more important than international law,” Davidson said. “Beijing’s very pernicious approach to the region includes a whole of party effort to coerce, corrupt and collapse governments, businesses, organizations and the people of the Indo-Pacific.”

For the last two decades since the September 11th terrorist attacks the U.S. military has been engaged in a series of bloody and drawn out conflicts against extremist groups and insurgents around the globe, mostly in the Middle East.

But the Pentagon has increasingly turned its attention to the Pacific.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a former U.S. Army general who served as the top commander of troops in the Middle East, reaffirmed at the ceremony that the Pacific is where the military sees its future.

“The way that we fight the next major war, is going to look very different from the way that we fought the last,” Austin said.

While some observers hoped the spread of COVID-19 might decrease military confrontations by forcing countries to cooperate in the face of the disease, tensions in the Indo-Pacific region have only escalated over the last year.

The Chinese navy has stepped up attacks against fishermen from neighboring countries in the South China Sea, and Chinese and Indian troops died over the summer in bloody border clashes.

Recently Chinese fishing boats — believed to be members of Beijing’s “maritime militia” — staked out a disputed reef off the coast of the Philippines, leading to a standoff between navies.

“Let me be clear, this competition does not have to put us on the road to conflict,” Davidson said of tensions with China. “Our number one job is to keep the peace. And to do that you must be prepared to fight and win.”

The new commander, Adm. John Aquilino, has spent most of his career as a fighter pilot and the commander of the Pacific Fleet. During his confirmation hearing in March, he told Congress that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is “closer than most of us think.”

“We will compete to achieve our national interests,” Aquilino said Friday. “We will cooperate where we can — and we will confront where we must — in order to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

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