TOKYO U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis spent his first diplomatic trip attempting to ease concerns that President Donald Trump will reduce America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Visiting Japan and South Korea in early February, Mattis stressed Washington’s commitment to maintaining and strengthening ties with its two regional allies. He also reassured them of their continued protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Before the president’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump had raised eyebrows with talk of reviewing America’s alliance with South Korea and Japan if the latter two did not shoulder more of the cost of hosting U.S. troops.
But while Mattis’ visit has gone a long way toward smoothing things over, uncertainty over a wide range of issues — such as trade friction and Trump’s stance on Taiwan, to name a few — may yet undermine the alliance.
On Feb. 3, Mattis met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo and stressed that the Japan-U.S. alliance remains unchanged. “We stand firmly, 100%, shoulder to shoulder with you and the Japanese people,” he said, adding, “I want to make certain that Article 5 of our mutual defense treaty is understood to be as real to us today.”
CONTINUING COMMITMENT Mattis further said the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, over which China claims sovereignty, are under Japanese administration and within the scope of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which requires America to defend territories under Japanese administrative control.
In a news conference after his meeting with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada the following day, Mattis criticized China’s construction of military bases in the South China Sea, saying, “China has shredded the trust of nations in the region.” He indicated, however, that the U.S. would rather resolve the issue through diplomatic means: “There is no need right now at this time for military maneuvers or something like that, that would solve something that’s best solved by the diplomats.”
On Feb. 3, before arriving in Japan, Mattis stopped in South Korea, where he met Defense Minister Han Min-koo and reaffirmed the importance of strengthening the alliance between the two countries.
To defend against nuclear or conventional attack from North Korea, Mattis and Han agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system at U.S. military bases in South Korea by the end of this year. In a news conference after their meeting, Mattis said that if North Korea attacked the U.S. or its allies with nuclear weapons, the U.S. would respond with an “effective and overwhelming” action.
Japan and South Korea are not usually the first countries a new U.S. defense secretary visits after taking office. But Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who served in the Iraq War and has considerable experience in the Middle East, seems to have good reason for putting East Asia at the top of his agenda.
In the new U.S. administration, Rex Tillerson is in charge of diplomacy as secretary of state, but the former Exxon Mobil CEO is hardly an expert on foreign policy. As a result, the view in diplomatic circles is that for now Mattis will likely have a big say in U.S. policy on Asia.
Mattis’ approach during his recent visits was a realistic one. In terms of security, the U.S. has much in common with Japan and South Korea. At the same time, the Trump administration has been lashing out at China over trade and security issues. The best option for Washington, therefore, is to work closely with its two allies.
But whether the three countries can maintain their solidarity is unclear.
One concern is trade issues, particularly concerning the auto industry and Trump’s claims that Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S. is too large. This will likely be a major point of contention during the Japan-U.S. summit in Washington set for Feb. 10. It is not hard to imagine the strain it would put on bilateral relations if the cost of basing U.S. troops in Japan comes up amid attempts to resolve trade friction between the two countries.
COURTING CONFLICT? A bigger concern is the U.S. stance on Taiwan. After winning the presidential election, Trump suggested the possibility of reviewing the U.S. position on Beijing’s “One China” policy, under which Taiwan is considered part of China. “There is no room for China to make any concession” on this matter, a diplomatic source said.
Observers warn that if the U.S. pressures China about Taiwan again before the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March or the Communist Party’s National Congress in the fall, held once every five years, it could escalate into a military confrontation. Japan and South Korea naturally do not want to see any change to the current situation that would bring the Taiwan issue back into the spotlight.
Japanese and South Korean officials are also nervous about the possibility of another major conflict arising in the Middle East, one of the most critical regions for the U.S. If Washington shifts diplomatic and military energies there, it would leave less of both for Asia.
Such concerns are not unwarranted: The Trump administration is considering moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something Islamic countries in the Middle East would never approve. Tensions have also been rising between the U.S. and Iran since the U.S. decided to impose additional sanctions to punish Iran for ballistic missile testing it conducted in January.