The new US defense secretary James Mattis arrived today at Osan Air Base, just south of capital city Seoul, on the first leg of a 3-day trip that will also take him to Tokyo.
Mattis deliberately chose Japan and Korea as his first overseas destinations as defense secretary to send a strong message of reassurance to the two key US allies in the critical but volatile Asia-Pacific region. Both Seoul and Tokyo were rattled by some of the campaign rhetoric and postelection musings of President Donald Trump, and are looking for Mattis to confirm the continuing US commitment to the defense of Korea and Japan, and for a vibrant US role in ensuring peace and stability in the region.
In his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Mattis carefully but unmistakably distanced himself from past Trump comments that seemed to question the continued importance of the US alliance relationships with Japan and Korea. Some on the White House staff favor long-standing but largely ignored proposals for reductions in the US troop presence in South Korea. Trump even seemed to question the US commitment to nonproliferation of nuclear weapons by openly speculating that it might be beneficial for Seoul and Tokyo to have their own nuclear defenses.
“I think Mattis is trying to get ahead of Trump, and starting to define alliances,” says Michael Green, Japan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He wants to begin to frame for the president and the White House what it means to be an ally, how allied contributions area evaluated and valued, and make clearer that the proper definition of an ally’s contribution is not simply the amount spent, but the output and effectiveness of the money spent.”
In that context, Green says, Mattis will emphasize reassurance, and continuity in the alliances with Japan and Korea, while also sending a message to the White House, which, Green says, “right now does not have a coherent idea of what alliances mean.”
First and foremost, that means a reiteration of the US stance against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and a commitment to deter any North Korean aggression. President Trump paved the way for Mattis a bit in a recent phone call with South Korean president Hwang Kyo-ahn.
Patrick Cronin, Asia security specialist at the Center for a New American Security, says that Mattis’s reassurances are “particularly important because of the shock waves created during the 2016 presidential election, the turbulence surrounding some of President Trump’s rapid-fire executive orders to include withdrawing from the TPP, and the lack of clarity about the new administration’s policies as it slowly assembles a complete administration.”
OPERATIONAL DISADVANTAGE: Still, there are limitations to what the widely-respected Mattis can accomplish without clarification from the White House about President Trump’s plans for the Asia-Pacific region. “Reassurances” only go so far, especially if it remains unclear to what extent the messenger speaks for the president.
In the context of his “American First,” agenda, Trump has already announced the US withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which had been framed by the Obama administration as a trade deal with both economic and strategic ramifications. Strategically, the TPP was to have loosely linked most of the region in a community that would set the terms for acceptable regional behavior to which China would have to conform. Absent the TPP, what will be the overarching theme of the US presence in East Asia?
Specifically, how will the administration approach China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, with Tokyo favorable to a hard line US stance, but not so hard line as to unnecessarily raise tensions and potentially pull Japan into an unwarranted confrontation with Beijing? The administration has had a hard time “explaining” away Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s testimony during his confirmation hearings that the US would bar China’s access to facilities it constructed in the South China Sea. Blocking China’s access would surely risk a confrontation, and might even violate the very freedom of navigation laws the US is insisting be respected.
The Trump White House seems anxious to win the active help of China to rein-in its unruly client in Pyongyang, with some arguing that forceful actions to deter China’s actions in the South China Sea could be the message needed to coerce Chinese cooperation on North Korea.
Others argue that consolidation of alliances is the best way for the US to influence Beijing.
And what specific plans does the new Trump administration have for upping pressure on North Korea, such as increased sanctions?
Any hint at answers to these basic policy questions will probably have to wait until February 10 at least, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to meet in Washington with Trump.
In the meantime, Mattis will have to stay within the policy parameters of reassuring Korea and Japan, while looking to energize programs and plans already on the agenda.
Indeed, the Pentagon downplayed expectations for the trip in briefings prior to Mattis’s departure, saying that Mattis was not traveling with any agenda or list of US expectations, but rather than reassert long-standing US polices. Mattis himself reinforced this point in a talk with reporters during the plane trip to the region. “I’m coming out to listen,” he said. “And then we’re going to work together and strengthen our alliances.”
THE TRUMP-MATTIS RELATIONSHIP: One factor also weighing on Mattis is the extent of his personal relationship with President Trump. Mattis was furious last week that Trump took the occasion of Mattis’s swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon to release before the assembled press his controversial executive order on immigration and refugees. With Mattis, who knew little of the executive order, standing right behind him and thus appearing to be giving his approval, Trump overshadowed Mattis’s big day, by promoting a policy that has sparked negative reactions in the US, and around the world, including inside the Pentagon.
The Trump White House is now the stage for several battles for turf and control of policy, and Mattis has reason for concern that his voice may be muffled by those in the White House, especially Trump Counselor Steve Bannon, who have policy agendas well-outside the traditional US mainstream. Bannon, to the surprise of many, has shown a particularly strong interest in Asia, and is exercising considerable influence over the filling of Asia-related policy jobs in the administration. Bannon was largely responsible for the drafting of Trump’s dark inaugural address, and for the executive order on immigration.
Homeland security secretary John Kelly, secretary of state Tillerson, and Mattis share a common interest in not being marginalized by Trump’s White House ‘Palace Guard,’ which includes Bannon, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and national security advisor Michael Flynn, though the latter is said to defer to Mattis’s higher military ranking and superior standing in Washington’s policy circles. Mattis, Kelly, and Tillerson met together, absent Flynn, in the days following the harsh reception to Trump’s immigration and refugee executive order.
EYES ON NORTH KOREA: The Trump administration shares the view that North Korea poses perhaps the most immediate military threat to the US, and to regional and global peace. The North-South divide remains the most militarized border in the world, with an unpredictable regime in Pyongyang looking to establish itself as a permanent nuclear weapons state.
Mattis is likely to reiterate the long-standing US support for deployment in South Korea of a THADD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) system against ballistic missiles. China, which argues that the THADD system is aimed against Beijing, not Pyongyang, has applied enormous pressure on Seoul to drop the project. Seoul seems intent on moving ahead, though political turmoil inside South Korea could complicate the matter.
Pyongyang has a long history of provocative actions that coincide with the inauguration of a new US president. The young leader Kim Jong-un has reportedly ordered the restart of the Yongbyon plutonium reactor that has been at the center of countless hours of US and allied negotiations with North Korean officials for over two decades. Another ballistic missile test could also be in the works, perhaps to coincide with the national holidays celebrating the February 16 birthday of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, and the April 15 birthday of North Korea founder, his grandfather Kim Il-sung.
Mattis will want to ensure that the “US-ROK alliance is robust and ready for all contingencies,” says Cronin.
ABE AND TRUMP: In Japan, Mattis is likely to repeat the US eagerness for increased “jointness” in the alliance, touching on everything from interoperability of weapons systems to joint US-Japan command structures that would steam line decision-making and operations in a crisis. Prior to the recent reinterpretation of the Article Nine ‘peace clause’ of Japan’s constitution, the US and Japan meticulously avoided any organizational arrangements that could have implied an illegal integration of US and Japanese military forces.
That obstacle is now greatly reduced, though the two sides have been slow to put new command structures, joint exercises, and planning in place to reflect the newly-expanded range of potential alliance cooperation.
Perhaps Tokyo’s the most specific desire from Mattis during this visit will be a reiteration that the US recognizes that the disputed Senkaku Islands, south of Okinawa, which China also claims, fall under the provisions of Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty. For Japan, this is a vital piece of assurance of US backing in the event of a China-initiated conflict in the region. Every US administration since Bill Clinton has provided this assurance to Japan.
Trump’s argument that Japan ought to contribute more to its defense is not likely to be discussed until, at earliest, the February 10 Trump-Abe meeting.
Less likely to receive new attention is the ongoing conflict in Okinawa over plans to build a new US Marine Corps heliport in the Henoko Bay area, to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma, now dangerously located in the center of Ginowan City.
Okinawa, led by current governor Takeshi Onaga, has voiced overwhelming opposition to the new facility, but few in Washington have been listening. Successive US governments have proclaimed the Henoko plan to be the only viable alternative to the existing Futenma base.
Governor Onaga arrived in Washington on January 31, in the hope of meeting White House and Congressional officials to make the case for an alternative to Henoko.
Onaga’s difficult plight was captured by the unfortunate timing of his DC visit: he arrived just as Mattis was preparing to leave Washington for his Asia trip. Okinawa issues remain far down the list of priorities in Washington.