11.02.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

US Defence Secretary’s First Overseas Tour was Aimed at Bringing Tokyo and Seoul Closer Together

56345234234It can be safely stated that the recent trip of the US Secretary of Defense James Norman Mattis to South Korea and Japan has been a milestone event. For what it counts, this was the first overseas trip of a principal figure of the new US administration that was aimed at reestablishing ties with North-East Asian countries, those that are situated in the most problematic Asian subregion.

Most experts unanimous agree that this step has confirmed once again that the main geopolitical trend of the past two decades remains unchanged, as the attention of major players gradually shifts from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific one.

The message that Washington tried to bring across to its allies by this trip can be summed up in the notion that they should pay no heed to the numerous and often contradictory statements that Donald Trump was making during his pre-election campaign, even though it’s hard to forget how such statements wiped the trademark smile off the face of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Although Japan was listed second in the trip schedule of James Mattis, who first visited South Korea, US Secretary of Defence did everything he could to eliminate any doubts that Tokyo had about the future of the US-Japanese bilateral ties. James Mattis has once again stressed the fact that Japan remains a principal ally of Washington in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, first steps in this direction were made much earlier when journalists learned that William Hagerty would be appointed US ambassador to Tokyo. It’s hardly a secret that Hagerty is known for his ardent support of any steps that could strengthen Washington’s ties with Japan.

These developments have shown that Donald Trump is determined to fulfill the promise he made in his inauguration speech to mend old alliances that the United States have been developing for a really long time. However, it remains unclear how the 45th US President is going to pursue these goals while staying true to his principal ‘America First’ slogan. Recent developments show that Trump has been thoroughly briefed by Western experts that know the situation in the Asia-Pacific region inside-out.

Apparently, it became clear to Donald Trump that in spite of a number of serious drawbacks that the bilateral trade with Japan has been facing, Washington is equally interested in the preservation of its military ties with America’s principal ally in the region. Therefore, Sinzo Abe and his defense minister Tomomi Inada were listening to John Mattis pretty carefully to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding. It was critical for Tokyo to learn that the White House is determined to fulfill its obligations under Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security even in the situation when Tokyo’s attempts to contest China’s claim of the Senkaku Islands ownership would trigger a military conflict.

In turn, the representative of the new US administration was apparently pleased to hear about Japan’s plans to increase military expenditures to meets the demands that Donald Trump has been voicing over and over again to all of Washington’s allies. In addition, the attention of the high-profile guest was attracted to the fact that Tokyo has managed to overcome the resistance of Okinawa governor that was reluctant to allow the transfer of the US military base in Futenma.

Japan has been moderately positive in the assessment of results of this visit, however it’s been noted that to some extent Tokyo remains concerned over Donald Trump’s pre-election rhetoric. In this regard, a particular importance is being attached to the second round of negotiations at the highest level, but for this time Shinzo Abe is going to visit the United States.

However, it’s highly possible that the US Secretary of Defence partially fulfilled the functions of a State Secretary, which is logical in a situation when Rex Tillerson’s approval takes a lot of time. There’s no doubt that James Mattis tried to ease the tension that exist today between today between two major American allies – Japan and South Korea.

It should be noted that this recent state of aggravation in the Sino-Korean bilateral relations has been closely related to the matter of “comfort women“. But what is curious is that Seoul has been a hostage of anti-Japanese moods in the South Korean society, since it had little to no intention to undermine bilateral ties. So, as of now, the only thing that continues to link the two states is the concern over the North Korean nuclear program.

Under the pretext of countering this threat the US has deployed its THAAD missile defence systems in South Korea last July, although it is crystal clear for pretty much everyone that this system is aimed at countering China’s advancement in the region. Japan is now evaluating the rational behind the deployment of similar systems on its territory, while saying that this process is once again triggered by the so-called North Korean threat.

At the same time George Mattis found it necessary to make public announcement that this recent THAAD deployment has nothing to do with China, which resulted in mild formal protests being voiced by Beijing.

It seems that a number of alarming assessments about the prospects of US-Chinese relations that international experts have been making since the day Trump got elected has been a little premature to make. NEO has already noted earlier, that while these two major players are taking certain mutually unpleasant steps, nothing prevents Washington and Beijing from enjoying stable bilateral relations.

What we are seeing at play now is the urgent need for the United States to pursue the resolution of the conflicting situation in the Sino-Korean relations. How successful was US Defence Secretary’s attempt to disarm the situation will be clear in the immediate future.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.