Ahead of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to East Asia last week, the Pentagon said that Mattis would primarily be in “listening mode” as he sought to hear out the concerns of counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo. More than anything, though, Mattis’ first overseas trip functioned as a reassurance tour, clarifying existing U.S. policy for allies and opponents alike who are unnerved by Trump. The FT:
James Mattis, US defence secretary, said during a visit to Asia that there was no need for “dramatic military moves” in the South China Sea to pressure Beijing to stop construction on a series of maritime features in the contested resource-rich waters.
Speaking in Tokyo after a visit to South Korea and Japan, Mr Mattis stressed the US should pursue diplomatic efforts to urge China to stop its controversial activities in the South China Sea. He said that although the US would continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in international waters, “we do not see any need for dramatic military moves”.
“What we have to do is exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication,” Mr Mattis said at a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Japanese defence minister. “Certainly our military stands to be one that reinforces our diplomats in this regard. [But] there is no need now at this time for military manoeuvres or something like that, that would solve something that is best solved by diplomats.”
General Mattis’s balanced messaging on China—chiding Beijing for its aggression but stressing the need for responsible diplomacy, not reckless action—was typical of a trip designed to calm anxieties about the new administration’s policy. The message was all about policy continuity. In South Korea, the SecDef said that Washington would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Seoul against the threat from Pyongyang, promised an “overwhelming” response to any nuclear attack from the north, and reaffirmed his commitment to deploying the THAAD missile defense system. In Japan, he acknowledged the Senkaku Islands as Japanese territory and confirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Agreement would apply to them.
Even under normal circumstances, the task of reassuring allies is an important one; it is doubly so given fears in Asia about Trump’s unconventional trade policies, his explosive rhetoric toward China, and his generally transactional view of U.S. security alliances. General Mattis appears to be doing a commendable job of soothing nerves. It remains to be seen if the White House legitimately has his back, or if it will end up cutting out his legs out from under him with its next rhetorical blast.