I learned a long time ago – through much pain and suffering – that sometimes the most obvious explanation is the correct one. And, in the case of new US Secretary of Defense James Mattis heading to Asia on his first overseas trip — and specifically to South Korea and Japan, why he is heading there first is quite obvious: to reassure vital American allies that not only will Washington back them up in a crisis, but Seoul and Tokyo have zero to fear in the age of Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy strategy.
A timely visit in a time of uncertainty
For two of America’s most important Asian allies who are facing major challenges from North Korea and China, the visit could not be any more well-timed.
For South Korea, the first nation the new defense secretary will visit is of vital importance. As North Korea continues to develop an increasingly dangerous nuclear weapons capability, Seoul desperately wants to make sure President Trump will stand with them in a crisis. And don’t forget about Pyongyang’s chemical and biological weapons as well as artillery pointed at Seoul, too, along with an increasing number of potent missiles that could send an atomic warhead to not only South Korea, or Japan but possibly the United States. A trip like this sends such a signal.
And considering the fact that North Korea could test a long-range missile in the very near future, Secretary Mattis must find a way to make it clear to his counterparts in South Korea that Washington will not only honor its treaty commitments, but that there is no daylight between Washington and Seoul in the event of a crisis on the peninsula.
While President Trump has already reaffirmed the US-South Korean alliance now on several occasions – moving past some of the more heated rhetoric of last year’s president campaign – the Mattis visit is a clear opportunity to reset the relationship on more positive terms.
A mission to reassure after the death of TPP
As for Japan, the Mattis visit, following the new administration’s move to formally remove itself from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, clearly demonstrates how vital Washington sees the US-Japan alliance, and that the death of the TPP will not change that.
Mattis also can convey directly to his counterparts in Tokyo that Washington takes its concerns seriously when it comes to North Korea and signal an important show of alliance strength at a time when China continues to aggressively push its claims in the East China Sea.
For Tokyo, the China challenge is front and center. As a senior Japanese naval official explained to me in the last 24 hours via email, they will be watching the Mattis visit with great interest – especially if he was to reaffirm that Article 5 of the US-Japan defense treaty will cover the Senkaku Islands, as President Barack Obama and various other senior Obama administration officials did on several occasions.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonimity as he was not authorized to speak for the government noted: “For Japan, the alliance with America is our best insurance that China will not engage in mischief that we would consider existential – like trying to take effective control of the East China Sea in some way. It is our protective blanket, if you will, knowing that Beijing will only go so far. While Trump may have made some tough comments during the campaign about Japan, we feel comfortable that this administration will actually strengthen the alliance. Mattis coming here is a good sign.”
What happens in Washington matters
While the visit to Asia by Mattis is clearly a sign that the Trump administration is taking regional security threats seriously, it’s what is happening back in Washington that has the region spellbound – and wondering about America’s long-term strategic trajectory.
One senior diplomat in Washington, who represents another important American partner, put it quite bluntly, but correctly: “Yes, the Mattis visit is important, but you need to get your damn house in order. You can come to Asia all you want, but you need calm at home to enact any substantive policy.”
And that could not be any further from the truth. The good news for the Trump administration is that this visit also gives them the opportunity to change the subject and, hopefully, turn the news cycle to matters of foreign policy and away from what can only be considered a tough first few days in office. Let’s hope they make the most of that opportunity.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former US President Richard M. Nixon, as well as executive editor of The National Interest. In the past, Kazianis has managed foreign policy communications of The Heritage Foundation and served as editor of The Diplomat.