During his first visit to Asia as US defense secretary, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis last week sought to reassure the United States’ two key allies in Northeast Asia that the new Trump administration plans to work closely with both Japan and South Korea.
Mattis traveled to the region for his first foreign visit to signal American reassurance that the country will not withdraw into isolationism nor lessen its commitments to joint defenses against threats from North Korea and China.
The threat posed by Beijing loomed large in the background of his meetings in both Seoul and Tokyo during the three-day trip.
During a visit to South Korea, Mattis said deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system would go forward, despite opposition from China. The system is needed to counter growing missile threats from North Korea.
On China, Mattis said regional stability is endangered by China from what he termed its “increasingly confrontational behavior” in the East and South China Seas.
Although understated in most media accounts of the visit, perhaps the most significant statement by the retired four-star general was his reiteration of the US defense commitment to backing Japan in its dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands — islands China has claimed as its sovereign territory and calls the Diaoyou.
Mattis reaffirmed that the uninhabited islands, which have large gas reserves in their territorial waters, are covered by the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America.
“The United States will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands, and as such Article Five of the US-Japan security treaty applies,” Mattis said during a press conference in Tokyo Saturday.
Under Article Five, the US and Japan both recognize that “an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger ” — an implicit call to use military force in response.
The Obama administration invoked that clause on several occasions during its eight years in office.
The Senkaku statements were made at the urging of the Japanese government that has faced growing Chinese military encroachment, provocations as part of a soft-power intimidation campaign by Beijing over the islands.
Mattis also indirectly hit China in his remarks warning that the “rules-based international order” is being challenged by Beijing.
Reaction from China was swift: three Coast Guard patrol boats sailed near the Senkakus on Monday. The Pentagon identified the vessels as Haijing-class patrol boats and said they passed close to the islands.
Other Chinese military activities in recent months have included flights by nuclear capable bombers near Taiwan and over disputed South China Sea islands.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, accused Mattis undermining regional stability by making the Senkaku commitment.
“We urge the US side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu islands’ sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation,” Lu said in a statement.
Lu then stated that the US-Japan defense treaty is a “product of the Cold War, which should not impair China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.”
China’s government frequently uses the term “Cold War” as code for anti-communism.
The term does not fit for US-China relations since during the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, Washington opened up relations with China as a hedge against Moscow.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi praised Mattis’ restatement of the Article Five commitment as very significant, and noted that “the security environment surrounding Japan is increasingly difficult.”
Mattis’ affirmation of defending Japan in the East China Sea appears to have shifted the focus away from another contested waterway: The South China Sea.
Mattis made clear in his comments that the US military had no immediate plans to bolster forces in that waterway where China has built new islands and in recent months has begun militarizing some of them with weaponry, including plans to deploy short-range missiles.
Mattis noted that China “shredded the trust of nations in the region” with the island-building and by using political pressure on states in the region.
The United States wants to see the rules-based order kept in place and avoid settling disputes with military means and occupying disputed land in international waters, he said.
Military forces can support diplomatic measures in the South China Sea against China’s expansive claims. But Mattis said he saw no need for an increase in military maneuvers in the region, although he asserted that freedom of navigation must be maintained for both commercial ships and the US Navy.
“So, at this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all,” he said.
Unlike the comments on the Senkakus, China favored the South China Sea comment. Lu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the focus on diplomacy was “worthy of affirmation.”
The next potential flashpoint in the South China Sea remains the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the Spratlys. China has announced plans for a major buildup on the shoal although work has not yet commenced.