Secretary of Defense James Mattis will make his first official trip abroad next week, traveling to Japan and South Korea – visits that could help shore up allies and send a message to China.
The four-day trip beginning next Wednesday will “underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances,” said US Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, who called South Korea and Japan “two critical US allies,”
His visit to two of America’s long-time treaty allies, where Mattis will meet with his defense counterparts in each country, comes amid questions surrounding President Donald Trump’s commitment to those alliances.
Trump had voiced a skeptical view of America’s relationships with Japan and South Korea during the 2016 campaign, saying Tokyo and Seoul should pay more for the thousands of American troops stationed in both countries.
There are approximately 50,000 US troops in Japan and about 28,000 in South Korea.
Mattis’ visit could be seen as an attempt to assuage those concerns. He made similar efforts this week in calls with key NATO allies and it is believed that he will also attend the NATO defense ministers’ conference this month.
“The folks in Japan are very happy about the visit,” a second defense official told CNN.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first world leader to meet with Trump after his surprise election victory, visiting the President-elect at Trump Tower in New York.
The Pentagon chief could also be sending a message to China and North Korea. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has sounded a hawkish note on China’s construction and militarization of islands in the South China Sea and Trump himself has said that North Korea will not be permitted to develop a nuclear missile capable of hitting the US.
Japan has made a concerted effort to boost its military capabilities, particularly in the area of naval and amphibious warfare, with an eye toward both North Korea and an increasingly assertive China. And South Korea has agreed to allow the US to deploy the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to ward off threats from Pyongyang.
Asked about China’s actions in the South China Sea and the role America’s alliances in Asia during his confirmation hearings, Mattis said, “I believe allies contribute greatly to deterrence and modifying the behavior or misbehavior of those who would disrupt the global order.”