Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first official foreign visit as a member of the Trump administration. It was also the first overseas visit by any member of the new cabinet. The new Defense Secretary spent time in both South Korea and Japan, two of America’s most important allies in Asia. The choice of these two countries was deliberate: both countries are needed to help contain the nuclear threat of North Korea, and Japan is facing an encroaching Chinese presence in the East China Sea. Mattis’ goal was to reassure Seoul—which is currently facing a full-blown political crisis—and Tokyo of American commitments to their security.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign about certain allies not pulling their weight, as president, he must now work with these two countries to keep the region stable. The trip could be described as quite successful. Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a missile defense system that could protect South Korea from a potential attack by North Korea. His comments about U.S. commitments were clear: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.” That’s about as stalwart of a commitment or reassurance as any country can get. The secretary’s visit to Japan struck similar tones. In a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Defense Minister of Japan, Mattis specifically mentioned U.S. policy toward islands that both Japan and China claim sovereignty over: “I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands — the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies.” Article 5 “recognizes 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 in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” If the U.S. recognizes Japanese sovereignty over these islands, then the U.S. would have to use force to defend the Japanese territory if the Chinese attacked in some way.
While Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to both countries, China expressed concern and outrage over his comments in both South Korea and Japan over THAAD and the Senkaku Islands. In regards to THAAD, China believes its implementation would “undermine the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, disrupt regional strategic balance, and help in no way peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The Chinese see THAAD as not limited to containing the North Korean threat. THAAD potentially could be used to take out or track Chinese missiles in the region. The United States and South Korea are not likely to heed Chinese complaints. China released a statement challenging Mattis’ remarks about U.S. commitment to Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands: “Diaoyu [the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands] and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called US-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.” This statement is nothing new, and the issue will not go away any time soon, so it is important to Japan to receive such unwavering reassurance from the United States.
As China continues to contest sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and build artificial islands in the South China Sea, it is necessary not just for Asian nations to receive American reassurances of support, but also for the United States to continually and explicitly express its commitment to maintaining a major role in the region, especially with the transition between administrations. China will likely attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration while it is still getting its feet on the ground and begins to formulate Asia policy. Having Secretary Mattis make a trip to South Korea two weeks into the new administration demonstrates continued understanding of America’s role in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable. While the Defense Secretary offered firm reassurances to both nations, Mattis also expressed hesitation to escalate beyond the status quo. In Japan, he also noted that the administration does not “see any need for dramatic military moves” and that both the U.S. and China should “exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication.”
Unfortunately, other cabinet members and advisors have made troubling remarks about the region and U.S.-China relations. Though Mattis made the most recent of statements in regards to U.S. policy towards Asia, in the very recent past, other people in the administration have made remarks that undercut and conflict with what Mattis said. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to. . . .We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.” Such a policy would be a dramatic change from previous administrations. In December 2016, it was revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft and other weapons systems on its artificial islands in the South China Sea. If the United States were to adopt Tillerson’s policy of denial of entry, then confrontation of some sort will likely erupt since China has a significant military presence on its islands. Is the Trump administration willing to risk war to prevent China from doing what it has already done for years? What positive outcome can the new administration expect by adopting such a policy? It is especially unnerving because a Chinese official at the Central Military Commission noted that “A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”
Moreover, in March 2016, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and now a member of the National Security Council, remarked that war between the United States and China in the South China Sea is inevitable: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? . . . There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” Although Bannon’s remark predated his joining the Trump campaign in August 2016, it is dangerous for a key member of the Trump administration to have such hawkish views on China. With Bannon in the White House and influencing national security policy, such an opinion could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bannon thinks war is inevitable, so he purposefully or accidentally makes it so.
Different members of the administration have made conflicting statements about China and the Asia-Pacific region in general. Is diplomacy possible or not? Is war inevitable? Will the United States needlessly antagonize China? What are Japan and South Korea supposed to believe is the prevailing opinion or policy stance of the Trump administration? It appears that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. As Mattis was visiting Asia, the news broke about Bannon’s previous statements. Can U.S. allies in Asia count on Mattis’ reassurances and commitments? Now that Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, we must hope that he listens to his diplomats—and Secretary Mattis—and does not advocate for such an aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Branding China as the enemy this early in the administration limits how the United States can cooperate with China on important issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. What the United States and its allies can hope for is that Secretary Mattis’ reserved and cautious approach prevails.