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US Defense Secretary Embarks on Damage Control Mission to East Asia

FILE - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump walk into the Pentagon in Washington.
FILE - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump walk into the Pentagon in Washington.

On his first official trip to South Korea and Japan this week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is expected to reassure allies made nervous by President Donald Trump’s criticisms of “free rider” nations that do not pay their fair share of mutual defense costs.

“I think that uncertainty is viewed as destabilizing or potentially destabilizing. I think a number of alliance partners in the region are raising questions about the credibility of the U.S. alliance commitments,” said regional security analyst Daniel Pinkston with Troy University in Seoul.

North Korean Threat

The Pentagon says the defense secretary’s decision to make East Asia his first overseas destination is meant to reinforce the longstanding U.S. commitment to defend its allies against North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threat.

The U.S. defense secretary already spoke with South Korean Defense Minister Han Minkoo on Tuesday by telephone. Mattis reportedly reaffirmed the U.S. obligation to uphold the mutual defense treaty, that would include providing “extended deterrence,” the guarantee that American armed forces would help counter any North Korean attack on its allies with the vast U.S. arsenal of conventional weapons and even tactical nuclear weapons.

In addition, the two defense ministers agreed to deploy the U.S. THAAD missile defense shield this year as planned, over objections from China and despite mounting opposition in South Korea.

President Trump also spoke to South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn this week to say the U.S. would remain a strong military ally. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Trump at the White House on February 10.

Trump uncertainty

During the campaign Trump suggested he might withdrawal troops and allow allies to procure their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves, unless they agree to pay significantly more for American military protection. And in his inaugural address the president vowed to change U.S. policies that, “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

Leaders in Tokyo and Seoul have embraced the supportive statements coming from Trump and Mattis. But others expect the president to follow through on his campaign promise to use strong arm tactics to pressure Japan and South Korea to increase their defense contributions, just has he has done on other controversial issues like recently blocking visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Watch video report from VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb:

New Defense Secretary Travels to Japan, South Korea
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Critics say the Trump administration’s mixed messages to the region, and the increasing internal divisions and protests in the U.S., are leading allies to doubt whether they can continue to rely on American power.

“I think it would be odd if Japan and South Korea do not rethink their positions given the changes in the United States. Otherwise you will be completely at the mercy of the whims, and really the unpredictable conduct and deeds, from the Trump administration,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Nakano says Trump’s hardline approach will be as divisive in Asia as it is in the U.S., and will likely lead to an increase in anti-American sentiment and closer ties to China.

Converging interests

But Pinkston says the existential threat that a nuclear North Korea poses will keep the U.S. and its East Asian allies united, and that even contentious negotiations over defense costs will not ultimately dismantle longstanding security relationships in the region, especially the ties between Washington and Seoul.

“The incentive to cooperate, particularly in areas of national security and economic cooperation between U.S. and South Korea, are so strong that I think it transcends any person or individual in the White House and also the Blue House,” said Pinkston.

Mattis’s visit to East Asia, he says, as well as the continuation of annual joint military drills, will send a strong signal to adversaries in North Korea and China that the U.S. will remain engaged in the region.

There are over 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan and more than 28,500 in South Korea to maintain regional security. Both countries maintain they are currently in compliance with current defense sharing agreements. Tokyo reportedly pays over $1.6 billion and Seoul over $866 million to Washington to support American troops, in addition to other base construction costs and support. The U.S. spent $5.5 billion in 2016 on its bases in Japan, according to the Pentagon.