As the first member of the cabinet of U.S. President Donald Trump to visit Japan, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reassured Tokyo that the bilateral alliance is firm in the face of North Korean threats and Chinese maritime assertiveness.
But Tokyo still may not feel at ease as many uncertainties exist about Trump’s “America First” agenda and his confrontational rhetoric toward even close allies.
“It was a very good meeting. I think it was a big success,” a Japanese Defense Ministry official said after talks Saturday between Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and Mattis at the end of the Pentagon chief’s two-day visit.
“The two countries agreed fully on all kinds of issues,” the official said. “The defense chiefs were able to build trust with each other and I expect it to continue.”
Through a series of meetings in Tokyo, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, offered all the key security reassurances that Tokyo was waiting to hear from the Trump administration, including the U.S. commitment to defend the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims.
There was also what the Japanese official called a happy “surprise” as Mattis praised Japan at a press conference Saturday as “a model” of burden-sharing over the costs of stationing U.S. forces in the country. During the presidential campaign, Trump had portrayed Japan as a free-rider on security.
But some experts said the Japanese government must still worry whether the assurances offered by Mattis truly reflect what will be Trump administration policy toward Japan.
“There will always be concerns” that promises may be reversed by Trump, said Kazuhiro Maeshima, a Sophia University professor specializing in American government and foreign policy.
Maeshima also warned that Japan has to be careful not to let Trump use the defense commitment over the Senkakus as a bargaining chip to win concessions from Japan, for example, on economic issues such as direct investment in the United States. Trump considers himself a consummate dealmaker and concerns linger that he may try to negotiate security and economic issues in ways that resemble his real estate bargaining.
There are also concerns over how Washington will assess Japan’s financial contributions toward the costs of U.S. military forces stationed in the country.
Mattis did not raise the issue at any of the meetings in Tokyo, apparently to the relief of the Japanese side. But that does not mean Washington may not bring up the issue in the future.
Maeshima said Mattis may have wanted to avoid roiling the waters ahead of a summit meeting between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Feb. 10 in Washington, their first face-to-face talks since Trump took office on Jan. 20.
Trump has already stunned the Abe government by ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, and by accusing Japan of devaluing the yen.
Ken Jimbo, an associate professor at Keio University, said Mattis may have avoided getting into specifics on such topics as the host-nation support issue, because the new administration has yet to work out a detailed foreign policy agenda among the president, White House staffers and the State and Defense secretaries.
Jimbo was also doubtful that Mattis’ visit to the Asia-Pacific itself was part of some “clear-cut doctrine” of the administration. “I rather think that a very pragmatic reason has brought Mr. Mattis to this region. And that is South Korea,” the expert on Asia-Pacific security issues said.
While many aspects of Trump’s foreign and security policies in the Asia-Pacific region remain vague, the White House webpage does cite the development of missile defense systems to counter attacks from countries like North Korea as among its “America First” policy priorities.
Seoul has agreed to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system. But Mattis, worried that the controversial plan may be interrupted following the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye in December, may have thought he should go to Seoul to give a fresh boost to the issue before an election is held to pick Park’s successor.
“And you can’t skip Japan (if you’re going to South Korea), so it was a practical decision for Mr. Mattis to also come to Japan,” Jimbo said.
As a result, the meetings held in Tokyo seemed to have centered on sharing a basic awareness of the alliance relationship and regional security challenges, leaving many issues for later discussion.
Attention is now shifting to the Abe-Trump summit, which Maeshima said has the potential to affect the fate of the decades-old alliance.
“If the president does not pledge the U.S. defense commitment over the Senkakus, the alliance will start to drift,” the professor said, adding that the consequence of a frayed relationship is an increasingly assertive China and instability of the region.
He also said Japan and the United States should continue to cherish shared values such as democracy, free trade and the rule of law, which serve as the basis for the present alliance, or otherwise they could see the alliance end up based on self-interests.