January 30, 2017

CNAS Press Note: Secretary Mattis’ Trip to South Korea and Japan

By Patrick M. Cronin

Washington, January 30 – As Secretary of Defense James Mattis prepares to take his inaugural trip abroad as secretary – to South Korea and Japan – Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program Director Dr. Patrick Cronin has written a new Press Note, “Secretary Mattis’ Trip to South Korea and Japan.”
The full Press Note is below:
Although the pivot or rebalance to Asia is no longer the catchphrase of U.S. policy, the first overseas destination for the highly regarded Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, will be to visit America’s linchpin allies South Korea and Japan. Less than two weeks after the inauguration, Secretary Mattis will depart on Wednesday, crossing 14 time zones to conduct high-level talks in Seoul and Tokyo from Thursday through Saturday.   

Notwithstanding the disruptive unorthodoxy of President Donald Trump, three rather traditional objectives are likely to frame the agenda for Secretary Mattis: (1) bolster deterrence, especially against North Korean provocations; (2) reassure allies at a time of heightened upheaval; and (3) reinforce defense ties in Northeast Asia to ensure they remain durable and strong well into the future.

First, deterrence is the most immediate need on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un has reportedly restarted the Yongbyon plutonium reactor and may be preparing to launch a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or conduct other hostile military tests. Kim’s actions could be timed to celebrate national holidays between the Day of the Shining Star on 16 February (the birthday of father Kim Jong-il) and the Day of the Sun on 15 April (the birthday of grandfather Kim Il-sung). Importantly, those dates also bracket the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises conducted by U.S. and South Korean military forces.

Kim Jong-un likes to show strength internally to solidify his legitimacy and exploit external weakness to divide superior opponents. Kim also appears to have embarked on the urgent goal of making North Korea a permanent nuclear-weapon state, capable of striking U.S. territory, as a means of deterring outside attack and a bargaining chip for turning around a failed economy. Provocations are nothing new for North Korea, but in the current environment, Pyongyang could miscalculate. 

At the very least, Secretary Mattis will want to leave little doubt that the U.S.-ROK alliance is robust and ready for all contingencies. Specifically, Secretary Mattis and his Korean counterparts are likely to seek to accelerate the deployment date of a Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile battery so that it happens prior to the next Korean election. If a Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, that election could come as early as mid-May rather than the regularly scheduled time of December of this year.

Of course, the deterrence of North Korea is also an urgent matter for the government of Japan. We can expect Secretary Mattis to discuss North Korean contingencies in Tokyo and remind officials in both allied capitals about the overlapping national security interests at stake. 

At the same time, in his discussions with the Japanese Prime Minister on Friday and his defense counterpart on Saturday, Secretary Mattis will be expected to continue clear statements that help deter Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea. In particular, Tokyo will want President Trump’s defense chief to reiterate the statement made on various occasions during the Obama administration: namely, that the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyutai by the Chinese) would be covered by the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in the event of an armed attack on them. Given that China is not likely to initiate a conflict, however, the tougher alliance strategy remains one that successfully curbs incremental accretions of sovereignty by China in so-called gray-zone situations. 

Second, steps to bolster deterrence will reassure America’s key allies in Northeast Asia. Taking the aforementioned steps and demonstrating constancy in America’s security commitments to South Korea and Japan will go a long way to stabilizing the two Northeast Asian alliances at the center of the postwar regional security order. Such reassurance is especially important because of the shock waves created during the 2016 presidential election, the turbulence surrounding some of President Trump’s rapid-fire executive orders to include withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the lack of clarity about the new administration’s policies as it slowly assembles a complete administration.

Most importantly, Secretary Mattis can underscore continuity in the alliance commitment and institutionalized processes, including but by no means limited to the bilateral Security Consultative Committee process that is led by the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State and their Japanese and South Korean counterparts, respectively, in so-called “2 + 2” meetings. Other more specific areas of continuity that may be mentioned might deal with ongoing or prospective arms cooperation and existing plans regarding base realignment, including in Okinawa. 

Third and finally, Secretary Mattis’ early visit to Seoul and Tokyo can signal not just continuity but also the need for continuous reform and adaptation if the alliances are to remain sustainable and effective in a changing security landscape. It may or may not transpire that Secretary Mattis engages his defense counterparts in both countries in a very general conversation that touches on future roles, missions, and capabilities that may inform alliance relations going forward. However, officials and analysts should not look for Secretary Mattis to delve into details better left for well-prepared forums.

President Trump has already spoken on the telephone this week with Prime Minister Abe and acting President Hwang. No doubt changes await U.S.-South Korean and U.S.-Japanese relations, something that should be visible when Abe visits the White House on 10 February. But by putting his boots (or wingtips) on the ground in Seoul and Tokyo, Secretary Mattis can lend his gravitas to and put his personal touch on the enduring American commitment to these two vital alliances.
Cronin is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409. 


  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...