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U.S. defense chief Mattis looks to visit Japan, South Korea in early February

Kyodo, Staff Report

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week in a demonstration of Asia’s importance to the administration of President Donald Trump, officials from the two allies said Tuesday.

Mattis is expected to be the first Cabinet member of the Trump administration to visit Japan since the Republican’s inauguration Friday.

The Pentagon chief plans to meet with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on Feb. 3 after paying a courtesy call on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the previous day, according to the officials.

Mattis and Inada are likely to reaffirm the importance of maintaining the robust alliance between Tokyo and Washington and affirm that U.S. engagement is vital in ensuring stability in the region.

Mattis may request that Japan increase defense spending and expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces abroad in line with his call on U.S. allies this month to “carry their fair share of any kind of defense burden.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump demanded that Japan, South Korea and other U.S. allies cover a greater share of the costs associated with stationing U.S. forces in their countries — or else defend themselves. Japan, however, regards its nearly 75 percent contribution as sufficient.

Mattis and Inada are expected to exchange views on China’s island construction and military buildup in disputed areas in the South China Sea and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

They are also expected to discuss a plan to relocate the operations of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.

Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said the visit by Mattis would “demonstrate continued U.S. commitment to its allies amid uncertainties about the new administration.”

Kotani said Mattis would likely make clear that the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands are covered by the two nations’ security treaty. China also claims the Senkakus, which it calls the Diaoyus.

“Secretary Mattis is also likely to raise the issue of further security cooperation in areas such as ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), ballistic/cruise missile defense and sea control,” Kotani said. “With its peace and security legislation and the revised defense cooperation guidelines, Japan is ready to discuss those issues.”

Going next to Seoul, Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo will likely discuss North Korea and the planned deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to South Korea, according to the officials.

China has strongly opposed the THAAD deployment, saying it could undermine China’s security interests and the strategic balance of the region.

Speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 12, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, said, “The Pacific theater remains a priority in my mind.”

In an apparent reference to Beijing’s assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea with no legal basis, Mattis said, “China is shedding trust along its periphery.”