Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Friday, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to the military alliance with Japan as global concern grows over the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.
At the outset of the meeting, Mattis told Abe that “we stand firmly, 100 percent for” the alliance with Japan in light of the military threat from North Korea.
“I want to make certain that Article 5 of our mutual defense treaty is understood to be real to us today, as it was a year ago, five years ago” and ten years from now as well, Mattis told Abe.
Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty obliges Japan and the United States to jointly defend a Japan-administered area should it be attacked by a third country.
In April 2014 former U.S. President Barack Obama assured Tokyo that Article 5 applies to the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Japan has endeavored to have the Trump administration reaffirm that commitment to deter any military attempt by China to seize the uninhabited islets, which Japan recently nationalized. According to NHK, Mattis reassured Abe that Article 5 applies to the Senkakus. He made the same reassurances during a chat with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida later in the day, Kishida said.
The retired four-star marine general is the first senior official from the Trump administration to make an overseas diplomatic trip.
“I highly value the fact that Japan and East Asia was one of the first destinations of your visit as secretary of defense,” Abe told Mattis through a translator.
“It is a testament to your administration’s emphasis on the Japan-U.S. alliance as well as the security relationship,” Abe said as reporters watched. The meeting was then closed to journalists.
Observers think that Trump, as he repeatedly said during his presidential campaign, may pressure Tokyo to shoulder more of the cost of keeping U.S. military forces in Japan and increase its defense budget.
But a foreign ministry official confirmed that the issue of host nation support was never brought up at the meetings. Abe and Mattis agreed that the stable deployment of the U.S. forces in Japan is crucial, the official said.
The official also said that Mattis did not discuss Japan’s defense budget, adding that both men agreed there was a need for Japan to beef up its defensive capabilities amid escalating tensions in the region.
Japan now spends less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, and some U.S. hawks have argued Tokyo should pay more for its own protection.
Mattis, who met South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo earlier in the day, visited Seoul and Tokyo to ease growing concerns about the heavy-handed posturing Trump advocated during his campaign.
In Seoul, Mattis said that “America’s commitments to defending our allies and to upholding our extended deterrence guarantees remain ironclad.”
“Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” Mattis was quoted as saying.
Japan has long relied on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which protects Japan with a pledge to retaliate on behalf of an ally if an enemy country attacks it with a nuclear weapon.
According to the South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, Mattis and Han also agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea by the end of fiscal 2017, as previously scheduled.
Seoul and Washington have agreed to deploy the U.S. anti-missile defense system, but Beijing is strongly opposed to it.
The long-range, early-warning radar system will cover much of China’s coastal areas, apparently one of the reasons Beijing is so strongly opposed to the plan.
On Saturday, Mattis is set to meet his Japanese counterpart Tomomi Inada.
Mattis’ visit precedes Abe’s Feb. 10 summit with Trump in Washington, where the prime minister plans to propose an economic cooperation package that will reportedly generate 700,000 U.S. jobs and help create a $450 billion (¥50 trillion) market.