Mattis wraps up Japan visit with U.S. pledge to maintain alliance ‘for years to come’

Reuters, AP, AFP-JIJI

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrapped up a visit to Japan on Saturday reaffirming Washington’s commitment to its defense treaty with Tokyo amid concerns about President Donald Trump’s approach to the region and the alliance.

Mattis reiterated that provocations by North Korea, which is advancing its nuclear weapons and missile programs, as well as China’s growing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, left no room for doubt about U.S. commitment to Japan’s defense.

That was similar to the message that Mattis — making his first overseas trip since taking office — delivered in South Korea, Washington’s other key Asian ally, earlier in the week.

He appeared eager to reassure Japan of U.S. resolve, after a 2016 election campaign in which Trump suggested both South Korea and Japan were benefiting from a U.S. security umbrella without sharing enough of the costs.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is critical to ensuring that this region remains safe and secure — not just now, but for years to come,” Mattis told a joint news conference with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.

But in what could been seen as a subtle prod to Japan to do more, he added: “But make no mistake: in my meetings with Japanese leaders, both our nations recognize that we must not be found complacent in the face of the emerging challenges we face.

“As our alliance grows, it will be important for both our nations to continue investing in our defense personnel and capabilities.”

Mattis said Tokyo’s financial support for U.S. troops in Japan had been a “model of cost-sharing” while Inada told the same news conference there had been no discussion of whether Japan should increase that funding.

Mattis also noted that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has increased defense spending since taking office in December 2012, a move he said was “on the right track.”

Japan’s defense spending is around 1 percent of gross domestic product, compared to around 2 percent for China and over 3 percent for the United States.

Mattis also repeated that Trump’s administration would adhere to Washington’s commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are under Japanese control but claimed also by China, an assurance that Tokyo has been keen to hear.

Beijing lashed out at the remarks, saying the U.S. is putting regional stability in East Asia at risk.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called on the U.S. to avoid discussion of the Senkakus, which are known in Chinese as the Diaoyus.

The 1960 U.S.-Japan treaty is “a product of the Cold War, which should not impair China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights,” Lu was quoted as saying in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

“We urge the U.S. side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu islands’ sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation,” Lu said.

The islands that lie between Taiwan and Okinawa were under U.S. administration from the end of World War II until their return to Japan in 1972. China cites historical records for its claim, and Japan’s move to nationalize several of the islands in 2012 set off anti-Japanese riots in China and prompted the government to dispatch ships and planes to the area around them as a challenge to Japanese control.

China also registered its displeasure with Mattis’ remarks Friday in South Korea that Trump’s administration is committed to carrying through on a deal the Obama administration reached with the Seoul government last year to deploy a high-end U.S. missile defense system to South Korea this year.

The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is meant to improve protection of South Korea and Japan — as well as U.S. troops stationed in both countries — against a North Korean missile attack.

Beijing objects to the system because its powerful radar would allow it to peer deep into northeastern China, possibly allowing it to observe Chinese military movements.

At a Friday news conference, Lu said China’s “resolute opposition to the deployment … remains unchanged and will not change.”

The deployment “will jeopardize security and the strategic interests of regional countries, including China, and undermine the strategic balance in the region,” Lu said.

Inada said she told Mattis that Japan would play a proactive security role, in line with legal changes enacted under Abe that eased the limits of its pacifist Constitution on its military’s operations overseas.

At the start of her talks with Mattis, Inada said she hoped his visit to Seoul and Tokyo would deepen three-way security ties. Japan’s relations with South Korea have frayed recently due to a feud over wartime history, just as tensions over North Korea make cooperation vital.

“South Korea is an important neighbor,” Inada said.

“I want to link Secretary Mattis’ visit to Japan and South Korea to the further deepening of defense cooperation among the three countries.”

Japan’s relations with South Korea have frayed recently due to a feud over wartime history, just as tensions over North Korea make cooperation between the two allies vital.

Japan last month temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea over a statue near the Japanese Consulate in the city of Busan commemorating Korean “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

Tokyo says the statue, put in place late last year, and another near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, violate a December 2015 agreement stating the issue — which has long plagued ties — would be “irreversibly resolved” if all conditions were met.

Mattis also tabbed Iran as the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, comments that come in the wake of fresh sanctions slapped on the country’s weapons procurement network.

“As far as Iran goes, this is the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Mattis said at a news conference, but added that the U.S. had no plans to increase troop numbers in the Middle East in response.

“It does no good to ignore it. It does no good to dismiss it and at the same time I don’t see any need to increase the number of forces we have in the Middle East at this time,” he said.

“We always have the capability to do so but right now I don’t think it’s necessary.”

U.S. officials said that the new sanctions, announced Friday, were in response to Iran’s ballistic missile test this week and its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, who recently targeted a Saudi warship.

The new sanctions do not yet mean that the U.S. has abandoned commitments it made under an earlier deal to lift measures aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, officials said.

But Trump has made no secret of his contempt for that accord, which his predecessor Barack Obama approved in July 2015, and officials said Friday’s measures would not be the last against the country.