U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis wrapped up his four-day trip to Asia on Saturday, reassuring Japan and South Korea that America is committed to the security of the Asia-Pacific region despite fears of abandonment stoked by President Donald Trump.
If Tokyo’s biggest goals were to have Washington reaffirm the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and to have Mattis confirm that the U.S. is committed to the defense of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, then it accomplished its mission, experts said. At least for the moment.
“I think the Abe administration is now relieved,” said Mikio Haruna, a noted journalist who specializes in diplomacy and is a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Trump has said many things that contradict the mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S., but Mattis has made it clear that Trump’s position (on the alliance) is not so different from Obama’s.”
During a joint news conference with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, Mattis said, “Let me assure, President Trump’s administration has placed a higher priority in this region, and specifically on a long-term ally like Japan.”
He added, “I told minister Inada that the U.S. is committed to the defense of Japan under the treaty of mutual security.”
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. Mattis’ comment was widely interpreted as a warning to China, which claims the Senkakus as Diaoyu and regularly sends government ships and airplanes to patrol the sea around them.
Narushige Michishita, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said that during his meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Inada, Mattis had given Japan exactly what it sought: assurance to apply the security treaty to the Senkakus and keep China in check.
In the next high-level talks, Japan may be asked to expand its own role to contribute to bilateral security ties, Michishita said.
“During the talks this time, the U.S. offered what Japan wanted, but Trump would be thinking what Japan would offer to the U.S.,” Michishita said. “The question is what Trump would ask during the summit talk” planned on Feb. 10 in Washington, he said.
Indeed, during the news conference Mattis may have gently urged Japan to consider what it can contribute more to the military alliance. He said the two countries should not be found “complacent in the face of emerging challenge.”
“As our alliance grows, it is important that both nations continue investing in our defense personnel and defense capabilities. In this manner we are truth partners together today and years to come,” Mattis said.
On the campaign trail, Trump questioned the alliance by saying that Japan has to pay more to enjoy the security umbrella provided by the U.S. military, and even suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons.
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.
But at least in public during his trip to Japan, Mattis repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance while recognizing the military threats from North Korea, which has been advancing its nuclear and missile technology, and China, which has been escalating its military assertiveness in the East and South China seas.
Mattis also said that the U.S. will continue to provide extended deterrence to Japan, including the nuclear umbrella.
In April 2014, President Barack Obama assured Tokyo that Article 5 applies to the Senkakus, and Tokyo had tried hard to have the Trump administration reconfirm that commitment.
A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reassurance by Mattis bears “political importance,” especially when various diplomatic policies of Trump’s administration remain unclear. Japanese officials had been concerned that Mattis might demand Japan shoulder more of the cost of keeping U.S. military forces stationed in Japan, as Trump repeatedly demanded during his election campaign.
But much to the surprise of observers in Japan, Mattis lauded Japan’s host-nation support as an example to other nations during the news conference.
“I believe that Japan has been a model of the cost-sharing and burden-sharing,” Mattis said.
According to Japanese and American officials, Mattis did not discuss any issues involving Japan’s host-nation support for the U.S. military in Japan.
The defense secretary, who long ago was stationed in Japan as a U.S. Marine, also repeated when he met with Inada that the U.S. recognizes the Japanese administration of the Senkakus and won’t tolerate unilateral actions by China to change the status quo.
Beijing has sharply reacted to the reconfirmed alliance between Japan and the United States.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Friday that U.S. officials should stop making wrong remarks on the issue of sovereignty over the East China Sea islands and should not further complicate the problem or destabilize the situation in the region.
There are many ways to calculate the percentage of Japan’s burden-sharing. For example, Japan’s burden-sharing in 2016 was around 50 percent if the host-nation support is calculated against the roughly $5.5. billion that the U.S. paid for its military deployment in Japan.
Inada earlier this month said that Japan had paid 86.4 percent of the cost in 2015, but this number was calculated only based on the items that Japan and the U.S. pays together, not the entire costs incurred by the U.S., such as wages for military personnel.