US defence chief James Mattis to visit Japan, South Korea next week on debut trip: Source

US defence chief James Mattis plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week.
US defence chief James Mattis plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump’s defence secretary plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week, choosing the two close US allies for his debut trip abroad as Pentagon chief, a US official said on Tuesday (Jan 24), speaking on condition of anonymity.

Gen James Mattis, a retired Marine general, was sworn into the Pentagon’s top job shortly after Mr Trump’s inauguration last Friday and a quick departure to Asia could be seen as a nod to the importance the new US administration places on security ties.

The trip would closely follow Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, fulfilling a campaign pledge but disappointing many key US allies in Asia.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, had touted TPP in part as a counter-weight to a rising China.

No further details were immediately available about Gen Mattis’proposed itinerary.

Still, Gen Mattis, in his confirmation hearing this month, described “the Pacific theatre” as a priority and analysts expect new US military spending under Mr Trump’s administration would strengthen America’s military presence in Asia over time.

Topping US concerns in the region are North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and China’s military moves in the South China Sea.

Tension with Beijing escalated this week when Mr Trump’s White House vowed to defend “international territories” in the strategic waterway. China responded by saying it had“irrefutable” sovereignty over disputed islands there.

Gen Mattis, in his Senate testimony, also voiced concern about North Korea, describing Pyongyang’s activities as a “serious threat” that required US attention.

There are about 28,500 US troops based in South Korea helping to defend the country against North Korea, which has technically remained in a state of war with the South since the 1950-53 Korean conflict.

South Korea and the United States say the upcoming deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system will better help to protect Seoul against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic capabilities.

But China says THAAD’s powerful radar could penetrate its own territory, prompting calls from some South Korean opposition leaders to delay or cancel its deployment.