New Pentagon chief's debut trip 'will be to Japan and South Korea'

James Mattis signs his confirmation letter to be named US Secretary of Defense in Vice President Mike Pence's Ceremonial Office in Washington, DC, on Jan 20, 2017.
James Mattis signs his confirmation letter to be named US Secretary of Defense in Vice President Mike Pence's Ceremonial Office in Washington, DC, on Jan 20, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Visit to close allies in Asia could reflect importance that new US govt places on security ties

WASHINGTON • US Defence Secretary James Mattis plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week, choosing the two close US allies for his debut trip abroad, a US official said on condition of anonymity.

A quick departure to Asia by Mr Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, could be seen as a nod to the importance that the new US administration places on security ties.

In his confirmation hearing this month, Mr Mattis described "the Pacific theatre" as a priority, and analysts expect that new US military spending under President Donald Trump's administration would strengthen the United States' military presence in Asia over time.

The trip would closely follow Mr Trump's withdrawal of the US from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, fulfilling a campaign pledge but disappointing many key allies in Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for instance, had touted the pact in part as a counterweight to a rising China.

Topping US concerns in the region are North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes, and China's military moves in the South China Sea. Tension with Beijing escalated this week when the White House vowed to defend "international territories" in the strategic waterway. China responded by saying it had "irrefutable" sovereignty over disputed islands there.

  • 28,500

    Number of US troops based in South Korea and helping to defend the country against the North, which has technically remained in a state of war with the South since the 1950-53 conflict.

    12

    Number of nations that were part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Mr Mattis' trip would closely follow Mr Trump's withdrawal of the US from the pact, which fulfilled a pledge but disappointed allies in Asia.

Mr Mattis, in his Senate testimony, also voiced concern about North Korea, describing its activities as a "serious threat" requiring US attention. There are about 28,500 US troops who are based in South Korea and helping to defend the country against the North, which has technically remained in a state of war with the South since the 1950-53 conflict.

South Korea and the US say the upcoming deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system will better help protect Seoul against Pyongyang'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.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump has invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington, during a phone call on Tuesday night. Official statements indicated that both leaders are keen to build on the recent improvement in ties.

Mr Modi said on Twitter that he "had a warm conversation" with Mr Trump, and they "agreed to work closely in the coming days to further strengthen our bilateral ties".

"Have also invited President Trump to visit India," he added.

The first foreign leader to meet Mr Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be at the White House tomorrow for talks expected to focus on a key post-Brexit trade deal with the US. The visit has been presented as a diplomatic coup in Britain, where the idea of the "special relationship" still holds strong, and is being closely watched in Washington as Mr Trump's foreign policy takes shape.

He has offered rare support for Brexit among global leaders, drawing parallels with his own election campaign and saying Britain was "smart" to vote to leave a European Union he believes is falling apart.

He has also pledged to move quickly on striking a trade deal with London - welcome words for Mrs May, who last week conceded publicly for the first time that Britain would be leaving Europe's single market.

But analysts note that his protectionist, "America First" rhetoric appears at odds with her vow to turn Britain into a free trade champion.

" 'America First' and a 'Global Britain' are practically contradictory statements. That is not going to change because of a trip," said professor of American politics Stephen Burman of the University of Sussex.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'New Pentagon chief's debut trip 'will be to Japan and South Korea''. Print Edition | Subscribe