In a move that would perhaps prove that Asia remains an important region to American interests, and that the U.S. continues to value close and key allies hosting American troops, President Trump's defense chief will embark on his debut trip to Asia this week. The trip, the first for retired Marine General James Mattis and also the first foreign trip for any of Trump's cabinet secretaries is also being viewed by defense and international relations experts as a move meant to strategically address concerns over North Korea's missile program and tensions over China's continued aggression in the hotly contested South China Sea.
Mattis' visits to Seoul today and to Tokyo on February 3 are being seen as predominantly carrying a message of reassurance for Washington's traditional and crucial allies South Korea and Japan, and to douse fears that Trump is doubtful of maintaining the country's leadership role in the region and its close alliances with both Japan and South Korea.
Concerns rose when during the presidential campaign last year, Trump vehemently questioned the defense arrangements with the two key allies, suggesting such to be one-sided, with only the U.S. bearing the costs of keeping such alliances. Trump challenged both countries to share the expenses of maintaining U.S. troops and defense facilities in their nations.
Alarms for Japan also rung when Trump recently pulled out the U.S. from a trade deal with the Asia-Pacific region which Japan persistently championed.
The new Pentagon chief downplayed Trump's campaign pronouncement as nothing extra ordinary as he argued that there has always been a long history of U.S. presidents and even defense secretaries asking allies to share defense costs.
Aside from reassuring old allies Seoul and Tokyo, it is also believed that growing alarm over North Korea's intense preparations for a new ballistic missile in what could appear to be an early challenge for Trump's administration may have expedited Mattis' visit to Asia. Mattis recently reaffirmed in a conversation with South Korea Defense Minister the commitment of the U.S. to defend Seoul and "provide deterrence using the full range of U.S. capabilities" in the event of a North Korea aggression.
Analysts also Mattis to seek an update, or even assess, South Korea's initial moves to host a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense ( THAAD), and how it could measure up against North Korea's nuclear and ballistic capabilities.
In his Japan visit, analysts expect Mattis to both clarify and assure Japan on its defense spending following its continuous insistence that it is fairly bearing the costs of maintaining American military bases there, claiming that such arrangement is equally beneficial to both countries. At the same time, Japan's defense spending accounts for only 1% of its GDP, far cry from China's spending, a neighbor Japan has territorial disputes with. Tensions also rose anew between Washington and Beijing recently following the Asian superpower's continuous military action on the disputed South China Sea. China defiantly said it maintains sovereignty over the contested area while Washington countered that it is ready to defend international territories there in the midst of China's aggression.
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