U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Japan Friday to meet with senior defense officials and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reaffirming America’s commitment to helping Japan defend itself against an increasingly belligerent North Korea.
Mattis arrived Friday after spending two days meeting senior officials in neighboring South Korea. He met with Japan’s government leaders in anticipation of a one-on-one meeting between Abe and President of the United States Donald Trump.
In statements to the press, Mattis emphasized the commitment of the U.S. military to defending Japan, bound by its constitution to not maintain a standing army. Following World War II, Japan and the United States are bound to defend each other militarily by treaty. Mattis told reporters that asserting the viability of this treaty is especially necessary now “due to some of the provocations out of North Korea and other challenges that we jointly face,” according to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
The United States, Mattis asserted to Prime Minister Abe, stood “firmly, 100 percent, shoulder-to-shoulder with you and (the) Japanese people.” Abe responded that he held “hope and also I am convinced, together with you and President Trump we will be able to demonstrate the unwavering alliance between Japan and the United State both to the public inside Japan as well as outside Japan.”
The Trump administration has emphasized the importance of ties to its Asian allies, particularly Japan, since President Trump took office. Trump met with Abe in New York in November, the prime minister becoming the first head of state to meet personally with the then-president-elect. Abe left the meeting telling reporters that he saw Trump as “a leader with whom I can have full confidence.”
Abe is scheduled to meet with Trump again on February 10 in Washington.
Some authorities in Japan and South Korea expressed concern in early 2016 regarding comments Trump made about U.S. military investment in the region. “At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea,” Trump said in an interview in April. “I would rather see Japan having some form of defense, and maybe even offense against North Korea, because we’re not pulling the trigger.”
Mattis’s meetings in South Korea and Japan were in part meant to emphasize that Trump’s concerns about U.S. investment in defense in Asia were not a sign that the White House would take its commitments to allies in the region less seriously. Before Mattis arrived in Seoul, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters, “the trip will underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation.”
Mattis’s meetings in South Korea were apparently also meant to reassure China and Japan that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system the United States will help install in South Korea is not meant to intimidate Beijing or Tokyo. “It is a defensive system. There is only one reason we would have this under discussion right now — that is, North Korea’s activities,” Mattis said on Thursday. “There is no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea.”