How Trump Can Reassure Asian Allies

The Way Forward With Japan and South Korea

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and his South Korean counterpart Han Min-Koo at the national cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, February 2017.  Oh Dae-il / News1 / REUTERS

Last week, James Mattis made his first international trip as U.S. defense secretary. Over four days in Japan and South Korea, Mattis sought to reassure officials in both countries of Washington’s commitments to them. Many in East Asia are worried about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under the new administration of President Donald Trump, who during his campaign chastised Japan and South Korea for not paying enough for U.S. military support and even suggested that Tokyo and Seoul should consider developing nuclear weapons—signs, it seemed, that the superpower on which Japan and South Korea have long depended was considering abandoning them.

Like Trump’s November meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump’s phone calls with South Korean officials, Mattis’ visit suggested that the new administration is attempting to walk back the effects of some of Trump’s earlier rhetoric. The timing of Mattis’ visit was critical, coming as it did amid growing criticism from regional observers that the Trump administration was set to cast aside the United States’ pivot to Asia and focus more on threats from the Middle East. But perhaps more important was Mattis’ tone: The defense secretary did not press allies on burden-sharing but sought instead to reassure and listen to them. That was the right move. Washington will need its East Asian allies in the coming months, as tensions will undoubtedly resurface around the region’s many flashpoints, such as the Korean peninsula and the East China and South China seas. Later this week, Abe and Trump will meet in Washington and Florida. Like Mattis, Trump should use those meetings to reassure Abe of Washington’s commitment to its alliance with Japan.


Japan’s concerns about Trump’s vision for the United States’ strategy in Asia are twofold. On the security front, Tokyo has been alarmed by Trump’s claims that Japan has enjoyed the benefits of Washington’s alliance commitment without providing much

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