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

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  • J. Berkshire Miller is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, based in Tokyo, and a Senior Fellow on East Asia at the EastWest Institute.
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