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US Defense Secretary James Mattis Tones Down Rhetoric on South China Sea Dispute; By Carlyle A. Thay

C3S Article no: 0014/2017 

We request your assessment of the recent the visit by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to South Korea and Japan.

Q1. What are the implications for the South China Sea dispute? Secretary Mattis is quoted as saying there is no need for military moves. What message is the Trump Administration sending to the region?

ANSWER: Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to South Korea and Japan was primarily aimed at reassuring these countries that the U.S. would stand by it alliance commitments to allay their fears over remarks by Donald Trump during the election that Seoul and Tokyo were not paying enough for U.S. protection. Secretary Mattis reassured the South Koreans that the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system would be deployed as promised under the Obama Administration. In Tokyo, Mattis also reassured the Japanese that the United States would honour its commitment under Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty if Japan were attacked and that this pledge covered the Senkaku islands. Japan, as a maritime nation, views the security of the East China Sea and South China Sea as linked. Japan wants the United States to counter balance China. But Japan does not wish to see the United States take provocative action that would draw Japan into a conflict with China. Secretary Mattis’ reaffirmation of the importance of freedom of navigation was music to Japan’s ears. It should be recalled that Secretary Mattis testified at his confirmation hearing the day after Rex Tillerson’s controversial remarks on the South China Sea at his confirmation hearing. Mattis was more nuanced; he advocated building up the U.S. Navy and working with allies. Mattis’ remarks in Tokyo served to tone down the rhetoric in favour of diplomacy. He said, “What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try and resolve this [South China Sea dispute] this properly. Our military stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats… At this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”

Q2. Regarding the East China Sea, Secretary Mattis said the US will protectthe islands controlled by Japan. What does it mean for the US’s determination in dealing with China?

ANSWER: There are two interlinked security issues: U.S. deterrence against China to protect Japan’s Senkaku islands and pressure on China to use its influence in Pyongyang to stop nuclear and ballistic missile tests. But trade is also important. The Trump Administration has made balancing trade with China through greater access by U.S. businesses to the Chinese market its top priority. How to influence Beijing? President Trump is playing the Taiwan card to get leverage. He is also trying to stabilize the East China Sea through security guarantees to Japan. The South China Sea now appears to be the third priority. We are likely to see more assertive U.S. freedom of navigation patrols and pressure on U.S. allies to join in. It must be cautioned that these are early days in the Trump Administration. His full Cabinet has not yet been confirmed by Congress. And there are competing priorities in dealing with the Islamic State and Iran. At the moment, strategic uncertainty prevails in region. It is not clear if the Trump Administration has settled of a fixed strategy for dealing with China.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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