Defense Secretary James Mattis' debut trip to South Korea and Japan appears to have succeeded in calming some of the anxiety caused by President Trump's erratic behavior in the foreign policy realm, the Associated Press reports.
Mattis' military background and level-headed attitude earned the praise of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "I was very encouraged to see someone like you who has substantial experience, both in the military and in security, defense and diplomacy, taking this office," Abe reportedly told the secretary at a Friday meeting.
The South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo also expressed a kinship with his U.S. counterpart. "I believe this was possible because we both served as active-duty servicemen for 40-plus years," he told reporters. Mattis is a retired Marine Corps general.
His visit was intended as an alliance-mending trip to assure both South Korea and Japan that the United States was committed to mutual defense between the allies. Although the secretary's nickname is Mad Dog—a moniker he has repeatedly rejected as a media invention—he presented a calm face in East Asia. "Mr. Mattis was more loyal friend than attack dog, hailed as a welcome voice of sober restraint," as The New York Times put it.
While in Tokyo, Mattis assured the Japanese prime minister "that the U.S. would continue to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with Japan and that its commitment to the country's security remained 'ironclad,'" according to the Asia Times. He also promised to defend Japan's claims to the Senkaku islands over those of China, where the islands are known as Diaoyu.
That prompted the Chinese Foreign Ministry to issue a statement on the matter, the Asia Times reported. "We urge the U.S. to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu islands' sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation," the statement said.
While others in Trump's cabinet have called for a military response to China's actions, Mattis prefers other methods for resolving conflicts. "Mr. Mattis has long argued that diplomacy should be backed up by military might, but that force should not be the first recourse," The New York Times reported. "In the case of the South China Sea, he said, it is the diplomats who should be carrying the ball."
Military involvement is not out of the question for Mattis, though. In Seoul, the secretary of defense assured South Korea that any nuclear provocation from North Korea would be met with an "effective and overwhelming" U.S. response. He indicated that the U.S. would deploy an anti-missile system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in the area to protect against North Korean medium-range missiles.
During his confirmation hearings, the general "said the U.S. 'shouldn't be turning to the military to answer all of our problems in the world,'" Reason Associate Editor Ed Krayewski reported back in January. Of course, whether the Trump administration will adhere to Mattis' advice remains to be seen.