The Cable

Did Trump Undermine Mattis’s Trip Before It Started?

Can the secretary of defense assure America's Asian allies while his boss criticizes them?

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U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to South Korea and Japan marks the first foreign trip by any senior official from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. It is meant to signal to America’s traditional East Asian allies that they are, in fact, still allies.

Mattis, speaking in Seoul on Thursday told Hwang Kyo-ahn, acting president of South Korea, that the alliance between their two countries is strong. He is expected to give similar assurances when he travels to Japan, his next stop.

“It’s a priority for President Trump’s administration,” Mattis told reporters en route to Seoul. “We pay attention to the Northwest Pacific, to our two strong allies.”  

Those two strong allies are seemingly appreciative of the visit. “I think there is hope in [South] Korea and Japan that Mattis and [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson will become a center of gravity for U.S. foreign policy decision making in Asia at least,” James Schoff, senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program, told Foreign Policy.

Yet on Tuesday, just days ahead of Mattis’s trip, Trump told leaders from the pharmaceutical industry that Japan was intentionally devaluing its currency and engaging in “global freeloading.” (Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said Trump “completely misses the mark.”)

And while Mattis was airborne, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s 25 minute call with the prime minister of Australia, a key U.S. ally in the Asia Pacific, consisted of Trump bragging about his electoral victory and hanging up over a deal struck between U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over refugees.

This, after a presidential campaign in which Trump insisted South Korea and Japan needed to pay more for their own defense, that both countries should have nuclear weapons (neither South Korea nor Japan wants to) and that he would be willing to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (neither South Korea nor Japan supports that, either).

Mattis made clear ahead of his trip that he would not be announcing changes to U.S. policy — like demanding that America’s key Asian allies start paying more. But, if recent events are any indication, that may not ultimately be Mattis’s call.

Photo credit: Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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