Northeast Asia is facing profound political uncertainty: South Korea is immobilized by a political scandal that has resulted in the impeachment of its president, Park Geun-hye, and ensnared top business elites; Japan has been left high and dry after U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, arguably the country’s best chance at growth; and North Korea is getting closer and closer to becoming a nuclear power.
And no one knows what President Trump’s “America First” agenda means for the country’s Asian allies.
What both Japan and South Korea need right now is assurance from the United States that its alliances are a priority. In his first overseas trip as the new Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis will be sure to affirm that commitment.
Dealing with North Korea
The four-day visit, beginning today, builds upon President Trump’s conversations with South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week in an effort to calm Northeast Asian nerves, especially in advance of the next unpredictable but inevitable North Korean provocation. The trip is an important indicator that North Korea’s nuclear and missile priorities have emerged near the top of the U.S. national security agenda, a welcome sign for both countries.
In advance of his visit, Defense Secretary Mattis and his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo have already confirmed the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to the country, removing from the table an issue that remains politically contentious in South Korea because of Park’s impeachment. This frees Mattis to focus on ensuring readiness and establishing the high levels of security coordination on how to deal with North Korea.
But by agreeing to the THAAD deployment, South Korea now faces increased political and economic retaliation from China.
China has already applied non-tariff barriers and on-site safety inspections for South Korean businesses operating in the country, and even curtailed concerts by Korean artists and removed Korean dramas from Chinese television. This was all to deter South Korea from deploying THAAD, at the request of the U.S.
The Mattis visit should also make it clear that China’s retaliation against U.S. allies will not be tolerated–and it does not help in addressing current disconnects in U.S.-China relations.
The comfort woman issue in flux
While in Seoul and Tokyo, Mattis will likely hear about the breakdown of a 2015 deal between the two countries regarding comfort women as well.
The December 2015 agreement had promised a final and irreversible resolution of the comfort woman issue in return for an apology from Abe and the establishment of a Japanese-funded and Korean-administered foundation that would provide compensation to the comfort women and their families. In addition, the South Korean government pledged to make its best efforts to move a comfort woman statue located in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
But South Korean NGOs earlier this year placed a replica of that comfort woman statue outside the Japanese consulate in Busan to protest the deal, and it soon fell through. The Japanese ambassador has been recalled and the acting government in Seoul has no political power to address the issue now, leaving things in flux.
Mattis will have to tread carefully on this issue, as the United States has a long-standing interest in promoting trilateral security cooperation with its two northeast Asian allies. It would not be wise to choose sides as both countries are crucial in responding to North Korea’s nuclear threats.
Laying the groundwork in Japan
Mattis will take the same message of assurance to Japan, but with a different scope and greater prospects for building political momentum. While Tokyo is also concerned about North Korea, it will also want to know that the United States is committed to defending the Senkakus against China’s challenge to Japanese sovereignty and administrative control.
But more importantly, Mattis will lay the groundwork for Abe’s February 10 visit to Washington for his first summit meeting with Trump. That is when the contours of the Trump administration’s early approach to Northeast Asia will be clearer.
A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.