First foreign trip by Mattis signaled urgency of simmering crisis in Northeast Asia

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By Geostrategy-Direct

James Mattis chose Seoul and Tokyo as his first ever overseas visits days after he was sworn in as the new U.S. Secretary of Defense.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-Koo at the Defense Ministry in Seoul on Feb. 3. / AFP

He arrived in Seoul on Feb. 2 for a two-day visit and went on to Tokyo afterwards and held meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his entire defense leadership team.

The priority assigned to the trip underlines the seriousness with which the Trump Administration regards the volatile security situation in the Western Pacific. China has exploited U.S. passivity in the region in recent years with its own push for maritime supremacy.

Seeking to splinter the powerful U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance, it has been rewarded by the paralysis in Seoul following the impeachment of South Korea’s first woman president, the conservative Park Geun-Hye. Leftist opposition leaders pushing for Park’s resignation have threatened to reverse joint security measures against the growing North Korean strategic threat.

The target of Mattis’s trip is China and its junior partner North Korea. Specifically, the urgent matter to consider is the negotiated deployment of an American missile defense system called “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense” or THAAD, to which China has been the most violent opponent.

Up until a year ago, China had invested heavy political and economic capital on Seoul in an attempt to pull South Korea away from the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul defense alliance.

Beijing had almost succeeded when South Korea’s Park agreed to an American request to deploy THAAD system to cope with the nuclear threats from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un after Kim blatantly conducted missile and nuclear tests in violation of UN resolutions.

China emphatically refused to take President Park Geun-Hye’s phone calls requesting cooperation in impeding North Korea’s belligerency and blasted her for green-lighting the THAAD deployment, which China said would harm China’s missile deterrence.

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