World Asia Pacific First Look

Mattis scolds China, says US stands 'shoulder to shoulder' with Japan

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he will back Japan's claims to islands also claimed by China. Will this be seen as a new signal of aggression by Trump administration toward China?

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks at a joint news conference with Japan's Defense Minister Tomomi Inada after their meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, February 4, 2017.
Toru Hanai | Caption

Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during an official visit to Tokyo on Saturday that the United States would stand “100 percent, shoulder to shoulder” with Japan on its claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The Senkaku islands, a series of eight uninhabited features thought to lie near oil and gas deposits, are also claimed by Taiwan and China, which refers to them as the Diaoyu. The dispute has periodically bubbled up into standoffs between Japanese and Chinese warships and air forces, especially after Japan bought several of the islands from a private owner in 2012.

The United States, said retired Gen. Mattis, would continue to honor a 1960 security treaty that commits the US to supporting Japan in the event of an attack on “territories under the administration of Japan”.

“I made clear that our longstanding policy on the Senkaku Islands stands – the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such, Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty applies,” he said, according to CNN.

The comments appear to mark a shift, at least in tone, by Trump administration, contrasting with the president’s March complaint that the security treaty was “one-sided” and suggested he could withdraw US forces from military bases in Japan and South Korea if they did not pay more for US protection.

But Mattis’ reaffirmation of a long-held US stance may resurface questions about how aggressive of a line the new administration might take on China’s territorial aims.

China’s claims to territories in the South China Sea, where it has gone on outfitting artificial islands with military installations despite an international panel’s ruling, have been a source of rising tension. 

At his January confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answered questions on the matter with little of the delicacy that normally surrounds it, raising alarms that President Trump’s campaign-trail remarks might find parallel in actual policy.  

“We’re going to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” said Mr. Tillerson then.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Michael Holtz wrote afterward, denying Chinese access to those islands would likely require military action:

Trump has said that on his first day in office, he will order his Treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator. He has also pledged to impose high, retaliatory tariffs on China that economists say would all but guarantee a trade war.  And Tillerson’s threat, should it become reality, could raise tensions to a much higher level.

Still, experts including Professor Ross of Boston College consider such an outcome unlikely.

“Tillerson’s remarks may be appropriate to secure confirmation from the Senate, but as policy they are not at all helpful,” he says. “As secretary of State, Tillerson would likely adopt a far more prudent approach to China’s maritime activities.”

On Saturday, Mattis also criticized China for ignoring a 2016 international court’s decision that 14 of 15 major claims in the South China Sea did not conform to international law, which China had agreed to uphold. Mattis accused Beijing of having “shredded the trust of nations in the region.” But he also sounded more like his predecessors from the Obama administration in emphasizing diplomacy.

"What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try and resolve this properly," he said, according to CNN.

China responded to those remarks by reiterating its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, characterizing the US-Japan treaty a “product of the Cold War” and calling on the US not to create instability in the region, according to the Associated Press.

“We urge the U.S. side 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,” said Chinese foreign minister Lu Kang in a statement.