Wednesday, February 8, 2017

US Defense Secretary James Mattis Tones Down Rhetoric on South China Sea Dispute

Background Briefing:
US Defense Secretary James
Mattis Tones Down Rhetoric on
South China Sea Dispute
Carlyle A. Thayer
February 7, 2017
[client name deleted]
We request your assessment of the recent the visit by US Secretary of Defense James
Mattis to South Korea and Japan.
Q1. What are the implications for the South China Sea dispute? Secretary Mattis is
quoted as saying there is no need for military moves. What message is the Trump
Administration sending to the region?
ANSWER: Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to South Korea and Japan was
primarily aimed at reassuring these countries that the U.S. would stand by it alliance
commitments to allay their fears over remarks by Donald Trump during the election
that Seoul and Tokyo were not paying enough for U.S. protection. Secretary Mattis
reassured the South Koreans that the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)
anti-ballistic missile system would be deployed as promised under the Obama
Administration. In Tokyo, Mattis also reassured the Japanese that the United States
would honour its commitment under Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty if Japan
were attacked and that this pledge covered the Senkaku islands.
Japan, as a maritime nation, views the security of the East China Sea and South China
Sea as linked. Japan wants the United States to counter balance China. But Japan does
not wish to see the United States take provocative action that would draw Japan into
a conflict with China. Secretary Mattis’ reaffirmation of the importance of freedom of
navigation was music to Japan’s ears.
It should be recalled that Secretary Mattis testified at his confirmation hearing the day
after Rex Tillerson’s controversial remarks on the South China Sea at his confirmation
hearing. Mattis was more nuanced; he advocated building up the U.S. Navy and
working with allies. Mattis’ remarks in Tokyo served to tone down the rhetoric in
favour of diplomacy. He said, “What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic
efforts, to try and resolve this [South China Sea dispute] this properly. Our military
stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats… At this time we do not see any
need for dramatic military moves at all.”
Q2. Regarding the East China Sea, Secretary Mattis said the US will protectthe islands
controlled by Japan. What does it mean for the US's determination in dealing with
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ANSWER: There are two interlinked security issues: U.S. deterrence against China to
protect Japan’s Senkaku islands and pressure on China to use its influence in
Pyongyang to stop nuclear and ballistic missile tests. But trade is also important. The
Trump Administration has made balancing trade with China through greater access by
U.S. businesses to the Chinese market its top priority. How to influence Beijing?
President Trump is playing the Taiwan card to get leverage. He is also trying to stabilize
the East China Sea through security guarantees to Japan. The South China Sea now
appears to be the third priority. We are likely to see more assertive U.S. freedom of
navigation patrols and pressure on U.S. allies to join in.
It must be cautioned that these are early days in the Trump Administration. His full
Cabinet has not yet been confirmed by Congress. And there are competing priorities
in dealing with the Islamic State and Iran. At the moment, strategic uncertainty
prevails in region. It is not clear if the Trump Administration has settled of a fixed
strategy for dealing with China.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “US Defense Secretary James Mattis Tones
Down Rhetoric on South China Sea Dispute,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief,
February 7, 2017. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer).
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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