By Hiroyuki Ishida and Masakazu Matsushita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersPrime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrated to domestic and foreign observers that a strong Japan-U.S. alliance remained in place following Friday’s talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
The circumstances surrounding Japan’s national security have become increasingly severe in light of China’s maritime advancement and North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
Ahead of the meeting between Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump to be held Friday, the Japanese government felt a sense of relief after reaffirming the United States would continue to implement policy on the security front.
“I want to make certain that Article 5 of our mutual defense treaty is understood to be real to us today, as it was a year ago, five years ago,” Mattis said. When Abe said that he hopes and is certain the two countries “can demonstrate in our country and abroad that the Japan-U.S. alliance is unshakable,” Mattis replied by saying it will continue to be important five years or 10 years from now as well.
The talks lasted 50 minutes, an unusually long time for a courtesy call to the prime minister by a foreign Cabinet minister.
Abe also joined halfway through a dinner that Defense Minister Tomomi Inada hosted for Mattis, extending him cordial hospitality.
In a telephone conversation between Abe and Trump on Jan. 28, Trump said Mattis is extremely capable, and he would send him to Japan as soon as possible. Abe determined from the remark that Mattis is the key architect of security policies in the Trump administration, and had in-depth discussions with him.
Priority on Article 5
During the meeting, Abe intended to obtain Mattis’ approval of what a Defense Ministry senior official called a “three-piece set” — application of Article 5 to the Senkaku Islands; extended deterrence through the nuclear umbrella; and relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to the Henoko area of Nago in Okinawa Prefecture.
Of the three issues, Abe particularly wanted to confirm Mattis’ recognition that Article 5 applies to the Senkakus. In April 2014, former U.S. President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to clearly say the article applied to the islands. It has recently been confirmed each time Japan and the United States have held bilateral defense ministerial meetings.
However, China has stepped up provocative activities, including sending its military vessels for the first time into the contiguous zone around the Senkakus in June last year.
However, since Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, provocative actions by China have not stood out. China is paying close attention to Japan-U.S. relations during a time of uncertainty over the Asia-Pacific policy of the Trump administration.
The Japanese government was worried that if the Trump administration did not clarify the applicability of Article 5 to the islands, it would send the message that the Japan-U.S. alliance is shaky, prompting China to take advantage of a “power vacuum.”
“As Mattis committed to the application of Article 5, such a situation has been avoided,” said a senior official of the Foreign Ministry.
Abe and Mattis also confirmed cooperation in connection with North Korea. Concerns in the area of security have been put to rest for the time being.
However, Trump’s words and deeds often contradict those of his Cabinet members. If the two leaders get into a dispute over trade issues at the summit meeting scheduled for Feb. 10, there is the risk Trump will use the alliance as a bargaining chip.
At the meeting with the prime minister, Mattis did not bring up Trump’s fixed opinion that Japan should increase its share of covering the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan. However, what Trump himself will say at the summit meeting is unpredictable.
At a budget committee meeting of the House of Representatives on Friday, Abe said: “It’s rather counterproductive to say that because trade isn’t going well Japan should listen to what they say about security. An ally shouldn’t take such an approach.”
Some say the Trump administration will in time raise the issue of expanding Japan’s role and increasing its defense spending. Abe, as if to make the first move, told Mattis during their meeting that Japan will strengthen its defense capabilities.
Japan’s defense spending has been capped at 1 percent of its gross domestic product. In an effort to increase the defense budget, the Liberal Democratic Party in a joint meeting of its National Defense Division and other relevant groups started intense discussions on Friday.