February 8, 2017 12:00 pm JST

Time's up for soft China policy

US defense chief sees more active role in South China Sea

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (left) and Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.

TOKYO -- The new U.S. defense secretary is deeply distrustful of China. Speaking to Japanese government officials last week, James Mattis apparently likened Beijing's quest for regional influence to imperial China's subjugation of its neighbors.

China's activity in the South and East China seas is becoming "increasingly confrontational," Mattis told a joint news conference with Japanese counterpart Tomomi Inada here Saturday morning. Mattis, appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida the day prior on his first trip to Japan as secretary of defense.

The tone of the secretary's criticism was not much different than that of the Barack Obama administration. But remarks made in private to Japanese officials struck a stronger anti-China note.

Multiple sources said that Mattis said America would no longer be that tolerant of China's behavior in the South China Sea. He pledged to take an active role in protecting freedom of navigation, suggesting a more aggressive stance than the previous administration in an effort to restrain military buildup. Specifically, the U.S. is set to increase the frequency of patrols within 12 nautical miles of man-made islands China has constructed in the sea.

The Obama administration began these so-called freedom of navigation operations in October 2015. At the time, the plan was to make two patrols every three months. But only four were ultimately conducted in total, and the strategy failed to hold China's military buildup in the sea in check.

Historic conflict

Mattis is also thought to envision expanding activity such as U.S. military exercises in the region. This is hardly a surprise, given the secretary's long-held harsh view of China over matters such as the South China Sea issue. What is more noteworthy are comments Mattis made during his Japan visit likening China's expansion today to an effort to re-create the tributary system of the Ming Dynasty.

During China's imperial period -- and particularly during the Ming period from the 14th century to the 17th century, according to a Japanese scholar on China -- China turned surrounding nations into tributary states, requiring payment and the recognition of Chinese dominion in exchange for trade access. In Mattis' telling, Beijing could be trying to use its military and economic might to re-create a similar set-up today, though such efforts will not be tolerated in the modern world, according to the secretary.

Mattis thus objects not only to China's trouble-making on the high seas, but to the very notion that China would use economic and military power to expand its sphere of influence -- the heart of Beijing's foreign policy. Translating this logic into action would mean the U.S. going beyond enforcing international rules and instead preventing any expansion of Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific.

Mattis is regarded as a well-read intellectual who boasts a library of roughly 7,000 books. His leeriness of Beijing is deeply rooted in his study of history -- a perspective that is somewhat familiar in the Pentagon. Under the George W. Bush administration, the defense department looked back to the Ming Dynasty to formulate a response to China's assertiveness, an official who served at the time said.

The question is to what degree Mattis' anti-China bent will show up in Trump administration policy. The top echelons of the administration are packed with China hawks, said a U.S. foreign relations specialist knowledgeable on the matter. But some still speculate that the two countries could establish a give-and-take on trade and security issues. A meeting between Trump and Abe in the U.S. on Friday could provide evidence one way or the other.

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