WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis heads to Japan and South Korea early next month aiming to show that America's Pacific alliances still matter to the superpower, a trip that looks to position the retired general as the new administration's point man on Japanese policy.
China and North Korea will watch closely for signs of whether Trump seeks to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. Mattis appears intent on affirming exactly such efforts in a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Tomomi Inada.
Mattis, nicknamed "Mad Dog," had served as commander of the U.S. Central Command. As a service member, he outranked retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, another former military man in President Donald Trump's administration. Flynn's cabinet-level post as national security adviser gives him a key role in the National Security Council, the president's top decision-making body on foreign affairs and security matters.
Susan Rice, as national security adviser under former President Barack Obama, steered the U.S. into a conciliatory policy toward China. This now appears to be a mistake in light of Beijing's assertive moves in the South China Sea. Rice also moved to sideline Chuck Hagel, who resigned as defense secretary in what was seen as a dismissal by Obama due to his opposing views within the administration.
Mattis retains considerable trust among the military and at the Department of Defense, having retired from service as recently as 2013. Trump, seeking to draw a clear line between his administration and Obama's, called on the former general to lead a personnel shakeup in both organizations. But Mattis showed caution in this regard. Here, too, can be seen a glimpse of his desire to assert control over his role.
By visiting Japan and South Korea first, Mattis also seems to be trying to control the risk posed by Trump himself. Critics say the president has the same bottom-line mentality toward foreign policy as he does toward business. Some in Tokyo fear Trump may have no compunction about using even the U.S.-Japan alliance as a bargaining chip.
American influence in Asia could wane if gaps emerge in the network of U.S. alliances, a point that few -- if any -- of the people Trump has surrounded himself with appear willing to make. Mattis may be sending a message to the president and his inner circle -- partly through the media, which will cover the Asian trip -- that alliances can serve America's interest.