TOKYO — Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday said that Japan’s national security will never be bargained away in any agreement with North Korea and that U.S. promises are “ironclad” in protecting the island nation.
“The United States support stands firm,” Mattis said to reporters, during a brief press conference with Japan’s minister of defense Onodera Ichigaya. “[I gave] absolutely assurance that we stand firm and we are not going to take our alliance with another democratic nation into account into separate negotiations. It stands firm.”
Japan and South Korea have expressed concerns that recent high-profile negotiations with North Korea seeking denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula could come at the expense of existing U.S. military and economic support for their nations. That was the key reason Mattis made stops for meetings in both nations during his week long Asia trip.
Japanese officials have been especially concerned about future negotiations regarding the future of the Korean peninsula, located a short distance west of Japan and easily in range of North Korean missiles, since it is one of the leading nations interdicting attempts by North Korean to thwart U.N. economic sanctions by smuggling at sea.
Mattis sought to reassure Onodera that the U.S. fully understood Japan’s concerns and had no thoughts of reducing its security commitment.
“Just remember you have a friend in Washington, D.C.,” Mattis told Onodera, as he handed him a necktie adorned with the Pentagon motif.
From Onodera, Mattis received a wooden paddle known as a “gunbai” — now used by sumo wrestling judges but in the past was used by military commanders to signal troops.
On Friday, Mattis first met with Onodera, then later with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
“Today we will be discussing North Korean issues and look forward to confirming or understanding what the defense agency must do to support the ongoing diplomatic talks,” Onodera said through a translator.
He said he also looked forward to feedback on the Mattis trips to South Korea and China. “We are excited to discuss regional security issues as well,” he said.
Onodera said Japan would continue to capture illegal ship-to-ship transfer of goods. He underscored that the U.S. and Japan must work together with international organizations to ensure “destruction of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical and missile.”
On an issue key to Japan, Onodera said Mattis “restated his commitment to the defense” of Japan and to “reinforce the deference and response capability of the Alliance.”
Underscored was Japan’s insistence that the U.S. acres its concern about Chinese encroachment of islands in the South China and East China seas, “making sure that Article 5 applied to these islands.” Article 5 refers to the U.S.-Japan military agreement, in which the U.S. promises to defends Japan.
While Mattis and the Pentagon have vigorously denounced China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, which are more distant from Japan, they have been less vocal about Beijing’s activities in the East China Sea. Some of those islands brush against Japanese territorial waters.
“It was a very meaningful engagement and very serious discussion,” Onodera said.
Mattis said U.S. efforts with Japan are geared to the goal of having “a safe secure prosperous and free Indo-Pacific where all nations can enjoy the full benefits of sovereignty and independence.”
This was Mattis’ fifth meeting with Onodera in recent months. “These represent just how strongly we prioritize this relationship between our two militaries,” Matti said. “It is fitting for trusted allies.
“America continues to look for ways to strength the alliance,” Mattis said. “The US-Japan alliance is a cornerstone of Indo-Pacific stability and our commitment to this remains ironclad.”
Mattis repeated that the pause in U.S.-South Korean military exercises was taken “to create space to give our diplomats” maneuver room in negotiations with North Korea.
“Our diplomats are firmly in the lead,” Mattis said. “As our diplomats work to bring this agreement to fruition, the U.S. military continues it clear eyed approach, supporting sanctions and UN security council resolutions. At the same time, we maintain a strong collaborative stance… to make sure diplomats can negotiate from a position of strength. Especially now we remain vigilant.”