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(EDITORIAL from The Korea JoongAng Daily on Feb. 4)

All Headlines 09:38 February 04, 2017

Trump's Asia strategy

Mattis' visit indicates a full-court press on China

U.S. President Donald Trump's top defense official, James Mattis, made a two-day visit to Seoul, the first stop of his first overseas trip, and then continued to Japan. The retired Marines general did what had been expected ― giving South Korea assurances in the form of extended deterrence guarantees against North Korea's nuclear threat and confirming the deployment of the U.S. missile interceptor, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

The U.S. secretary of defense's visit is worth a broader review in the context of Trump's policy toward Asia, which will surely be more assertive than that of his predecessor Barack Obama's meek Pivot to Asia initiative.

Before a meeting with his Korean counterpart Han Min-koo, Mattis dropped a hint of what is to come, when he said the U.S. intended to expand "trilateral venues of cooperation with Japan, where the mutual defense of the three countries is best served through teamwork."

The U.S. customarily emphasizes the importance of cooperation between the three countries (the U.S. serves as glue to link the two estranged neighbors) but has stopped short of openly vowing to increase such channels.

China, of course, is the target of Mattis' remark. Just how the U.S. proposes to increase the three countries' joint pressure tactic on Beijing remains to be seen, but one early result is clear ― greater U.S. tension.

As a result, the region could be in for a shakeup, worsening Korea-China relations. It is not necessarily all negative for Seoul ― exports to Beijing, our biggest trading partner, may suffer, but a solution to its biggest security threat, the North's missile and nuclear weapons, may be found in the process.

Mattis made the U.S. position a bit clearer when he said, "… we stand with our allies. Our alliance is a linchpin of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region." "Linchpin" was the key word that belied Washington's intention to raise the Korea-Japan relationship to an alliance and use this axis to turn the screws on China. It is an open question whether such an effort will bring reconciliation to the two countries whose relationship has dipped to a new low.

Trump has already served notice on China about a change to business as usual. During his campaign, he portrayed China as thriving by robbing Americans and threatened to slap heavy tariffs on its exports. After his election, he talked with the Taiwanese president and showed a willingness to stop respecting Beijing's sacrosanct one-China policy.

China and the U.S. will surely clash over a wide range of issues ― freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, THAAD deployment, Taiwan, North Korea, Senkaku and others. Korea would find itself in the middle of some of these conflicts moving into unchartered waters to face big tsunami-like geopolitical challenges. For this voyage, it would be helpful to stick to some basic rules and skills ― the rock-solid alliance with the U.S. and imaginative diplomacy.

(END)

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