Japan and South Korea breathed easier following the recent visits from the new US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, his first to East Asia in his new job.
They were pleased by what he had to say, namely that the Senkaku islands, disputed by China, fall under the protection of the 1960 Security Treaty that commits the US to defend Japan and territories it administers.
But they were equally encouraged by what he did not say, namely that the two countries would have to pay more for American protection. Indeed, Mattis called the current arrangement in which Tokyo pays most of the upkeep of American bases a model of burden-sharing.
Altogether, the visit seemed to underscore that the alliance status quo in Northeast Asia is unchanged with the election of a new president. President Trump in a “cordial” telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored that.
During the campaign, Trump blasted allies for not doing enough for their own in their own defense and even suggested that South Korea and Japan should consider acquiring their own nuclear weapons.
In planning for his weekend trip to Washington Prime Minister Shinzo seemed to be acting on the idea that the alliance is secure, and that he should concentrate on currying favor by proposing a major economic cooperation projects to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
China and North Korea, not so sanguine about the incoming president, have been striking back with words and some showy and provocative military drills, as if to remind everyone that the normal situation in East Asia is tension.
Two days after Mattis made his comment, Beijing dispatched three coast guard cutters into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus. In itself that was not so unusual. China has been sending coast guard vessels into Senkaku waters on average once every two weeks, 38 occasions in 2016.
The bellicose Global Times, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party threatened war if the U.S tried to block Chinese movements to any of the reclaimed islands Beijing claims as sovereign Chinese territory in the South China Sea.
They were responding to some words that the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson had made in his confirmation hearing, in which he seemed to imply that the US would impose a naval blockade in the Spratly islands, which China has been fortifying as airbases.
Tillerson has since backtracked on those remarks, and Mattis himself has said that the issues Washington has with Beijing in the southern sea should be met with diplomacy rather than any fresh military adventures.
“At this time we do not see need for dramatic moves, at all,” he said.
China itself has been flexing its military might since Donald Trump was elected president in a showy and provocative manner. China tested a multi-warhead intermediate range ballistic missile, known as the DF16, which can fired from a hard-to-locate mobile launch site.
This came on the heels of another test-firing of one of China’s Inter-continual ballistic missiles (ICBM), into the western regions of China. It was notable for carrying 10 independently targetable warheads, which can overwhelm anti-ballistic missiles.
Chinese television was happy enough to publicize the test with menacing graphics showing the 10 warheads looking like teeth in the mouth of a giant squid. Another monster missile was moved into northern Heillongjiang province, closer in range to targets in America.
For years China’s nuclear weapons inventory has been pegged at about 250 warheads. The number of recent missile tests some capable of delivering 10 warheads, suggests to some observers that the real inventory in China is closer to 800.
The bellicose Global Times, aimed at foreigners, gleefully called on China to use its increasing wealth to “build more strategic nuclear arms.”
Meanwhile, not to be ignored, North Korea launched an intermediate range ballistic missile, presumably timed to coincide with the Abe-Trump summit meeting last weekend causing the two leaders to proclaim the provocation “absolutely intolerable” and that the U.S. stands behind Japan 100 percent
On Feb. 8, two days before the meeting, there was another dangerously close encounter between an American surveillance aircraft and a Chinese surveillance aircraft near the politically-sensitive Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was “concerned” that China is planning on enlarging Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines through land reclamation, potentially with the eye to basing troops there. So far there is no physical evidence that it is taking place.
Beijing effectively seized Scarborough Shoal, Philippine-claimed territory off the coast of Luzon, in 2012. It had apparently dropped or delayed making these improvements in deference to the new President Rodrigo Duterte, who had declined to pursue its his country’s victory in a successful maritime suit against China.
So in many ways it is situation normal in East Asia, which is cause for relief. At the same time all of the many challenges, from North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions to disputed islets in the South China Sea to China’s growing military prowess remain unchanged.