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Beijing’s Temper Flares As Mattis Reassures US Allies

REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Handout via Reuters

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The new secretary of defense reassured allies in Asia this week that the U.S. will honor its commitments, but drew China’s ire in the process.

Much to Beijing’s displeasure, General James Mattis assured South Korea and Japan that the U.S. will uphold its commitments and stand by its allies.

“The United States stands by its commitments, and we stand with our allies, the South Korean people,” Mattis told South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo.

The secretary of defense also issued a warning to Pyongyang, threatening an “effective and overwhelming response” to North Korea’s nuclear provocations. He and his South Korean counterpart agreed that the U.S. would deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on South Korean soil this year.

“I want there to be no misunderstanding during the transition in Washington that we stand firmly, 100 percent shoulder to shoulder with you and the Japanese people,” Mattis told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Mattis also stated that the U.S. will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the Senakaku (Diaoyu) Islands, a collection of uninhabited territories in the contested East China Sea claimed by China but administered by Japan. He also stressed that the islands were covered by the U.S.-Japanese security agreement.

Not only is China opposed to the alliance-based security structure, which it perceives as an external threat, but it also objects to plans put forward by the U.S. and South Korea to deploy THAAD and U.S. involvement in regional territorial disputes. Beijing made that very clear in its response.

“We do not believe this move will be conducive to resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue or to maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said in response to the planned deployment of THAAD.

Despite reassurances from Washington, China fears that X-band radar system for the THAAD missile defense shield will be used to obtain critical information about China’s defense systems. Beijing has been highly critical of the plans from the start and has regularly threatened to take “necessary measures” in response.

The decision to continue to involve the U.S. in regional sovereignty issues, major points of contention under the previous administration, is perhaps the most disconcerting for the Chinese.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the U.S.-Japanese security agreement an outdated relic of the Cold War “which should not impair China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.”

“We urge the U.S. side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu Islands sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation,” Lu explained.

“Diaoyu and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed,” he added.

China has made repeated calls for the U.S. leave territorial disputes off the table when discussing U.S.-Japanese bilateral relations, but their pleas have yet to persuade the U.S. to change course.

The U.S. first declared that the Senkaku Islands were protected by the U.S.-Japanese security agreement in 2014 by former President Barack Obama.

“It reflected U.S.’ attempt to further disrupt the Asia-Pacific region under the Trump administration,” Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of China Foreign Affairs University, said of Mattis’ promises to Japan.

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