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May 29, 2017

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Curious case of China's Korea stance

In the confusing environment generated by U.S. President Donald Trump, in which he has criticized his allies more than America's opponents, the trip by Defense Secretary James M. Mattis to Seoul and Tokyo was reassuring, with the United States reiterating its defense commitments to South Korea and Japan. It was the first such reaffirmation of American policy by a senior administration official since the inauguration of the Trump administration.

China responded to the American statements as expected, denouncing the U.S.-Korea decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system and opposing America's long-standing policy of including the Senkaku islands under the umbrella of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. China claims those islands, which it calls the Diaoyus.

Since Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, he has managed to muddy the waters by constant carping criticism of his allies, including NATO and Australia, making it unclear whether the U.S. still stood by its allies in East Asia. The Mattis trip was useful in that Washington has now told the world that its defense commitments to South Korea and Japan remain unchanged. This will certainly help to maintain stability in the region.

Specifically, the U.S. and South Korea pledged to proceed with the deployment of the THAAD system despite Chinese opposition during the Mattis visit. Washington and Seoul have insisted that the anti-missile system was purely defensive, designed to protect South Korea and Japan as well as American troops based in those two countries against a North Korean missile attack.

China, however, objects because it claims that the THAAD's powerful radar could penetrate deep into northeastern China, not just North Korea. Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said deployment of THAAD "will jeopardize security and the strategic interests of regional countries, including China, and undermine the strategic balance in the region."

However, Mattis said in Seoul: "Were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for THAAD out here. There is no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD."

Before Mattis left on his trip, President Trump spoke on the phone with acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn. According to the White House, the American leader "reiterated our ironclad commitment to defend" South Korea. So the Mattis trip suggests that the Trump administration has returned to the conventional American relationship with its allies.

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