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[WASHINGTON] US Defence Secretary James Mattis will seek to reassure allies worldwide they can still rely on an increasingly inward-focused US, as he heads to East Asia on the first overseas trip by a Trump administration cabinet member.
The retired Marine Corps general leaves Wednesday for South Korea and Japan - two of the US 's closest allies - amid questions about President Donald Trump's commitment to the region, having pulled out of a 12-nation Pacific trade deal and suggesting previously that Asian nations weren't paying enough for US troops stationed in their countries.
Questions over ties with Tokyo and Seoul come against the backdrop of an increasingly belligerent regime in North Korea under Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang appears to be making preparations for another nuclear or missile test and has been advancing its weapons capability, with Mr Trump saying he would not allow North Korea to threaten US soil.
"It's still very important to reassure allies at the time when there's so much uncertainty, turbulence, unpredictability," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
The trip "will reverberate beyond those two key north-east Asian allies, when you have a revered secretary of defence put boots or wingtips on the ground and reassure the leaders."
The Pentagon downplayed expectations of any immediate shift in the US military's approach toward the region or in its presence. South Korea hosts about 28,500 US troops while Japan has 50,000.
Mr Mattis "wants to find out what their concerns are, learn more about the issues that we face together and prepare to address those," Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said.
"He's primarily in listening mode right now."
He said "the intent of this is not to roll out any big change in US policy."
Nevertheless, Mr Mattis's trip will be "high-level signalling" to key allies, Mr Cronin said.
South Korea, the first stop, is facing turbulence after President Park Geun-Hye was impeached over an influence-peddling scandal. Acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn spoke to Mr Trump by phone Jan 29, with the American president reiterating the US's "ironclad commitment to defend" it against North Korea.
Mr Trump said the alliance will be "better than ever before", according to a statement on the call from Mr Hwang's office.
In addition to discussing joint defense capabilities, Mr Mattis will meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se to discuss North Korea.
By sending Mr Mattis to South Korea first, Mr Trump is delivering a message the US will preserve its alliance and sending a warning to Pyongyang, said Baek Seung-Joo, a former deputy defence minister who's a lawmaker with the ruling Saenuri party.
His trip also sends indirect signals to China that the US stands by a plan approved during the Obama administration to deploy in South Korea an antimissile system known as Thaad, which Beijing opposes, Mr Baek said.
"His visit will clarify and kill some blurry areas and extreme talks that have been hovering around before the start of the Trump administration," Mr Baek said.
"While Obama excluded chances of any military actions against the North, I think Trump will leave such chances, including a surgical strike, ambiguous."
US allies and adversaries will also be watching for more direct signals toward Beijing. Mr Trump has stoked fears of a trade war by threatening to label China a currency manipulator and weighing tariffs on Chinese goods.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump's choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, suggested during a confirmation hearing that the US would toughen its stance over China's island-building efforts in the disputed South China Sea.
Mr Mattis's visit to Japan comes ahead of a Feb 10 meeting in Washington, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will sit down with Mr Trump for the second time since his election.
The US-Japan alliance, a bedrock of security in the Pacific region, has come under stress since Mr Trump backed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord shortly after taking office. Mr Abe, a key advocate of the deal, has indicated he's open to bilateral trade talks between the US and Japan.
"I want to hold frank discussions with Secretary Mattis about various issues and to make it a meeting that contributes to deepening and strengthening the alliance and making it unshakable," Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada told parliament this week.
Japan will also be seeking assurances Mr Trump will hold to the Obama administration's pledge to come to its defence if needed over islands in the East China Sea that are in dispute with China. China regularly sends planes and ships near the area, leading Japan to scramble fighter jets.
Some people in Japan are worried about whether Mr Trump will act on his campaign rhetoric about US troops in the region, according to Itsunori Onodera, a former Japanese defence minister.
"There is concern among a section of the Japanese people because he has said that protecting allies, including Japan, costs a great deal of money," Mr Onodera said.
"We need to get things ready so that we are not in a panic if America's thinking suddenly changes."