By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (Yonhap) -- Incoming U.S. President Donald Trump's pick for defense secretary said Thursday the U.S. is "stronger when we uphold our treaty obligations," a remark that runs directly counter to Trump's campaign suggestion the U.S. should consider ending protection of allies unless they pay more.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis also said he knows of no plan to pull American troops out of South Korea and Japan, and pledged to work closely with Seoul and other allies to counter growing nuclear and missile threats from the North.
Still, he said that allies should also fulfill their obligations.
"I believe the United States is stronger when we uphold our treaty obligations, and when we stand by our allies and partners. We expect our allies and partners to uphold their obligations as well," Mattis said in a statement prepared for his confirmation hearing.
Asked how the U.S. can fulfill its treaty obligations to South Korea and Japan without forward deployed American troops in the event of contingencies in the allies, Mattis said, "I know of no plan to withdraw forward deployed troops in the region."
During the campaign, Trump expressed deeply negative views of U.S. security commitments overseas, seeing them as a cumbersome burden sucking up taxpayer dollars. He argued that it makes no sense for the U.S. to pay to defend wealthy allies like Japan and the South, and the U.S. should consider pulling out of the countries unless they pay more.
Since his election, however, Trump has shown signs of retreat from the campaign rhetoric, making remarks reaffirming the alliance with South Korea and filling some key posts with people valuing the alliance, such as Mattis and incoming National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
Mattis emphatically stressed the importance of alliances.
"We must embrace our international alliances and security partnerships. History is clear: Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither," he said.
On defense cost-sharing, Mattis said it's nothing new to ask allies to share benefits as well as burdens and he would "find common ground with our allies."
"We have a long history in this city with presidents, secretaries of Defense asking allies to carry their fair share of any kind of defense burden when they share in the benefits. And I've lived through these kinds of discussions in NATO and elsewhere," he said.
The hearing came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said last week the country's reached the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile in an apparent threat that it's perfecting the development of an ICBM capable of striking the continental U.S.
In response, Trump said the North's development of such capabilities "won't happen."
Mattis declined to characterize the remark when asked if it represents a "red line."
He said, however, that the North's nuclear and missile development is "a serious threat and we've got to do something about it." Asked if "necessary force should be on the table" to deal with the threat, Mattis said, "I don't think we should take anything off the table."
Mattis said the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains volatile amid the North's provocative statements and actions, including the "expansion of its nuclear weapons program, continued development of increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile capabilities, and repeated threats to the U.S. and its allies in the region."
"The United States must cooperate closely with our allies in the region, in particular the Republic of Korea and Japan, and work with other states with important interests in the situation, including Russia and China," he said when asked how the U.S. should deal with the North.
"We need to continue to strengthen our homeland and theater missile defense capabilities while working with our allies to strengthen their military capacity to deter and, if necessary, respond to aggression by North Korea. There should be no doubt of the U.S. resolve to defend our national security interests and those of our allies in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
Mattis, 66, retired in 2013 after serving 44 years in the military. Nicknamed "Mad Dog" because of his tough talk and eagerness to fight, he is considered something of a legendary figure and is well respected not only in the Marine Corps but also throughout the U.S. military.
As Central Command leader, Mattis oversaw all U.S. forces in the Middle East. But his hard-line views on how to deal with Iran were at odds with the administration of President Barack Obama. He has also been an outspoken critic of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Mattis is expected to seek a hard-line policy on the North as he has favored a tougher stance against U.S. adversaries abroad, especially Iran.
His nomination needed a waiver from Congress because it would run counter to the regulation that a retired officer can become defense secretary only after being out of the military for seven years.
Later Thursday, the Republican-led Senate voted to approve the waiver, and the House was expected to follow suit.