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US Defense Secretary Mattis' departure rattles Japan, European allies

In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during the 2018 POW/MIA National Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, file)

TOKYO/BRUSSELS -- U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis' Dec. 20 resignation announcement, apparently over clashes of opinion with President Donald Trump over relations with America's allies, has rattled government officials in Japan and Washington's European partners.

"It has just become more difficult to see the future direction of the Trump administration," said a worried Japanese government official. Mattis is known in Japanese government circles as someone with a deep understanding of the security situation in Northeast Asia, involving Japan, China, the Korean Peninsula and the Russian Far East.

"He made extra effort to strengthen deterrence and build the Japan-U.S. alliance's capabilities, and for the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region and the world," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said of Mattis at a press conference on the night of Dec. 21.

A senior Foreign Ministry official insisted that Mattis' departure at the end of February next year will have "no impact," because the two countries are "closely cooperating at every level." However, the Japanese government had cultivated a relationship with the former Marine general even before Trump came to power. "We trusted him most," said a visibly disappointed senior government official.

Mattis has also helped ease concerns among the U.S.'s European allies following Trump's repeated remarks making light of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which he has made since his campaign for the presidency. Mattis led effort to reform and improve NATO military capabilities, and called the organization the cornerstone of U.S. security and his "second home." His loyalty toward the 29-member military alliance was reciprocal, and NATO officials deeply trusted the secretary of defense.

(Japanese original by Kuniaki Kinoshita, Political News Department, and Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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