In an unusual move potentially rife with political implications, Defense Secretary James Mattis weighed in Wednesday on President Donald Trump's imposition of trade tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the EU.
The tariffs were imposed on the basis of a national security concerns about trade imbalances, especially in steel, but Mattis has largely avoided publicly discussing economic issues, insisting that he is solely focused ensuring the lethality of US forces.
The Trump administration's aggressive push on trade with both friends and counterparts like China could complicate partnerships the US needs to meet its foreign policy goals, to the point that a senior military official -- a figure who usually stays out of politics -- is now wading into the fray.
Mattis' comments on the new friction with some of the US' closest allies now raise questions about whether he plans to step more into politicized issues, close watchers of the US defense secretary say.
The administration's trade moves have been harshly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans who express concern about the impact on US allies and alliances. Some Republicans, led by Sen. Bob Corker, the retiring Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, are pushing bipartisan legislation that would limit Trump's trade ability to enact tariffs using national security as a justification.
The comments come at a time Mattis is deeply focused on Asia, where China is trying to fend off US tariffs. The defense secretary is trying to get Beijing to step back from the militarization of the South China Sea and ensure that Beijing presses North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons.
"Premature to call it a trade war"
Speaking to reporters on the way to a NATO meeting in Europe, Mattis was asked if a trade war could complicate military relations with allies.
"So will the trade war have an impact, effect on the security relationships? Right now, I don't see that," Mattis told reporters on a flight to Brussels where he will attend NATO defense minister meetings Thursday and Friday. Many of his counterparts now face the prospect of tariffs the Trump administration announced May 31.
The European Union announced Wednesday that it would impose retaliatory tariffs on US products.
"I think it's still premature to call it a trade war, because as it starts maturing, you know there is always give and take on these things," Mattis told the reporters. "And so what we are looking for is fair and reciprocal trade."
Mattis then went even further into administration talking points on trade issues he has not talked about in detail before.
"We can't have 2 percent on imported cars and another nation have a 10 percent tax on our cars when they are imported to their country. We are looking for reciprocal trade," Mattis said.
The defense secretary did seek to tie it all to national security saying, a strong US economy "keeps our national security apparatus funded."
A senior administration official told CNN that one justification for the "national security" trigger on the steel and aluminum tariffs is that those US industries are so depressed that the US could not mount a "world war" mobilization like that seen during World War II, when the US had to rapidly produce ships and planes to fight the Nazis and Japan.
Mattis has not always fully agreed with that line. In an internal administration memo earlier this year, he suggested that the Defense Department would not have difficulty maintaining supplies of steel and aluminum solely from US production, even without trade restrictions.
Mattis's foray into the trade debate, and its impact on relations with China, comes one week before the upcoming summit with North Korea, which is driving much of the US relationship now with Asian allies.
While the defense secretary is not expected to attend the summit with North Korea, he is publicly laying groundwork with allied military forces in Asia to make them part of an ongoing security bulwark against both North Korea and China, even if a denuclearization agreement is eventually reached.
"As a department, we are taking the long view," a senior defense official familiar with Mattis' thinking told CNN. A priority now for the defense chief is to ensure that South Korea and Japan militarily remain on board with Trump administration efforts.
The North Korea portfolio is increasingly politically sensitive for Mattis. Administration officials close to him say he is steering clear of any White House drama between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Sources tell CNN that State Department officials believe Bolton tried to sabotage the summit by publicly warning that the North Korean leader could face the fate of murdered Libyan leader Mummar Qadaffi, who was overthrown and killed after giving up his nuclear weapons.
Happily staying the man in the middle -- not part of a political agenda -- is a traditional and successful Mattis strategy for surviving in the Trump Administration officials say, and a typical military posture with regards to political issues.
Mattis now has regular breakfasts or lunches with Pompeo and Bolton together, and he is making sure not to be seen as taking sides. But he has presented the administration's hard line on North Korea to the rest of the world, most recently at a regional meeting of Asian defense ministers over the weekend.
He made clear that North Korea would only receive relief from sanctions when it demonstrates "verifiable and irreversible steps" to denuclearization.
"We can anticipate at best a bumpy road to the negotiations," he told the gathering.
"As defense ministers we must maintain a strong collaborative defensive stance so we enable our diplomats to negotiate from a position of strength," he said.
North Korea won't be "a straight line"
Mattis, the senior defense official said, is trying to make clear to his Asian counterparts that he believes the negotiations "are not a straight line, it's a process."
He also went to great pains in his meetings to make clear that the US would only change US troop levels in South Korea if that government wanted it.
One of the key challenges now for Mattis is maintaining relations with China, at a time when tensions with Beijing are increasing -- in part because of Mattis' tough rhetoric and US pushback -- even as the White House looks to China to press North Korea to denuclearize.
Mattis already has withdrawn an invitation to China to participate in a major military exercise, because of what the Pentagon says is Chinese militarization of islands in the South China Sea. China has recently placed missiles on some islands and flown a bomber onto one of the for the first time.
"China's policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness of our strategy," Mattis said. "What our strategy promotes, it calls into question China's broader goals. China's militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island," Mattis said.
"Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion," he said, noting that China's militarization of the Spratlys is also in direct contradiction to President Xi's 2015 public assurances in the White House Rose Garden that they would not do this.