Friday, 15 November 2019

The British-Japanese relationship: A new era calls for a new alliance

This year two countries on opposite sides of the world embark on a new era. While the ‘Rei Wa’ (令和) era in Japan began with the accession of the new Emperor, the United Kingdom (UK) is spurred to define ‘Global Britain’ by its exit from the European Union (EU). However, the environment these island nations face is being shaped by similar trends: a shift in the concentration of power and friction to Asia, growing opposition to values such as rule of law and human rights, and a reorientation of major alliance forms and structures. Since both the UK and Japan share a sense that their new era necessitates a broader worldview, the challenges they will confront begin to look similar, irrespective of whether one is in London or Tokyo. It therefore makes sense to consider how Britain and Japan can look for a closer relationship as a means to combine and amplify their efforts.

Not that the Japan-UK relationship is starting from nothing; on the contrary, it has been quietly building for several years. Since Shinzo Abe and David Cameron, Prime Ministers of Japan and the UK, respectively, signed the Joint Statement in April 2012, cooperation has graduated from exercises and exchanges of defence assets to conducting live operations together, such as enforcing United Nations (UN) sanctions on North Korea. Reflecting their shared values, common alliance partners and similar military capabilities, the UK and Japan have come to recognise one another as each other’s closest security partner in their respective regions, attracting the label of ‘quasi allies’.

Since the decision in 2012 to upgrade the relationship, political conditions have evolved in ways that make it all the more important for the two countries to develop a new form of alliance.  

From the British perspective, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has prompted London to reassess the distribution of its strategic interests and pay more attention to areas from the Arabian Gulf through Singapore to East Asia. Just as Britain’s partial withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1970s is said to have accelerated its embrace of the European Community, the return of the UK to the Indo-Pacific is a logical reorientation of economic and strategic interest in response to global trends and mirrors the strategic outlook of its main ally, the United States (US).

From the standpoint of Japan, Tokyo also sees the need to increase its broaden its security contributions, through the Japan-US alliance or otherwise. For this Japan looks increasingly to like-minded partners with complementary capabilities, interoperable military equipment, and diplomatic structures that align with its own. Considering the regional threats Japan faces, this is an inspiring example of seeing the larger picture.  

From the British perspective, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has prompted London to reassess the distribution of its strategic interests and pay more attention to areas from the Arabian Gulf through Singapore to East Asia.

Other strategic phenomena are drawing Britain and Japan together. As it withdraws from the EU, the UK is likely to focus more on NATO to achieve its European security objectives. However, it is time to expect allies across the Channel – especially Germany, France, Italy and Spain – to meet their commitments before allocating more resources at the expense of the wider interests of Global Britain. Russian aggression in Ukraine has been a wake-up call and the oil tanker of European defence spending is slowly starting to turn around.

Moreover, when it comes to calculating how much the UK should commit to European defence, it would be short-sighted to extrapolate directly from displays of Russian confidence in Ukraine and Syria, which could come to be seen as ‘peak Putin’. Funding for Russia’s Armed Forces is still elevated due to the high energy prices of yesteryear. As the world eschews fossil fuels and the longer-term effects of Russia’s demographics and the difficulties of achieving economic reform kick in, Moscow will find it harder to maintain recent rates of modernisation and the sort of foreign adventures that make Europeans feel insecure. Certainly, Britain should not overlook the challenge from Russia but – like Japan – it needs to put old and local risks in proportion and place them in a new, wider context.

Where Russia could pose a serious challenge is beyond Europe. In recent years Russia has aligned with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the basis of shared interests like rejection of a US-led world order, opposition to Western values, and the need for small states to accept the right of great powers to claim exclusive spheres of interest. This new China-Russia geopolitical axis across Eurasia has to be taken into account as a major factor for Britain’s strategic planning, particularly in light of the more confrontational approach that the administration of President Trump has adopted.

While it is hard to see any scenario in which a ground intervention in Eurasia serves UK interests, the same cannot be said for the right of free navigation and access to resources that are at stake in the Arctic and the Indo-Pacific regions. Global Britain cannot afford to allow either area of ocean to be enclosed as an exclusive Russian or Chinese sphere of interest, and in both cases Japan is ready as an ally-in-waiting, positioned to geographic, cultural and diplomatic advantage.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping came to power and set the PRC on a more assertive course: disregarding the judgement of the United Nations (UN) Law of the Sea tribunal on its maritime territory dispute with the Philippines and dismissing the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration defining Hong Kong’s autonomy as a ‘historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning.’ The PRC has also launched a global investment and construction project (the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’), committed state subsidies to ensure the PRC becomes dominant in ten key areas of high-tech manufacturing (‘Made in China 2025’), established military installations on contested islands in the South China Sea, and claimed a leading role in guiding the creation of a new world order. As a result, Chinese reassurances that it will continue to abide by international law and would never use its power to bully others are proving harder and harder to believe.


If, as seems probable, the coming struggle over world order is breaking along ideological lines, Japan and the UK should be seen as firmly on the same side in support of rule of law, democracy, free markets, and human rights.

If, as seems probable, the coming struggle over world order is breaking along ideological lines, Japan and the UK should be seen as firmly on the same side in support of rule of law, democracy, free markets, and human rights. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index 2019 ranks Japan as the leader of the ‘liberal order’ in Asia and while it is seen as a regional power at best by Europeans, it is steadily increasing its capacity to engage globally. Japanese taboos around military instruments of foreign policy are falling fast, as seen by the recent deployment of the first military officers to a non-UN operation in the Middle East. At the conclusion of Mr Trump’s visit to Japan in May this year, Mr Abe also spoke of the US and Japan leading for the peace and prosperity of the region and international community as ‘genuinely global partners’.

Mr Abe also confirmed the UK is among the partner countries with which Japan plans to strengthen cooperation toward the realisation of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). This FOIP concept is now a strategic nexus in US and Japanese policy, bringing together the values of free and open society with investment and development in areas such as energy, technology, and infrastructure.

Recommendations for strengthening the relationship

As a recent report by Chatham House points out, there are many ways the UK-Japan relationship can develop as a partnership. Here are several further suggestions:

  1. The UK should make its policy in the Indo-Pacific more explicit and public, and work with like-minded allies in the region to agree a statement on shared values as well as coordination in the military, diplomatic, and economic domains to deliver their strategic aims. The ‘quasi Alliance’ with Japan could then be codified in a formal agreement that reflects the higher ambitions of the new era.
  2. The UK could reinforce mechanisms for protecting shared economic and trade interests by seeking accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), while to the extent possible continuing to preserve the valuable role the UK has played as the gateway to Europe for Japanese businesses. Existing annual ‘2+2’ meetings of foreign and defence ministers could be extended to include ministers dealing with trade and investment policy, becoming a more holistic ‘3+3’ format, based on the need to define the UK partnership in the FOIP strategy.
  3. The UK should consider forward-basing a Royal Navy warship in Japan. Although there has been speculation about a new British base in Singapore or Brunei, Japan is in a better position for operations around North Korea and the North Pacific. It would also facilitate seamless integration with the US 7th Fleet and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force. Compared to Singapore or Brunei, Japan may also be less sensitive to the pressure such a move might attract from the PRC, which has expressed a wish to exclude non-Asian nations from security provision in the region.

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