In January 2019, amidst all the Brexit-related commotion and confusion, British Prime Minister Theresa May took time out to welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to London. Although the media focused on the timing of the visit – not least because of his warning over the consequences of a “no-deal” Brexit and follow-on visit to the Netherlands, where a handful of Japanese companies may relocate or establish satellite offices – this was much more than just a shoring up of one political leader by another. The fact is that Japan and the UK have been moving closer together for over a decade, and not only in the diplomatic-economic sphere. For some time, the two have been deepening their strategic and military cooperation.
In 2012, for example, the UK and Japan signed a defense cooperation memorandum, adding it to the list of countries with which Japan is developing institutionalized military ties. A 2017 agreement saw an uptick in the willingness to play up the public profile of the growing relationship, whereby the two countries asserted that they were each other’s “closest security partners respectively in Asia and Europe.” Japan’s latest National Defence Programme Guidelines also highlight cooperation with the UK. Given that Japan’s other main partners in the Indo-Pacific – the United States, Australia, and India – also have deep historic and institutional linkages to the UK, a deeper strategic logic is likely at play and could be further leveraged. As China seeks to revise the rules-based system in both maritime law and trade, powers that depend heavily on the system are beginning to band together in quasi-alliances.
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