By James Rogers
On Thursday, Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, visited the United Kingdom. Although the media’s attention was on the visit in the context of Brexit – not least given that the Japanese leader warned the world of the consequences of a “no-deal” Brexit – the two countries have been moving closer together for over a decade, and not only in an economic context.
In 2012, the United Kingdom (UK) and Japan signed a defence cooperation memorandum, making Britain the first country other than the United States (US) that Japan pledged to cooperate with militarily. An additional and deeper agreement was signed in 2017, whereby the two countries asserted that they were each other’s “closest security partners respectively in Asia and Europe.” Meanwhile, military cooperation between the British Armed Forces and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces has continued to grow, with a plethora of visits and exercises undertaken over the past two years.
As our Audit of Geopolitical Capability – released last Friday – shows, due to their unequal attributes, the UK and Japan complement one another well. Japan has a significantly larger degree of “economic clout”, with greater net wealth and national income. Where the UK stands out is in terms of its “diplomatic leverage” and “military might”, particularly its naval strength, which is larger than France, Italy and Germany combined. So Japan may be able to assist the UK as it withdraws from the European Union, just as the UK supports Japan’s strategic “normalisation”.
But what is driving their broader cooperation? Three factors: China, Russia and the US. To start, Japan has sought to normalise its post-Second World War strategic posture to hedge against China’s rise and revisionist inclination. Tokyo’s decision late last year to procure the F35B and transform its two large new “helicopter carrying destroyers” into small aircraft carriers is evidence of the speed of the change. The UK, meanwhile, is keen to prove its credentials as a leading custodian of the rules-based international order, particularly in light of China’s revisionism in the South China Sea. Brexit and the wider “Global Britain” agenda may also be compounding this renewed focus.
Second, just as Britain has become more aware of China’s behaviour, Japan has grown closer to the UK’s perspective of the revisionist regime in Moscow. Russia’s antics in relation to the Kuril islands has only increased Japan’s awareness.
The third factor is the evolving strategic posture and politics of the US. As America’s focus is drawn into the containment of China in East and Southeast Asia, both Japan and the UK have reoriented their own respective foci in support of their closest ally. Equally, the election of President Donald Trump, with his “America First” agenda, may now be forcing further change in Tokyo.
So what is in store? This week’s edition of The Economist cites an unnamed British official, who suggests that London and Tokyo may be heading back into a formal alliance with one another. A few years ago, this would have been as laughable a proposition as the British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s proposal to re-establish naval bases in Southeast Asia. But today, it is less of a joke and more of a necessity.
Geopolitically, the two island nations flank either side of the Eurasian landmass and both are backed – and, in turn, reinforce – America’s awesome power. Indeed, as China’s rise and revisionist inclinations develop further, it is not unthinkable that an even broader maritime formation like NATO may develop, drawing in liberal democratic allies in East and Southeast Asia, as well as Australasia, in support of the rules-based order.
Thus, Britain and Japan would do well to continue cementing ties. After all, closer cooperation now would only serve to enhance their influence later, particularly in relation to alliance geopolitics.