OSAKA – On Theresa May’s first official visit to Japan starting Wednesday, the British prime minister is expected to provide words of encouragement to dispel investors’ doubts about headwinds caused by Brexit and condemnation against North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear tests.
May, accompanied by a large British trade delegation, arrived in Osaka Wednesday afternoon before heading to Kyoto for an informal dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She and her entourage then boarded a bullet train for the nation’s capital, Tokyo.
Formal talks were to begin Thursday and are expected to focus on issues surrounding Brexit and bilateral economic cooperation, as well as increased defense ties and security issues, especially those involving East Asia and the South China Sea.
May’s arrival comes at a time of heightened concerns in Japan following a North Korean missile launch Tuesday that flew over the southern tip of Hokkaido, before landing in the Pacific Ocean about 1,180 km east of Cape Erimo and east-southeast of the Northern Territories, which are claimed by Japan but administered by Russia. The launch prompted the government to issue an alert to Hokkaido and 11 other prefectures.
Speaking to British media before departing for Japan, May called North Korea’s missile launch over Hokkaido a “reckless provocation.”
“These are illegal tests, we strongly condemn them and we will be working with Japan and other international partners to ensure that pressure is put on North Korea to stop this illegal action,” she said.
Still, concerns over how Brexit will play out, and in turn, questions about the future of the bilateral economic partnership remain the elephants in the room.
According to Ken Endo, professor of International Politics at Hokkaido University, May and Abe will have different priorities regarding the issues.
“For May, the priority is keeping Japanese industry in the United Kingdom where it has a long history of foreign direct investment,” Endo said. “Related to this is to structure durable economic ties with Japan akin to the economic partnership agreement that Japan and the European Union just made.”
“For Abe, protecting Japanese investment and industry is high on his list of priorities,” he said. “Deep down, I suspect Abe is concerned about a possible inward-looking post-Brexit U.K.”
Garren Mulloy, associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University and an expert on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, said that within defense cooperation, further joint training exercises and shared defense technology might be areas the two leaders raise. Mulloy added that May could make references to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the East and South China Sea issues.
But increased bilateral trade in defense technology might be problematic.
“The British would love to sell to the Japan Ministry of Defense but have little to offer, other than expertise and experience,” Mulloy said. “The Japanese would love to sell to the U.K. Ministry of Defense but have little to offer, and have relatively limited expertise and experience.”
“The only real international defense engagement on the table would be anti-piracy, and possibly human-assistance, disaster response preparation.”