Commentary / Japan

Recalibrating the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic relationships

by Shihoko Goto

When it comes to postwar reconstruction and building ties with the United States after World War II, Japan usually gets compared to Germany. That’s hardly surprising, given that the two countries were allies during the war in which they were ultimately defeated by the Allies. The economic recovery of both Japan and Germany would have not been possible without U.S. support, while both continue to depend deeply on a U.S. commitment to regional security in Asia and Europe, respectively.

Yet when it comes to having a special relationship with the U.S., there are more similarities between Japan and Britain than there are with Germany. To be sure, the historical, cultural, social and, of course, linguistic ties that the U.S. and Britain share are undoubtedly the strongest bar none. No other European country, including Germany, France and Italy, could claim to have as deep-rooted ties with the U.S. at all levels as Britain does.

But in Asia, Japan is the staunchest ally and partner of the U.S., and not just because of the security alliance or the fact that together they account for about 30 percent of global GDP. Japan has also come to represent U.S. values and interests in Asia even as Washington itself is seemingly retreating from some of those commitments itself.

Yet both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his British counterpart, Theresa May, have found that such firmly established ties and sharing of values no longer are as critical as they have been in the past.

During his first visit to London as the U.S. president, Donald Trump was quick to criticize May for her lack of commitment to Brexit and to praise her political rival Boris Johnson, who had just resigned as foreign minister in protest against May’s efforts to preserve Britain’s economic links to the European Union. The prime minister can remain cautiously optimistic about garnering Trump’s support for a U.S.-U.K. bilateral trade deal to offset the risks of Britain leaving the EU, but it would be foolhardy to bank on the special relationship that has spanned centuries.

Of all the world leaders, Abe was probably the most sympathetic to May’s emotional roller coaster ride with Trump’s visit. After all, Abe has staked his foreign policy credibility on his ability to connect with Trump, which would hopefully lead to enhanced bilateral ties between Japan and the U.S. under the new administration.

His gamble hasn’t paid off. After a promising start fueled by a shared love of golf, Abe has had to face a slew of rejections from Trump, starting with the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and being slapped with metals tariffs before any other strategic U.S. ally.

On the security front, Abe has been confronted with Trump doing an about-face in imposing maximum pressure on North Korea to denuclearize, and Tokyo’s concerns about Washington’s negotiating strategy with Pyongyang that would leave Japan vulnerable continue to increase.

As Britain grapples with envisioning its economic future and, more broadly, its relations with Europe and beyond, deepening ties with Japan should be a logical step. Earlier this year, May inked a deal to secure over £9 billion in Chinese investments, but at the same time skepticism about just how China’s commitments will actually materialize is increasing.

Japan, meanwhile, had lobbied hard for the British government to remain in the EU, having invested over £40 million in the country since British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began enticing foreign companies to be based in the United Kingdom as a gateway to Europe. By concluding a free trade deal with the EU, Japan has secured a path to invest further with the continent, but its trade relations with Britain moving forward remain murky.

With the prospect of a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. unlikely in the near future, and uncertainties about its relations with Europe, Britain has a vested interest to reach out to Japan. As Tokyo continues to push forward with ensuring that the 11 remaining TPP member countries ratify and then implement the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and expand membership, Britain should seriously consider moving forward with the possibility of joining the CPTPP as well.

It would certainly be a win for Britain, which would have greater access to Japanese markets and beyond. Equally, it would be a win for Japan and other countries committed to free trade and existing rules at a time when the possibility of trade wars flaring up continue to rise.

Britain joining the CPTPP would not only increase the geographic reach of the multilateral deal, it would also be a concrete example of a global commitment to free trade that could counterbalance the rising trend of building tariff barriers. At the same time, it would deepen not just the economic ties between Japan and Britain, but also act as the first step in forging relations between Japan and a Britain seeking to redefine its position on the global stage.

Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program in Washington, is an expert on economics and politics in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.