Tokyo and London have sought to forge closer ties, and for several years both governments have worked to turn that ambition into reality. Recent events should prompt a reassessment of those hopes and both nations would do well to expect less of the other.
The Japan-Great Britain partnership makes great sense. Both are island nations, with a deep and abiding interest in maritime order, which their economies and survival depend upon. As islands, the two countries are slightly disconnected from continental affairs even though both claim membership in the larger region. They share values as well as interests and, as members of the Group of Seven and other core groups and institutions, have a stake in the existing rules-based international order and are committed to its preservation.
Their defense outlooks are increasingly convergent. They see the world through similar threat perspectives and they are aligned institutionally. Both are allies of the United States — Britain is a NATO member, and Japan is one of the Atlantic Alliance’s “partners across the globe.”
Japan and the U.K. have been building on this foundation in recent years. The prospect of Britain’s exit from the European Union spurred London to engage more actively with other countries, and Japan quickly became a preferred partner. Tokyo reciprocated that interest: It saw in London a government that would be eager to work with it on international concerns. Both governments are alarmed by U.S. credibility and commitment, a troubling development for nations that had forged “a special relationship” with Washington.
During British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to Japan in 2017, she and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released the Japan-U.K. Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Last September, Japan and Britain agreed to deepen cooperation to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and to preserve regional order. The Air, Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces have held joint exercises with their British counterparts. The two governments have signed a defense acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, and have begun joint development of a missile project; defense industry cooperation is of growing importance to their partnership. Foreign Minister Taro Kono and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that they wanted to take bilateral ties to “the next stage.” Finally, as Britain grapples with Brexit, Japan has said that it would give priority to a trade deal with the U.K. and Abe has encouraged London to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.
Recent developments suggest those ambitions should be scaled back. Japan has been increasingly concerned as London’s negotiations with Brussels over the terms of Brexit prove more and more contentious and the prospect of “no-deal” looms larger. A letter from Britain that urged Tokyo to move more expeditiously on trade talks reportedly offended Japanese officials, who viewed the message as overbearing and casting them as the party slowing negotiations.
There is growing tension in Britain’s relations with China that could affect Japan. After a speech earlier this week in which Defense Minister Gavin Williamson said that Britain would send its new aircraft carrier into the South China Sea for its maiden voyage and that his country was prepared to use lethal force against countries that flout international law, Beijing canceled a trip to China by the British chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond. Officially, the trip had not been announced, but it was reported that preparations had been underway for weeks and would have occurred soon.
The cancelation has cast into sharp relief the two ministries’ competing views of China. The Exchequer’s view was captured well by former Chancellor George Osborne, who argued that Britain should be China’s “best partner in the West.” Osborne and former Prime Minister David Cameron courted Chinese investment and joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to win favor with Beijing. The defense minister is more hard-nosed in his approach, as is May. He dispatched naval vessels to the South China Sea where they engaged in freedom of navigation operations in waters claimed by China. The two countries have not held a high-level meeting since. May initiated a review of Chinese investment in Britain, has scrutinized its involvement in the U.K.’s nuclear power program and launched an assessment of the security implications of the integration of Huawei’s technologies in the country’s 5G networks.
In short, there is an increasing tension in Britain over commercial and strategic concerns. Brexit will force the U.K. to put more weight on the former and the distance of China from British shores will diminish concern over the latter. London could still surprise, and decide that its commitment to the rules-based international order should dominate its calculations — as it should — but such far-sighted thinking is rare. Tokyo must be prepared for a shift as London faces an uncertain future.
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