London – Amidst continuing gloom over the pandemic and uncertainty over the post-Brexit transition, a ray of light and optimism comes shining through to cheer up Britain.
The source of this happier story is the agreement in principle on a new U.K.-Japan trade agreement. This is without reservation good news — for the U.K., for Japan and for the unlocking again of open world trade, which was, and still is, threatening to become bogged down in a quagmire of protectionism and Trumpian belligerence.
The agreement in principle has been welcomed in both houses of Parliament at Westminster, even though the full details are yet to be revealed and even though some of the voices of approval elsewhere in the media, who still think the main U.K. future lies in Europe, such as the Financial Times, have been distinctly grudging in nature. These critics have been further dismayed by the likelihood that the new deal will prove noticeably better than the existing EU-Japan accord cemented last year.
But the new agreement is significant for the U.K. (and maybe for Japan) for a number of reasons that go much deeper than just trade. It marks a firm step towards the realization in British policy circles that the future is increasingly Asian. It could therefore herald a new era of increased collaboration with Japan not just in trade relations, but in much wider fields such as security, defense coordination and intelligence sharing. Extending the Five Eyes intelligence alliance would seem an obvious next step on this front.
Another shift of huge significance could be about to occur on the U.K. home front as well. Ten years ago there was much talk of a golden era of U.K.-China relations, ushering in extensive Chinese involvement in many aspects of the British economy — from nuclear power to railways, to ports, property, public utilities and even football clubs. In general there was admiration for the way that China, for all its faults, has lifted literally hundreds of millions out of poverty and developed a kind of Asian capitalism which boded well for its emergence as a responsible world power, even if by no means a genuine democracy.
But in the decade since then China has forfeited much of the U.K.’s broad goodwill by its growingly assertive and prickly attitudes and disruptive policies. Under the rule of Xi Jinping, it has now succeeded — despite much rhetoric to the contrary about a shared future — in aggravating most of its neighbors as well as in the U.K. and much of the Commonwealth by its clumsy heavy-handedness in Hong Kong, its ugly habits in the cybersphere, its open disregard of the law of the sea, new border tensions with India, not to mention its distinctly dubious record on the treatment of certain (although not all) minorities.
Maybe this will change under better leadership, but meanwhile it could be that the golden era of U.K. relations with China is set to be replaced by a golden era of relations with Japan. Perhaps the trade deal is a harbinger of just that. This would make a great deal of sense, since the two nations working in tandem could be a considerable force for good in a fragmented and frightened world and at a time when the voice and influence of a divided U.S. has regrettably become ‘an uncertain trumpet’ — at least for the time being.
This is anyway an age in which the so-called middle powers should stick closely together while the two would-be superpowers expend all their energies locked in outdated rivalries rooted in outdated theories of world politics and power.
This promising British picture has been slightly marred by the news that Hitachi, which like many other major Japanese companies has extensive investments in the U.K., is pulling out of the U.K.’s new nuclear power station program for lack of U.K. governmental financial support and clarity. But maybe the program itself is flawed and with the aid of new technology a new relationship there, too, can be engineered.
Perhaps the new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, could open his premiership not only by welcoming the new trade deal (as he will doubtless do) but recognizing that this is one step along a road to very much closer cooperation in almost every field — security, defense and intelligence included — and that Japan and the U.K., working in harmony, constitute a formidable nexus around which 21st-century connectivity between West and East can expand.
Perhaps the band of diehards in London, who remain fixed to the 20th-century mindset of a purely Western and transatlantic framework, might recognize and welcome the same thing too.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.