The UK-Japan Relationship: Five Things You Should Know
A new Chatham House report on UK-Japan relations makes the case for an ambitious and multi-faceted virtual alliance between the two countries who are both facing a set of common regional and global challenges. The report’s editor, John Nilsson-Wright, highlights five core themes addressed by the report’s Japanese and British authors.
(1) Britain and Japan enjoy strong historical ties that underpin their increased cooperation in recent years.
Britain was an important model for Japan’s late 19th century modernization efforts and both countries were formal allies in the early 20th century, in part, in an effort to counter the rising challenge of Russia as a geopolitical actor in Asia.
While World War II led to a temporary rupture in bilateral ties, after 1945, both countries sought to rebuild their relationship. In this effort, they found common interest in their respective close alliance ties with the United States and a shared history of mutual ambivalence towards their continental neighbours.
Anglo-Japanese ties were significantly boosted during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s, when Japan made major direct investments commitments to the UK, especially within the auto and consumer electronics sectors. Since then, extensive cultural and educational exchanges, and the establishment of the UK-Japan 21st Century Group, has helped to bolster ties between the political, business and academic communities of the two countries.
(2) Japan and Britain have a powerful common interest to work together to support the maintenance of global free trade — although their own bilateral relationship remains somewhat asymmetrical.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe, Japan has been at the forefront of efforts to foster trade liberalization, whether through leadership in sustaining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TransPacific Partnership (CPTPP), in reaching a range of bilateral trade deals since 2002 or in agreeing to the new 2019 EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement.
Britain’s continuing uncertainty over how to resolve Brexit makes securing new, future trade partnerships — including a bilateral agreement with Japan — especially important. However, trade between the two countries is relatively limited with only 2 per cent of Japan’s trade exports going to the UK and only 1.6 per cent of UK exports going to Japan in 2017.
However, Japan’s foreign direct investment in the UK is some 9.8 per cent of Japan’s entire overseas investment portfolio with 1,000 Japanese firms currently employing some 160,000 British employees in the UK — a powerful reason for the acute concern that Japanese business and government representatives have over the continuing uncertainty over Brexit.
(3) Japan and Britain have deepened their security partnership in recent years, taking advantage, in part, of their more focused and increasingly strategic national security decision-making processes.
Britain’s establishment of a National Security Council (NSC) in 2010 has enhanced the strategic decision-making capacity of the UK government without undermining the Cabinet and has led to the formulation of two National Security Strategies (NSS) and related Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR) — most recently in 2015.
Japan’s establishment of its own NSC in 2013 was, in part, modelled on the UK example and has helped to strengthen active security cooperation between the two countries. This cooperation has been reinforced by the regular convening of 2 plus 2 meetings between the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries. Across all three branches of their respective armed forces — ground, air and naval personnel — the two countries have strengthened their cooperation both tactically and in the development of defence equipment. During the May premiership, British forces have been dispatched to East Asia for joint exercises with their Japanese counterparts, whether to deter North Korea or to minimize the risk of conflict in the East and South China Seas.
(4) Japan and the UK are vocal supporters of international institutions and the rule of law — although in the past there have been subtle differences by British and Japanese leaders in identifying the primary challenges to global order.
Britain and Japan remain actively committed to the G7 and G20 process and to the UN with Britain taking a consistent line in backing Japan’s desire to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Both have used overseas development assistance (ODA) to promote economic development and regional stability and each has considerable experience in a range of peace-keeping initiatives.
In identifying the core foreign security challenges in their immediate neighbourhoods — China in the case of Japan and Russia in the case of the UK — there has been some divergence of views between the two governments. Britain’s eagerness to develop a strong economic partnership with China — especially during the ‘Golden Era’ of closer Sino-UK ties under David Cameron — and the UK’s participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has suggested to Japan that the UK might be minimizing the security, political, technological and cyber threat posed by China’s increased geopolitical assertiveness.
For the UK, by contrast, the Abe adminstration’s desire to reach a diplomatic resolution of post-1945 territorial disputes with Russia has raised concerns that Japan has not been sufficiently forceful in condemning Russia’s territorial incursions in Ukraine or the 2018 nerve-agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK.
(5) The growth of populist politics present challenges to closer bilateral UK-Japan cooperation but also represents an issue around which the UK and Japanese governments could cooperate more actively.
Brexit and the associated rise of populism in the UK has contributed to the weakening of the mainstream Conservative and Labour parties. Substantial sections of the UK electorate are sceptical of traditional elites and increasingly concerned about the apparent inability of parliament to address a range of critical policy challenges including the economic impact of globalization and the challenge of rising immigration. There is a risk that this will contribute to a diminished appetite on the part of the British public to see the UK maintain an active foreign policy presence.
In Japan, ostensibly populism is less of a factor in influencing contemporary politics, but with Prime Minister Abe committed to a gradual opening of Japan to more migrants — some 345,000 over the next five years — and given the risk that the Japanese economy may either continue to grow slowly or stall, it is not out of the question that similar populist reactions might occur in Japan especially if historical tensions persist between Japan and its immediate neighbours — whether with geopolitical rivals such as China or nominal partners and fellow liberal democracies such as South Korea.
The UK and Japan have an opportunity to work together to reinforce their commitment to support liberal democratic values internationally and to guard against threats such as foreign cyber attacks or the dissemination of ‘fake news to Open Societies at home and abroad.
WATCH: As Japan and the UK face challenges at home and abroad, they can achieve more by working together than separately.