At a time of reduced certainty surrounding the security of both the UK and in particular Japan, these two island states are looking at increased military cooperation in order to maximise their respective capabilities.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Rob Clark.
The year ahead presents both nations with a set of unique challenges which if addressed appropriately can have positive impacts for both their defence and their national security.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the UK in January highlighted the emerging relationship between the two great powers. Building on previous high-level ministerial visits over the last 18 months, including 2+2 engagements in addition to May’s visit to Japan in 2017, this latest summit sought to strengthen defence ties further. In particular the domains of cyber warfare, counter-terrorism and increased defence engagement between the Royal Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force. Great emphasis is being placed upon this developing relationship between the two naval forces, and for good reason.
It was announced during Abe’s visit that HMS Montrose will visit Japan later this year, becoming the fourth Royal Navy warship to do so in 12 months, in addition to monitoring illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil and other sanctioned goods to North Korea in line with UNSC 2375. This builds upon the joint drills conducted last year between HMS Argyll and Japanese forces, in addition to the work of HMS Sutherland and Albion; crucially upholding the protection of the international rules-based order in a region of unquestionable significance for both UK and Japanese interests.
From the UK’s perspective, maintaining access to both the emerging economies of south east Asia and to the international shipping lanes across the Indo-Pacific region are crucial to ensuring economic growth once the UK leaves the EU. From Japan’s perspective, a slightly fragmented, though still dependable, security alliance with the US has left Tokyo seeking additional means of securing its core national interests. This diversification of traditional Japanese security structures has been as a result of both the current US administration and by an increased Chinese military presence across east Asia.
While the US have sought to ensure Japan’s security since the end of the Second World War in the forms of The Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan 1951, and The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security 1960, agreements which shows no sign of impending termination, it has come under increasing strain. In 2016 as then Republican-nominee, Trump asserted that as President he would consider ending the US defence commitment to Japan, even encouraging them to ‘go nuclear’. Whilst these eventualities have fortunately not materialised, Trump has maintained that the security arrangement favours Japan over the US; an increasingly shared opinion in Tokyo which leads to assertions of potential Japanese vulnerability.
In seeking to minimise this vulnerability in light of perceived US revisionism under Trump, and in addition to an increasingly assertive and expansionist People’s Republic of China, Japan has sought three means of bolstering its own security. The first is to refit its Izumo class helicopter carrier into a limited aircraft carrier, able to accommodate approximately a dozen F35 stealth fighters; over 100 of which Japan aims to purchase from the US over the next decade in a deal worth between $US 8 – 13 billion.
This significant uplift in stealth fighter capability is made possible by the second Japanese defence policy; increasing the defence budget between 2019 – 2024 to £188 billion. This represents a yearly average comparable to that of the UK at around £36-7 billion. The defence budget was passed by the Japanese Cabinet in a widely perceived attempt to mitigate against the PRC’s increased naval and air operations surrounding Japanese territory, in particular the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
The third defence policy by Japan attempts to offshoot the vulnerability of the at times uncertainty of the US alliance, by attempting to seek new partners in security and defence through bilateral agreements. This is the culmination of Abe’s visit to London, May’s visit to Tokyo before that and the various high level ministerial visits conducted over the last 18 months between the two states.
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, the security of Europe is in a relatively robust place; underpinned by the Anglo-American relationship committed through NATO; three nuclear armed member states in the EU; and a combined defence spending far surpassing any potential adversary. European security reassured enough, it is to the East of Suez which the UK must now seek; the emerging global markets of Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong; reaffirming economic ties with partners such as Indonesia, Singapore and India; and developing existing defence relations with Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan.
By encouraging increased interoperability with the Japan Self-Defence Force, the UK is developing a crucial relationship which serves UK national interests, including the maintenance of trade and capital, in addition to maintaining the global rules-based order across an increasingly competitive region.
By working closer together throughout this year, building on the last 18 months of success, the strategic alliance formed between the UK and Japan seeks to benefit both nations going forward.