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Can the UK–Japan Relationship Stay on Course?

With both countries facing the prospect of domestic political changes in 2024, doubts have emerged about whether the momentum of the budding defence and security partnership between the UK and Japan can be maintained.

Forging ahead: the UK and Japanese foreign and defence ministers meet in Tokyo on 7 November

The meeting of UK and Japanese foreign and defence ministers in a ‘2+2’ format on 7 November offered an opportunity to take the temperature of a strategic partnership that has come to be referred to in the Japanese media as a ‘quasi alliance’, at a moment when the governments of both countries are preparing to face a period of demanding domestic political contests.

Going by how much has happened since the previous 2+2 in February 2021, the relationship looks to be coming off a growth spurt. The Indo-Pacific deployment of the UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG) from May to December 2021 reached Japan, presenting a symbolic backdrop to the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ as laid out in the March 2021 Integrated Review. By September that year, the UK’s commitment to the region was further substantiated by the announcement of the Australia–UK–US submarine and defence technology partnership, AUKUS. Anyone in Japan feeling left out by that trilateral arrangement did not have long to wait for a counterpart deal, which came in December 2022 in the form of the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) partnership, bringing Japan and Italy together to build a sixth-generation fighter jet and associated systems. Proof that the ‘tilt’ was not just about defence came in March 2023 with the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, achieved with conspicuous help from Japan. The UK government referred to the bilateral agreement signed with Japan in January 2023 on ‘ Reciprocal Access’ (facilitating exercises and deployments by the UK and Japanese armed forces on one another’s territory) as having ‘historic’ importance. May of the same year produced another ‘historic’ agreement, in the form of the Hiroshima accord. According to the Embassy of Japan in the UK, Exercise Vigilant Isles 23 is based on island defence and will involve over 150 UK military personnel deploying to Japan from 15 to 26 November. The pace is certainly impressive – but is it sustainable?

Talking to defence officials and commentators in Japan, a question that touches on this doubt comes up with some regularity: ‘what will happen to the Indo-Pacific tilt if the UK has a change in government?’ The suspicion that a transfer of power from the Conservatives to Labour might bring a cooling in the tilt and a shift of attention and resources to Europe is partly based on signals from Japan’s potential next 2+2 counterparts. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy identifies ‘Reconnecting Britain to Europe’ as a ‘top priority of the next Labour Foreign Office’. When AUKUS was announced, the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, had the following response: ‘Whatever the merits of an Indo-Pacific tilt, maintaining security in Europe must remain our primary objective. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that the arrangement will not see resources redirected from Europe and the High North to the Pacific?’ The shadow secretary of state for defence, John Healey, announced in a speech at RUSI in February 2023 that ‘The UK’s strategic priorities have to be clear. The gung-ho promotion of “global Britain” – which all too often means “anywhere but Europe” – must end… our Indo-Pacific military commitments need realism … Just as we would not expect Japan or Australia to deploy much of their military to Europe, nor does it make sense – especially at this moment – for UK forces to devote an increasing share of their scarce resources to the Indo-Pacific.’ Healey indicated that a strategic defence and security review under a Labour government would further prioritise the UK’s role in NATO. Lammy confirmed in a speech at Chatham House that ‘we know the value in deepening our alliances beyond Europe too, be that with Australia through AUKUS or new defence cooperation with Japan. But it is in Europe – the first priority for our own security – where a Labour government would forge a new security approach’. Calls for Labour to ‘Reform, Rather Than Do Away With, the UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt’ have – so far – gone unheeded.

While doubts about commitment on the UK side of the relationship may find justification in the signals coming from the opposition, when it comes to divining the future of the bilateral relationship, this is only part of the picture.

Kishida may deem it unwise to over-spend political capital and fiscal resources on defence when the Japanese public are more concerned about cost-of-living issues

If historians were one day to look back and identify an inflection point in the progress of Japan’s 21st-century security and defence policy reforms, they might find it on 8 July 2022, the day former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated. Abe achieved great stature among post-war leaders for driving transformational reforms in security and defence. His foreign secretary, Fumio Kishida (who was incidentally present in 2015 for the first UK–Japan 2+2), has presided as prime minister over decisions that have continued the trajectory of Abe’s project. These include the announcement of a large defence spending increase, the acquisition of ‘counter-strike’ capabilities, and a new programme of Official Security Assistance (OSA) that transfers non-lethal defence equipment to ‘like-minded’ countries in Asia.

Yet small signs have appeared that suggest momentum on Japan’s defence reforms is slowing down. Inflation is back, accompanied by a fall in the value of the yen; both factors erode procurement purchasing power. Research on the Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) August budget request found that ‘Despite the overall jump in defense spending and increased focus on production and acquisition, the budget allocations for standoff defense capabilities, unmanned capabilities, and initiatives in space and cyber actually decrease in the new budget request.’

Kishida’s approval rating has started to fall. After rumours over the summer that he might try to secure his position with a snap election, recent reports suggest he has given up on the idea. In a prolonged run-up to a general election – likely to come later on in 2024 – he will be alert to the dangers of a challenge to his leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In such a context, Kishida may deem it unwise to over-spend political capital and fiscal resources on defence, when the public are more concerned about cost-of-living issues. Indeed, it was reported on 23 October 2023 that ‘The plan to raise defense spending partly through tax hikes has been put on ice’. It would hardly be surprising if elements of defence reform demanding prime ministerial or parliamentary pressure like brokering agreements on new taxes or borrowing, or the revision of the Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology (currently facing opposition from the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito), receive less attention. Other elements that can be driven forward by the Self-Defense Forces and MoD bureaucracy (such as bilateral exercises and establishing a security clearance system) appear set to proceed, giving the reform process a certain two-speed quality.

Despite concerning signs, it is premature to assume that the UK–Japan strategic partnership will be damned by domestic politics

With the UK’s governing party also facing electoral challenges in 2024 (not to mention the presidential contest in the US), it may be appropriate to maintain momentum on existing work, without adding more items to the UK–Japan strategic ‘to-do’ list. Indeed, the most recent 2+2 joint statement seems to reflect this, consolidating existing elements of the relationship rather than shooting for anything new. Another factor that might explain the rather insipid result is that Ministers Yoko Kamikawa and Minoru Kihara arrived in Kishida’s September reshuffle, with Grant Shapps also being new to the Defence post. The appointment of David Cameron (remembered in Japan as the prime minister who welcomed a ‘golden era’ of UK–China relations) as UK foreign secretary in the reshuffle of 13 November may also raise eyebrows in Tokyo.

Despite concerning signs, it is premature to assume that the UK–Japan strategic partnership will be damned by domestic politics. Kishida just returned from the Philippines and Malaysia with agreements and positive noises respectively on OSA (to fund radars for maritime awareness and small craft for exclusive economic zone protection). MoD officials are said to be considering Vietnam, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia and Djibouti as OSA recipients. Notwithstanding charges that the OSA programme is underfunded and over-restricted, the broad strategy of consolidating regional defence capacity continues to animate Kishida’s agenda. When it comes to the UK, negotiations about the structure of the GCAP programme appear to be moving towards agreement possibly before the end of 2023. According to the 2+2 joint statement, ‘the four Ministers welcomed positive progress in discussions between defence authorities on the application of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ asset protection measure’. This means that by the time the CSG gets to Japan in 2025, it may come under ‘asset protection’ from Japanese counterparts. Though not a NATO standard of mutual security commitment, this nevertheless represents a very meaningful development of Japan’s credentials as a military partner, or indeed quasi-ally.

If there is a new UK government, its Indo-Pacific policy may represent more continuity than change. Lammy’s 28 March 2023 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ‘Britain Reconnected’, noted that ‘Asia is likely to comprise more than half of the global economy, and the next Labour government will properly recognise the region’s crucial importance. But this is not about “tilting” one way or the other. Maintaining serious, long-term strategic approaches to the Indo-Pacific, through arrangements like AUKUS, is an essential response to the shifting centre of gravity in world affairs’, even if it continues with the qualifier that ‘… it cannot come at the cost of our security commitments in Europe or mean that we can safely ignore our own neighbourhood’. Now would be a good time for Labour to clarify how it would balance these priorities.

This article was updated on  30 November 2023 to correct the name of the Japanese foreign minister.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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