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Japan and the UK: Ties That Bind? (Page 2 of 2)

Dr. Katsuhisa Furukawa, a Visiting Scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, noted that it was this relationship – as much the tyranny of distance or reduced defense budgets – that is likely to get in the way of U.K.-Japan relations. His point that the U.K. and Japan were two friends "divided by a common ally" was followed up by De Waal, who said U.S. defense relationships with the two countries were "on parallel tracks" and that the perception in Europe of Japan as a U.S. market would limit the scope of the U.K.-Japan defense ties. It would also be hampered by the belief that the U.S. and Japan enjoyed the "degree of exclusivity" the bilateral alliance created.

The influence of the U.S. military on its Japanese counterpart is difficult to overstate. Since the end of the Second World War, the SDF has evolved from a national police militia into a mixture of semi-autonomous and adjunct forces that interact with the U.S. military in a number of different roles. For example, the navy has traditionally specialized in defensive roles that complement the U.S. Navy's more aggressive force projection capabilities, while the air force has concentrated almost solely on air defense – to the cost of other capabilities such as heavy lift.

Tokyo is seeking to mend this – the Ministry of Defense's advisory on the upcoming National Defense Program Guidelines explicitly aims to fill gaps in Japan's military force posture such as high-altitude reconnaissance UAVs and U.S. Marine Corps-style amphibious troops. But if the U.K. believes that this makes Japan ripe for the picking as a new defense market – as de Waal's quote at the top of this piece might suggest – then London is almost certain to be disappointed.

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Japan is emerging from nearly 40 years of self-imposed military technological sakoku (isolation) that were a direct result of its three principles of arms exports. In that period it developed a highly skilled military industrial complex that provides for nearly all of the Self Defense Forces' materiel needs – in ships, tanks, missiles, and submarines. Where local industry can't provide, the United States has stepped in (Patriot air defense systems, Aegis destroyers, F-15s and the F-16-derived F-2 fighter aircraft are the most obvious examples of this).

That's not to say that the U.K. and Japan can't – and haven't – traded defense equipment. The 1970s-era Mitsubishi F-1 fighter was powered by Rolls-Royce engines, while AgustaWestland has sold nearly 120 helicopters to civil, government and military customers in Japan, including the MCH-101 medium-lift helicopter that is used by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Indeed, when Cameron visited Tokyo in April 2012, he was accompanied by senior AgustaWestland officials and off-the-record briefings to U.K. media playing up the defense trade opportunities that awaited British companies.

More recently U.K. officials have floated potential collaboration on air defense and artillery. But as with de Waal's call to buy warships, whether it is Type 45 destroyers or BAE Systems' Global Combat Ship – the replacement for the Royal Navy's Type 23 frigate – Japanese officials have been quick to dampen any raised expectations of major platform acquisitions.

So if arms sales are off the agenda, what can both sides hope for? Plenty. For Tokyo, the relationship continues the path to normalization – and broadens its potential allies (including another permanent member of the UN Security Council). For the U.K., it is another friendly face in the world's most dynamic region, a potential defense partner in subsystems – one of the key areas of defense technology development in the 21st Century – and a likeminded ally in international affairs. There's enough there to be happy about.      

James Hardy is the Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IHS.

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