Features | Security | East Asia

Japan and the UK: Ties That Bind?

The bilateral security relationship has seen a flurry of activity of late. But what will come of it?

By James Hardy for
Japan and the UK: Ties That Bind?
Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

If Japan wants a proper strategic relationship with the U.K., it needs to "buy British warships."

That was one point put forward by James de Waal, a visiting fellow at Chatham House, when the august think-tank hosted a seminar on the nascent Japan-U.K. strategic partnership in late June.

The seminar was held just 14 months after U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and then Japanese PM Toshihiko Noda announced the formation of a bilateral strategic dialogue and negotiations on a security information sharing agreement. Cameron and Noda also said that the proof of the pudding, as it were, would be to "identify a range of appropriate defense equipment for joint development and production …  and launch at least one program of such defense equipment as soon as possible".

On July 4, at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Cameron and current Kantei resident, Shinzo Abe, confirmed this with two documents – a Defence Equipment Cooperation Framework and an Information Security Agreement. They also confirmed an agreement on the countries' joint development of a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) suit. Japanese officials also said that the agreement included sharing classified information, including military intelligence..

It was with this background that the Chatham House seminar took place. That "buy U.K. warships" was one possible suggestion  for improving the bilateral relationship illustrates that, strategically at least, Japan's thoughts about Europe – and Europe's thoughts about Japan – have been in short supply since the end of the Cold War.

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And despite the G8 announcement and the CBRN suit, that is still the case. De Waal noted that the U.K.'s strategic-military policy in Asia was dominated by "the tyranny of the immediate problem  – Afghanistan," while the austerity measures forced on the U.K. armed forces in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) mean it is difficult to imagine London developing a new East of Suez policy that goes beyond its interests in the Middle East.

Cold War structures such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) serve an important symbolic role for the U.K. – much in the way that the Commonwealth does – but officials acknowledge that there is little prospect of a British military presence in the Far East that is in any way comparable to the situation at the beginning of the 20th century, when Hong Kong and Singapore were colonial possessions and strategic linchpins. Instead the U.K. is looking to build trade partnerships and expand diplomatic relations (the opening of an embassy in Laos is one such example).

Japan, for its part, is looking for like-minded countries across the globe. in late December Abe outlined the concept of a "democratic security diamond" of India, Australia, Japan and Hawaii to contain Chinese aggression; since then he's pushed for closer strategic ties with France, the Philippines, the European Union, and, as we've seen, the U.K.

While Abe's rhetorical flourishes against Chinese maritime behavior illustrates Tokyo's short-term concerns, the broader move to create bilateral relationships follows a wider path of "normalization" that can be seen across Japanese foreign and defense policy, which were both outsourced to Washington during the Cold War.

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.

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.

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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.