How is Japan Rethinking Its Role in International Security?

RUSI Global Security Briefing Podcast Episode 33

Neil Melvin

21 September 2022

48 Minute Listen

Japan is looking to play a larger role in global security as the country faces new external threats. It is increasing commitments to national defence and seeking to move beyond key political and constitutional constraints placed on the country’s security policies after the Second World War.

Philip Shetler-Jones, a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy, is our guest for this episode. He discusses with Dr Neil Melvin, Director, International Security Studies at RUSI, how Japan is responding to the growing military confrontation in the Indo-Pacific region. Increased defence spending, new roles for the Japanese military, and a revised foreign and security policy that includes remaking Japan’s defence alliances are all considered.

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Podcast: Deepening the British-Japanese relationship

Geostrategy360° is the Council on Geostrategy’s weekly podcast. Hosted by Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė, Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy, it covers geopolitics and environmental security – from a British standpoint

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with a Guard of Honour in London on Thursday. Photo: PA Wire via dpa

In the thirty-eighth episode of Geostrategy360, Viktorija speaks to Dr Philip Shetler-Jones about Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the UK. They discuss how Japan has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Japan’s strategic interests abroad and closer to home; deepening British-Japanese relations; and how the security partnership between the two countries might develop in the future.

Listen to Geostrategy360° on Anchor FM, where you can also find links to other podcast platforms hosting the podcast such as Apple, Google and Spotify.

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UK-Japan Quasi-Alliance gets a boost from PM Kishida visit to London

Mail Online

Today, 5th May Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the end of the Japanese leader’s tour from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Italy. Highlights include –

  • PM Kishida was given the red carpet treatment, with a review of guards and a flypast.
  • Strong alignment on the burning geopolitical issue of the day –

Both leaders agreed that Russia’s barbaric invasion marked the end of the post-Cold War period and had major implications for wider international stability. Security in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions was indivisible, they agreed, and the G7 leaders said democracies around the world needed to stand in unity against authoritarian regimes.

Press release, Number 10 Downing Street

  • Announcement of the long anticipated Reciprical Access Agreement, that will facilitate the expansion of joint military exercises between the UK military and Japanese Self Defence Forces.
  • Kishida apparently expressed the view that cooperation between Japan and the UK on the latter’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS) / future fighter program “could become the cornerstone of the UK-Japan bilateral relationship”, confirming earlier analysis here.
  • Appointment of a new UK trade envoy to Japan (Greg Clark MP) to support increased trade with Japan and capitalise on the UK’s expected accession to the main Indo-Pacific trade partnersip CPTPP.

UK statement here


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The case for ‘JAUKUS’

On 12th April, the Sankei Shinbun revealed[↗]that Japanese officials are being sounded out on the possibility of Japan joining AUKUS, the Australia-United Kingdom (UK)-United States (US) trilateral defence technology group…

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As defence industry cooperation moves to the centre of the UK-Japan quasi alliance, is it time to deepen our intelligence relationship?

According to reports[↗] from Japan’s Ministry of Defence, on 25th December ‘some 20,000 pieces of information related to Japan’s defence may have been leaked in the January 2020 large-scale cyberattack on Mitsubishi Electric Corp.’ Such leaks threaten to stunt the development of the United Kingdom’s (UK) bilateral relationship with Japan, in which joint research and development of strategically important technology is becoming more central. 

Britain and Japan have built an ever closer security and defence partnership[↗] over the last decade. The tempo and complexity of exercises and exchanges between armed forces (especially navies) has increased, and the expected conclusion of a Reciprocal Access Agreement[↗] this year indicates the appetite for more. However, availability and deployment schedules will ultimately limit the growth of cooperation in this area. Joint development of technology, by comparison, started on a modest level but has picked up momentum… 

(read the full article at the Council on Geostrategy website)

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Much More than Symbolism: U.K.-Japan ‘Quasi Alliance’ Charts a New Course for Regional Security

In a reversal of the pressure from Washington that ended the early 20th Century Anglo-Japan alliance, there is now a growing trilateral U.S.A.ーJapanーU.K. for closer and mutually supportive relations.

Much More than Symbolism: U.K.-Japan ‘Quasi Alliance’ Charts a New Course for Regional Security

VISIT: The defence secretary, chief of air staff and first sea lord the Barrow-built HIJMS Mikasa. Image: @ijs_mikasa

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Translation reproduced with kind permission from インド太平洋研究会 Indo-Pacific Studies




 「スエズの東」に戻ってはいけないという歴史からの警告として振りかざされた出来事の一つに、1941 年 12 月にシンガポールの強化のために派遣された不運なZ部隊での HMS プリンス・オブ・ウェールズ号のマレー沖海戦での撃沈がある。しかし、この出来事を適切な文脈で検証すると、全く異なる教訓が浮かび上がってくる。









ロンドンと東京の間で行われていた以前の日英同盟が終わった原因は、ウィルソン型アメリカの台頭と中国やインドでの民族主義運動の底上げ的な台頭によって、帝国の世界秩序から自己決定型の国民国家への移行という、一つのプロセスの側面にあったのである。W. H. オーデンが「不誠実な10年」と呼び、日本人が「暗黒の谷」と呼んだこの時代には、その秩序は、提案者の責任に支えられていなかったため、平和を維持するにはあまりにも弱すぎることが判明した。



孤立主義者や大西洋主義者は、イギリスはユーロ大西洋に集中し、インド太平洋はアメリカに任せるべきだと主張する。繰り返しになりますが、歴史はそれが危険なコースであることを示唆しています。日英同盟の弱点の一つは、アジア地域における各党の利益を正式に認めたにもかかわらず、地域的な線に沿った分業を強固にしてしまったことである。英国の観点からは、日本が同盟を通じてアジア地域の利益を保護することは歓迎されたが、それを可能にした英 国の軍事力の地域からの撤退は、長期的には不安定化の要因となることが判明した。

同盟が 1920 年代初頭に終焉を迎える頃には、世界的な軍縮と軍備管理協定(特に船舶の制限)の支配的な傾向は、マラッカ以東の英国の利益が 1942 年 1 月のクーデターまでひどくさらされたままになっていたことを意味していた。ヨーロッパ人が近隣の安全保障を「埋め直す」代わりにアメリカにインド太平洋を任せるべきだと主張するのは、同盟は平等性を共有することで維持され、地理的な分業は破滅的な疎外を招くという教訓を学ぶことができないからである。





1 侵略を抑止できる世界秩序とは、チームの努力である。

2 地理的な分業は、敵対勢力の分断と支配を招き入れるものである。

3 英国のように東アジアで活動できる数少ない国は、多国間の枠組みの一部として生産的に活動すべきであり、それが可能である。

4 日本は、その努力における英国の新たな同盟国である。


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Anglo-Japan Alliance: new context, old logic.

In an era where global power has shifted eastward, a stable balance in British foreign policy requires a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, and as the UK goes about securing a sure footing in the region, it will find no better grounding than by deepening its defence and security relations with Japan. Japan is the only country with the right combination of geographic location, defence capability, techno-economic heft and political affinity as well as stability that fits the bill. It is time for a new Anglo-Japan alliance.

Cries of “imperial nostalgia” or “delusions of grandeur” that arise to assail this move are almost too ironic to bear. They not only miss the point that this “tilt” is about the future, they even misconstrue the lessons of the past. 

One event brandished as a warning from history not to venture back East of Suez is the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales in the ill-fated Z-force that was sent to reinforce Singapore in December 1941. But if you examine this in its proper context, a completely different lesson emerges. 

When the British Empire was near the Victorian zenith of its power, it still recognized that it could only operate in East Asia at the limits of its capability, and so decided to make an alliance with Japan in 1902 to safeguard its interests in Asia. It was only when that alliance broke up two decades later that Britain was forced to face alone the precarious situation that was to lead to its humiliating expulsion from the region. One thing often overlooked today is that the UK returned after WWII, secure once again within the framework of the US-dominated UN system of global security. There it remained to fight victoriously the Cold War in Korea, the “emergencies” and “confrontations” in Malaya and Borneo, then to see the independence of Malaya and the peaceful return of Hong Kong to China. Britain has since quietly continued to contribute to regional security through the Five Power Defence Arrangement (having its 50th anniversary this year), its logistical base in Singapore, and its presence in Brunei. So the lesson we were taught by our old friends in 1941 is not “don’t go East of Suez”, but rather “don’t go alone’. And today the British presence East of Suez is very far from alone.

But there is a second set of ironies – and lessons – to be found in the history of our first alliance with Japan, and the reasons why it ended.

The main source of tension in the 1902-22 Anglo-Japan alliance emerged from the ways Japan and Britain reacted to the rise of Chinese nationalism. While Britain was still preoccupied with fighting WWI, Japan laid down “21 demands” on China that signaled an intention to dominate not just the Chinese administration but also the interests of other powers present in China, including Britain. The irony then was that critics of the alliance in Britain thought it gave Japan a free hand, and in Japan thought it tied their hands. The irony today is that the main factor bringing British and Japanese interests into alignment is China’s attempts to dominate the region at everyone’s expense.

American cartoon satirising Japan’s Twenty-One Demands, 1915. Source.

Another source of tension in the old alliance was British suspicion that the Indian independence movement was receiving clandestine support from elements in Japan promoting an Asian liberation movement for a mix of ideological and strategic reasons. Now the irony is the worldview of India, the UK and Japan have become increasingly closely aligned and there is consequently a rapidly developing security cooperation relationship among them under the logic of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and the so-called “Quad plus” arrangement.

Rash Behari Bose, and his wife Toshiko | Commons

Towards the end of the alliance, one of the nations that objected to the renewal of security ties between Japanese and British Empires was Canada. When the issue was up for consultation at the Imperial Conference in 1921, Canada made clear that it could not be placed into the position where the United States, on which it relied for its security, might go to war with its ally, Japan. Although Australia and New Zealand backed the extension of the alliance, Canada’s veto was critical. Today, Canadian warships and surveillance aircraft are operating together with other “5 eyes” allies Australia, New Zealand, the UK and America (but also with France, South Korea and Japan) in monitoring sanctions violations at sea off North Korea in an operation based out of Yokusuka, Japan.

A Royal Canadian Navy frigate – the HMCS Ottawa – and a Royal Canadian Airforce surveillance aircraft participate in Operation NEON, the multinational effort to enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea, October 2019.
Source: Department of National Defence, Canadian Armed Forces Combat Camera

But the biggest factor in breaking the Anglo-Japan Alliance was America. The United States had come to see Imperial Japan as its main rival and could not tolerate it having the only other global naval power (Great Britain) as its ally. As part of the negotiations to settle global affairs after WWI and against the backdrop of massive British war debt owed to America, Britain felt forced to choose between its old ally and what it hoped would be the new guarantor of world peace. Fast forward a century to 2021, the US navy is now signing trilateral agreements with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces and the Royal Navy. If this is a new kind of Anglo-Japan Alliance, America seems to welcome it.

The causes for the end of our previous alliance were aspects of a single process, which was the transition – catalysed by the emerging dominance of Wilsonian America and the bottom-up rise of nationlaist movements in China and India – from a world order of empires to one of self-determining nation states. In the period that W.H. Auden called “a low dishonest decade”, and the Japanese refer to as their “dark valley”, that order was not underwritten by the commitments of its sponsors, and so proved too weak to keep the peace. The order built in 1945 was based on the same principles but charged by the mighty energies of economically, culturally and technologically dominant America and the support of its allies in the “free world”. Together their commitment and sacrifice sustained it through the turmoil of decolonization and the many challenges of communist aggression from Russia and China. But today as that order is being challenged in turn by the emergence of a large and aggressive rival, middle powers like Japan and Britain are forced to ask themselves once again ‘what is our role in this process?’ Are we bystanders or do we belong in the arena? Some historical lessons should not need to be spelled out, but perhaps this one does. If a nation with the blessings and capabilities of Britain and Japan excuse themselves as mere bystanders, the order that protects them as well as others is over. 

Some argue a middle path – that the role of Britain should be calibrated to its region, and we should leave the Indo-Pacific to America. Again, history suggests that would be a dangerous course. One of the weaknesses of the Anglo-Japan treaty was that although it brought formal recognition to the interests of each party in the Asian region, it cemented a division of labour along regional lines. From the British point of view, the protection Japan gave through the alliance to its interests in Asia was welcome, but the withdrawal of British military capacity from the region that this enabled proved a destabilizing factor. By the time the alliance came to an end in the early 1920s, the dominant trend of world disarmament and arms control agreements (especially limiting ships) meant that British interests East of Malacca were to be left terribly exposed until the coup de grace in January 1942. To argue that the Europeans should “backfill’ security in their neighbourhood to allow their American allies to take care of the Indo-Pacific is to fail to learn the lesson that an alliance is sustained by shared equities, and a geographic division of labour invites a ruinous alienation.

What kind of tilt is needed, and what new type of Anglo-Japan alliance can support it? As described above, the tilt is not an uncontrolled lurch, but an adjustment of posture to secure a balance on shifting ground. Britain will always keep one foot planted firmly in its home region. But now as in the past, maintaining that strong position at home requires some shift of resources to allocate support for an alliance over the horizon, where the sun rises.

Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders (UK Land Force Commander) shakes hands with Japan Ground Self-Defence Force Lieutenant General Yuichi Takada during a joint military drill in Oyama on October 2, 2018. Credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP

Public opinion in the UK is generally open to the tilt, judging by a recent survey by the British Foreign Policy Group “UK Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and Global Affairs Annual Survey – 2021”. When asked “what do you think about the notion of an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ in the UK’s foreign policy?” more than a third said that the UK’s involvement in the region should be balanced with investments elsewhere, since the Indo-Pacific will be important to global power dynamics and economic growth. That leaves open the question of how many of those believe we have such a balance today, or if such a balance needs more investment towards the East. Even though no policy leader is proposing it, around 8% even responded that the UK should make the Indo-Pacific “the centre of its foreign policy”. So when you sum the support for a balance that allows for the growing importance of the region with those who would go even further than current UK government policy, you find a good amount of support in favor of the tilt. Still, it must be recognized that a significant proportion of those surveyed have yet to make up their minds.

In conclusion, if we are to look to history for lessons now, perhaps these three would be among them – A world order that can deter aggression is a team effort. A geographic division of labour is an invitation to divide and rule. The few countries like the UK who are capable of operating in East Asia should, and can do so productively as part of a multilateral framework. Japan is Britain’s new ally in in that framework.

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Japan, UK, USA Maritime trilateral hardens, details shared commitments.

Chief of Maritime Staff Adm. Hiroshi Yamamura, left, First Sea Lord Adm. Tony Radakin, and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday sign a Trilateral Head of Navy Joint Statement aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The trilateral cooperation agreement reaffirms the three countries’ commitment to increased collaboration and cooperation.
(Image: (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Raymond D. Diaz III/Released))

Building on the original 2016 Trilateral Agreement, the three maritime democracies went a step further to detail the type of missions they will cooperate on in the Indo-Pacific:

  • Piracy
  • Maritime Pollution
  • Illicit trade in armaments and narcotics
  • Human trafficking
  • Attempts to circumscribe freedom of navigation

The phrase “routine forward presence” will resonate in the UK defence debate, where there have been questions about the willingness of the UK to return to a military role “East of Suez” and contribute on a decisive scale to security in the Indo-Pacific region. The symbolic value of having this signed on the Royal Navy`s new aircraft carrier is also relevant on this point.

The phrase “we cannot shoulder this burden alone” is striking for what it says about United States policy in the region, where allies have felt US military primacy is declining and its political leadership may have less time for the idea of alliances. This is perhaps a reminder that the US is not against alliances as such, indeed, alliances where allies share burdens are as appreciated as ever.

This is very much an open invitation for “nations that adhere to the international rules based system” to join in a common effort. Note the shared values here do not include “democracy” – so this trilateral can serve as a basis for cooperation with partners (such as Vietnam) who have a different political system, but are “like minded” on the rules based order.

While no adversary is named, it would not be unreasonable to assume the call for “others to responsibly take their place on the world stage in cooperation with regional countries” is directed at the People`s Republic of China.


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Japan Defence Industry debuts at DSEI conference – from UK to Japan

The Defence Industry Conference DSEI normally held in the UK has taken place at Makuhari Messe, Tokyo, on 18-20 November 2019.

Details of the conference are here.

Alex Soar, international development director for Clarion Events which runs DSEI, told Army Technology:

“With DSEI celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it is the right time to take the event to Japan for the show’s first iteration outside the UK. We have been working Crisis Intelligence, our in-country partners, for four years to shape the exhibition to fit the unique Japanese market and the needs of the Japanese customer. With the reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution several years ago and the relaxation of restrictions on defence imports and exports, we see that it is an appropriate time to offer a new a route to market for those focused on the Asia Pacific region.”

Harry Lye, writing in Army Technology.

The DSEI Japan conference featured two streams organised around five core themes:

  • Combating threats of the new era: measures against space, cyber, and electronic warfare
  • Responding to airborne threats: strengthening air and missile defence capability
  • The freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region: maintaining and enhancing free and open maritime order
  • Technologies and overseas transfer of defence equipment
  • Crisis management and disaster preparedness 

In the sessions speakers form the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force spoke on issues such as freedom of navigation and the Indo-Pacific alongside speakers from the United States, Australia and the UK, including the recently appointed UK Defence Attaché to Japan, Royal Navy Captain Simon Staley (The Freedom of Navigation in the Indo-Pacific Region: Maintaining and Enhancing Free and Open Maritime Order).

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