Japan and Great Britain: ‘A priori partners’

PM Shinzo Abe addressing the RUSI conference (source, RUSI)

PM Shinzo Abe addressing the RUSI conference (source, RUSI)

PM Shinzo Abe’s keynote speech at the RUSI conference on UK-Japan security (September 30 – October 1 2013) gave us a partial understanding of his plans for the UK-Japan relationship in the field of security (here in Japanese). Unfortunately I couldn’t be there, but I drew the following conclusions from reading the text  published afterwards:

1) Maritime security

Apparently this will be the focus of cooperation in the security relationship between the UK and Japan. This was a common denominator in all dimensions of the speech.

a) History:

“Japan learned the A to Z of modern navy entirely from the U.K”.

Cooperation in WWI was also referenced in terms of operations in the Mediterranean.

b) Symbolism: Prince Andrew (also in attendance) is an ex RN officer, well known for having taken part in operations in the Falklands War.

c) Strategy:

“great things are expected of the Japan-U.K. partnership also in the Northern Sea Route that is about to newly open up”

d) Law and order: UK-Japan cooperation on upholding the Law of the Seas seems to be the preferred framework for translating grand vision into practical action.

2) Light on specifics, heavy on ‘great expectations’

“Our two countries with such a history are poised to make a tremendous advance through our cooperative security relationship… this year may come to be appraised by our progeny and by historians as a year in which breakthroughs were achieved”.

Again, this point was substantiated with reference to the upcoming visit of the UK’s First Sea Lord and HMS Daring. Watch this space.

But what is this ‘a priory’ description about? In terms of philosophy ‘a priory’ refers to an argument that is self-evidently true, not requiring evidence to demonstrate its validity (e.g. all batchelors are unmarried).

Abe clarified what he meant by saying the relationship ‘evolved organically’, which I took to mean the UK and Japan had so much in common (Monarchy, island history, skill in balancing tradition and innovation) that it was somehow inevitable that they would become allies.

By comparison with Japan-US relations, the anchor of which is routinely ascribed to ‘shared values’ of democracy, rule of law and free trade –  is the implication that UK-Japan relations are based on something less technocratic, and more connected with culture and national psychology. More…organic. Personally I find this vaguely compelling. I can also see how Abe’s attitude to the present constitution of Japan (that it was a post-war ‘imposition’ by the US) reflects some ambivalence to ‘man-made’ – (contrasted with ‘organic’) framework of values.

3) It’s OK to mention the war.

The UK-Japan partnership allows Abe to highlight a relationship with a WWII enemy country that has healed well. This can also be said of the Japan-US partnership, and that with Australia and New Zealand, in contrast to that with China and Korea, among others. This may not be of much use in ameliorating the effects of ‘war memory’ in other bilateral relations, however. Paradoxically, the feelings between UK/Japan over WWII  have healed comparatively well because of the distance between their homelands – the distance that is the main obstacle to constructing meaningful relations today. The contest was over colonial claims and hardly touched respective home territory. Having said that, the occupation of Shanghai, Singapore and Malaya and related issues of POW treatment meant that our war experience was not purely of a military-to-military nature.

Is this perhaps an indication that ‘war memory’ is not quite the right term for this problem in Japan’s relations with its neighbors? When it comes to China and Korea, is the problem more about colonial memory than war memory? That remains a more difficult area of history for the UK as well. Then might there be scope for joint UK-Japan cooperation on healing the scars of colonial history?

4) Knowledge and wisdom as the currency of the security partnership.

This is a logical response to the limits distance imposes on how much the UK and Japan can do together in terms of physical security cooperation. The ‘networked world’ Abe referred to is presumably a reference to cooperation in the realm of cyber security and intelligence generally.

5) Relations with the USA

“Of course, the United States remains our ever-unchanging primary cooperation partner. This is certainly also true for the United Kingdom. On that basis, I would like to state my eagerness for Japan and the United Kingdom to exchange knowledge and share experiences with each other and walk forward together, as partners who jointly accept responsibility for world peace and stability.”

Interesting nuances here. These two sentences conjure up an image of the UK and Japan  sharing notes on how to handle its alliance relationship with the US. This is open to at least two interpretations – that lessons can be learned on how to make the relationship work, and that lessons on being a junior partner can be shared in order to make the alliance work better for Japan and the UK.

6) Economy

Abe ended the speech with a revealing coupling of how he sees the importance of economy and security –

“First of all, we will strengthen the economy. Nothing will get underway until we achieve that”

but

“The reason we will strengthen the economy is of course in order to leave to future generations a Japan that is secure and enjoys peace of mind. It is also because we strive to be a nation that is able to fulfil its duties to the world, in a manner appropriate for this banner of “proactively contributing to peace.””

What is the audience to conclude? That the economy comes first, but not because of a value judgment about its priority for the Japanese people, but because it is a prerequisite, or a means to an end of security and influence?

Conclusion

The speech identified the main areas of cooperation in the future: upholding or defending the rules governing maritime security, (including the high north), intelligence, US alliance management. The Japanese version of the theme for Abe’s speech was ‘towards a new 21st century relationship’ – not quite the same as ‘rejuvenating’ the relationship, and not quite as eyebrow-raising as ‘a new type of alliance‘. But in general, the speech raised expectations, promising great things to come. The question is now that PM Abe has articulated how he sees the relationship from Japan’s perspective – who will present the UK point of view?

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Japan and Great Britain: ‘A priori partners’

  1. Paul Graydon-taylor

    “About Time!”

  2. Pingback: Japan’s Marine Corps / Royal Marines – Room for cooperation? | Anglo-Japan Alliance

  3. Pingback: Britain and Japan: two islands at the centre of world power? | European Geostrategy · Geopolitics from a European perspective

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