Are ‘strategic partners’ the new ‘allies’?


Is the “Strategic Partnership” the new type of Alliance we have been waiting for? According to Rajesh Basrur & Sumitha Narayanan Kutty in The Hindu, it may not make sense any longer to strive for the exalted status  ‘allies’, because “Alliances are passé“:

We live in a world today driven by “strategic partnerships”. States find themselves in an interdependent system where the traditional power politics of yesteryear doesn’t quite fit. After all, every major relationship characterised by strategic tension such as U.S.-China, Japan-China, India-China is simultaneously one of economic gain. The U.S. and China are each other’s chief trading partners, while China ranks at the top for Japan and India. Besides, India might confront China at Doklam but it also wants Chinese investment.

This is an observation with relevance for the Anglo-Japan relationship as well. According to Busrur and Kutty, strategic partnerships and alliances differ on the following points:

  1. they do not demand commitments to a partner’s disputes with other countries. That means both parties retain the flexibility to continue political engagement and economic cooperation with their common adversary. As a result –
  2. they avoid “entrapment”, or being dragged into a partner’s disputes and potentially into conflict. Instead –
  3. regular high-level political and military interactions facilitate a collaborative approach to strategic policies over a range of economic and military activities.

The aims of major strategic partnerships are described as follows:

a. to strengthen defences against marginal conflict,

b. convey a determination to stand up to a strategic adversary and,

c. overall, generate a persuasive environment that discourages potential intimidation.

Busrur and Kutty don’t mention it, but the strategic partnership that has been built up between Japan and Great Britain over the past 5 years does this and more.  UK Prime Minister Teresa May  and Japan’s Prime Minister just signed a Japan-UK Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, the 17 points of which can be summarised in following elements:

  • Japan and the UK will strengthen cooperation globally, and particularly in the Indo-Pacific region
  • continue to work together with our friends and allies towards the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the strict and full implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions
  • Japan and the UK will promote timely exchanges of information and analysis, as well as policy coordination regarding regional affairs, long -term strategies, and international challenges, while paying attention to respective security concerns
  • Japan and the UK will strengthen the implementation of joint exercises through bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral frame works, and explore making them regular
  • Japan and the UK will enhance cooperation in providing each other with logistic, technical, and professional support on the basis of the recently concluded Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)
  • Japan and the UK will build on the ACSA and, as a priority, work on a framework to
    improve administrative, policy and legal procedures to facilitate joint  operations and exercises between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the British Armed
  • Japan and the UK will promote personnel and unit-to-unit exchanges, joint training and exercises between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the British Armed Forces.
  • UK will utilise the agreement on defence equipment and technology transfer
  • cooperate in export control of arms, and dual-use items and technologies
  • cooperate on disarmament and non-proliferation and uphold the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
  • her promote concrete collaboration in assistance for capacity-building of developing countries in Southeast Asia,South Asia and Africa n areas such as maritime security and safety,including counter piracy; counterterrorism; cybersecurity; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; gender; peacekeeping operations; and fulfilling our international commitments on demining
  • promote international stability frameworks for cyberspace consisting of the application of existing international law, agreed voluntary, non- binding norms of responsible state behavior, confidence building measures and capacity building measures, and strengthen cooperation, including information exchange, to deter, mitigate and attribute, through appropriate frameworks, malicious cyber activities in accordance with relevant domestic laws and existing international law. Japan and the UK will strengthen and support industrial and academic cooperation on cyber security, including human resource development, to strengthen the capability for both countries.
  • Japan and the UK will continue to cooperate to increase transparency in space activities, and strengthen norms of responsible behavior for all outer space activities

The following institutional measures for implementation were also agreed:

  • Japan and the UK will annually convene their Foreign and Defence Ministers’ meeting, Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue, Defence Ministers’ meeting, and Foreign and Defence Director -General level consultation.
  • Japan and the UK will hold quarterly dialogues between their National Security Advisors / National Security Secretariats, including to oversee the action plan process
  • Japan and the UK will hold working level meetings where the two countries discuss the strategy and future direction of collaboration on our assistance for capacity-building of developing countries.
  • Japan and the UK will continue other working -level dialogues, including launching one on South Asia, and meetings between relevant ministries and agencies to deliver the above agenda.

But surely no amount of cooperation amounts to an alliance? Or does it…

For one thing, there is a false but common assumption that all alliances involve unconditional or automatic commitments to mutual defence, and this is not correct.

E.g. 1: The Anglo-Japan Alliance lasted from 1902-1922, but only committed the UK and Japan to come to each other’s defence under the condition that “either signatory becomes involved in war with more than one Power.” This is clearly far short of some contemporary mutual defence agreements, but was no less an alliance for that.

E.g. 2: The NATO alliance is often held up as a model alliance, but even under the NATO charter, allies are not automatically bound to respond to an attack on a NATO ally automatically or using military force. Under the famous Article 5, allies only promise that “if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The circumstances under which this article goes into force are restricted by a geographic limitation to the Euro-Atlantic area (in article 6 of the NATO Charter). So if the US was attacked again in the Pacific, as it was in 1942, the mutual defence clause (article 5) is not triggered. 

For another thing, the practical difference between an alliance and a close defence and security relationship can be mistaken for an alliance, and often described as such, without needing to have a formal treaty signed.

E.g. 3: The relationship between the United States of America and Israel is habitually referred to as an ‘Alliance’, despite the fact that the two countries do not share a mutual defence treaty. Their relationship involves very close and extensive defence and security cooperation, but there is no legal instrument like the NATO treaty or the US-Japan security agreement to oblige America to come to Israel’s defence. The fact that some senior US officials and retired officers have called for an alliance treaty may come as a surprise to those who think as ‘allies’, such an instrument must surely already exist.


So on the one hand, it seems a formal ‘Alliance’ is not all it has been cracked up to be. On the other hand, the present state of the world perhaps makes a good strategic partnership a more appropriate tool for delivering the desired results. As such, the UK and Japan may be considered allies in all but name.




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2 responses to “Are ‘strategic partners’ the new ‘allies’?

  1. Pingback: Global Britain’s Alliance with Japan: Remember Nomonhan | Anglo-Japan Alliance

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