Global Britain’s Alliance with Japan: Remember Nomonhan

Two recent publications in the East-West Center Asia Pacific Bulletin series look at how the UK and Japan might continue to develop their “alliance” in future. Reading them produces an echo of the strategic challenge both – as island nations – must historically face: trade-offs and tensions between commitments that must be made towards both  continental and oceanic security partners.
For the UK the Continent means (mostly) the EU, and there is now work to be done re-designing UK-EU security cooperation for the post-Brexit era. The Atlantic alliance has for recent generations resolved the choice of ocean and continent for the UK, but the ‘pivot’ of US attention to Asia (defined not by recent US policy initiatives, but by long term geo-economic trends in Europe as well as Asia) will dislodge NATO centrality in UK defence and security policy. British efforts to revive defence cooperation with Japan is itself part of the response to those trends.

The first paper is by Keio University Professor, Michito Tsuruoka: Japan and the UK as Strategic Partners After Brexit. [ Number 410| January 9, 2018 Asia Pacific Bulletin]. As its title suggests it looks more at the continental aspect from the UK perspective. Tsuruoka is downbeat on the ability of the UK to work out its new post-Brexit relations with its European counterparts while at the same time sustaining or developing its role in Asia. Tsuruoka points out the necessity of “A framework that brings together Japan, the EU, and the UK”, such as regular meetings in the G7 or G20 context. Such a mechanism would enable the UK-Japan relationship to continue to benefit from the “gateway to Europe’ feature that was appreciated by Japan while the UK was within the EU.
But while Tsuruoka sees the UK as distracted by its continental affairs, he balances this point with the observation that Japan should also look beyond its near horizon:
Tokyo will have to consider more …what role it is prepared and willing to play in Europe and its neighborhood including regarding Russia and Ukraine as well as the broader Middle East and Africa. Just expecting the UK to commit to Asia will not work in the long term.

The second paper is by John Hemmings, Director of the Aisia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society (where there is also a Global Britain Program).  In this paper (also from the EastWestCentre Bulletin series) “UK-Japan Cooperation in Preserving the Liberal Order”, Hemmings looks at the contribution the UK-Japan “virtual” or “quasi” alliance can make to the preservation of the liberal international order, also in the context of a UK-Japan-US trilateral.

The main question Hemmings asks is how the new wave of “quasi alliances” (a trend also noted here in this blog) can help sustain the liberal international order. Hemmings notes the UK-Japan “alliance” strategic rationale is driven by the following imperatives:

  • Counter Russian and Chinese challenges to the existing order

  • Alleviate pressure on defence industry (through joint development, cross-sales, economies from the network effects of cooperation in intelligence and cyber)

  • Pave the way to a liberal UK-Japan-US trilateral

Hemmings concludes that despite obstacles (divergent threat perceptions towards Russia and China, paucity of resources that are or could be committed, institutional siloes and lack of interest from Washington DC), these three liberal democratic countries will continue to seek one another out for increased cooperation.

With regard to that first obstacle, the rationale for Tokyo to maintain strategically cooperative relations with Moscow exposes the paradox of the continental/Oceanic trade-off. Today, for reasons to do with its imperial past, the scope for Japan to develop defence cooperation with continental neighbours in Asia is narrow indeed. However, the geostrategic logic of playing off Russia and China is as relevant today as it ever was during the 20th Century.

In his book “Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II” Stuart D Goldman lays out the ways that the Soviet victory in that obscure corner of the Mongolia/Manchurian borderlands influenced Japan’s decision to ‘strike south’ and thereby go to war with the US and European powers. Despite the anti-cominturn pact it signed with Nazi Germany in 1936, Japan failed to prevent Germany’s Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop signing a non/aggression pact with the USSR, which gave Stalin confidence to flow decisive force to the far Eastern front and inflict an historic defeat on Japan’s Kwantung Army. Then when the battle was over, the non-aggression pact Tokyo signed with the Kremlin allowed Japan to switch resources to the Pacific campaign, while also making it possible for the USSR to swing forces back across Siberia in time to stop the loss of Moscow.

Today’s geopolitical situation once again confronts both Japan and the UK with historic choices on how to strike the best balance between continental and oceanic imperatives. The articles by Tsuruoka and Hemmings respectively make the arguments for Britain to define its priorities as a European-facing power, and an Atlantic-facing power – a familiar binary. But just Japan’s experience in the 1930s shows, the risk of strategic failure lies not in making the wrong choice, but in under appreciating the mutually supporting nature of continental and oceanic commitments.

So the question is, can the UK pull off a truly ‘Global Britain’ strategy that allocates sufficient energy to a new UK-EU relationship and its NATO commitments, while leaving enough to strengthen cooperation with countries like Japan? Or will London be dragged down by Brexit in ways that restrict its strategic horizon to its European neighbourhood? As for Japan, can it find a policy course that deals with the rise of China and the threat it feels from North Korea, and still have enough to contribute to overseas missions with other G7 countries, UN peacekeeping, and meaningful partnerships with NATO and the UK? And where do its relations with Russia fit in to this picture?

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