Tag Archives: Alliance

Japan, Britain to deepen “alliance” with new Visiting Forces Agreement

The Japan News reports

Japan and Britain are considering beginning talks next year to conclude a visiting forces agreement (VFA), which would foster smooth activities of the Self-Defense Forces and the British military when they are visiting either nation

VFAs establish the legal status of foreign forces temporarily visiting a nation’s territory for joint exercises, disaster-relief missions and other activities.


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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: Continue reading


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The Anglo-Japan Alliance – three years on

From left to right: Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands during a meeting at Lancaster House ahead of a meeting in London, January 21, 2015.

From left to right: Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands during a meeting at Lancaster House ahead of a meeting in London, January 21, 2015.

The UK-Japan Strategic Dialogue held in London on 12-13 January 2015 presented an opportunity to track the progress of the UK-Japan defence cooperation relationship three years after the signature of the UK/Japan Defence Cooperation memorandum[1]. As part of that agreement, RUSI has done its share of the task by organizing Dialogues in partnership with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, opening a ‘RUSI Japan’ branch office in Tokyo and publishing commentaries in its journals[2]. This year’s Dialogue was fortuitously scheduled just in advance of the meeting of defence and foreign ministers on 21st January.

Despite use of the term ‘strategic’ and characterization by the Japanese side of a ‘new type of Alliance’[3] in 2013, the relationship is developing at a pace that suggests more humble aims. Joint development of defence technology and inter-service cooperation are concrete indicators of progress, but three years on from 2012, the rhetoric has shriveled from ‘alliance’ to ‘partnership’. That first ‘two plus two’ meeting set a new high in terms of process, but actually yielded nothing new. The RUSI/Sasakawa Dialogue itself, while proceeding in a good natured and industrious atmosphere, left the impression of a relationship that has taken off successfully but is struggling to achieve escape velocity and attain a level that could truly be called ‘strategic’.

The drag on the relationship is coming partly from structural divergences between Japan and Britain that make ‘strategy’ difficult, but are nevertheless interesting for what they reveal about the journey of two formerly great but now middle-sized powers in the post Cold-War era. The would-be allies are mis-aligned on a fundamental strategic question: what role they expect to play in the world. This can be seen in how they answer two subordinate policy questions: First, what is the appropriate response to challenges to the system of world order that has prevailed since 1945? Second, what is the right policy mix to control risks and maximize opportunities that arise from the movement Eastwards of the world centre-of-gravity and the rise of China?

Japan under Prime Minster Abe seems to have clear answers but his public is hesitant. Britain under Prime Minister Cameron has difficulty expressing a vision that reconciles means and ends[4].

Three years in, my view is that the UK-Japan relationship has a shot at becoming truly strategic by helping both countries overcome their respective difficulties; and to conceive and gain the necessary acceptance for a forward-looking and coherent strategic identity.

Roots of divergence

The strategic divergence that creates drag on the UK-Japan relationship should perhaps not be attributed too much to personalities and leadership but to structural change. Principally, the main features of global politics at the end of the ‘post-Cold War’ era make defining a role in the world confusing for Britain, and simple (if not easy) for Japan. This is because the situation has developed in which strategic coherence – achieved by reconciling national priorities (politics) with strategic priorities (a global role) – has become much easier to achieve for one country than the other.

During the Cold War Japan and Britain had the good fortune to be in a position where national politics and global strategy could be reconciled in a global role as middle powers in support of a US-led western strategy aimed at containing the USSR. Britain flattered its self-image of a pocket great power by employing the vestiges of its imperial past to support this effort around the world. Japan could, by virtue of its location, act as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and arsenal against the mainland communist forces in Korea, China and Russia and help the US Pacific fleet to bottle up the Soviet Navy. Japan’s geographical position also meant it could fight the Cold War and play a role of broad strategic importance while simultaneously maintaining a ‘pacifist’ post-war identity that limited the deployment of its military to an area consistent with territorial defence.

After the Cold War, the ‘new world order’ of the 1990s was one in which the reconciliation of political and strategic imperatives was much easier for Britain than for Japan. The era of multinational intervention offered opportunities for Britain to act in ways that resonated pleasantly with its self-image of ‘punching above its weight’, while maintaining a key role in western strategy (e.g. in the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo). For Japan, however, the end of the ‘containment’ strategy and the shift of US interests towards the Middle East spelled the end of the political/strategic coincidence by which Japan could stay at home and still maintain its value as a US ally. The first example was the ‘trauma’ Japan experienced under pressure from Washington to give more than financial support to the first Gulf War. Despite the continuation of shared concerns about the North Korean nuclear program, the same problem arose with US action following 9-11, when again Japan’s leaders were pushed to sell a deployment of the Self Defence Forces to the other side of the world in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What we see today is a reversal of fortune. The rise of China and the corollary of Obama’s Pivot to Asia brings Japan’s political and strategic interests back into alignment. Washington’s concern about Beijing’s apparent desire to push the US Navy out of the Western Pacific means Japan can now cement its role as an indispensable ally while simultaneously taking steps to ensure its own maritime and territorial defence. Investment in military capability and defence cooperation with Australia, India, the Philippines, India and Vietnam are rising. As Prime Minister Abe puts it, “Japan is back”[5].

The transition from the post-Cold War era via the Global War On Terror (GWOT) has had the effect of clouding the UK’s strategic vision. The experience in Afghanistan and Iraq tarnished the post-Cold War model of ‘intervention’ as a force for good, and undermined the assumption that Britain’s interests are best served by a reflex response to join in America’s wars. The parliamentary revolt against PM Cameron’s effort to win support for action in Syria shows how much that assumption has been eroded. Even without the legacy of the GWOT, President Obama’s pivot to Asia means there are fewer local operations for Britain to support in the hope of buying influence in Washington. Some say the UK’s role is to enable the pivot by covering America’s back in the region, but for many Britons the institutions of ‘Europe’ are seen as the only threat to their sovereignty, and Russia merely as a threat to continental Europe. It is hard for Britain to pivot with America, because China is seen as a market and a source of investment, not as a threat. This could change if Washington decides to take on Russia, but so far the Obama administration has expressed satisfaction at Germany’s leadership of the European defence against Putin.

The drivers behind the pivot give Japan strategic focus but leave Britain with a dilemma. London has to decide what kind of relationship it should have with continental Europe, whereas attitudes and policy in China and Korea leave Japan very little choice. Largely due to threats from its continental neighbours, Japan does not really see any alternative to its close alliance to America. Britain does not face a clear direct threat, and therefore debates how much less it can afford to spend on defence. Japan has historically spent such a small portion of its wealth on defence since WWII, raising spending in response to a higher threat perception hardly faces any domestic opposition.

There is also a kind of divergence in strategic approach to other issues, such as economics. For Abe as much as for Cameron, economic revival is the number one question in domestic politics. In Britain the prioritization of economic opportunity has been reflected in what is termed the ‘prosperity agenda’[6] working its way up to becoming a major consideration in foreign policy. One prominent example of this is Britain’s desire to protect economic relations with big markets and sources of investment like China.

Britain has undertaken its own ‘pivot’ to Asia, evident in an increase in diplomatic representation and numerous visits and speeches on the subject. PM Cameron kicked it off with a visit to several Asian nations in April 2012. The commercial tone of this visit was measured by the size of the accompanying businessmen and confirmed in a keynote speech in Malaysia: “Britain is back – back open for business, and open for business with you”[7]. Soon after, Former Foreign Minister William Hague set the standard at the IISS Fullerton Lecture: “…those who might think that British engagement with Asia is a thing of the past, or that we will become a partner of declining relevance, could not be more wrong. Today Britain is looking East as never before. We are setting our country firmly on the path to far closer ties with countries across Asia over the next twenty years” [8]. In 2014 Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Hugo Swire described “Britain’s own shift of focus to the East” as follows: “…our relationship with Asia Pacific – like that of the US – is multidimensional. It is about building relationships across the whole region; what we describe as an All-of-Asia policy … Critically, it is multi-dimensional because it is about our economy, our security and our values.” [9] The current UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond confirmed in 2015 that “Our partnerships in Asia rest on three pillars: (1) strong people-to-people links and deep bilateral relationships across the Asia Pacific region; (2) a shared vision of free trade and economic openness; and (3) common recognition of our responsibilities to maintain the rules-based international system which protects our shared interests.” [10]

However, as international and civil tensions in the Indo-Pacific region make economic priorities harder to reconcile with normative values and broader strategic ambitions, the prioritization of commercial opportunity is notable. When, for example, the UK was unable to respond effectively when Beijing barred access of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee to Hong Kong. When the Wall Street Journal writes about ‘London’s kowtow’ to Beijing[11], what message does that carry to Britain’s strategic partners in Asia about how it balances national self-interest with its principled commitment to ensure a rules-based world order?

Abe has made economic revival a matter of national pride in a way that is more consistent with his desire to release Japan from what he calls ‘the 1945 system’ (pacifist mercantilism, dependence on the USA), and nurture a sense of national self-confidence. Abe’s sense of national destiny may be controversial but judging from the results of the recent snap election it can still command public support. Not for the first time, it is being suggested that Japan is ‘in the midst of a serious identity shift’ from neo-marcantalism to liberal interventionism[12]. A source close to PM Abe’s office was heard at the UK-Japan 21st Century group breakfast on 14 January describing Abenomics as a ‘National psyche management policy’.

National Psyche: war memory and ‘moving on’

What shape is Britain’s national psyche in? When it comes to matters of defence and national security, the answer seems to be ‘not great’. As the televised hearings of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq War showed, the nation emerged from the GWOT era looking for someone to blame. In the prolonged wait for the committee’s findings, a series of qualified observers are starting to point fingers[13]. Critical views like that of Frank Ledwidge (‘Losing Small Wars’, ‘Investment in Blood’) that were once seen as coming from ‘left field’ are rapidly becoming mainstream. In his book “High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars”, Christopher Elliott presents damming evidence against the generals and politicians alike. In the annual speech of the UK Chief of Defence Staff at RUSI, General Sir Nicholas Haughton conceded that this recent war history has sapped the national spirit and its ability to think strategically about military policy:

“… rightly or wrongly, the legacy of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been, and still are, hugely challenging.  They have affected some people’s perception of the beneficial utility of Armed Force, of the competence of Defence and the wisdom of past government… we have created a situation in which, to varying degrees, government, parliament and society have become more cautious, nervous, anxious about the employment of military force.  As I hinted in this speech last year, I worry that as a nation we could have started to lose some of our courageous instinct: the instinct to take risk and to make sacrifice both for our own security and the common good…So that is why I worry that the legacy of the last decade, or so, is such a challenging one and that we now need to move on.”[14]

But Britain can’t ‘move on’, not until those who led the country into these wars own up to their mistakes. The problem is almost all of those now senior enough to lead on strategic thinking owe their stars and political stripes to their participation or acquiescence in these failed conflicts, so admitting failure is a personal betrayal. The RUSI dialog offered a small vignette of this problem. In the session on intelligence, the former head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) Sir John Scarlett noted that there is no point having intelligence cooperation unless you actually have some intelligence to exchange, so he would concentrate on identifying some of the good practices and principles that can be passed from UK to Japan; for instance, the importance of keeping collection separate from analysis, to protect against politicization of the product. According to the Chatham House rule, I cannot quote the answer to a question as to what lessons Japan might draw from the UK’s difficulties with intelligence around the Iraq war, but I can say that it elicited little more than a pained expression.

It is a curious irony that as the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII approaches, both Japan and the UK find their strategic vision blurred by different legacies of shame and defeat. PM Abe wrestles with his conscience to find a message that is true to his personal belief (Japan needs to put the war behind it) but that is broadly acceptable to the nation at large as well as former enemies (Japan has to remain sorry). It does not make it any easier for him to achieve his long held ambition of revising the ‘peace’ constitution (or at least its interpretation) in order to allow Japan to use its military like a normal country[15]. In the case of the UK, the 70th anniversary also brings us the latest test of our confidence in the form of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which requires us to articulate what we thing of our role in the world in terms of our commitment to military spending and policy.

Hearings of the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee in preparation for the 2015 SDSR have taken note of the relationship between national psyche and defence policy and security strategy[16], so it was fortunate that Rory Stewart MP, who currently chairs that Committee, was invited to speak at the opening session of the 2015 RUSI ‘UK-Japan Strategic Dialogue’. Rory Stewart was one of those whose public career has been built on the back of the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, about which he now seems to have mixed feelings. This may be one of the reasons why he chose to make a rather surprising suggestion.

Rory Stewart caught the audience’s attention by opening the strategic dialogue with an appeal for ‘honesty’ and ‘seriousness’. As he developed this theme, he returned several times to the words ‘honest’ and ‘serious’. Japan has long been respected by the UK as a ‘serious’ country. ‘We used to be a serious country. Can we be again?’ he mused. Not everyone present seemed comfortable with what the question implied. The speaker had touched a nerve.

Rory Stewart diagnosed a common problem facing Britain and Japan: being former great powers but not now superpowers, and thus find it difficult to calibrate their role on the world stage. The remedy, according to Stewart, was for Japan and Britain to develop an ‘honest’ friendship, including sharing an assessment of US strategy, and a critical appraisal of what they are capable of doing together. The logic was that if we are more honest, we will avoid trying to do more than we are capable of (thus inevitably failing), and thus become more serious. Well, looking at the RUSI meeting as a fair sample, how do we grade the ‘honest’ and ‘seriousness’ of the alliance?

The prospects of the Anglo-Japan relationship?

Japan’s State Minister of Defence Akira Sato listed 6 points for future cooperation where he hopes to see concrete results:

  1. Joint contribution to International Peace and stability (Peacekeeping Operations, etc.)
  2. Forces in the field can provide and receive support to each-other
  3. Visits between armed forces
  4. Mutual support when deployed together on operations
  5. Establish new mechanism to share information and analysis
  6. Joint training and exercise program

There is clearly room for improvement in actioning this list, much of which goes back to 2012. Rory Stewart commented that the UK currently contributes far too little to UN peacekeeping and the same may be said of Japan. PM Abe’s ambition of making a ‘proactive contribution to Peace’ is yet to come into focus. Former Minister of defence Onodera speaking at the RUSI Dialogue, defined this policy in terms of increasing the contribution of people to Peace keeping Operations (PKO), and increasing the contribution of enablers (e.g. logistical units) to PKO. Akira Sato described the UK as a ‘significant partner’ of Japan, adding that he hopes to see the relationship elevated after Japan passes legislation pursuant to the re-interpretation of the Constitutional prohibition on participation in collective self-defence. Certainly the agreement of an acquisition and cross servicing agreement and other legal procedures to enable operational support could be of use in the event of British forces working alongside their Japanese counterparts. Until that day, plenty more can be done in joint training, and doctrinally challenging areas like the ‘comprehensive approach’ and civil-military cooperation.

It is surprising that the maritime dimension – where the UK and Japan naturally share so much – does not seem to be getting more attention. Looking back, there has been an expectation that the UK would turn from land operations to maritime focus in the aftermath of the Iraq/Afghanistan era. Simon Chelton suggested in 2012 that Post Afghanistan:

“(T)he likelihood is that the UK will be reluctant to commit to substantial new land operations away from home, and will instead revert to a more traditional maritime based policy of seeking to project influence from the sea and be prepared to protect maritime supply routes, as required.”[17]

There are reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for cooperation in the maritime sphere, which also has a strong historical precedent. Former Japan Minister of Defence Onodera recalled in his RUSI talk the history of Anglo-Japan naval cooperation with the case when the Imperial Japanese Navy escorted the ANZAC convoy ‘Albany’ across the Indian Ocean and into the Mediterranean during WWI. Today the Royal Navy is back ‘East of Suez’ in its new base in Bahrain and is going ahead with the commissioning of two large and highly capable aircraft carriers. Ambassador Ishii Fumio called the Bahrain base ‘very good news for Japan’ and beckoned the Royal Navy to ‘come on out’ to the Indian Ocean. Japan’s only overseas base is close by in Djibouti, so there are prospects for cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. Japan is once again host to a RN officer (the first since the Anglo-Japan Alliance of the 1920s), who doubles as liaison to the US 7th Fleet and the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force. There is even a chance to see the UK’s Royal Marines get involved with the recent initiative in Japan to establish an amphibious capability.

But even if the means exist for cooperation, it has to be for some common objective. Is the UK willing to join Japan in defending the principle of global freedom of navigation at sea? That question turns out to be a real test of the UK-Japan’ relationship’s honesty and seriousness.

Speaking recently at a function in Brussels, Japan’s Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio observed that “winning another country’s trust takes time and concrete actions as well as words are required”[18]. The context of his remark was the explanation of how Japan gained trust in the years after WWII, but the same principle could be applied to evaluate Japan’s relationship with its European partners. Kishida was linking the situation in Ukraine with that in the East China Sea when he stressed that the Helsinki final principles “should be applied not only to Europe but also to international relations covering the entire globe” [19]. This question of integrity is closely related to the ‘seriousness’ of the relationship. One of the Japanese participants at the RUSI dialogue observed that “when people around the world are having a hard time, someone needs to go out and fly the flag – Britain and Japan can do that.” But is the UK passing Kishida’s integrity test?

There was an unmistakable sense at the RUSI gathering that some in Japan are disappointed with the UK in this regard. A source close to PM Abe’s office expressed dismay at Britain’s lack of seriousness with regard to China over HK. “The rise of China is not understood as a threat to the West; but actually it is challenging some of the most important principles that human beings have achieved. China’s expansionist policy is related to the suppression of minorities and other violations of human rights. How can the West, the champion of democracy and human rights, ignore this?[20]. One of the Japanese participants at the RUSI Dialogue proposed the following thought experiment: imagine the reaction in Europe if Japan had said in response to Russia’s moves in Ukraine ‘both sides must exercise restraint and our economic relations must remain unaffected’ – i.e. the way Europe and the UK responded to China’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific (confrontations at the Senkaku islands, in the South and East China seas, the crackdown in Hong Kong).

Observers in Japan may, however reluctantly, be recognizing Britain’s inability to overcome this conflict of interest, and so considering another less intimate kind of partnership. Ambassador Ishii Fumio (Japan’s man in Brussels) responded to Rory Stewart’s observation that Britain and Japan not superpowers with a comment that both are ‘global powers’. Ishii sees Indian Ocean maritime security and weak states in Africa as areas for cooperation, but with Britain contributing to Japan’s security principally by relieving the burden America’s burdens outside the Asia-Pacific (e.g. intervening in weak states in the European periphery and Africa). While there may be a clear interest for Japan in ensuring that Washington’s main effort can be devoted to Asia, a merely regional role might be too much of a demotion for the UK to accept.

The current UK government’s promise of a referendum on EU membership also poses a risk for the UK-Japan strategic partnership. As ambassador Hiroaki Fuji noted at Chatham House in 2013, “… the world desperately needs a globally oriented Europe. From the viewpoint of Japanese investors, it is of crucial importance that the UK should firmly maintain its role as the gateway to the European market”[21]. One of the Japanese speakers at the strategic dialogue deftly handled a question on Japan’s view about the UK referendum on leaving the EU by affirming that the present position of the UK being engaged in the EU was one much valued in Tokyo.

2015: A strategic watershed?

If a need to ‘move on’ from past failures and humiliations is a strategic requirement both countries seem to share, then the managers of the Strategic Dialogue should consider the role their institution can play in the necessary process of ‘national psyche management’. 2015 is a good year to do so, because both nations are conducting processes to re-frame national strategy on the basis of lessons learned from the past.

In the UK the Chilcot report should finally be released, which could help to clear the air in advance of the wider debate on the National Security Strategy and the 2015 SDSR. Britain has already entered a period of “quite significant change, including also a discussion about Britain’s place in the world, its relationship with the EU and other things”[22].

Meanwhile PM Abe will use his new electoral mandate to pursue his ambitions for constitutional revision or re-interpretation, and submit legislation to the diet that will enable Japan’s self-defence forces to be used as a military instrument of foreign policy. On 25 February 2015, Abe launched the “Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century”[23]. The panel is charged with answering six questions connecting Japan’s future role in the world with lessons learned from 20th century history and experience with war. Because of the way war memory informs public perceptions on the role of the military, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender is sure to add extra weight to the debate, and to link it with regional – and possibly global – politics.

Japan’s legacy of empire has long shaped diplomatic, economic and security relations with its neighbours, but this year’s 70th anniversary looks set to become a global battleground, in which the war’s meaning will be instrumentalised for a much wider purposes. Russia’s plans to jointly commemorate the end of the war with China and North Korea broadens the context both geographically and conceptually. President Putin has already commemorated last year’s anniversary in of the surrender in Europe with a military parade in Crimea. The plans for 2015 include an exchange of visits with China’s President Xi Jinping to commemorate the end of the ‘anti-facist war’ and celebrate the ‘post-WWII international order’, which institutionalized the dominance of the victor nations over Japan and Germany. According to a report in the Global Times, President Xi and his Russian counterpart said “the two countries will take this event as an important chance to jointly safeguard the outcome of the victory of WWII and post-WWII international order”[24].

Japan has no intention of abandoning the field to the Beijing/Moscow narrative. Foreign Minister Kishida had this to say at a speech shortly after the RUSI dialogue:

“In order to further reinforce the cooperative relationship between Japan and Europe I will conduct diplomacy toward Europe based on three major pillars. The first pillar is Japan Europe cooperation for global peace and stability to be strengthened in the year 2015 marking the 70th year from the end of World War II. Based on deep remorse for the war, Japan has followed the path of a peace loving nation with the determination not to repeat the suffering brought about by the devastation of war in the 20th century experience”. [25]

For all these reasons, the 70th is the perfect opportunity for the UK and Japan to use their relationship to signal a fresh departure from old thinking. The UK should respond to the Moscow/Beijing narrative by using the 70th anniversary to affirm its commitment to a global ambition to promote with balance and integrity both economic interest (participation in the Asian century) and core values (support of a rules based system of international law in Asia as well as in Europe). Meanwhile Japan should confirm that this is the role expected of Britain.

A more honest and serious dialogue offers ways for Japan and Britain to overcome respective difficulties that are getting in the way of ‘moving on’ strategically. Japanese observers see the UK’s 2015 SDSR as a ‘milestone’ to measure the UK’s engagement policy and the expectation among some that it will express the UK’s intention to show a presence in the Asia-Pacific sets the bar on this. Registering the desire to partner with the UK at the global level sends a strong signal to those who would argue for more ‘managed decline’. Japan’s willingness to develop something more like an ‘alliance’ than a ‘partnership’ would help project a vision of UK foreign and security policy that is forward-looking, global and strikes the right balance between interests (being part of the Asian century) and values (rules based world order). A serious response to the Chilcot findings and a well coordinated narrative on the 70th anniversary should re-affirm the role of UK in upholding the rules based order. A commitment to Japan would also send the signal that Britain is the kind of power that welcomes trade with China but not at the expense of fundamental values (commitments to the rights of the Hong Kong population, the settlement of territorial disputes by peaceful means, etc.).

For Japan, the main strategic obstacle is the lack of public trust in political leadership and fear that military and intelligence institutions will again drag the nation into peril and disgrace. British soft power can help in a number of ways. Building on the successful history of Anglo-Japanese reconciliation, a firm commitment to cooperation in the sphere of defence and security may help to reassure the Japanese public that such fears of history repeating itself are not universally shared, even among former enemies. The UK can try and ease Japan’s sense of isolation by developing an honest dialogue on its own past mistakes with regard to the Iraq war, which is anyway widely considered unlawful at best, and a crime of aggression at worst. This will be necessary anyway in order for the British strategic establishment to ‘move on’ in terms of regaining the trust of the British public and projecting a vision of national purpose in the 21st century world. Then by demonstrating its willingness to work closely with the Self Defence Forces on maritime security and peace operations, the UK can ease the task of advocates in Japan who are attempting to obtain public acceptance on the legitimacy of Japan employing its military capability in a global role.


  1. Strategic Communications. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary, London and Tokyo should coordinate strategic communications (also with the US, Australia and other like-minded nations), in order to present a positive forward-looking narrative of continuing partnership between the great democratic powers of the post-war era, giving due credit to the power of reconciliation and universal values of respect for the rights of the individual under the rule of law.
  1. Maritime. Concentrate effort (and reinforce success) on the Maritime level. Royal Marines and the MSDF/GSDF for amphibious operations across the full spectrum from humanitarian and disaster relief (as with operation Tomodachi) to hi-end combat operations to re-take islands or deploy preventively to deter violations of sovereignty. Other options could include training with the Special Boat Squadron (amphibious special forces) and the deployment to Japan of a Royal Marines liaison officer to stand alongside the Royal Navy Commander there.
  1. Peace operations. As General Hokazono mentioned at the RUSI conference, the identification of more counterpart entities between governments can help to structure cooperation on concrete objectives, as well as supporting relations with the US and NATO. In view of PM Abe’s ambition that the Self Defence Forces make a ‘proactive contribution to peace’, a counterpart in Tokyo should be selected to work in close partnership with the UK Stabilisation Unit to share good practices, conduct policy workshops, exchanges and training on peace operations and the comprehensive approach.


Despite the success of defence cooperation in the UK-Japan relationship, the lack of a coherent Asia policy on the UK side (in particular a lack of clarity on what kind of global role strikes the right balance between our values and our interests where China is concerned), is a source of drag that prevents it taking off to the strategic level. As the shift of global wealth and competition is moving East, the UK’s national and global roles (political and strategic) are at risk of coming apart. For Japan, the opposite is happening – which is what makes this relationship worth investing in, not just in terms of the defence industrial opportunities, but at the highest strategic level.

Rory Stewart’s appeal for an honest approach in order to deliver a serious result has merit. However, there also needs to be a shift in British public opinion to commit to a strategic ambition that rises above the level of national or regional policy. The strategic choice for the UK in 2015 is between decline and renewal, but the public does not seem ‘committed’[26]. A solid partnership with Japan can be part of a coherent strategic vision that will encourage the ‘renewal’ camp. For Japan the visionary leadership is there, but the problem lies in connecting with the population and the outside world. The UK can assist in helping Japan overcome the hesitancy and anxiety about assuming a more ‘normal’ role, and developing the operational and strategic habits that accompany that. This year’s 70th anniversary of the end of WWII offers an opportunity for reflection on the lessons of history and the importance of taking a stand against aggression and violation of international order. Would-be allies Japan and Britain should take this opportunity to raise the bar on honesty and seriousness.

[1] Memorandum between the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and the Japan Ministry of Defence relating to defence cooperation, June 2012 http://www.cheltons.net/pdfs/Defence%20Cooperation%20Memorandum%202012.pdf

[2] S. Chelton, “Japan’s Security in search of new partners?” RUSI Journal, June/July 2012 Vol. 157 No. 3 pp. 32–37.

[3] “By mentioning the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, I am not seeking merely to dwell on past glories. Surely we had the tragedy of another war which we fought against each other and have always to squarely face. However, we are now nurturing a new partnership in the defence and security areas, which perhaps we can call a new type of alliance.” H.E. Keiichi Hayashi, Ambassador of Japan to the Court of St James’s, 23 July 2013 Speech at the Portsmouth Naval Reception, referred to the relationship as ‘a new type of alliance’. http://www.uk.emb-japan.go.jp/en/embassy/ambassador/speech/PortsmouthNavalReception.pdf (accessed 21 January 2015).

[4] Philip Johnston, “Why is David Cameron not talking about Defence” The Telegraph, 3 Mar 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11445458/Why-is-David-Cameron-not-talking-about-defence.html

[5] Shinzo Abe “Japan is Back” February 22, 2013 speech at CSIS. http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/pm/abe/us_20130222en.html

[6] In a nutshell ‘Taking office, the Conservative-led coalition vowed a new, business-centred approach to foreign policy. Trade and prosperity would be the watchword, rather than grandiose schemes to remake the world. Bilateral ties would be at a premium as Britain sought to promote its wares in a fast-changing world’, Bagehot “The British government’s prosperity agenda hits the road”, The Economist, April 24 2012 http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2012/04/william-hague-asia

[7] David Cameron, speech to the ASEAN Business Club, http://www.aseanbusinessclub.org/speech-david-cameron/

[8] William Hague, http://www.iiss.org/-/media/Images/Events/conferences%20from%20import/iiss%20fullerton%20lecture%20series/65343.pdf

[9] Hugo Swire, “The UK in the Asian Century” speech at Carnegie institution, Washington DC, 15 July 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-uk-in-the-asian-century

[10] Philip Hammond, 30 January 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/foreign-secretarys-speech-on-the-uk-in-asia-pacific

[11] “London Kowtow to Hong Kong”, Wall Street Journal, 20 January 2015. https://www.google.com/url?rct=j&sa=t&url=http://www.wsj.com/articles/london-kowtow-on-hong-kong-1421706765&ct=ga&cd=CAEYACoTNjAxNDk0MDY3NjcwMDY0MTczMzIZYjM1ODIzODVjOWRiMGI2NTpnZTplbjpHRQ&usg=AFQjCNGj69ej44xq91RrEWcLv8HKGYdIDA (accessed 21 January 2015).

[12] John Hemmings, Japan-UK Ties and the Quiet Revolution in Japanese Foreign Policy”, ISN Zurich, 6 February 2015. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=187615

[13] Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton-Taylor, “Chilcot inquiry delay frustrates military witnesses” The Guardian, 21 January 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jan/21/chilcot-inquiry-delay-military-frustration

[14] Lecture by General Sir Nicholas Houghton GCB CBE ADC Gen, Chief of the Defence Staff, UK Ministry of Defence, 17 Dec 2014. https://www.rusi.org/events/ref:E545211393622E#.VOoICMYs0eP

[15] Robin Harding “Shinzo Abe stance on war anniversary risks reigniting regional tensions” Financial Times, February 26, 2015. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/63767eae-bd96-11e4-9d09-00144feab7de.html?siteedition=intl#slide0

[16] Julian Brazier, MP “My problem …is that we have so broken public confidence in what we are about in the world that the last poll I saw on various possible expeditionary outcomes suggested that there would be no public support for any of them except for evacuating British citizens. That was the sole exception…how do we rebuild public support and confidence? How do we bring the country in? At the moment, the country is not committed.” Question 54 (p.59) of House of Commons Defence Committee ‘Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part One, Seventh Report of Session 2013–14 Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes and oral evidence, 4 June 2013 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmdfence/197/197.pdf

[17] S. Chelton “Britain, Still a Naval Power Could Help Pacify the Waves around Japan”
WEDGE January issue report 2012 December 21 http://wedge.ismedia.jp/articles/-/2457?page=1 (accessed 24 January 2015).

[18] F. Kishida speech at the German Marshall Fund, January 20 2015 (accessed 24 January 2015) http://www.gmfus.org/archives/a-keynote-address-by-fumio-kishida-minister-for-foreign-affairs-japan/

[19] F. Kishida speech at the German Marshall Fund, January 20 2015 (accessed 24 January 2015) http://www.gmfus.org/archives/a-keynote-address-by-fumio-kishida-minister-for-foreign-affairs-japan/

[20] S. Kitaoka “The East Asia Security Situation and the role of the United Kingdom”, Chatham House Asia Conference Report UK–Japan Global Seminar: Fostering Strategic Partnerships 20–21 June 2013, p. 16 http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/home/chatham/public_html/sites/default/files/20130620UKJapanConferenceReport2.pdf (accessed 24 January 2015).

[21] H. Fuji Fostering Strategic Partnerships Transcript Chatham House UK-Japan Global Seminar: Keynote address by Ambassador Hiroaki Fujii 20 June 2013, p.6 http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Meetings/Meeting%20Transcripts/200613Fujii.pdf (accessed 24 January 2015)

[22] James de Waal, introducing a speech by General Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the General Staff, British Army “The future of the British Army: How the Army Must Change to Serve Britain in a Volatile World”, Chatham House, 17 February 2015. De Waal is Senior Consulting Fellow, International security Department, Chatham House. http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150217QBritishArmy.pdf

[23] Opening speech by PM Abe available on the PM Office Website here, http://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201502/25.html

[24] “Xi, Putin reassure joint celebration of WWII victory anniversary”,

Xinhua, 9 November 2014, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/890920.shtml

[25] F. Kishida speech at the German Marshall Fund, January 20 2015 (accessed 24 January 2015) http://www.gmfus.org/archives/a-keynote-address-by-fumio-kishida-minister-for-foreign-affairs-japan/

[26] See Brazier 2013 above.

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Latest developments confirm UK and Japan heading towards a new type of alliance

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 12.10.12 PMAs we approach the anniversary of the speech that inspired this blog (link here), I’d like to take stock of developments and make the case that the UK and Japan are on track towards a relationship that deserves to be called ‘a new type of alliance‘.

Defining ‘alliance’, then and now

Japan and the UK may not be allies today in a sense they were a century ago, nor in the much stricter sense that they have a formal agreement to mutual defence, but neither of those facts excludes the possibility that they are allies in a new type of alliance.

I argue here that the notion of a ‘new type of alliance’ raised by HE Hayashi Keiichi in 2013 is not just a gimmick. While the essential nature of alliance may be timeless, the character of a specific alliance will be influenced by various conditions particular to the environment of the time. Times change, but have our assumptions about what constitutes an alliance kept up with recent changes in the environment of international security?

The meaning of ‘alliance’ has generally come to be seen as:

–  An agreement between States concerning national security

–  A commitment to provide support for defence or recognize mutual interests and assist in maintenance of the status quo in regard to these interests

–  Contingency – a kind of ‘if, then’ grammar to describe the commitment

But is the existence of a formal treaty absolutely necessary in order to use the label ‘alliance’? Walt says not, or at least, not always. He (1987) defined alliance as “a formal or informal arrangement for security cooperation between two or more sovereign states”, and only later (1993) added “usually taking the form of a written military commitment”. In a recent work looking at the nature of ‘alliances’, (Erich Reiter, Heinz Gärtner 2001 Small States and Alliances, Springer): Bergman formulates the following definition:

an explicit agreement among states in the realm of national security in which the partners promise mutual assistance in the form of a substantial contribution of resources in the case of a certain contingency the arising of which is uncertain

Some examples illustrate how loosely these conditions have come to be applied -Example 1: Are the US and Japan allies? America is committed to come to Japan’s aid if attacked, but Japan (even given recent re-interpretations of policy in Tokyo) is not pledged to defend America. Japan does provide bases and money, but the bargain is more committed on one side than another.  Nevertheless, no one argues that Japan and the US are not ‘allies’. At least, not any more. Until 1981 Japan avoided using the term ‘alliance’ to describe the relationship and even the choice to do so in the height of the Cold War was very controversial (link, link). This just shows that use of the word is as much or more a politically determined choice as it is a matter of objective fact. Example 2: NATO. Sure, Article 5 pledges allies to consider an armed attack on one as an attack on all, but ‘considering’ only gets you so far. It still leaves it up to each ally to decide individually what kind of assistance it deems necessary to offer. Example 3: US and Israel – no written agreement exists detailing the nature of the commitment, which is also not mutual. Example 4: In 1902, Britain and Japan were joined in an alliance that lasted for almost 20 years. What was the bargain in that case? A recognition of each-other’s interests’ in China and Korea, mutual ‘Promise of support’, ‘declaration of neutrality’, ‘Promise to communicate frankly’. These are not so very far from what we see today.

Resurgence of UK-Japan security cooperation

The establishment of a new kind of security relationship between Japan and the UK cannot be easily traced back to a specific moment, but it seemed to pick up in 2012. Here are the highlights –

2004 January – the Defense Ministers signed Memorandum Relating to Defense Cooperation to develop bilateral defense exchanges.

2006 – RUSI and the National Institute of Defense Studies (NIDS) initiate Fellowship exchange programme based in RUSI’s London office.

2007 January 9th – Japan-UK Joint Statement: A framework for the Future

2011October 31st – UK Minister of Defence Philip Hammond visits Tokyo to discuss Defence Cooperation agreements with counterparts in Tokyo.

December 27th – Japan amends its Guidelines on the Overseas Transfer of Defence Equipment, opening up the possibility of trade and R&D cooperation that had been denied under the previous guidelines.


April 10th – UK Prime Minister visits Japan and signs intergovernmental agreement to look into future partnering in the defense research and development sectors.

  • to launch a Foreign Minister-led “Strategic Dialogue” with a view to sharing assessments and strategic views on the regional and international environment;
  • to start negotiations on a government to government information security agreement;
  • to endorse Defence Ministers signing the Defence Cooperation Memorandum at the next opportunity;
  • to build on the signature of this Memorandum and defence engagement, such as in research collaboration, by identifying new areas of cooperation;
  • to identify a range of appropriate defence equipment for joint development and production, that can be carried out in accordance with Japan’s 2011 Guidelines for Overseas Transfer of Defence Equipment etc. which contributes to both countries’ security and presents industrial opportunities;
  • to explore ways to further strengthen our security and defence cooperation, including joint exercises, training and unit to unit affiliations.
  • Mutual pledge to deepen the existing dialogues between relevant Ministers and senior officials, to address the above mentioned issues in a joint effort to promote international prosperity and security.

June 3rd – UK and Japan exchange a memorandum to strengthen defense cooperation in various areas including cyberspace.

October – Japan’s Foreign Minister visited the UK for the First Japan-UK Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue.

October – RUSI launches in Japan. The idea of the trans-Eurasia alliance between Japan and Europe or Japan and UK “would make the world a more stable place” said Dr. Chiaki Akimoto, the head of Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) new Japan office, at the RUSI Japan office launch.


June 17th – Bilateral summit led by PM Cameron and PM Abe on sidelines of G8 meeting, the two leaders reached agreement as follows:

i) In the wake of close bilateral cooperation in dealing with the recent terrorist attack in Algeria, the two countries should continue strengthening cooperation, recognizing the importance of international cooperation in counter-terrorism measures.

ii) The two countries should study the installation of a video hotline between the two prime ministers’ offices as suggested at this year’s UK-Japan 21st Century Group meeting.

iii) After Prime Minister Abe explained Japan’s economic measures, the two leaders reached an accord to cooperate in Japan-European Union (EU) negotiations on concluding an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) for further strengthening of economic relations between Japan and the United Kingdom.

June 20th – Chatham House conference (opening their five-year UK-Japan Global Seminar), British MP Hugo Swire called Japan Britain’s ‘closest partner in Asia’. His counterpart at the Conference, Hiroaki Fujii, had earlier called the UK ‘Japan’s ‘most important partner in Europe’.

July 4th – UK-Japan sign  “Agreement on the Security of Information” and  “Agreement on the Framework of Defence Equipment”.

September/October – PM Abe gave a speech at RUSI where he defined the UK and Japan as ‘a priori partners’.

Nov/Dec – HMS Daring visits Japan. One of the UK’s newest and most advanced ships, the type-45 destroyer HMS Daring arrived in central Tokyo on Sunday 1, stayed for three days.

November 27th – exchange of Liaison Officers between HMS Illustrious and MSDF ship DDS Ise to support bilateral coordination for HADR operations in the Phillippines (link).

December  Admiral Sir George Zambellas KCB DSC ADC DL, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff UK visited Japan, speaking at the JMSDF Staff College on Tuesday, 3 December 2013.


April 14th   Addressing an audience of 250 at the Japanese Diet, UK Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton advocated an ‘enhanced and formalised’ UK-Japan defence relationship that would help both countries cope with ongoing global and regional challenges. (link)

May – Prime Minister Abe visits London:

i) Japan and the UK agreed to “start negotiations on an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement [ACSA]  (a military logistics support agreement to provide logistic, technical, and administrative support to each other’s forces) at an early date and hold their first ‘2+2′ foreign and defence ministerial meeting.

An ACSA will mark a major step forward in the relationship, in particular if the current Japanese Government succeeds in its plan to interpret the exercise of the right to collective self defence as compatible with the current constitution.

ii) Abe and Cameron’s joint statement added that they would “examine the opportunities and develop proposals” to make joint contributions to international peacekeeping efforts, military exchanges, joint exercises, operations and support, and “establishing a new mechanism to share information and analysis that supports the purposes of our co-operation” (link).

May 2nd – Vice Parliamentary Minister of Defence Kihara Minoru gave a speech at IISS entitled “Japan and the UK as strategic partners – toward further co-operation in the defence field” (link). Call to strengthen the UK-Japan relationship as a ‘trans-Eurasia relationship’ to compliment the trans-pacific relationship (Japan-US) and trans-Atlantic relationship (UK-US).


Judging by these recent developments, how does the UK-Japan relationship correspond to the characteristics of ‘alliance’ that should be applied today? What are the main features of the 21st century environment that we would expect to shape the character of a contemporary ‘alliance’?

Shaping factor #1 The nature of IR today: Not war and peace between several great powers, and not Cold War either (since there is no ideological competition) but a kind of subtle rivalry. Today’s rivalry is over economic interests, and is restrained as well as driven by economic factors – principally the interdependence that comes from the vastly increased importance of global trade and investment for national prosperity. But ideology is far too powerful a tool to be discarded overnight, and strategic interests are still wrapped up in symbolic use of ‘values’. E.g. Europe maintains a kind of (leaky) arms embargo on China since Tiananmen, largely at the behest of the US. Relations with Russia are currently undergoing a similar kind of renegotiation. Finally, the nature of international relations today (inter-connected, flatter) means that national power is distributed over several domains, and is less concentrated in the military instrument. It is also more mediated by intergovernmental or international organizations such as the UN, G8, etc.

Shaping factor #2 The position of Japan and the UK in the contemporary balance of power: Today the in-balance of power offers a context for alliance that is very far from that which shaped the Concert of Europe and mid 20th century alliances such as NATO. One power (America) is orders of magnitude stronger than others in terms of aggregate power. Japan and the UK are middle powers in this system, and both allied to the hegemon. There are signs of a long-term shift towards a multipolar order where no one nation is dominant at all times in all places, and the movement of economic power towards Asia is the major factor in this.

What implications would these shaping factors have on the contemporary character of an Anglo-Japan alliance? (a) a need to insure against the risk of dependence on a single large ally; (b) Support provided for defence will probably not be decisive in a confrontation involving a great power; (c) the destructive power of modern weapons means the strategic objective today is not winning wars but avoiding them. This puts a premium on understanding the perceptions and intentions of would-be opponents; (d) alliances will tend to be looser in that they are not as focused on one particular type of contingency. This is partly because all-out war is seen (right or wrongly) as either unlikely or so destructive to national prosperity that it is dangerous even to talk of it being a possibility, and partly because security interests are less concentrated on military instruments. As with the pre-1981 US-Japan security relationship, it may be that the UK and Japan have an alliance even though the UK that prefers to call it by another name (out of concern for the impact on economic relations with China); (e) You see more ‘packaging’ of alliance issues, with expressions of partnership encompassing diplomatic, economic and military components.

How do these general shaping factors and their implications relate to the UK-Japan relationship?

Paradoxically, the diminished capacity of the UK and Japan compared to the situation a century ago is no impediment to their relationship. Indeed, similar size can be good for an alliance relationship. When it comes to cooperation on capability development, playing with a much stronger partner can feel like an uphill battle. The fact that the UK and Japan are both middle powers means they can play on an even field. Also, the weak have a stronger incentive to band together, and close partnerships or alliances like this one provide a multiplier effect that is easy on stretched defence budgets.

If anything, the diminished capacity of Japan and the UK probably just makes them savor their sense of sovereignty all the more. In spite of the fact that PM Abe is a firm supporter of the current Japan-US alliance, he also views Japan’s ‘post-war system’ as an American imposition he would like to erase. In particular, he wants to diversify Japan’s security partnerships across points in Europe (UK and France and NATO) and Asia (ASEAN, India, Australia). There is a feeling in the UK that subservience to the US has gone too far and Post-Blair Britain is especially sensitive to charges of being America’s Poodle. Exploring another type of alliance offers relief from these anxieties, as well as widening opportunities for trade and influence. Perhaps a bilateral alliance feeds both parties’ nostalgia for a time when their national identity was not overshadowed by their Uncle Sam.

But for that same reason, describing the relationship as an ‘alliance’ can be a delicate matter. It would be natural if both the UK and Japan were conscious of not wanting to offend their main alliance partner, their relationship with the US gives them much in common. For Japan, the new type of alliance offers not an alternative alliance partner to the US, but a way to get a bit of insurance against the risks of abandonment. In Britain’s case, Obama’s ‘pivot’ and the macroeconomic trends driving it creates a need to re-think how to be strategically relevant in Asia. So developing security cooperation in the region is good for UK interests in general – and may even enhance the value of the UK-US relationship in the era of the ‘re-balance’.

In fact there is hardly any cause for concern because the new type of alliance is good for the US in a number of ways; (i) it reinforces the value of interoperability with US forces and offers new avenues for developing shared analysis and understanding; (ii) it encourages mutual assistance among allies in the event of contingencies involving US interests in Europe, Asia and spaces between, thus reducing the burden on Washington; (iii) the difference in scale and capabilities between the US and its allies remains such that no-one can think seriously of this new type of alliance as any kind of alternative to the relationship they have with the US.

Regardless, both parties may be signaling to re-assure the US that there is nothing to worry about here. No UK official has actually used the term ‘alliance’ yet to describe the relationship with Japan. The Japan side has, but only once or twice. In other words, the fact that few are calling the relationship an alliance may not be a good indicator that it is not worth the name. As shown by the uproar when Japan’s PM Suzuki started to call the US-Japan relationship an ‘alliance’ for the first time, there may be other reasons to avoid using the correct label (avoid offending the US and China). Absence of the term ‘alliance’ does not prove absence of the function ‘alliance’.

Interestingly, the Japan side have floated the idea of a  ‘Trans-Eurasian relationship’ a couple of times – once when RUSI opened its doors in Tokyo in 2012, then again in a speech this May 2 by the Japan’s Vice Parliamentary Minister for Defence Kihara Minoru gave a speech at IISS ‘Japan and UK as Strategic Partners – towards further co-operation in the defence field’. The implication may be that the world can be banded by three big relationships – the trans-pacific being the US-Japan alliance; the trans-Atlantic being NATO or the US-UK relationship, and the trans-Eurasian being the Japan-UK relationship.

If the strategic objective of alliance today is not war-fighting but the avoidance of wars, this puts a premium on understanding the perceptions and intentions of other powers in order to avoid miscalculation and probe for opportunities to take advantage. The importance of understanding and intelligence-sharing is prominent in today’s UK-Japan relationship. A former UK Defence Attache in Tokyo once suggested to me that Japan has come to look to the UK as the ‘first choice provider of a second opinion’. Japan and the UK have new agreements to enable intelligence-sharing but also strategic assessments – as seen in the tie up between RUSI and NIDS since 2006.

The UK is going all out on ‘Defence Engagement’, as seen in its reorganization of the Army into the ‘response force’ and the ‘adaptable Brigades’ (see Army 2020). The role of the latter is “overseas Defence Engagement (working with partner nations)”, which is formally promoted as a strand of the UK’s soft power. The current UK Minister of Defence, Philip Hammond, gave a summary of how this relates to Asian security at the 2014 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) The 13th Shangri-La Dialogue in a speech entitled “Advancing Military-to-military cooperation“. Joining him on the panel was none other than Japan’s Minister of Defence, Itsunori Onodera. Hammond’s remarks are worth quoting in this context:

“In the same way that formal and informal economic and trading ties between nations, built up over time from the first trade delegation or first export order, gradually develop the cultural understanding and expert local knowledge that facilitate future economic links on a much greater scale … so the ties and channels of communication established from the steps of Defence Engagement – often small in scale and in uncontentious areas such as language training or military medicine – can lay the foundation for the deeper and more formal cooperation that develops greater mutual trust and understanding”.

A close reading of that description makes one wonder whether Defence Engagement is really only a strand of ‘soft power’…

Now culture may not score a lot of points with the realists in the audience but when it comes to mobilizing a society behind an alliance relationship, it surely helps. There is the history of the previous Anglo-Japan alliance, though awareness of this in the UK is low. There is the link of monarchy and Japan’s Emperor studied at Oxford, not the Ivy League. Mutual respect has grown on the basis of culture, but extends also into the harder dimensions of national character. Both nations fought each other to a standstill over their Asian possessions but never came close to invading each other, and even the bitterness of POW issues is fading. This potentially puts the UK in a position to provide a rather unique kind of support for Japanese power. The UK-Japan relationship is a ‘good news story’ in terms of relations between former enemies who have put bad war memories behind them. In a way this facilitates the rehabilitation of defence and strategic thinking in Japanese society, which is otherwise cowed by reminders of its war guilt. Provided it is explored carefully, this could prove a powerful dimension of the alliance.

Today international relations are more mediated than ever, and international organizations like the UN, G8, EU and NATO function in ways that have changed the role in the nature of ‘alliance’ in the 21st century. For Japan Britain can be an advocate for its interests in the major international organizations: UN Security Council, the EU and NATO. As Simon Chelton observed in his 2012 article in Wedge, the UK and Japan have – in terms of their voting record in the UNSC – more in common than either have with the US. Britain can offer access and advocacy if Japan would like support on Korean sanctions, free trade negotiations or enhancement of its relationship with NATO (Japan became a member of NATO’s Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme during a recent visit by Abe to NATO headquarters in Brussels). Despite Abe’s dream of settling Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia, Abe recently joined the rest of the G7 in isolating Russia over its actions towards Ukraine. As for the future, the FPDA offers one access point for cooperation, as reflected in PM Abe’s appeal to join the arrangements as an observer. In case of contingencies nearer Japan, the UK is a member of the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission, Korea, which has its headquarters rear in Yokota airbase, Japan. More ideas for how UK-Japan cooperation fits into broader European geostrategies were raised in a recent article “Europeans reach out to Asia: the role of Japan” by James Rogers and Prof. Luis Simón.

A more detailed study of the future potential of the alliance will follow in a later blog posting.


Over the past few years, the UK and Japan embarked on systematic, direct and broad-based security cooperation that goes beyond a general ‘partnership’. Recent developments suggest these moves are likely to culminate in a broad security and defence relationship that deserves the name ‘alliance’.  The nature of this relationship differs from that of past alliances, but in ways that are an appropriate reflection of changes in the relative and absolute position both nations occupy in today’s international security environment. Furthermore, an examination of the UK-Japan relationship helps focus on the factors that shape the concept of ‘alliance’ in the 21st century.

This blog post was inspired by a round-table meeting at the United States Naval War College on European perspectives on the American ‘pivot’, organised by the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies.


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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”


“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?


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?


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The Anglo-Japan Alliance, then and now

Prime Ministers Cameron and Abe at 2013 G8 Summit

Prime Ministers Cameron and Abe at 2013 G8 Summit

Emperors of the two countries of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1905.

Emperors of the two countries of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1905.

Is understanding  the 1902 alliance useful for thinking about contemporary relations between Britain and Japan? One might suppose that so much has changed in the last century as to leave only sentimental value in such a comparison. But you only know if you try…

What was the old alliance for, and why did it end?

  1. Russia: the original alliance was formed against Russia, and that threat had (particularly from the Anglo perspective) been addressed as early as 1907. Russia had fought on the same side as Britain and Japan in WWI.
  2. China: views on China had begun to diverge since before WWI (e.g. over the ‘open door’), and as Japan’s dominance was increased by the addition of former German possessions, Britain became increasingly reluctant to back Japan’s defence of its position in China against American pressure.
  3. America: Understanding of American strength reached through experience in WWI (as well as deep cultural affinities), convinced Britain that it would not fight America. After WWI, the only peer competitor that offered a rationale for the Royal Navy was Japan. Nationalism, Partly driven by US support for self-determination, was corroding the colonial form of empire in the 1920s. After WWII, America build a post-colonial form of Empire around the policy of containing the USSR, and a global network of alliances which structured the separation of Europe and Asia, and the UK and Japan.

What has changed?

So great are the changes over the past century that no-one would expect a return of the 1902 Anglo-Japan Alliance. The countries themselves have changed and so has the context in which they relate to one-another:

1. Britain and Japan: then they were not just nations but empires, whose dominance in their respective spheres of influence was an accepted feature of world order. Now they are upper-middle powered nation states allied to a superpower. There are no rivalries over imperial possessions in Asia, nor in their  ideologies and narratives about their role in the world. They share a parliamentary system of politics, monarchy, and mostly the same liberal social attitudes on individual liberty, market economics, etc. The issues of race that played a part in inter-war antipathy has diminished  almost to zero. A generational change has occurred in both countries, and those coming into adulthood and policy-making positions have no direct memory or attachment to the Imperial era or the WWII experience. As the UK Foreign Secretary said in one of his speeches describing the current government’s new approach to relations with Asia:

“Mine is the first generation in Britain that cannot remember the days of Empire, with the exception of the handover of Hong Kong which I attended. In all other respects, someone like me has no recollection of an earlier time, as I was a small child when countries like Malaysia and Singapore were gaining their independence. Today, our leaders and our people approach Asia in a wholly different spirit to the past – with a sense of equal partnership, respect and the desire to see opportunity and development for all”. (Hague, 2012 link)

2. World Order: WWII catalyzed the end of the colonial forms of empire that brought British and Japanese interests together in China, Korea and India. Instead we have state-directed commercial empires under the world order described in the UN Charter and a system of global economic governance (World Bank, IMF, G8, G20, etc). However, these structures of contemporary world order also offer incentives and channels for cooperation between allies.

3. Regional Integration – Then Britain was near its peak as a sovereign power. Now it is a part of a politico-economic union. Japan is not, but it conducts its diplomacy within a web of regional organizations (ARF, ASEAN+, EAS, etc.). These organizations may come to be regarded as the successor to older forms of empire.

4. America: The boot is truly on the other foot. Britain and Japan are both junior partners in their separate alliances with America. But America is in relative decline (marked by the sequester, the ‘leading from behind’ approach’, challenges by Russia and China, etc.), leading to wider questioning of its reliability as an ally. Is it time for Britain and Japan to ‘branch out‘ from their reliance on Uncle Sam?

5. China: The 1902 alliance was to some extent a product of the condition of China, which was a failing or collapsing state. The alliance was one way of addressing the risk of conflict between the great powers over the spoils of disorder in China and weakness in Korea. Now of course China is at the centre of interest in Asia, but for quite different reasons. The question then was how predatory powers organized their exploitation of China’s weakness. Now there is a common interest in how to maximize gains and reduce risks coming from China’s growing strength.

What has not changed?

1. Geography: Britain and Japan are still far apart, and so a new form of alliance will still be constructed from the things that lie between / connect them: Russia, America and the oceans.

2. Geo-politics: as in the second period of the early Alliance (after 1905), relations with America are still coming between the UK and Japan. In the later stages of the alliance (particularly after WWI), many in Britain saw in the Alliance dangers of entanglement. One was the risk of having to side with Japan’s more ambitious position on China. Another was the difficulty of taking a position in the event of war between Japan and America. Today fears of entanglement (in a war with China, North Korea or even Russia) would count among the factors against a revival of a formal alliance or common security agreement between Britain and Japan. However, if an anti-China axis forms including the UK’s most important ally (US) and Japan, this could reinforce the logic of UK aligning with Japan on China. There is competition among European powers for commercial advantage and influence in Asia, as before. Putin’s Russia is acting in a way that may stimulate Europeans and Asians to cooperate again in managing relations with the Bear.

3. Role in the world order: despite their diminished capacities, both the UK and Japan express a desire to influence the world outside. Japan talks of its ‘international contribution’, the UK of being ‘a force for good’. Of course both countries have vastly reduced military capacity compared to the earlier era, but they are serious players in proportion to their size and maintain high standards in military technology. The aerospace sector is a good example. The vast scale of America’s military distorts the global scale somewhat, but below that level there are still few other nations with the capacity for power projection like the UK and Japan.

What makes a new kind of alliance attractive?

1. Common world view –  British and Japanese leaders share some expectations about what a multi-polar world order means for their foreign policy:

We are living through a turbulent period in world affairs. Economic crises have put the global economy under strain and are accelerating the re-ordering of the political landscape. The emergence of new powers means that the international order is in flux, as it is in your region.  It is a more complicated international landscape with many more centres of decision-making than in the past, and our diplomacy needs to reflect that if we are to narrow these differences. Our world is not settling into blocs that require nations to choose between East and West or retreat behind ideological boundaries. There is far greater scope for flexible relationships that cut across geography, religion and political orientation, and this is a change that we embrace in Britain. (UK Foreign Minister William Hague, Fullerton Lecture, 2012)

In addition to strengthening Japan’s defence capabilities, the Abe administration also appears to be deliberately diversifying its security partnerships by branching out beyond the focus on its core alliance relationship with the United States, as well as by widening its security remit to include key energy security issues. (Swenson Wright, 2013 “Is Japan Truly ‘Back’? Prospects for a More Proactive Security Policy”)

2. World Order: The present world order (UN Security Council + free trade globalization) brings Anglo-Japanese interests together at the UN and through state-directed commerce. With Britain a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Japan a commercial superpower, the implications for shared interests are clear.

3. Regional integration – Britain’s membership of the EU makes it a useful channel to bring Japanese concerns to the table. Reciprocal advocacy may be enjoyed in a range of fora, such as ASEAN +, East Asia Forum, and NATO.

4. Alliances – Respective alliances with America are also a source of shared interest, the exploitation of which is a matter of the upmost delicacy. No doubt it helps when it comes to things like sharing intelligence and defence technology.

The question of what form the new type of alliance should take is one to which I will return in future blog postings. I welcome your comments.

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“A new type of alliance”

His Excellency Mr Keiichi Hayashi shakes hands with William Hague (4 July 2013)

His Excellency Mr Keiichi Hayashi shakes hands with William Hague (4 July 2013)

The Ambassador of Japan to the UK, Keiichi Hayashi, gave a speech about Japan-UK relations on 23 July 2013 in Portsmouth, UK. One section of that speech sums up the current status and direction of Anglo-Japan relations on a strategic level:

“By mentioning the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, I am not seeking merely to dwell on past glories. Surely we had the tragedy of another war which we fought against each other and have always to squarely face. However, we are now nurturing a new partnership in the defence and security areas, which perhaps we can call a new type of alliance” (my emphasis).

The UK’s Foreign Minister William Hague also used the ‘A-word’ recently:

“Japan is a key ally of the UK and we work closely together on many issues of global foreign and security policy”.

What is going on? Of course Japan and Britain were allies about a century ago, but surely that era is so far behind us as to bear no relation to the present circumstances. Or is it?

“The focus of international competition is moving steadily towards the Pacific Ocean and… Japan is obliged… to play an ever increasingly [sic] part in the peaceful development of that portion of the globe [cheers]. I sincerely hope … that these friendly feelings and mutual sympathies which have existed between us in the past shall be daily more strongly cemented in the future [cheers].”  Ito Hirobumi, London, 3 January 1902

Might today’s ‘partnership’ be different in form, but similar to the old alliance in function? Given the changes that have occurred in Japan, Britain and the rest of the world since the early 1920s, difference in form is to be expected. Understanding those differences might even tell us something worthwhile about Japan and Britain’s place in the world today.

This ‘new type of alliance’ between the UK and Japan is the subject of this blog. Over coming months, I invite you to contribute to the search for answers to the following questions:

  • What is the evidence for  a new type of alliance developing between the UK and Japan?
  • What is this alliance for?
  • What  are the right standards and criteria for measuring the success of an Anglo-Japan alliance in the 21st Century?
Japanese Battleship Mikasa

Japanese Battleship Mikasa


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