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How is Japan Rethinking Its Role in International Security?

RUSI Global Security Briefing Podcast Episode 33

Neil Melvin

21 September 2022

48 Minute Listen

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

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

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“Partners for Global Security: New Directions for the UK–Japan Defence and Security Relationship”

RUSI NIDS Aug 2015A commendable report from the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Japan’s National Institute of Defence Studies (NIDS) edited by Tsuruoka, Schwark and Eyal.

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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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December welcome for Royal Navy in Tokyo, cooler for Cameron in Beijing

    Admiral Zambellas was welcomed by Vice Admiral Izuru Fukumoto, President of the JMSDF Staff College, and they exchanged their opinions with other staff of staff college.     After discussion, Admiral Zambellas delivered a lecture to all students and staff in an auditorium. In his lecture, he mentioned that Japan and the UK are keeping a close relationship with the same ambition as natural “a priori” partners under the current international situation and security environment.

Admiral Zambellas was welcomed by Vice Admiral Izuru Fukumoto, President of the JMSDF Staff College. Admiral Zambellas mentioned in a lecture to the students and staff that Japan and the UK are keeping a close relationship with the same ambition as natural “a priori” partners under the current international situation and security environment (link).

In a new article “The UK, Europe and Japan: Forging a New Security Partnership” (RUSI Journal, Dec 2013, Vol. 158, No. 6), Michito Tsuruoka looks at the recent developments in the UK-Japan security relationship. His assessment reminds me why I decided to start this blog:

“…the level of the UK’s engagement in Asia in reality is already substantial and it is for this reason that Japan regards Britain as a primary partner in Europe. The reverse is also true: as part of its growing interest in Asia as a whole, London is also placing increasing value on developing political and security co-operation with Japan in addition to existing trade and economic relations.”

The author points out several reasons why the relationship with the UK makes good sense for Japan:

1. Among European nations the UK has a mix of capabilities that are useful in terms of Japan’s security interests (intelligence, military global reach in maritime, air patrol, ground forces experienced in peace / stability operations). It does not get a mention here, but the fact that the UK keeps an embassy open in Pyongyang is a good example of comparative advantage in Japan’s neighborhood.

2. UK’s relationship with USA makes it a good fit with the Japan-US alliance as well as growing cooperation with Australia (‘five eyes’ on intelligence) and the region (e.g. FPDA).

3. A close relationship with the UK gives Japan a gateway for influence in Europe.

4. UK and Europe’s position on democratic norms and values, rule of law, etc., is aligned with Japan’s interests, including in emerging areas of norm-making on cyber and outer space.

For me, the points of constructive criticism presented in this article are really worth pondering:

A. Tsuruoka notes that “Japan expects the UK to also play a role in defining the direction of the EU’s foreign and security policy”, but this is not easy at the best of times, least of all under a Euro-skeptic Conservative government. And this is not the best of times in terms of agreement among the larger EU Member States either – as we saw from the recent European Council Summit discussions in Brussels on the future of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (link), which one commentator summed up as ‘not much ado about nothing very new‘. True, some of Britain’s problems are with Europe, but some problems are of Europe itself.

B. The UK should follow France and articulate “… a more detailed official pronouncement regarding its overall strategy for political and security engagement in Asia”. Here the key for Britain – as for many others – is to figure out how to fit a China policy into an Asia strategy. The contest over territory and sea/air space in the East and South China seas is having the effect of pushing this question towards a ‘value-based’ determination: adherence to the rule of law and the non-violent settlement of international disputes. As seen in an awkward visit by Cameron to Beijing recently (“Relations between Britain and China strained over naval ship’s visit to Japan“), just as the British PM thought he had put one ‘value’ issue behind him (no more meetings with the Dalai Lama), it is China’s assertiveness in the region that is pushing the UK into Japan’s camp:

“A visit by the Royal Navy’s most senior officer to Japan, at the same time as the Prime Minister was in China, has risked a new diplomatic rift between London and Beijing. Admiral George Zambellas, the First Sea Lord, met Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s defence minister, last week and reportedly pledged his support for the Japanese military. The intervention came amid a growing military stand-off between Japan and China over a set of islands in the East China sea.The visit by Adml Zambellas received virtually no publicity in this country but was seen as a major intervention by the Chinese… The depth of Chinese anger over Adml Zambellas’ visit to Japan was exposed by an editorial in a state-run tabloid newspaper, which claimed Adml Zambellas had “supported Japan’s stance towards China’s recently declared Air Defence Identification zone in the East China Sea”. The newspaper added: “This has added doubts over Cameron’s sincerity in improving ties with China. Perhaps there is no need to talk about ‘sincerity’ in terms of Sino-British relations.”

Tsuruoka concludes that:

“…while the notion of Anglo–Japanese political and security co-operation is not particularly new, the changing nature of regional and international security and respective developments in Europe and Japan have substantially altered the context within which this relationship operates. There are now a number of drivers that could lead to a stronger partnership. Whether the two governments can seize the moment and succeed in building a firm foundation on which to develop the future relationship depends on what they can achieve in the coming years”

Looking at his analysis in the context of recent events, it seems that what Britain and Japan can achieve in terms of their cooperation in the coming years will be strongly affected by what is happening with their respective continental neighbors. On the surface, Japan could gain by Britain getting along better with Brussels just as Britain would benefit in some ways if Japan got along better with Beijing. But on closer scrutiny the symmetry breaks down. More than anything, it is Beijing’s assertiveness (combined with America’s weakening) that has pushed Japan to become more outward-looking on defence and security. Britain’s search for alternatives to its post-war security relations has less to do with the emergence of a Continental superpower than with the shift of economic dynamism and geopolitical tension from the West to the East. But it is just this kind of prompt to take a wider perspective that the makes the ‘new type of alliance‘ so important for Japan and Britain. London should carefully consider Japan’s advice and accept that national interest need not always come through the maximisation of sovereign independence, and the benefits of being ‘in’ Europe when it comes to foreign and security policy vastly outweigh the costs. It is also good that London is encouraged to make an informed calculation in its Asia policy that balances short term material gains against the deeper values of peaceful international order.

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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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Rejuvenating UK-Japan Relations for the 21st Century

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RUSI has published further details on its conference on UK and Japan security cooperation (link).

The conference will review recent developments in security cooperation between Japan and the UK and seek to identify areas in which practical cooperation can be furthered.

The programme looks interesting.

It is almost exclusively a UK-Japan affair, but with one telling exception – Admiral Dennis Blair (Former US Director of National Intelligence) will be there to give a lecture entitled “East Asian Stability and the US-Japan-UK Alliance”. I look forward to hearing more about this.

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UK-Japan Security Conference

There will be a conference on UK-Japan security on October (link) on 30 September and 1 October, attended by PM Abe and the Prince Andrew (Duke of York).

The event was advertised on the Japan 400 website.

In developing UK-Japan security cooperation, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world’s renowned and oldest defense and security think tank, will stage a special conference on “UK-Japan Security in 2013″ in Tokyo in this October . The RUSI delegation will be headed by His Royal Highness the Duke of York and former British ministerial members. Top-level politicians and leaders in defense field from Japan, UK and US will also attend the conference. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Adm Dennis C. Blair, the US former Director National Intelligence, will make a special speech in our conference.

Final details to be confirmed.

Please see the RUSI website

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