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Perspectives

Combining the expertise, access and networks of Strategy International and its affiliated companies, Perspectives takes a positive, outward-looking stance on the UK’s overseas trade and policy interests.

The next stage in UK–Japan Defence co-operation

The next stage in UK–Japan Defence co-operation

All the signs point to the fact that Japan and the United Kingdom are strategically closer today than they have been at any point in the 96 years since the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. In 2017’s Joint Declaration on Security Co-Operation both sides were keen to emphasize this point: the two nations, it said, shared a desire to “maintain the rules-based international system as the closest security partners respectively in Europe and Asia” and a commitment to “comprehensively enhancing security co-operation”.

Actions speak louder than words, and the last few years have been impressively consistent with the message. In the spring HMS Montrose will be the fourth UK warship in a year to be despatched to the region to enforce sanctions against North Korea, part of a pattern of military co-operation that has seen British Typhoon fighter jets perform joint exercises with the Japanese Air Force, and the British Army become only the second after the US to train with their Japanese counterparts.

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The shifting international situation which has brought about this new high of security co-operation could well extend into the field of trade. In December, Japan published the updated guidelines to its National Defence Programme, based on an honest assessment of the growing security threat. These lay out Japan’s focus on developing a “multi-dimensional joint defence force” capable of countering its two most pressing threats, an increasingly difficult China, and a consistently unreliable North Korea, across multiple domains including space and cyberspace.

To achieve this, the Midterm Defence Programme has set aside 27 trillion yen (roughly £191bn) for the period 2019-2024, a record for Japanese defence spending. In several areas, this intent has already been signalled: in December reports were made of Japanese purchases of nearly 100 more F-35s of both the A and B class in a deal worth $10bn, whilst the ongoing procurement of the Aegis Ashore missile defence system and upgrades to the Izumo-class destroyer, making it capable of deploying fighter jets, demonstrate Japan’s commitment to beefing up its military capacity.

In the aftermath of World War Two the Yoshida doctrine placed Japan’s international security in the hands of the United States. Due to the restrictions imposed by Article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution, America became her new ally’s de facto military guarantor, and has subsequently dominated the Japanese defence market. However, in recent years there has been increasing frustration with the growing trajectory of American spending on Japanese defence. This, combined with the challenge of a mercurial President – for whom, it is feared, it would not be out of character to trade in US-Japan relations in a bid for the ultimate “deal” with China – present an opportunity for countries like the UK to deepen their defence commitments with their eastern ally.

In April, the UK’s Foreign and Defence Secretaries will meet with their Japanese counterparts to follow up on 2017’s Defence Logistics Treaty, where the conversation is likely to focus on the further deployment of military assets, as well as material opportunities for UK business. Of these, the jewel in the crown is undeniably potential collaboration over the Tempest, the RAF’s new sixth-generation combat aircraft. With Japan’s 94 Mitsubishi F-2s due for retirement in 2040, a similar timescale to that of the Eurofighter Typhoon, a joint feasibility study is currently underway into the possibility of working together. Below this headline issue there are multiple areas where work is already in the pipeline: Japan is particularly keen to access Britain’s expertise in fields such as of radar, battery and space.

One such project is the Japan Air Defence Force’s new air-to-air missile system, the JNAAM, a joint venture between MBDA and Mitsubishi Electronics which combines the Meteor missile with Japanese seeker technologies. A feasibility study is underway, with the first launch test by British fighter jet scheduled for 2023. For those disappointed by the news of the UK’s forced withdrawal from the European Space Agency’s EUSST and Galileo programs, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has expressed its openness to collaboration. Similar projects are already progressing: in 2017, a MOU was signed between BEIS and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to promote public-private cooperation on measures to tackle the problem of space debris.

Furthermore, it’s not just UK business that is set to benefit from this newfound closeness. In November it was announced that Japan’s Marine United Corporation was one of five companies to be selected to compete for the MOD’s Fleet Solid Support Contract, due to be awarded in Spring 2020. This tender follows on from 2015’s consortium bid by Mitsubishi Heavy, Kawasaki Heavy, BAE Systems and Babcock International for the Royal Australian Navy’s A$50bn submarine contract, which was eventually won by France’s DCNS.

Japan’s changing status as a purchaser of military assets, combined with the threat that the US spending trajectory presents to her sovereign choice, has the potential to open a new market for UK defence companies with specific areas of expertise. The Asia-Pacific has a key role to play in the UK’s strategy post-Brexit, and, though Gavin Williamson’s December statements about his desire to open new military bases in the region may not yet be feasible, entering into a defence alliance with Japan would further cement the UK’s relations in that part of the world.

By the time Williamson and Hunt meet their Japanese counterparts in April, Japan may already have concluded its Reciprocal Armed Forces Agreement with Australia, one of the UK’s co-signees to 1971’s Five Powers Defence Agreement; it could well be that an alliance with the UK is next. Such moves could be doubly beneficial for the UK in strategic terms; first, an increased presence in response to China could gain the UK crucial credibility with the US, and second could provide another sphere to extend activity against Russia beyond the North Atlantic and Baltic.

In the last twelve months, trade between the UK and Japan hit £28bn, and in their meeting this month Prime Ministers May and Abe expressed their desire to deepen this relationship, pledging to build on the existing EU-Japan trade agreement to create an “ambitious bilateral arrangement” post-Brexit. A formal alliance, both strategically and in terms of trade, could be its keystone. In a time when the liberal internationalist approach is falling out of favour, such a move would be welcome proof of the UK’s ambitions as a global force.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Strategy International Group.

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