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RAF Typhoon in Japan

The Case for Reinforcing the UK–Japan Security Partnership

Peter Ricketts
Commentary, 13 June 2017
Japan, Pacific
An invitation from RUSI Japan to participate in a roundtable in Tokyo in late May gave the author a great opportunity both to present a view of European security to Japanese experts, and to re-immerse briefly in local perspectives on the risks facing their region.

Despite the differences in our threat environments, it is clear that Britain and Japan share many interests. First, both are global trading nations that have benefited strongly from the post-war international order based on the rule of law, open markets and freedom of navigation. A retreat from any of these would damage both countries badly.

The Japanese and British prime ministers were the first two world leaders to visit President Donald Trump after his inauguration (indeed, Japan’s Shinzo Abe got there first with a pre-inauguration visit), reflecting the crucial importance for both countries of their security partnership with the US.

I found Japanese interlocutors reassured that Trump and his administration had reaffirmed existing US security commitments to Japan, including the policy of extended deterrence in relation to threats from North Korea. (It is unfortunate that Trump missed the opportunity of the NATO summit in Brussels to make explicit that the US still stands behind Article 5 of the Washington treaty. He did, however, commit to it after his return to the US.)

It was no surprise to find that the dominant security issue in Japan was North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and the missiles to go with them. Japan and South Korea are on the front line of this, the most acute current threat to international peace and security, given the unpredictability of the North Korean regime and the ever-present risk of escalation.

So it makes sense that these two regional powers, with the US and China, are at the heart of international efforts to press Pyongyang to stop its provocations and negotiate an end to the nuclear programme.

Britain has responsibilities as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, and interests in preserving the non-proliferation regime, in the stability of the Asian region and the security of our allies there. Although Britain is half a world away, the outcome of the stand-off on the Korean Peninsula matters to this country as well.

It was very clear from my visit that the Japanese would like to see Britain more engaged in Asian security, and that they hope this will be one of the outcomes of Brexit. Beyond the immediate crisis over North Korea, they are watching carefully the growing Chinese assertiveness as a military power in the region and are worried about where this could lead.

I was particularly struck by an ‘upside-down map’ (south at the top) showing the Chinese mainland coast, Japan and Taiwan. This brought home how complex and compressed is the geography, and why issues of access and passage are so sensitive.

The Japanese experts I met hope that the UK government’s vision of a post-Brexit global Britain will mean that this country will stand with Japan and the US in ensuring that key rights, such as freedom of navigation, are maintained for the future.

I have much sympathy with this. Military contacts have already been stepped up (the Japanese were delighted by the deployment of RAF Typhoons to Japan for Exercise Guardian North 16 last year). But there is scope for more military cooperation, for example in peacekeeping and the training of peacekeepers.

Looking further ahead, I hope that once our new naval carrier/strike capability is operational, it could make an early appearance in East Asia.

In addition to hard-power cooperation, I would argue that it is important for the UK security community to keep abreast of the ideas and initiatives that will shape future Asian security arrangements.

One of these is China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the awkwardly named, but highly ambitious, project to improve infrastructure (such as ports and roads) across the region to open up new trade routes Westwards.

There is a school of thought in Tokyo that behind the laudable economic objectives may lurk deeper strategic ambitions. Japan and India have developed their own concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific ocean area, which deserves to be better known in Europe.

At the roundtable, I gave a flavour of the current issues in European security, suggesting that following 20 years of expeditionary military operations, the focus was once more on security in Europe, in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, intervention in Eastern Ukraine and apparent willingness to manipulate public opinion and even interfere in election processes.

Hence, the renewed importance of NATO’s collective defence mission. I also described the terrorist threat facing Britain and our European partners.

The threat from terrorism and cyber attack are very much in Japanese minds as they prepare for the 2020 Olympics, and this is an area where Britain has much to offer on the basis of its experience from the 2012 Games and our expertise in fighting terrorism.

I came away convinced that there is plenty of scope to build a strong and long-term UK–Japan security partnership, and that if global Britain is to mean something, this should be an early objective. 

Banner image: An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon at Misawa Air Base. The RAF and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force took part in Exercise Guardian North 16. Courtesy of US Air Force/Senior Airman Deana Heitzman.


The Lord Ricketts GCMG GCVO

Lord Ricketts spent 40 years as a British diplomat before retiring in early 2016. His last post was Ambassador to France, where he was... read more

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