Boris Johnson and Shinzo Abe. Courtesy of British Embassy Tokyo / flickr.
The UK has the capabilities and the responsibility as a global actor to help shape the security environment in East Asia.
On 13 July 1900, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, Commander-in-Chief of the General Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, met Vice Admiral Edward Seymour, the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, China Station, on board HMS Century. Both officers were naval commanders of two of the eight navies in a coalition of powers which met to discuss how to fight the Boxers and rescue diplomatic missions besieged in Peking.
This was Japan’s first experience of engaging in a coalition operation coordinated by the UK. And it has echoes today: in May 2018, HMS Sutherland deployed from the UK to the East China Sea to participate in a coalition operation staged from Japanese naval bases to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea’s illicit ship-to-ship transfers of embargoed goods off the Chinese coast. After decades of absence, the Royal Navy is returning to Asia, and this time under the banner of ‘Global Britain’.
The UK public may wonder why this is. But given Asia’s share of global GDP increased from 8.9% in 1980 to 35% in 2020, and is estimated to make up 50% of global GDP by 2050, the answer becomes evident. More than 90% of international trade is shipborne, and 12% of UK seaborne trade passes through the ‘volatile’ South China Sea. It is logical that the UK, a maritime country whose prosperity relies on that trade, should pay close attention to this security environment.
The UK 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was a watershed moment for Japanese–UK relations. For what followed that review was a series of highly visible UK military deployments to Asia, with Japan acting as a hub for activity.
In 2016, Japan Air Self-Defense Force hosted Guardian North 16, the first joint exercise with RAF Typhoon fighters. This was the first instance of Japan hosting foreign military aircraft for an exercise aside from the US. It was also the first global reach deployment for RAF Typhoons at such range.
The British Army also deployed to Japan, hosted by Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF); again, the first foreign army to operate on Japan’s territory aside from the US. In 2017, reciprocally, the JGSDF sent a unit to the UK for the first time. Subsequent to HMS Sutherland’s deployment from May 2018 to March 2019, three more Royal Navy warships visited Japan, building on previous training missions to develop sophisticated and high-intensity exercises with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. It is significant that naval deployments also undertook UN embargo missions in the region alongside air and naval assets from Japan, Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, South Korea and the US.
At the policy level, defence and security cooperation has also been on the rise. The so-called ‘2+2’ Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting between the two countries has been routinely held to implement the policy agreed at the summit meeting. An Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement was concluded, which enables defence forces from both countries to act together more smoothly in case of joint exercises and disaster relief operations. Through the two consecutive summit meetings in 2017 and 2019, leaders of both countries affirmed that the bilateral relationship had entered the ‘next phase’.
Japan has taken an increasingly global outlook in security issues under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership. He has advocated for ‘proactive contribution to peace’ based on the principle of international cooperation since he took the office for the second time in 2013, and it has been officially incorporated into the National Security Strategy. Legislation for peace and security was developed by amending laws and enacting new legislation without changing the basic ideology of the constitution in order to make use of the Self-Defense Forces in a more flexible manner in light of the changing security environment. This legal development is, in a way, aiming at facilitating joint operations with partners more flexibly in a timely manner including those under a coalition framework.
Concurrently with the publication of the 2015 SDSR, the security environment in East Asia has been rapidly evolving. In addition to the nuclear and missile development of North Korea, Russia strengthened its force posture in Japan’s Northern Territory – which Russia has occupied since 1945 – and started exploring Matsuwa Island, an island of the Chishima island chain, for the possible establishment of a military base. This may well be an effort to make the Sea of Okhotsk a bastion for strategic nuclear missile submarines.
But it is developments in China, specifically around the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that are the most concerning. The PLA official military budget has experienced double digit percentage increases annually since 2015. But it is not just in budgets or technology where the PLA is becoming increasingly powerful.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping claimed that China had no intent to militarise the South China Sea. Since then, China did precisely that, and created artificial ‘features’ with military facilities, four of which are equipped with a 3,000-metre-long runway. China did not accept the ruling by the International Arbitration Tribunal in 2016 that these 'islands' could not simply be claimed as Chinese, and has – in spite of reassurances that it would not – deployed increasing numbers of military forces on them.
To the north in the East China Sea, Japan’s Senkaku Islands have been exposed to the menace of China’s hybrid warfare, with their law enforcement ships continuously invading Japan’s territorial waters as a clear demonstration of China’s ‘three warfares’ doctrine – public opinion, psychological and legal.
Military cooperation between Russia and China is also an emerging evolution in the region. Their joint exercises used to be nothing more than political demonstrations. But there are signs that they raised the level of cooperation to gain upgraded interoperability on a tactical level.
Global Britain, given its responsibility in the international community, should be playing a major – if not central – role in East Asia. Japan, as a capable security partner sharing fundamental values, is ready to facilitate UK military presence together with our common ally, the US, to shape the region for peace and stability.
The UK is an important player with responsibility for the peace and stability of the world, given its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, its nuclear capabilities, its ‘special relationship’ with the US, its role as a leading financial centre and an international oil capital, the ability to control global insurance premium rates, and its powerful intelligence capability. Global Britain should be a proactive contributor in shaping the East Asian security environment. It has already shown its ability to do so.
Viewed from the other end of the ‘Europe–Indo-Pacific corridor’, it is clear that the UK’s Integrated Review must acknowledge that Asia is the new centre of gravity in the global economy but that, at the same time, this region is a potential flash point between great powers.
The volatile security conditions in the region require the UK to act globally, deploying the full range of military capabilities along with clear political intent to help shape the security environment to more stable ends.
In this, the UK is likely to find that Japan is the best partner in the region to work with.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.