23 April 2015
The third article in our election series proposes that the next UK government take advantage of Japan’s more assertive defence posture to deepen bilateral security links.
John Nilsson-Wright

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


A Japan Air Self-Defense Forces F-15J/DJ takes off during an air review ceremony at the Hyakuri air base in Omitama, Ibaraki prefecture. Photo by Getty Images.
A Japan Air Self-Defense Forces F-15J/DJ takes off during an air review ceremony at the Hyakuri air base in Omitama, Ibaraki prefecture. Photo by Getty Images.


Over the past three years, Japan’s government has prioritized the adoption of more assertive foreign and defence policies, with the aim of advancing its security interests and contributing more constructively to regional and global affairs. These policies offer an opportunity for the UK and Japan to develop a more active and higher-profile security partnership.

Cooperation between the two countries has tended to be piecemeal, ad hoc and relatively low-profile. The next UK government can and should do more to promote the benefits of a closer security partnership with Japan. Specifically, this article proposes that it consider creating joint initiatives in defence technology research, counterterrorism training, crisis management, intelligence sharing and peacekeeping.

The potential for cooperation is heightened by the fact that the UK and Japan, both economically advanced countries, share important political values. Japan is a partner in a region where commitment to democracy and the rule of law is often weak. Both also have highly developed military technology; face complex security challenges; and have considerable experience of using overseas development assistance to address humanitarian concerns in a wide variety of regional contexts.

Effective security relationships in Asia are critically important for the UK given its considerable trade and investment interests in the region. For example, rapid urbanization and social and demographic developments in new markets, such as Indonesia, offer valuable new opportunities for the UK’s financial and insurance sectors. Developing new oil and gas resources in the region is also of key importance to British engineering firms working in the extractive sector, while maintaining secure and open sea lanes of communication between the Gulf and East Asia is essential for British commercial interests. 

Doubts about China’s geopolitical intentions, territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, separatist pressures in Southeast Asia, and the threats of terrorism and piracy all pose substantive risks to the stability of the wider region. Britain’s ability to counter these risks is very limited, and is further constrained by a declining defence budget and a general lack of engagement with these issues – either by the British public or the country’s political elites. Closer partnership with Japan in a variety of areas would enable the UK to enhance regional stability cost-effectively, while maintaining its foreign policy profile and political standing among Asian and Middle Eastern countries that have often looked to Britain for active leadership in regional affairs.

Japan’s new proactive security posture

Since his election as Japan’s prime minister in December 2012 (his second time in office, following a term in 2006–07), Shinzo Abe has transformed Japan’s foreign and security policies. His government has relaxed Japan’s long-standing prohibition on arms exports; increased the annual defence budget to a record $42 billion in 2015; established a new National Security Council (NSC); introduced legislation to enhance state secrecy; and reinterpreted the rules governing Japan’s participation in collective defence to enable its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) potentially to partner with countries other than the United States, Japan’s traditional ally.

In part, this new activism is a response to the security challenges that Japan faces in its immediate neighbourhood – most notably China’s growing maritime presence in the region and the persistent threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. However, the initiative is also an attempt by Japan to address wider security challenges. These include terrorism; inter- and intrastate tensions in conflict-prone regions such as the Middle East; risks to cyber security; obstacles to unimpeded access to natural resources (such as oil and natural gas); and threats to the security of Japanese citizens at home and abroad.

Japan’s efforts to develop this new global security presence take a number of forms. The Japanese government is drafting new joint US–Japan defence cooperation guidelines. It is studying how best to use its anti-piracy base in Djibouti (the site of Japan’s first and only permanent overseas military facility). It is enhancing security partnerships with Australia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines, while looking into expanding these to include NATO member countries, most prominently the UK and France. This NATO dimension would complement any reciprocal efforts by the next UK government to deepen security relations with Japan.

A limited window for enhanced bilateral cooperation

For the UK, Japan’s new strategic activism offers multiple opportunities for promoting Britain’s international security interests broadly defined, both regionally (in Asia and the Middle East) and globally. It also offers opportunities for expanding commercial synergies through defence technology cooperation. The Abe administration has made it clear that it wishes to deepen its active security partnership with the UK, a sentiment reflected in April 2014 by the first official visit by a Japanese prime minister to the UK in many years.

Modest initiatives to boost bilateral cooperation already exist. In 2013 the two countries agreed jointly to develop protective suits for chemical and biological warfare. They also signed a new Defence Equipment Cooperation Framework and an Information Security Agreement. In July 2014 they announced plans on missile-technology collaboration. They have also been deliberating on an acquisition and joint servicing agreement for military equipment. In addition, there has been speculation that the UK might consider purchasing or jointly developing Japan’s Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol plane as a replacement for the UK’s now obsolete Nimrod aircraft. Most recently, the UK–Japan Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting in January 2015 highlighted a number of possible areas for closer cooperation. These included: disarmament, non-proliferation, arms control, disaster relief, anti-piracy initiatives, cyber security, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping.

While the rhetoric surrounding bilateral cooperation has been encouraging, there is scope for much more ambitious action by the UK. Perhaps most importantly, the window of opportunity for developing such cooperation is limited. Abe is ahead of Japanese public opinion in making the case for a more activist security policy. And while both the governing Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan broadly support this new policy direction, it is by no means certain that the political appetite for greater overseas engagement will endure indefinitely. While Abe is likely to remain in office until 2018 – a six-year period of political longevity that is atypical for Japan’s premiers, who recently have averaged only one year in office – a future successor might easily be tempted to pursue a much less innovative and ambitious foreign policy agenda.

This partly reflects the fact that Japanese public opinion is preoccupied with domestic economic issues, and that young Japanese in particular have, in recent years, shown a tendency to retreat to a more inward-looking, risk-averse worldview at odds with globalization. Any government that pandered to this agenda would be less inclined to expend energy on cultivating political, economic and security ties with the UK.

Policy proposals

While some senior Japanese government officials would like Britain to develop a higher-profile maritime presence in East Asia, in part to address the challenge of China’s increased military and political assertiveness in the region, economic pressures and cuts to the UK’s defence budget make this highly unlikely. Notwithstanding this constraint, the UK and Japan might profitably deepen security cooperation in the following areas:

  • Establishment of more ambitious defence-related co-development and co-production projects, including reciprocal provision of defence supplies and technology, in keeping with the terms of the 2013 UK–Japan Defence Equipment Cooperation Framework. Such initiatives would substantially bolster the bilateral strategic relationship while opening up valuable commercial opportunities for British defence companies.

  • Joint training of military and political personnel in counterterrorism, particularly for civilian-hostage scenarios in the Middle East. A regularized programme of training by British army and special forces personnel for Japanese SDF officials could materially enhance Japan’s ability to protect its citizens abroad. As the January 2013 Al-Qaeda attack on an Algerian gas facility at In Amenas demonstrated, hostage crises frequently involve the targeting of multiple nationalities. The In Amenas attack affected civilians from six countries, including the UK and Japan, and represented a threat to global interests. By enhancing Japan’s anti-terrorism capabilities, the UK can secure the support of an additional international partner in confronting a security threat that is increasingly global in scope and generally indiscriminate in terms of the nationality of its victims.

  • Enhanced crisis-management coordination between the national security apparatuses of the two countries. In establishing the NSC in 2012, Japan’s policy-makers took note of the operational practices and institutional framework of Britain’s Cabinet Office Briefing Room (or COBRA) crisis-management system. The two governments have already established a hotline between the secretariats of their respective security councils, but more could be done to regularize communication between the two governments. Drawing on the UK’s experience of crisis management, particularly in counterterrorism scenarios, could enhance Japan’s inter-ministerial and cabinet-led crisis-management process, and expand opportunities for bilateral cooperation in anticipating and responding swiftly to a diversity of regional and global challenges involving the citizens of both the UK and Japan.

  • Promotion of more formalized and extensive intelligence sharing. The Japan Public Security Intelligence Agency (kōanchōsa-chō) has responsibility for combating threats to internal security in Japan, but in the past foreign intelligence agencies have been reluctant to share information with their Japanese counterparts. With the passage in 2014 of new guidelines on state secrecy in Japan, there may now be an opportunity for more extensive collaboration between UK and Japanese intelligence bodies in addressing common security risks.

  • Joint operational coordination between the UK military and Japan’s SDF in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations. Japan’s peacekeeping experience, including in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, is considerable. The UK and Japan should develop joint initiatives in this context as a way of maximizing their profile and effectiveness in addressing a range of common security challenges, such as the refugee crisis on the borders of Syria. As recent events in the Mediterranean and North Africa have demonstrated, expanding refugee numbers can exacerbate migratory pressures and represent both a humanitarian challenge in their own right and a potential threat to the security of states that are the desired destination of those fleeing persecution or economic hardship at home. Combating this challenge requires humanitarian and development aid to improve living conditions, infrastructure and the political stability of fragile states and societies. It also requires security for international aid workers providing humanitarian assistance to displaced communities. In the wake of Japan’s new, more flexible interpretation of collective self-defence, SDF personnel are much more likely to find themselves in potential conflict situations, contributing directly to infrastructure development and providing for the security of Japanese humanitarian workers. The ability to partner with a country such as the UK would substantially boost the operational effectiveness of Japan’s technically advanced but relatively combat-inexperienced forces. For Japan, an ancillary political benefit of such efforts would be the enhancement of the country’s long campaign (backed by the UK) to secure a permanent seat on a future, restructured UN Security Council.

In order to promote these important initiatives, the next UK government should rely on the existing framework for discussions between the foreign and defence ministries of the two countries. However, there also needs to be a more concerted effort by the British prime minister’s office to prioritize, and publicize the importance of, the bilateral relationship. UK public awareness of the Abe administration’s security initiatives is very limited, and often obscured by international media focus on the important (but separate) issue of rising nationalism and historical revisionism in Japan.

Closer and higher-profile security collaboration between the UK and Japan would be consistent with the historical ties that have long existed between the two countries, dating from the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 (albeit interrupted by the events of the 1930s). It would provide reassurance to countries in East Asia and further afield that Japan’s more assertive security posture is a constructive and progressive development. And for the UK, it would advance the country’s foreign policy in conflict-prone regions of the world where Britain has considerable commercial and security interests.

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