Japan and Britain sign military agreement aimed at containing China and Russia
Ahmed Adel, Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher
The Prime Ministers of Japan and the United Kingdom signed an agreement on January 11 to formalise a military alliance between their two countries. The agreement, signed by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, stipulates joint military exercises, permits the deployment of troops in their countries, and determines the legal status of these personnel while they are abroad.
At the signing ceremony, Sunak said: “In the past 12 months, we have written the next chapter of the relationship between the UK and Japan – accelerating, building, and deepening our ties. We have so much in common: a shared outlook on the world, a shared understanding of the threats and challenges we face, and a shared ambition to use our place in the world for global good, ensuring our countries prosper for generations to come.”
As for challenges and threats, London and Tokyo believe they come mainly from China and Russia, and to a lesser extent North Korea.
James Crisp, a correspondent for The Telegraph, wrote: “Rishi Sunak and Fumio Kishida, the Japanese prime minister, signed a defence agreement in London that will provide the bedrock for large-scale drills to face down Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.”
For her part, Hikariko Ono, Kishida’s press secretary, said “Unfortunately, we’ve been seeing that China and Russia have been conducting joint military drills very frequently.” She then criticised North Korea’s missile tests.
More alarmingly for Moscow-Tokyo relations, the Telegraph reported that the new deal will allow Japanese troops to be based in the UK where they could help train Ukrainian soldiers alongside other nations, as well as British troops to be stationed in Japan. Despite the fact that the individual military power of China, Russia and North Korea far exceeds that of Japan, none of these countries are threatening an invasion or making territorial claims – in fact, it is Japan that has a longer history of attacking or threatening these countries.
However, Japan can attempt to justify its militarisation as it does neighbour three nuclear powers, two of which are ranked #2 (Russia) and #3 (China) according to Global Fire Power’s 2023 Military Strength Ranking. Proving that China, North Korea, and Russia also pose a threat to the UK is even more difficult considering the vast geographical distances.
Not long ago, under the David Cameron government (2010-2016), relations between London and Beijing were described as being in a “Golden Age” because of close economic ties. When Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, Britain quickly submitted to his anti-China policy. Like Washington, the British attacked the communist ideology of China’s ruling party and alleged human rights violations. Sunak also emphasised the common values of the British and Japanese ruling classes, which are conservative liberalism and anti-communism.
However, it was not just the interests of defending Western values that prompted London to sign a new military agreement with Tokyo. The military cooperation agreement with Japan confirms that the UK intends to reclaim a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It can be said that this has been somewhat successful in the military front as British warships and aircraft repeatedly and provocatively pass through the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and then into Japanese ports.
London also intends to expand its economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The British government has repeatedly signalled that they want their country to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
In this way, a new military alliance is being formed with the clear objective of opposing some sovereign states. It is recalled that Tokyo signed a defence alliance with Australia in 2022 and it is likely that the Japanese government will sign similar agreements with other Western countries.
The US encourages close military ties between Japan and Britain as it serves its wider strategy to oppose and contain China and Russia in the Pacific region. It is for this reason that the AUKUS (Australia, UK, and USA) formation was established in September 2021, which was preceded by the foundation of QUAD (Australia, India, Japan, and USA) in 2017.
Washington encourages enhanced defence cooperation between London and Tokyo. A greater British military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and a Japan with a more powerful military means that the US will waste less resources. It will also advance the US’ strategy to confront and contain China and Russia.
However, if stability and security worsen as a result of the British-Japanese military agreement, regional countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia, will begin opposing such an alliance. This could have the opposite effect from Washington’s anticipated hope of having Japan and the UK cooperate in policing the western Pacific, especially as regional states are unwilling to cut ties with China and Russia.