After 100 years, Japan-U.K. ties closer than ever

The world faces increasing uncertainty as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues while a new wave of novel coronavirus infections is rapidly spreading in many areas.

Amid such circumstances, one political leader is set to leave the political stage in several weeks while another leader recently was permanently removed — for very different reasons. One is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the other is former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As for the British leader, it was revealed that he had attended parties at 10 Downing Street during COVID-19 lockdowns. When he came under a new volley of criticism for his handling of a sex scandal involving a senior Conservative Party member of Parliament, the loss of public confidence was finally too great.

With many Cabinet members, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, choosing to resign from his government to drive Johnson into a corner, he appeared in front of 10 Downing Street on July 7 and announced his intention to step down as Conservative Party leader.

On July 8 in Japan, Abe died after being shot during a stump speech in Nara. His assassination, the first killing in postwar Japan of a sitting or former prime minister, manifestly shocked the world.

As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe was widely known abroad. The assassination using a gun stunned the world, as Japan had been thought of as a safe country.

As prime ministers, Abe and Johnson saw each other multiple times from 2019 to 2020, including at summits. Over that period, there was major progress in relations between their countries. The two leaders upgraded Japan-U.K. ties to what can be referred to as a “quasi-alliance,” though this did not draw much public attention at the time.

Today, both Japan and the United Kingdom, hoping to stabilize the international order, are castigating Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. That said, when taking a look at the past century, Japan-U.K. relations have been full of ups and downs.

When the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty limiting the size of military fleets was signed just 100 years ago, it was preceded by the abrogation of the Anglo-Japanese alliance — replaced by a Four-Power Pact between Japan, Great Britain, France and the United States. The termination of the Anglo-Japanese alliance resulted from pressure on London from Washington, which feared that Japan and Great Britain might eventually turn on the United States.

Mutual distrust and friction between Japan and the U.K. kept intensifying from the 1930s until their ties came to a tragic end in December 1941, when Japanese troops landed on the Malay Peninsula, kicking off a battle between the former allies.

On Feb. 15, 1942, British troops surrendered to Japanese forces and the Japanese occupation of Singapore began. Japan and the U.K. thus experienced the darkest period in their past century of bilateral relations. Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the fall of Singapore as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Indeed, the World War II confrontation brought great harm to Japan-U.K. relations.

After the end of World War II, Japan and the U.K. put efforts into improving bilateral relations by enhancing private-sector exchanges and deepening economic relations. In the 1990s, there was progress in reconciliation between the two countries over wartime history issues, facilitating restored friendship.

Standing on the foundation of ever-growing friendly relations between Japan and the U.K., Abe and Johnson, both attending the Group of Seven Summit in Biarritz, France, in August 2019, held their first bilateral summit. A post-Brexit U.K. would need new foreign partners, with Japan apparently being at the top of the list of such countries.

‘Indo-Pacific tilt’

After completely withdrawing from the European Union at the end of January 2020, the U.K. had to find a new international identity. To that end, the U.K. under the Johnson administration carried out what could be the most far-reaching review of foreign policy in the country since the end of World War II.

The British government consequently issued a document, “Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” on March 16, 2021. The U.K. has since been exploring the new international role it will play as “Global Britain.”

One particularly noteworthy part of the document is “the Indo-Pacific tilt.” This is the U.K.’s post-Brexit declaration of its commitment to “engage more deeply” in the Indo-Pacific region, a global growth center.

Abe unveiled a “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision, while Johnson, for his part, set out “the Indo-Pacific tilt” in the “Global Britain” vision. The Japanese and British visions are now working in sync, as seen in the U.K.’s February 2021 bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and a British Carrier Strike Group’s port call in Japan in September 2021.

Furthermore, Japan-U.K. collaboration has reportedly moved the two countries toward merging their next-generation fighter jet development programs. As the closest allies of Washington, both Tokyo and London have routinely prioritized not only joint development of military equipment with the United States but also procurement of U.S. fighter aircraft. Therefore, it is truly unprecedented for Japan and the U.K. to contemplate carrying out joint development of their next-generation fighter jets just between themselves.

The reasoning behind the U.K.’s recent approaches to Japan is a change in intraparty political dynamics within the ruling Conservative Party, which has led to the adoption of hard-line policies regarding China. What does this mean?

In October 2015, then British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the U.K. in what Cameron called a “golden era” in U.K.-China relations.

At the time, the Treasury and other British economic ministries, mainly driven by economic motivations, spearheaded the country’s drive to seek closer ties with China. Their enthusiasm was symbolized by the decision the U.K. had made half a year earlier to become a member of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). A Reuters report said the U.K. attached importance to its own national interests at the expense of the Anglo-U.S. alliance. The U.S. government expressed its displeasure at the British government’s decision.

In those days, the Cameron administration refrained from denouncing China for its human rights abuses as London was preoccupied with strengthening its relationship with Beijing for economic reasons. Cameron’s conciliatory approach to China came under fire from his fellow Conservative Party members, especially its more right-leaning lawmakers.

In 2016, the U.K. held a national referendum to determine whether the country should remain in or leave the EU. A majority of voters chose to leave, thus depriving pro-Europe centrists in the Conservative Party of their clout, with Eurosceptic conservatives gaining political strength instead. This change in intraparty power relationships led to the government’s inclination toward hard-line policies regarding Beijing.

At the same time, London has sought to enhance its relations with Tokyo. For example, it adopted the “the Indo-Pacific tilt” in response to the Abe administration’s foreign policies. The fundamental policies that the U.K. has recently taken up are likely to be maintained for some time.

Now, a century after the abrogation of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, Japan is in a position to take the lead in shaping the regional order in the Indo-Pacific.

Japan and the U.K. — democracies that bookend the Eurasian continent — now assume important roles in stabilizing the 21st-century international order. The two countries will remain tasked with doing so even after Johnson and Abe are no longer on the scene.

Yuichi Hosoya

Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs, including “Meisosuru Igirisu: EU ridatsu to Oshu no kiki” (Whither Britain?: Brexit and the EU in crisis).