Japan hugs UK close as it seeks to push back against China

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LONDON — Japan increasingly sees the U.K. as a key defense and trade ally in its pushback against China in the Indo-Pacific, say senior Japanese officials, as the country makes a diplomatic push to rally G7 nations this week.

Tokyo has opened its G7 presidency with a diplomatic offensive amid concern about both China and Russia. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Italy and France this week before landing in London — and plans to cap the week with visits to Canada and Washington.

Kishida is “a strong believer” that “security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region are inseparable,” the Japanese prime minister’s press secretary, Hikariko Ono, told reporters Wednesday.

On the same day, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Kishida signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement, the most significant defense pact between the two nations since 1902. The two will ramp up joint military drills and smooth the ability of U.K. forces to be deployed to Japan and vice versa.

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The agreement “cements our commitment to the Indo-Pacific,” Sunak said ahead of the signing, “and underlines our joint efforts to bolster economic security, accelerate our defense cooperation and drive innovation that creates highly skilled jobs.”

“Collaboration across defense and security would not only benefit Japan and the United Kingdom, but broader global stability, the leaders agreed,” said a Downing Street spokeswoman after the signing ceremony at the Tower of London Wednesday evening.

Japan is increasingly concerned about security in its backyard. Last December, China and Russia conducted joint live-fire military drills near Japan. And Beijing launched live-fire exercises near Taiwan last summer following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. This prompted Tokyo to update its own national security strategy in December, vowing to increase its defense budget to 2 percent of its GDP — a 20 percent increase.

Japan’s security environment has become “really severe so that we have no choice but to think about whether or not our current defense capability can really defend the life of the Japanese people,” said Ono, the Japanese prime minister’s spokesperson.

Last month, London and Tokyo also announced they are teaming up with Italy to develop the Tempest, a new fighter jet kitted out with the latest technology. 

During his meeting with Sunak, Kashida urged Britain to agree to further bilateral meetings between the foreign and defense ministers from both countries in a bid to further bolster defense ties.

“We are ready to strengthen our security alliances,” Ono said, and “would like to explore further collaboration” with the U.K.

As part of this, Tokyo is working to help Britain join the 11-nation Asia-Pacific CPTPP trade bloc. Japan is a founding member and the deal is “not a mere trade agreement, but a strategic agreement,” the spokesperson said, with negotiations with the U.K. “now at the final stage.”

Kishida and Sunak plan to “jointly tackle the remaining issues regarding the accession,” they said, “so the earliest possible conclusion can be reached.”

Japan is keen “to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific,” they said, and “fully support” the British government’s engagement in the region.