Hot on Heels of Australia Sub Deal, UK Begins Military Alliance Talks With Japan

Japan UK Navy
UK Ministry of Defence

Britain continued to buttress its rediscovered position in the Pacific Tuesday as it announced new military talks with regional power Japan, a significant development that came just hours after China protested the UK sailing a warship through the Taiwan Strait.

The British and Japanese governments announced the beginning of negotiations for a new ‘Reciprocal Access Agreement’ on Tuesday, a proposed military alliance that would see enhanced “interoperability and collaboration” between the two nations. The move comes amid a dizzying pace of geopolitical change in the region, with renewed American interest in the Asia-Pacific, and a full-blown British tilt to the region.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the two nations had “exchanged views on an arrangement that would reciprocally improve… joint operations, exercises and activities” and that formal negotiations would begin in October with the intention of signing a formal agreement.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “Japan is Britain’s close security partner in Asia, with shared values and common strategic interests. This sends a clear signal about our determination to deepen bilateral defence cooperation, and the UK’s commitment to the Indo Pacific region.”

That the United Kingdom and Japan are moving towards closer cooperation now does not come without warning. The new British carrier strike group recently exercised with a Japanese destroyer and visited Japan itself. The agreement, if concluded, will make future exercises — and cooperation in case of conflict in the region — easier.

The talks — although she is not explicitly named by either party in their press releases on the matter — are also clearly aimed at furthering attempts to contain, or otherwise adjust to living with an aggressively assertive China. London’s readout namechecks “shared threats” as part of the reason for the talks.

Indeed, the Chinese government in Peking (Beijing) accused the United Kingdom of “evil intentions” just hours before the talks were announced, tough words in response to the British warship HMS Richmond transiting through the Taiwan Strait.

Western navies — predominantly the United States Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy on the world stage, but also others — frequently send warships to sail through contested waterways, as an assertion of right and demonstration to neutral, civilian shipping that they can be confident to freely navigate the seas without being molested by malevolent actors. This aids western nations by keeping sea lanes of communication open, and therefore global trade flowing.

But some nations do not always see these cruises as benign expressions of freedom of navigation. In the case of the Taiwan Strait, which is internationally recognised as high seas and not owned but is claimed as territorial waters by China, the cruise was seen as deeply provocative. A Chinese military figure quoted in state propaganda paper the People’s Daily said of it: “This kind of behaviour harbours evil intentions and damages peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

The United Kingdom has recently entered into another regional alliance, a submarine partnership with Australia and the U.S.

Submarine tech is considered as being among the most sensitive a nation can hold, so the decision for the UK and U.S. to share theirs with Australia is a significant one. Again, the move is widely seen as a bulwark against China, but it has upset the French as well, who have lost a multi-billion dollar submarine building contract over the move.

Japan and Britain deepening naval ties is a move with considerable history. After Japan opened up in the late 19th century after two centuries of feudal isolation, the United Kingdom was its first military ally, giving Japan the technology and training to build a modern navy. Indeed, when Japan defeated the Russian Empire at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, it was with British-built battleships.

Relations later soured, particularly as Britain moved towards becoming an ally of the United States, and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance finally lapsed in the early 1920s. At this point, Japan and the British Empire ceased to be checks on each other’s ambitions in the Pacific, an event that, among many others, may have been a contributing factor to the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour 19 years later.


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