23 January 2023
Originally published in The Telegraph
It is easy to be so consumed by day-to-day international events that you miss a major development. Some days ago, one such development occurred. The treaty, signed at the Tower of London, allowing British forces to be stationed in Japan, and vice-versa, marks a new phase in the re-emergence of global Britain and its “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific. It complements the growing participation of both Britain and Japan in the big multinational military exercises, Operations Talisman Sabre and Pitch Black, now held bi-annually in Australia.
More broadly, it is another mark of the evolving solidarity of the world’s leading democracies in the face of Beijing’s belligerence, and a timely riposte to the “no limits” partnership entered into last year between the world’s most menacing dictators. It is also a suitable partnership between a Britain that is emancipated from the EU strait-jacket, and a Japan that has more-than-atoned for past sins and is once more developing the military power commensurate with its economic strength. Both countries are sending a signal to Beijing about the potential cost of adventurism across the Taiwan Strait.
The UK-Japan Reciprocal Access Agreement mirrors a similar treaty concluded with Australia last year (negotiations for which started when I was PM). The UK and Australia have now joined the US as the only countries whose forces could readily be stationed in Japan. Indeed, Exercise Vigilant Isles in November last year, made UK troops as yet the only foreign boots on the ground – Americans’ aside – in post-occupation Japan. More than any formal treaty, joint military exercises bolstered by intimate cooperation on the acquisition of key strategic weapons creates the closest of alliances.
Failing to secure a submarine partnership between Australia and Japan was one of my regrets as PM, because it would readily have bridged any capability gap prior to the acquisition of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines. My reasoning was that Japan had “skin in the game” and wouldn’t risk its crews in conventional submarines incapable of taking on nuclear ones from China or Russia. Likewise any partnership between the UK and Japan to develop the next generation fighter jet would further enmesh both countries into the solidarity networks, like the Five Eyes, that have been so important in preserving peace between great powers since 1945.
At the heart of these efforts must be an acknowledgement that Beijing’s chief obsession is taking Taiwan, as the next step towards ending the “century of humiliation” and re-establishing China as the world’s “Middle Kingdom”. Why else would China have quietly been building a navy larger than the US’ and developing the rocket forces needed to destroy carrier strike groups? It won’t be from Beijing’s benevolence that peace is maintained in East Asia; only from a calculation that war is not worth it.
The growing military ties between Britain and Japan will add to Beijing’s doubts, and thereby reinforce deterrence in a partnership for peace. As Burke once said, “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”.