Japan and the United Kingdom have signed a “hugely significant” new defence deal as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who recently unveiled his country’s biggest military buildup since World War II, seeks to bolster security ties with G7 partners amid worries about China’s growing power.
Kishida and the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed the agreement at the Tower of London on Wednesday, paving the way for the two countries to deploy forces on each other’s soil for training and other operations.
The inking of the reciprocal access defence agreement, which was agreed to in principle last May, comes a month after the two countries teamed up with Italy on a new fighter jet programme.
Kishida was in London as part of a tour of the Group of Seven countries, which includes France, Italy, Canada and the United States.
Japan holds the G7 presidency and Kishida will host a summit of the group’s leaders in Hiroshima in May.
The Japan-UK deal is the latest sign of Tokyo’s efforts to strengthen its alliances in the face of challenges posed by China, which it has described as the “greatest strategic challenge ever” to its security.
The agreement also forms part of the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt in foreign policy as it builds security and trade ties in the region. The UK has also become increasingly forceful in its approach to China, with Sunak warning in November that Beijing poses a “systemic challenge” to the country’s values and interests.
Sunak’s office called Wednesday’s deal with Japan “the most significant defence agreement between the two countries in more than a century”.
“This Reciprocal Access Agreement is hugely significant for both our nations – it cements our commitment to the Indo-Pacific and underlines our joint efforts to bolster economic security,” Sunak said in a statement. “In this increasingly competitive world, it is more important than ever that democratic societies continue to stand shoulder to shoulder as we navigate the unprecedented global challenges of our time.”
Japan signed a similar accord with Australia last January.
It has also recently overhauled its defence and security policy, also to address what it calls growing pressure from China. These include plans to increase its defence spending to two percent of gross domestic product by 2027, up from the traditional one percent level. That would make Tokyo’s defence budget the world’s third-largest.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described Wednesday’s British-Japanese deal as “quite a significant step up for both countries in terms of their bilateral defence relationship”.
UK ships and aircraft can visit Japan and vice-versa but the process is “diplomatically complicated” and requires foreign ministry clearance each time, he told the AFP news agency. The new agreement will create a “standing framework” instead, making it easier to “bring a destroyer to visit Yokosuka, or to bring in an army group, or to bring in some Royal Marines who want to train with the Japanese amphibious forces,” he said.
China, meanwhile, criticised the move, with foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying the Asia Pacific region was “not an arena for geopolitical games”. He told a briefing in Beijing that China was a partner for cooperation and “not a challenge”.
“The old thinking of bloc confrontation should not be introduced into the Asia-Pacific region,” he added.
Visits to Rome, Paris
Kishida’s visit to London follows trips to the capitals of France and Italy.
In Rome on Tuesday, Kishida and his Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, agreed to elevate their relations to “the level of a strategic partnership” and strengthen ties in a range of spheres including the economy, trade and defence. Kishida said he hoped the Japan-UK-Italy accord to build a next-generation fighter jet would help stimulate industrial cooperation between Rome and Tokyo and “lay the foundations for medium- and long-term bilateral cooperation between the two countries on security issues”.
And in Paris on Monday, the Japanese leader and Emmanuel Macron pledged more security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, with the French president promising to maintain “joint actions in the Pacific” and his country’s “unfailing support” against North Korean nuclear and missile threats.
For his part, Kishida said the G7 would continue to back Ukraine after Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour last year.
“The G7, faced with the Russian aggression, will rally to continue and reinforce strict sanctions against Russia and keep up strong support for Ukraine,” he said.
With his European tour, experts say Kishida was hoping to draw parallels between the security situation in Europe with that of the Indo-Pacific.
“The prime minister hopes to share with other nations the understanding that he will not allow the status quo to be changed by force, not only in Europe but also in East Asia, as China has shown its readiness to use force to reunify Taiwan,” said Kotaro Tamura, adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore.
At the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the group “is expected to confirm cooperation toward the realisation of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, including the rule of law, and the strengthening of security cooperation,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kishida is also hoping to present a united front against nuclear proliferation.
“The road to a ‘world without nuclear weapons,’ which Kishida, a native of Hiroshima where the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped, aims to achieve, is a difficult one due in part to China’s nuclear warhead buildup and North Korea’s nuclear development, but he hopes to maintain momentum for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in preparation for the Hiroshima summit,” said Tamura.
Kishida’s next stop will be Canada and he will end his G7 tour with a meeting with US President Joe Biden on Friday.
Jeff Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said Kishida’s goal was to “highlight the strength of Japan’s alliance with the US and growing network of strategic partners in order to boost deterrence versus China and North Korea”.
“He also seeks to explain the transformation of Japan’s national security policy announced last month. The doubling of the defense budget over the next five years and plans to acquire counter strike capability mark a tectonic shift in Japan’s security posture,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Kishida also wants NATO support for containing China by boosting the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ concept and explain Tokyo’s concerns about China’s intentions towards Taiwan,” Kingston added. “The risks of an invasion seem exaggerated but have been politically useful to justify Tokyo’s shift on security.”