The United Kingdom and Japan have signed a major defense pact, praised as “historic” by the British prime minister but frowned upon by the Chinese government.
The Japan-U.K. Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), signed by Rishi Sunak and his counterpart Fumio Kishida on Wednesday, would allow both countries to deploy forces to the other’s territories and is generally seen as a move to counter China’s rising clout in the Indo-Pacific.
Downing Street said in a statement that the newly-inked pact is “the most significant defence agreement between the two countries in more than a century.”
The U.K. is the first European country, and the second in the world after Australia, to have signed such an agreement with Japan. The deal still needs to pass both countries’ parliaments to take effect.
Sunak said it “cements our commitment to the Indo-Pacific” amid “the unprecedented global challenges of our time.”
In March 2021, London released a new integrated foreign, defense and security policy with a ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific, in which Japan was identified as Britain’s key ally in East Asia.
For his part, Kishida said “Japan and the U.K. are partnering to take on the responsibility of addressing the strategic issues faced by the international community.”
China has not made an outright protest but a spokesman said the U.K-Japan defense pact “should not target any imaginary enemies, still less replicate the obsolete mindset of bloc confrontation in the Asia-Pacific.”
“The Asia-Pacific is an anchor for peace and development, not a wrestling ground for geopolitical competition,” China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press briefing in Beijing.
Last month, Tokyo launched a new National Security Strategy designating China an unprecedented “strategic challenge” and boosting defense spending with a focus on counterattack capabilities – a major shift from Japan’s postwar pacifism.
China said it was “firmly opposed” to and “strongly dissatisfied” with the Japanese strategy that “seriously deviates from the basic facts” and “provokes regional tension and confrontation.”
The U.S. meanwhile welcomed the move, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling Japan “our indispensable partner in addressing the most pressing challenges to global stability.”
As its name suggests, the new agreement applies to both the U.K. and Japan in a reciprocal manner.
Immigration and other logistic procedures will be simplified at both ends to facilitate troops bringing in arms and ammunition, as well as taking part in joint exercises and training activities.
“British troops were deployed here in Japan during the Allied Occupation 1945-1952, so this is not the first time,” noted Jeff Kingston, Professor of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo and a veteran Japan analyst.
In 2021, Britain’s most-advanced aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, made its first port call in Japan and took part in a joint exercise with Japanese and U.S. Navy warships in the Pacific.
By signing the defense pact, “Kishida is trying to boost NATO cooperation and stepping up deterrence towards China by expanding strategic partnerships and meeting with counterparts in preparation for the coming G7 in his hometown Hiroshima,” Kingston told RFA.
The Kishida government is tasked with an explanation, to the Japanese public first of all, about the recent major transformation in Japan’s defense policy, as well as the expansion of the defense budget amid anxieties over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The current diplomatic tour, that will also see Kishida visiting the White House and meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday, “will boost domestic support,” said Kingston.
During the trip that kicked off Monday, the Japanese prime minister visited France and Italy and will make a stop in Ottawa to meet with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before heading to Washington.
As Chair of the Group of Seven (G7) this year, Kishida is expected to highlight the importance of unity among the group’s members during his trip, Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper said.