“Japanese Self Defence Forces Allowed in UK”. As a headline it lacks the impact of “The Russians Are Coming!” which explains why this week’s military agreement between Japan and the UK received, at best, moderate coverage. Nevertheless, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) signed by prime ministers Rishi Sunak and Fumio Kishida deserves attention for three key reasons.

It shows the seriousness of the UK’s strategic “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific Region. It demonstrates how Japan is re-emerging as a major military power. It ties in with the concept that in the 21st century the notion of “The West” is morphing into the idea of shared values among industrialised democracies around the world.

The RAA allows the forces of each country to be positioned in the other. This doesn’t mean permanent bases in the near future, but it allows joint exercises to take place on land and sea. The deal was held up because the British, concerned about Japan’s death penalty, insisted on retaining legal jurisdiction over its own troops even if they committed crimes, or caused an accident, in Japan. The compromise was that this will apply if the incident happens while on duty. It’s thought that Tokyo has hinted that it will apply across the board. Both parliaments will need to ratify the agreement.

It is the most significant defence pact between the two countries in more than 120 years. Sunak said: “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.” Both he and Kishida have China in mind, although Japan also faces challenges from Russia and North Korea. Last year North Korea labelled Japan an “enemy” and launched more than 50 ballistic missiles which landed in the waters between it and Japan.

The defence pact indicates that Japan is moving quickly to implement its new National Security Strategy (NSS) published last month, in which it announced defence spending will rise from 1.1 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent by 2027. In the world’s third largest economy, that’s a lot of money – roughly $320bn over five years. It will make Japan the third highest spender on defence.

The NSS is the culmination of work set in train by the late prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2006 and continued by his successors. Abe believed the post Second World War settlement, in which Japan could not have a proper military, was no longer valid in the realities of the 21st century and that his country needed capabilities on a par with its neighbours.

He set out to reverse public support for Article 9 of Japan’s post-War constitution in which “… the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation…land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Japan was the only country to give up the right to declare war, although this commitment has been watered down by reinterpretations of Article 9. 

The new strategy document says Japan finds itself “in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of the Second World War. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will bring”.

Hence the new robust military posture. The aim is for the country to be able to take responsibility for its own defence without having to rely on the Americans, but to still work closely with Washington on regional strategy. Currently Japan has no long-range missiles which could give it a “counterstrike” capability if attacked. It now intends to buy 500 US Tomahawk missiles with a range of 1,600km and build its own hypersonic missiles, thus allowing it to hit enemy bases and command posts.

So, the sleeping giant is wide awake and remilitarising. But that does not equal a militaristic and aggressive Japan, even if Beijing reacted to the NSS with references to the past. Instead, it reflects new realities, and puts it on a level basis with its neighbours. For example, since the early 1970s China has said the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands, were Chinese territory, but until recently it was not in a position to seriously press those claims.

The RAA needs to be seen in that context. Tokyo is reaching out across the world. Japan, Italy, and the UK are already cooperating to build a next generation fighter jet. Japan’s F-X fighter plans will merge with Britain’s Tempest with the ambition for the jets to be in service by 2035. Tokyo and London will also increase cooperation in cyber resilience and semiconductors.

This is only the second RAA Japan has signed and will not be the last. The first was with Australia which is a fellow member of the Quad naval agreement along with the US and India. Australia is also a party to the AUKUS agreement, something Japan may wish to align itself with and gain some of the advanced submarine technology it currently lacks.

Australia is one of many Indo-Pacific nations that share Japan’s concerns about China. They include South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and India. The US in particular welcomes a more militarily capable Japan which could be a senior member in a future multi-country alliance designed to contain China.

Kishida will host the G7 summit in Hiroshima in late May. On display will be a Japan more at ease in being what it is. A major economic and a military power.

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