Are Japan and the UK Trading Places?

Japanese flags in Tokyo. Flickr/James Cridland

As Britain is leaning out, Japan leans in.

At times, British and American policymakers and academics have wondered if Japan might become the “Britain of the Far East” by playing a larger role in foreign affairs, more supportive of the liberal rules-based system, and more in line with American global security strategy. Britain would have responsibility for the Western hemisphere, while Japan covered the Asia-Pacific. However, as the past decade has seen an emboldened and increasingly capable Japan attempting define a role for itself in global security, the same period has seen a UK less able or willing to shoulder its responsibility. A combination of post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan war-weariness saw Parliament usurp Prime Minister Cameron’s attempt to intervene in Syria in 2013, while Brexit and the possibility of a second Scottish referendum have created political chaos in Westminster, raising the possibility that Britain may be too consumed by internal affairs to take part in foreign policy for the next three to four years.

Of course, the machinery of government will go on, but Britain’s loss of focus occurs at a time critical to the liberal international order. On one flank, China pushes hard to gain de facto control of one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes, and in doing so establishes a baseline for its attitude toward international law and smaller powers. On the other, Russia continues to mobilize itself domestically with nationalism and anti-Westernism, in a seeming attempt to recover its Cold War–era buffer zone of satellite states.

In many ways, Japan and the United Kingdom are optimal allies for the United States. Based off of the continents to which they belong, they have never quite fit into those continents, culturally or politically, showing instead a preference for naval power. Both are comparatively economically powerful within their regions, technologically advanced and governed by liberal democratic systems, sharing similar values to the United States. Because of those values, both have been traditionally strong financial supporters of the United Nations, as well as pillars of the slew of financial international government organizations that collectively made up Bretton Woods. That American policymakers occasionally compared them is not surprising.

The most famous instance of this analogy was within the influential 2000 Armitage-Nye Report, which by suggesting the parallel gave Tokyo an attractive and recognizable template to emulate. Despite skepticism that Japan would ever shift its defensive posture from the easy-riding Yoshida Doctrine, toward collective self-defense or contributing forces to conflicts outside the Asia-Pacific, Tokyo has taken a long slew of incremental steps in both directions and developed new security ties with Australia, India and even the United Kingdom. While some would argue that these steps are still extremely limited, the fact remains that Prime Minister Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace” is a long way from former Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi’s insistence that Japan only had a “pretense of a foreign policy.”

As the United Kingdom reels from the June 23 Brexit referendum and struggles with a leadership contest, protracted Brexit negotiations and the possibility of a second Scottish referendum, it would appear that Japan is indeed becoming the “Britain of the East,” while Britain seems to be turning into a (Yoshida-era) “Japan of the West.” For it is quite clear that protracted negotiations required for exiting the European market, combined with the hasty search for new foreign trade agreements with economic powers such as the United States, India, China and Japan, will take up much of the energies of Whitehall’s mandarins. While this should only take five years or so, it will nevertheless force a loss of focus for Britain’s elites on its security contribution in the world. The possibility of Scottish independence would only add to the misery, stripping it of many of its best capabilities at precisely the time when NATO, Europe and the world need them most.

It is possible that as a result of these repeated blows, Britain will seek to recover the “splendid isolation” of Lord Salisbury, sans empire, and sans splendor, focusing instead on trade and keeping aloof of continental goings-on. Or it might also seek to leverage its financial sector as a leverage between the old hegemon—the United States—and the world’s newest superpower, China. The third possibility, about which I have written previously, is that Britain could double down on its role as a pillar of the liberal international order. It has already demonstrated that Brexit will not stand in the way of its commitments to eastern Europe by committing to the stationing of troops there.

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