Ties with Britain Expand Japan’s Diplomatic Options

Sasakawa Yōhei [Profile]


In 1613 an East India Company ship called the Clove docked at Nagasaki and Hirado in the south of Japan, delivering an official letter from King James I to the Tokugawa shogunate. This year marks the 400th anniversary of that event, and in celebration, the two countries are holding a series of Japan400 events, commemorating the opening of relations between England and Japan. In late September, HRH the Duke of York, second son to Queen Elizabeth, will attend the UK-Japan Security Conference, to be held in Japan.

This year also marks 150 years since Itō Hirobumi and four others (the “Chōshū Five”) were sent by the Chōshū domain to England, where they enrolled at University College London; 140 years since a group of instructors from the Royal Navy first taught the rules of football to Japanese students at the Imperial Naval Academy in Tokyo; and 90 years since the collapse of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which had been formed in an attempt to contain the ambitions of Imperial Russia in Asia.

Overcoming Diplomatic Obstacles

The world today is undergoing tumultuous changes. As well as widespread instability in the Middle East, the rise of China has brought dramatic changes and growing tensions to a vast region that stretches from the East China and South China Seas to the Indian Ocean. Japan faces an increasing number of difficult diplomatic issues—not only the problem of the Senkaku Islands but also questions concerning access to maritime resources and shipping routes.

These challenges call for a renewed strategic dialogue between Japan and Britain. The two countries have much in common: a shared commitment to liberty and democracy, a close partnership with the United States, and a rich tradition of seafaring and trade. In recent years, however, the relationship between the two countries located on either end of the Eurasian landmass has not been as robust as it might have been. Strengthening this relationship will help Japan to broaden its own diplomatic options, opening up a path for forming a new order in East Asia and the wider Asia Pacific region. 

In the spring of 2012, David Cameron and Noda Yoshihiko agreed on a “Leading Strategic Partnership for Global Prosperity and Security,” and in June of that year, the two countries exchanged a memorandum on defense cooperation. They have worked closely together to fight piracy and provide refueling to ships in support of international peace-keeping efforts in Afghanistan.

This is the context in which a conference on cooperative security between the two countries, entitled “Rejuvenating UK-Japan Relations for the 21st Century”, will be jointly sponsored by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, to be held between September 30 and October 1. The Duke of York and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō will address the conference. Expert panelists will discuss topics that include the future of the UK-Japan global security partnership. RUSI, established in 1831, is the world’s oldest independent think tank specializing in defense and security issues. It has had a major impact not only on British but also on American foreign policy. In 2012, RUSI opened an Asia office in Tokyo.

US Focused on Domestic Issues

Japanese foreign policy has long been centered on the United Nations and the Japan-US alliance. But there are an increasing number of problems that cannot be adequately addressed on the basis of bilateral ties alone. These include terrorism and cyber attacks. And with the UN Security Council no longer as effective as it once was and President Barack Obama focusing more on domestic issues, the United States has less room to maneuver diplomatically.

Britain’s intelligence capacity is indispensable to both Japan and the United States. This is particularly true with regard to the area from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, where Britain maintains close ties with a global network of Commonwealth nations, including India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Bangladesh. In Britain itself, however, Japan has been a waning presence in recent years. The once-vibrant field of Japanese studies at British universities has to a large extent given way to interest in China.

To address this, the Nippon Foundation promotes such things as assistant lecturerships in Japanese Studies for young researchers at UK universities and the nurturing of translators in the area of Japanese literature. In addition, we began a joint research-conference project in June this year in cooperation with the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation (established in 1985 in London), and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), with the aim of producing policy proposals five years from now.

But closer Anglo-Japanese cooperation will require proactive efforts from both governments as well. On the day before our joint initiative began, Prime Minister Abe, in London to attend the G8 Summit, delivered a speech on his economic policy at Guildhall in the City of London. In his speech, the prime minister told the story of how the Japanese financier Takahashi Korekiyo visited the City in 1904 to procure funds for Japan’s war with Russia, and recalled the assistance he received from the head of the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Sir Ewen Cameron—the great-great-grandfather of the current prime minister. Abe also noted that Takahashi, who later served as finance minister and prime minister, lifted the economy out of a deflationary spiral by demonstrating a strong political will. This confident speech earned Prime Minister Abe strong praise as one of the few Japanese leaders in recent years to have a vision for the future.

Since taking office for the second time at the end of last year, Abe has adopted a proactive diplomatic stance. In this, he has taken a different approach from most recent prime ministers, making a string of overseas visits to Vietnam and two other ASEAN countries, Russia, and the Middle East, and bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 2020. In the past, political conditions at home have made it difficult for Japanese prime ministers to travel as often as they would like. I hope the necessary changes will be made, including reforms in the Diet, to allow Japanese prime ministers to play an active role in the nation’s diplomacy.

Silent Diplomacy Won’t Work

Globalization has ushered in a new age. The world has become multipolar; at times it has even seemed to lack any “pole” at all. In this context, Asia’s influence on the world has been on the rise. Cooperation between Japan and Britain can enhance democratic values and strengthen the rule of law at sea. This would also benefit the United States as it pivots toward a new security framework centered on the Asia Pacific.

This is a situation that calls for proactive diplomacy. A passive approach is no longer sufficient. Countries around the world are looking to Japan for clues to the global economic and political future. I am convinced that strengthened  cooperation between Japan, Britain, and the United States will play a crucial role in the years to come, as we build a positive and forward-looking relationship with China, whose economic and military might has only continued to grow.

(Translated from an article published in Sankei Shimbun on September 20, 2013.)

  • [2013.09.27]

Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar and the chairman of the Nippon Foundation. Born in Tokyo in 1939. Graduated from Meiji University, where he studied political economy. As WHO goodwill ambassador for leprosy elimination, is active in global efforts to eradicate the disease. For detailed information, see his profile here.

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