By Chae Kyoun (CK) Ha, Research Assistant

The Centre for Geopolitics in collaboration with the Cambridge University Japan Forum organised a talk by Dr Philip Shetler-Jones (Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute) on 23 January 2024 on the evolving strategic partnership between the UK and Japan.

Origins of the New UK-Japan Cooperation

Unlike the common assumption that the enhanced UK-Japan relations we enjoy today is a recent phenomenon, Dr Shetler-Jones claimed that the potential of this partnership was foreseen from early 21st century. During the Global War on Terror, Japan deployed its Ground Self-Defence Forces to Iraq demonstrating its increased engagement in global security. Its increased global commitment was a response to the new global realities as the centre of gravity shifted to the Asia-Pacific. In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy article entitled “America’s Pacific Century” reflected the US foreign policy shift from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.

Against such a backdrop, Japan rose as a favourable security partner for the UK. Japan is a major economy in the region that is not a strategic competitor and is a common ally of the United States. It also has technologically advanced armed forces that have political and operational connections to the US military. Both the UK and Japan are like-minded democracies and have a shared threat perception that identifies similar adversaries and friendly countries. The two countries are also status quo powers with scarce defence resources with limited defence budgets owing to growing social insurance burdens.

A Virtuous Partnership of the Equals

Dr Shetler-Jones emphasised that the UK-Japan security partnership centres on technological cooperation. In particular, the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) which the UK, Japan, and Italy jointly seek to develop a new stealth fighter jet, demonstrates the UK and Japan’s technologically advanced security partnership. Although this is less visible, its significance is comparable to the AUKUS trilateral pact, another major branch of the UK’s engagement to the Indo-Pacific.

At the same time, the scale and frequency of the UK-Japan joint military exercises have been increasing in the recent years. Drawing from the participants’ testimonies, the joint operations with Japan represents cooperation between equal partners, compared to working with the US which adopts a “big brother” role in the security partnership. With many layers of security cooperation including the UK-Japan Reciprocal Access Agreement, partnership in cyber, the security partnership will continue to broaden and deepen given the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt and Japan’s increasing commitment to global security.

Having Japan as a key security partner particularly in the technological advancement area allows the UK to secure its national interests. It enhances the UK’s security capabilities while being affordable as the burden is shared with the partners. It allows the UK the ownership of advanced technology and hence there is a virtuous cycle of building trust, increased geopolitical alignment bilaterally, joint procurement leading to joint research and development of new technology that leads to shared information security and intelligence, which then reinforces mutual trust between the two countries.


The Q&A session engaged with the development of Japan and Britain’s global commitment, and the changing international security theatres. On Japan’s increasing global roles and its potential to become a member of AUKUS or the Five Eyes, Dr Shelter-Jones noted that although these scenarios often feature in public discussions, they are deemed less likely given Japan’s institutional limitations and the public sentiments such as the nuclear taboo.

On the impact of Brexit on UK-Japan relations, Dr Shetler-Jones argued that while the decision to leave the European Union had an immense impact on Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt, the crux of the tilt is about recognising the new centre of gravity of power in Asia rather than merely a response to the UK’s exit from Europe. Other European countries announcing their respective Indo-Pacific strategies demonstrate that recent changes are not just about the concept of ‘Global Britain’ nor the notion of the UK leapfrogging Europe. Moreover, unlike traditional views that suggest that the ‘tilt’ is something Britain offers to the Indo-Pacific, the UK in fact gains from the region since pursuing procurement of the AUKUS and GCAP outputs would not be possible on its own. These projects are ultimately enhancing Britain’s security capabilities which the UK has gained through its Indo-Pacific tilt.


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