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Britain is back in Asia, sending a message to Beijing

Britain is back in Asia, sending a message to Beijing
© Getty Images

This month, Britain and Japan, the two most powerful offshore island nations on the Eurasian continent, undertook to strengthen a special relationship that they established over a century ago. In January 1902, the two countries agreed to a formal alliance, an arrangement whose scope was twice expanded, first in 1905 and again in 1911. The alliance’s objective was clear: They sought to contain Russian expansion in China. The current agreement again focuses on those countries, though it is China, rather than Russia, that the British and Japanese view as the primary threat to their security.

The earlier treaties specifically provided for mutual defense, which led to Japan’s entering World War I on the side of the Allies. The current agreement does not go that far, but it does echo similar sentiments. Britain’s foreign and defense secretaries, Dominic Raab and Ben Wallace, and their Japanese counterparts, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, announced “a new era for U.K.-Japan defense and security cooperation.” They agreed that “Japan and the U.K. are each other’s closest security partners in Asia and Europe, respectively.” The message to China could not be more clear.

Like the earlier alliance, the new arrangement includes, but is not limited to, a major maritime component. Indeed, the first manifestation of the new partnership will be the deployment of the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth to East Asia and the South China Sea. Britain has participated in Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS, in military jargon) in the South China Sea, and the British Army has trained with Japanese forces in Japan. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth and the prospect of joint Anglo-Japanese air and sea operations will mark a quantum leap in Britain’s commitment to maintaining stability in that troubled area. 

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Not surprisingly, China has reacted to Britain’s planned deployment with unbridled vituperation. For its part, the growing British security involvement in East Asia no doubt is due not only to the growing Chinese threat to regional security, but also in response to Beijing’s blatant disregard of the 1984 Joint Declaration with London that provided for the preservation of Hong Kong’s separate identity within China.

Again, as with the earlier alliance, Britain and Japan will not limit themselves to joint military exercises. In a further response to Chinese aggressiveness — as well as North Korean ship-to-ship transfers of nuclear and other restricted technologies and systems — the Royal Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces agreed to share their maritime reconnaissance findings, termed “maritime domain awareness.” Moreover, the two countries are planning other collaborative efforts, including on the F-35 program. Both London and Tokyo have committed to acquire the American fighter jet, and American F-35s will deploy on the Queen Elizabeth.

It is noteworthy that, whereas Washington viewed the original Anglo-Japanese treaties with considerable suspicion, this is hardly the case today. With its own defense budgets coming under increasing pressure even as there appears to be no letup in Chinese military expenditure, America’s reliance upon allied military capabilities is certain to grow. It therefore can only benefit from the extent to which its closest allies generate synergies by cooperating with each other.

There is talk of Britain’s seeking to join what is now the American/Australian/Indian/Japanese quartet. Given Britain’s close ties to all four countries — Australia has announced that one of its warships will join the Queen Elizabeth task force when it deploys to East Asia — the prospect of a “quintet” should not be ruled out. Moreover, London has indicated its desire to enhance the activities of the Five Power Defense Arrangements, which also includes Australia, as well as Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand. 

Either of these steps no doubt will create additional angst in Beijing. By their very nature, however, these cooperative agreements also will demonstrate that there is a growing multi-state consensus that shares Washington’s view that China no longer can be permitted to run roughshod over what are both longstanding and widely agreed upon rules-based international norms.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.