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Japan a key player in UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific

Published: (Updated: ) in European News by .

Britain’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region comes as ministers seek to build trade and geostrategic ties with Tokyo.

LONDON — Boris Johnson’s big vision for “Global Britain” is out. And it marks a diplomatic and trade win — for Japan. 

The Pacific nation was quick to extend the hand of friendship to Britain post-Brexit. It offered up an oven-ready trade deal that would be the U.K.’s first signed outside the EU. The Japan pact ticked strategically sensitive boxes, from data localization to technology transfer, that go beyond Tokyo’s agreement with the bloc in some niche but significant areas. 

U.S. influence is, as expected, writ large in the new strategic vision set out in the U.K.’s Integrated Review that joins together trade and defense strategies. One expert explains it shows the U.K. is “caught in the slipstream of U.S. policy” when it comes to China. But Britain’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region — from increased trade ties to a greater defense and security role — outlined in the strategic vision reveals Tokyo’s hand at work too. 

The U.K. government’s approach to reform at the World Trade Organization and a host of key trade issues have already shown an alignment with Japan. Then there’s Britain’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Japanese officials are enthusiastic about Britain becoming part of the 11-nation trade group, which Japan is chairing this year and effectively leads as its largest economy. 

British Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, has frequently paired British and Japanese interests. “We are perfect partners as island democracies. We share a desire for free and fair trade under cutting-edge rules, promoted by CPTPP, while delivering jobs and opportunity at home,” she said in a speech in January.

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The feeling is apparently mutual. Hiroshi Matsuura, lead negotiator of the U.K.-Japan agreement, told the foreign policy think tank Chatham House in February that the U.K.-Japan agreement forms a “strong basis for broader bilateral relationship,” and said it was “a launchpad not only to reach the market of each other but rather to reach for the wider world in partnership.”

In trying to figure out what its post-Brexit role in the world was going to be, said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, Britain “looked to examples around the world that would provide tried and tested pathways.”

Japan was one of the countries the U.K. examined, she said, because it had “provided an interesting model for a confident, dynamic nation that had thoroughly adapted to the challenges of the 21st century.” Australia was another looked at quite closely, she added.

“Positive public opinion [in Britain] towards Japan and how it’s regarded as an international actor has increased by around 10 percentage points in the last year alone,” Gaston said. She thinks this is something the British government is well aware of.

“Japan is absolutely singled out alongside South Korea and Australia and other key partners in that region” in the U.K.’s new Integrated Review, she said. India is also given particular emphasis, along with the U.K.’s bid for partner status in ASEAN — a Southeast Asian economic group.

“It was critical that the U.K. formed a trade agreement with Japan as quickly as possible in order to have a ‘cornerstone’ deal that would lay the foundations for agreeing trade terms with the other CPTPP members,” said Rebecca Harding, chief executive of trade data firm Coriolis and co-author of “The Weaponization of Trade,” a book about the geopolitics of trade relations.

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Harding points out that the CPTPP nations account for only about 8 percent of U.K. trade. But the shift to the Indo-Pacific region should be viewed, she explains, as “the U.K. placing itself strategically alongside the U.S. and arguably the EU as well.”

“It’s less about the economics of trade and more about the geopolitics of trade,” she adds. Such an alliance has the impact of “isolating China” and shows that Britain is “increasingly seeing economic and technological power as the route to influence in a world where the competition isn’t military.”

Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region have been keen to pull the U.K. — a middle world power with influence on the U.S. — into their sphere of influence by deepening their trade ties. The U.K. started negotiating new deals with Australia and New Zealand, which are also CPTPP members, last year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea and India to attend the G7 summit in June, and plans to visit India next month.

But while Britain is looking to the rest of the world, it needs to keep in mind that its relationship with Japan and others hinges on good relations with the rest of the EU, businesses argue.

“We have a big interest in a successful implementation of the U.K.-EU agreement,” said Stephen Gomersall, Hitachi’s adviser to the CEO on the launch of a new report examining the future of the U.K.-Japan trade relationship last week.

“The export side of the [U.K.-EU] agreement is very important because there is still scope, not only in Japan, but in the Pacific, for increasing physical trade,” he said. Britain’s action on the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol has undoubtedly strained relations with Brussels, and Gomersall said recent moves had left trade between the two entities “slightly in the balance.”

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Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/japans-weight-looms-in-uk-indo-pacific-tilt-trade/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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