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Amid Trump concerns, Japan could learn from US-UK alliance

Intelligence-sharing key to building unshakable relationship

LONDON -- On Nov. 22 at the Palace of Westminster on the River Thames, I observed a parliamentary session on foreign affairs. Many lawmakers expressed concern about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, asking the government how it intends to deal with people who openly make racist comments. About half an hour into the session, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stood and was bombarded with questions from those worried about future relations between the U.K. and the U.S.

The two countries share the same Anglo-Saxon roots. Since World War II, they have acted in step with each other in many wars and boasted the world's strongest alliance. Trump, however, does not see the special relationship as being as important as his predecessors did, and that is unnerving to some in the British government.

Malcolm Chalmers, an influential strategist and deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a government think tank, calls for a reassessment of the alliance.

He said: "If President Trump is going to be 'putting America first,' the U.K. government also needs, if necessary, to put Britain first. That means thinking a bit more about our ability to act more independently, including with military force. We need to have options for working militarily by ourselves without American support, and we need to be thinking about cooperating with our European allies."

Chalmers published a commentary in mid-November making the same argument.

Perhaps, though, Japan will be dealt a more serious blow by Trump's presidency than the U.K. During the campaign, Trump hinted at the possibility of withdrawing U.S. forces stationed in Japan if elected president.

How should Japan deal with a country led by such a man? A close look at the U.K. offers some clues, and the answer is: Deepen the give-and-take relationship to make it unshakable. 

Overt and covert cooperation

One key to building such a relationship between the U.K. and the U.S., according to several British government officials, is sharing secret intelligence.

About a 20-minute walk from Westminster there is a building surrounded by tall iron fences. Though little is known about what goes on inside the building, the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, the spy agency famously featured in the James Bond films, has sophisticated human-based intelligence-gathering skills. It often obtains information even the U.S. cannot access and supplies it to Britain's close ally. 

According to a British intelligence expert with a deep understanding of the institution, six MI6 agents covertly operated in Iraq just before the start of the Iraq War in 2003, while the U.S. mostly relied on satellites and radio waves to gather information. The agents continued to offer valuable information to both the British and American governments, the expert said.

Knowing this, it is likely that Trump would seek to strengthen America's alliance with the U.K. 

Former MI6 Deputy Chief Nigel Inkster

Nigel Inkster, an intelligence operations expert who served as deputy chief at MI6 and currently works for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: "We have strong institutional linkages with the U.S. when it comes to intelligence. This intelligence relationship will be much more sustainable through fluctuation caused by the domestic political development.

"Mr. Trump seems to possess some Anglophiliac instinct, and that may help to strengthen U.K.-U.S. intelligence cooperation. The prospect of the Five Eyes relationship can be seen as useful and desirable, and may be greater than has been the case with the Obama administration."

It is not just about intelligence gathering, though. The U.K. is also covertly assisting the U.S. in operations in the Middle East and Africa through its own diplomatic channels, a veteran diplomat said.

Japan, in contrast, has maintained an alliance with the U.S. based on give and take -- it provides land for U.S. forces that ensures American protection in return. This relationship is important for stability in Asia, given that China and Russia have increasingly been acting provocatively. 

But if the U.S. becomes weary of war and reluctant to maintain overseas bases, as Trump has suggested, Japan's host-nation status could become less important to Washington. A mutually uneven alliance does not last long. Japan should seize Trump's ascendance as an opportunity to consider this thoroughly.

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