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International relations

UK carrier to hold naval drills with Japan in Asian waters

As China increases its global presence, Tokyo and London pledge stronger ties

The HMS Queen Elizabeth entered service in 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Navy)

TOKYO/LONDON -- Japan and the U.K. will hold joint exercises during a British aircraft carrier group's deployment to Asian waters this year, the countries agreed Wednesday.

In the first two-plus-two meeting between the countries since December 2017, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi spoke with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace via videoconference.

"The four ministers agreed that Japan and the U.K. are each other’s closest security partners in Asia and Europe respectively, with shared values and common strategic interests," the British side said in an announcement.

The dialogue comes as London seeks to strengthen ties in Asia after it formally left the European Union last month. For Tokyo, it offers an opportunity to draw greater European interest in concerns like the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan as China continues to strengthen its presence in the region.

The Japanese side welcomed the British decision to deploy the carrier group led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth as early as this spring to the Indo-Pacific as a sign of its greater commitment to the region.

"We will take security and defense cooperation between Japan and the U.K. to a higher level," Motegi said.

Wallace said: "The most significant Royal Navy deployment in a generation demonstrates the U.K.’s commitment to working with our partners in the region to uphold the rules-based international system and promote our shared security and prosperity."

Japan's Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi sits next to Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi as he waves towards Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defence Minister Ben Wallace (not pictured) at the start of a video conference at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo.   © Reuters

The two countries affirmed their opposition against unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China seas. They expressed concern over China's coast guard law, which turned the body into a quasi-military outfit, as well as over human rights in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uighur population.

Taiwan and the coup in Myanmar were also discussed.

Japan and the U.K. have forged a deeper relationship through joint drills and information gathering, including on North Korean vessels operating illegally. The countries are also working on next-generation fighters, which could use new technology developed jointly.

Since leaving the EU, the U.K. has increased its involvement in Asia to maintain and strengthen its influence in the international community. The country also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact also known as TPP-11.

The moves, including the carrier group deployment, are also driven partly by concerns of a rising China in the region. Ties between the U.K. and China have deteriorated in recent months over Beijing's initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its crackdown in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, right, and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace hold a bilateral meeting with Japanese counterparts in 10 Downing Street. (Photo courtesy of No. 10 Downing Street)

Both British secretaries reaffirmed the U.K.’s "long-term commitment" to working closely with Japan to uphold the security of the Indo-Pacific, a press release said.

As part of this push, Japan and the U.K. agreed to hold joint drills during the carrier group's time in Asia. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces is expected to participate. U.S. Marine F-35B fighter jets will also accompany the HMS Queen Elizabeth during deployment.

Japan had hoped the Wednesday meeting would bolster British concerns over the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan. Tokyo believes these areas are of lower priority to the U.K. compared with Hong Kong and the South China Sea, which is home to former British colonies such as Malaysia and Singapore.

China is expected to increase maritime activity around the Japanese-administered Senkakus, which are claimed by China as the Diaoyu. Chinese military jets are repeatedly flying through Taiwan's air defense identification zone as well.

Japan is seeking support from the U.S. as well as Europe on the Senkakus, concerned that bilateral dialogue with China may not be enough to resolve the issue. A potential clash over Taiwan is another major national security concern, given the island's proximity to Japan.

An F-35B fighter jet is prepared for flight on the deck of the HMS Elizabeth. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Navy)

Article 9 of Japan's constitution limits Japan's use of force, though the country is permitted to exercise its right to collective self-defense. Tokyo hopes that greater U.S. and European interest in Asia would help deter provocative moves by China.

"The U.K. carrier deployment will send a strong message to China politically and militarily," said Keio University assistant professor Michito Tsuruoka. "But some now say Japan is on the back foot against Chinese pushback. Japan's resolve is being challenged."

Japan and the U.K. could deepen their cooperation through multilateral frameworks as well. Several British media outlets have reported that the U.K. could join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, a strategic forum between Japan, the U.S., Australia and India designed to counter China's clout in the Indo-Pacific.

Some in the U.K. also want to include Japan in Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group that consists of the U.K., the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Beyond the U.K., other European countries like Germany and France are also responding to China's rise. Germany is considering sending a naval frigate to Japan, while France has actively sent naval vessels to the Indo-Pacific.

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