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Japan and UK to expand joint military exercises

Both sides see benefit from free and open Indo-Pacific strategy

From left: Taro Kono, Boris Johnson, Itsunori Onodera and Gavin Williamson in London. (Pool photo)   © AP

LONDON -- Japan and the U.K. have agreed to expand the scope of their joint military drills amid rising tensions in Northeast Asia, with plans to conduct their first-ever army exercises together in Japan next year.

Both countries' defense and foreign ministers agreed to draw up a national security action plan that includes the joint army drills in a meeting Thursday.

The so-called two-plus-two talks were the third between the nations, and the first since January 2016. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and defense chief Itsunori Onodera visited with their respective British counterparts Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson.

In addition to the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force conducting exercises with Britain's army, the parties also agreed to hold joint naval drills in the Pacific region involving the U.K. frigates HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland. Exercises involving a newly built aircraft carrier patrolling the Pacific will be considered as well.

Global strategic partnership

The ministers issued a joint statement, underscoring their commitment to deepen their security cooperation as quasi allies. Their pursuit of a deeper security partnership is aimed as a check on North Korea's continued nuclear and missile development as well as China's intensified maritime expansion. The countries also agreed to seek maximum pressure on Pyongyang.

"We confirmed that we would never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea," Kono told a news conference after the meeting.

Both sides "agreed to maximize pressure [on North Korea] while pushing China and Russia for cooperation," said Onodera.

"The best way forward now is to intensify the economic pressure on North Korea, and the people who can really do that are the Chinese, and that is where our international efforts are focused," Johnson said, echoing the Japanese ministers.

With its departure from the European Union pending, Britain looks to avoid isolation by getting involved in Asia. London and Tokyo both want to get U.S. President Donald Trump on board in areas of security and free trade. Japan seeks to use its alliance with the U.S. to broaden its defense network together with countries positioned as semi-allies, including the U.K. and Australia.

The parties also aligned on pursuing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, a strategy shared by the U.S. and Japan to build an international order in the region based on the rule of law and market economies. The target region overlaps with areas that the U.K. once held as colonies.

This Indo-Pacific strategy includes a measure of cooperation on China's massive Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to create an economic bloc via widespread infrastructure building. Such cooperation benefits British efforts to deepen economic ties with Asia.

Age of Discovery

The U.K. hosted the meeting in Greenwich, a harbor district through which many merchant ships and warships passed in the Age of Discovery beginning in the 15th century. The British side noted that the Indo-Pacific strategy shared a great affinity with that age.

But the British military unlikely to find itself operating jointly with the Japanese in an actual war, and this quasi-ally status is not guaranteed to last. Unlike Prime Minister Theresa May, predecessor David Cameron's administration drew close to China because of economic concerns. Britain's relationship with China likely will change with successive leaders.

Before the two-plus-two talks, Kono and Johnson agreed to strengthen economic relations as Britain moves toward its departure from the EU, a veiled reference to negotiations on a Tokyo-London free trade agreement. Until Brexit formally takes place, negotiations will occur via channels including a trade and investment task force the countries agreed to establish during August summit meetings.

The U.K. has entered a two-year negotiation period with the EU before the March 2019 deadline. The country cannot enter economic negotiations with a third party during that period, so talks are on an unofficial basis.

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