Japan and the UK are set to sign a major defence pact in December that will enable the countries to enhance co-operation with the US in the Indo-Pacific and boost deterrence against the rising threat from China.
The countries will sign a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), according to two people familiar with the talks. It will follow a similar deal Japan signed with Australia in January and is another sign of Tokyo forging deeper defence ties with allies and partners to prepare for the possibility of a war with China over Taiwan.
The pact will make joint exercises and logistics co-operation between the nations easier. It will also set a legal framework to simplify cumbersome bureaucratic red tape for the entry of troops into each other’s countries.
“A reciprocal access agreement between Japan and the UK would make it easier for the two sides to exercise and operate together, which will allow British armed forces to deploy and train more easily in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Zack Cooper, an Asia security expert at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank.
“For decades, alliances in Asia have been linked together via the US in what is described as a hub-and-spokes model. Now some US allies, including Japan, the UK and Australia, are serving as hubs themselves.”
The nations agreed to start talks on the RAA in May when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met his then UK counterpart Boris Johnson in London.
The agreement would be another illustration of deepening ties between Japan and the UK. In December, the two countries are expected to unveil the details of a partnership to co-develop their next fighter aircraft.
“This is likely a reaction both to growing pressure from China, but also increasing concern about the reliability of the US,” added Cooper.
While President Joe Biden has reinvigorated US alliances, Japan became nervous during the previous administration when then President Donald Trump on several occasions threatened to withdraw US troops from Japan.
Christopher Johnstone, a former Pentagon official, said the RAA would be an “important step” and highlight Japan’s efforts to diversify security ties with US allies and partners. But he said the practical impact would be small since Japan has less military interaction with the UK than with Australia.
Japan is also in the preliminary stages of considering a similar pact with the Philippines, which Johnstone said would be much more significant.
“An RAA between Japan and the Philippines would be far more consequential strategically,” said Johnstone, who is now at the CSIS think-tank. “It will probably take time to negotiate, but the prospect of deeper defence co-operation between Tokyo and Manila would send a message to China that the web of US alliances in the region is tightening.”
The US has also been trying to expand access to bases in the Philippines, which would be a strategically important location in the event of war over Taiwan.
US military officials welcome Japan’s push to sign reciprocal access deals because they make it easier for Japanese and American allies to conduct joint training and exercises, and facilitate efforts to overcome logistical hurdles. Washington wants to increase military co-operation and interoperability with allies in ways that could prove critical in the case of a war with China.
Over the past two years, the US and Japan have stepped up efforts to prepare for a possible conflict with China over Taiwan, including holding serious war games and more regular joint military exercises.
Japan is also in advanced talks with the US to acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles which would allow it to strike targets in eastern China, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
In a statement following a meeting between US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi in Germany on Thursday, the state department said the two diplomats discussed the “imperative of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
Separately, top White House officials held sensitive talks in London in April about the role the UK could play in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.
The people familiar with the UK-Japan RAA talks cautioned that the final agreement on the pact and co-operation on fighter jets are contingent on political developments in the UK, where Rishi Sunak recently became the third prime minister in two months.
The Japanese prime minister’s office referred inquiries to the ministry of defence which could not be reached for comment. A UK defence ministry spokesperson said the talks were “progressing positively” but added that it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the signing of the RAA at this time.
additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone