Viscount Trenchard: Why Japan’s new Prime Minister is good news for the UK

24 Oct

Viscount Trenchard is a Conservative peer and Vice Chairman of the British-Japanese Parliamentary Group

Last month, Yoshihide Suga replaced Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Suga was Abe’s right hand man as Chief Cabinet Secretary, a political figure unfamiliar to many internationally, and as such regarded as a ‘continuity’ Prime Minister.

If true, this is good news for Britain, since under Abe, Anglo-Japanese relations improved steadily. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Britain’s first post-Brexit trade deal was struck with Japan. As a new Policy Exchange report by Alessio Patalano shows, Abe’s political legacy has set the ideal conditions for our two countries to work more closely together on matters ranging from trade to defence.

I remember my first meeting with Abe, in 1989, at what we might call a ‘society wedding’ in Fukuoka, Japan, at which he had to sit next to me for some four hours. At the time he was secretary to his father, Shintaro Abe, a former Foreign Minister. I had no premonition at the time of the huge contribution that he would make to the standing of Japan in international organisations, such as the G7 and G20. In this achievement, and in strengthening the role of the Prime Minister’s office, Abe was greatly assisted by Suga –someone who is free of dynastic and factional affiliations.

This is why I think it would be a mistake to consider Suga as simply a continuity or caretaker Prime Minister. Suga is a man of relatively modest origins with strong determination. In Japan, he is known for his work ethic. He frequently chairs meetings at weekends and has a robust fitness routine – 200 sit-ups and a 40-minute walk every day. He is well-respected by all at the Japanese Cabinet Office and is likely to use the coming months to strengthen his leadership of the party. It is no coincidence, for example, that Taro Kono, a rising star in Japan with prior experience as Foreign and Defence Minister, was nominated as the new Administrative Reform Minister.

What does a Suga administration mean for Britain? During Abe’s tenure, the two governments established a direct hotline, and learned to share information and compare notes on critical international issues. Today, Kono maintains strong ties in the British political landscape, although Toshimitsu Motegi, the Foreign Minister, is also an important figure, given his experience in negotiating the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

Suga knows that in Britain, Japan has a very important partner in trade, in promoting the rule of law, and in supporting international stability, and is regarded as a key partner in the country’s increased involvement in the Indo-Pacific region.

This is why a Suga cabinet is a genuine opportunity for Britain. In a post-Brexit landscape, the UK should take advantage of the recent bilateral deal and proactively pursue joining the CPTPP. Joining this vast free trade area at a time in which its modus operandi is still being developed will allow the UK to contribute to shape – together with Japan and other key actors – its potential. As the United States may review its current position on the agreement in the future, a timely British application would reap early benefits in terms of influence.

Similarly, the British Government should make it a priority to reach out to Japan to engage in a detailed conversation about the future of the Horizon nuclear power project – especially in light of recent concerns about the involvement of the Chinese state-backed CGN in Britain’s nuclear sector. The ‘levelling-up’ agenda of the British government led by Boris Johnson will appeal to Suga, a self-made man from Akita Prefecture in the north of Japan.

On matters of foreign and security policy, the Suga administration offers no less of an opportunity for Britain. Japan has been leading together with our closest security partners, notably the United States and the Australia, the conversation about why we are now living through an Indo-Pacific century. The management of ocean resources and environmental stability, of critical sea-lanes linking Europe to Northeast Asia, all give this region a maritime core that plays to Britain’s traditional role as custodian of the international maritime order. A partnership with Japan should be pursued with the understanding that the development of future capabilities will benefit from growing interoperability and integration.

This would not be a first, rather a rediscovery. The Japanese fleet that vanquished the Russian Baltic Fleet in 1905 was built – by and large – in Britain. Today, whether in the context of solid support ships, or next generation fighters, Britain and Japan stand to gain from working together in developing the ideas, actions, and tools of security.

By the same token, Britain represents a unique partner for a Suga administration that wishes to build upon the Abe legacy. On immediate priorities for the Japanese Government, London remains an important reference in the challenge of hosting the Olympic Games, and Britain continues to be a leading player both in the race to obtain a viable Covid-19 vaccine and in science and technology more broadly. But in trade and defence too there are many areas where both countries should continue to learn from each other and work together.