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When Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, sits down with Theresa May on Friday, he has the opportunity to form the most significant Anglo-Japanese partnership since the alliance of the early 20th century. Mr Abe not only sees great affinity between his island nation and the United Kingdom, in particular as democratic standard bearers in their respective regions, but he knows that he and Mrs May are perhaps the two closest allies of President Trump. If the two premiers are bold, they may even be able to forge a trilateral tie with Washington that reshapes global trade and politics.
There are good reasons why Mr Abe and Mrs May will find strong common ground. Rising like a phoenix from his first, failed premiership in 2006-07, Mr Abe has become the most powerful and consequential Japanese leader since the Seventies. He has become an electoral master, and has thrust through a raft of security reforms that have allowed Japan to play a larger role in Asia. While his economic reforms continue to under-perform, there remains no real alternative to his vision for a modestly liberated Japanese economy. Most significantly, he has offered Japan as the “un-China” to a region increasingly concerned about Beijing’s growing influence and assertiveness.
Similarly, Mrs May has emerged as a power in her own right, skillfully guiding Brexit through Parliament and now poised to win a major mandate at the polls. Her unapologetic stance on Brexit, buoyed by the strong British economy, has sparked comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, and has begun defining the United Kingdom’s global future separate from the European Union.
The two leaders should first announce the beginning of negotiations over a Japan-UK free trade agreement, which both need to keep their economies humming. Tokyo is reeling from Mr Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and London needs to rack up some quick trade pacts to soften the blow of leaving the EU. Linking the world’s third and fifth largest economies would send a strong signal that free trade is not dead.
Then they should commit to providing joint public goods to combat the growing instability around the globe. The Royal Navy and Japanese Coast Guard could work with developing nations in Asia, for example, to build up their maritime security capabilities.
The two could consider other maritime security activities that would send a message to Beijing about their concern for freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas, something London has talked about recently. Concluding a military information sharing deal would help Tokyo build up its intelligence services, and also be a step towards bringing Japan into the “five eyes” intelligence community.
Just as importantly, London and Tokyo should commit to a new democracy promotion agenda. Mrs May and Mr Abe can set up a joint initiative to identify nations at risk of backsliding on democracy, as well as those struggling to liberalise, and establish programmes designed to encourage and educate about civil-military relations, rule of law, press and civil freedoms, grassroots organisations, gender equality and the like. The two nations could commit to annual democracy summits alternating between their respective capitals.
A robust Anglo-Japanese global relationship may further encourage Mr Trump’s growing internationalist tendencies. He has made it clear that his goal is to get other nations to do more to uphold global stability. In finding the lead coming from Great Britain and Japan, the President may feel his conditions for greater global engagement have been met. He has also shown his willingness to use limited force in Syria, and has ordered the US military to try to intimidate North Korea. The initiatives outlined above can round out Mr Trump’s foreign policy, even on free trade, where he has indicated he is more comfortable with bilateral trade agreements than multinational pacts.
Such a trilateral approach, spearheaded by London and Tokyo, may wind up finding just the comfort zone America’s new president needs not merely to engage with the world, but to help to reshape it.
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