Defending the Indo-Pacific: The UK’s Cooperation with Japan and India

Chinese surveillance ships sail in waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in China in the East China Sea

Since the release of the Integrated Review in March 2021 outlining the United Kingdom’s strategy with regards to the shifting centre of geo-political tensions – the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific – London has ramped up defence cooperation with like-minded partners. Strengthening the UK’s outreach through security and defence planning, particularly by deepening engagement with regional powers, is essential to protect the UK’s interest in the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP), and prevent disruptions to the 12% of British trade that passes through these waters. Thus, it has prompted agreements such as AUKUS and the £25 million that Prime Minister Johnson has pledged to enhance maritime security with Australia in the Indo-Pacific.

While these headline-making agreements evidence the value the UK sees in cooperating with the US and Australia, what about their Quad partners, Japan and India? Where do these essential partners and strong naval powers fit into the UK’s defence outlook?

The UK and Japan: established security partners

Owing to their long-standing history as maritime powers allied to safeguard their interests against Chinese nationalism, the UK views Japan as one of its closest security partners. London and Tokyo share similar outlooks towards the Indo-Pacific which continue to benefit from their cooperation since then Japanese Prime Minister Abe coined the FOIP concept in 2016, and adopted a more global outlook on security issues. Thus, defence cooperation has deepened between Japan and the UK as they endeavour to uphold regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. An increasing number of exercises have taken place between their armed forces, particularly the Royal Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force.  The Carrier Strike Group (CSG 21) led by HSM Queen Elizabeth was a marker of renewed British naval power in Asia in 2021, and its visit to Japan was deemed a ‘cornerstone’ of its deployment and essential to enhance interoperability. The most significant development in UK-Japanese cooperation has been the commencement of negotiations on a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) which would facilitate the movement of troops and weapons, and simplify joint training between Japanese and British armed forces. Additionally, they share a Defence Logistics Treaty and commitments to increase cooperation for defence technology development and intelligence sharing. For example, Japan is known to have collaborated with the UK under the Five Eyes initiative on an ad-hoc basis over China and North Korea, and Johnson has indicated the possibility for its accession as a formal member.

UK-Japan security cooperation not only strengthens the UK’s presence in the Indo-Pacific, but also deepens ties. By connecting London to the region for a prolonged period and requiring it to uphold these security commitments, the agreement British participation in regional affairs. Furthermore, the prominent inclusion of Japan in the UK’s defence outreach adds credibility and reliability to the ‘tilt’ as a long-term strategy. London faces questions over the extent to which it can fully commit to the Indo-Pacific, considering its limited physical presence. Nonetheless, an aligned outlook and unified approach with Japan demonstrate determination to maintain regional stability. Both the UK and Japan are viewed as responsible global powers. In a poll carried out in Australia 2021, Japan and the UK were voted the next most trusted countries to act responsibly in the world after Australia. By partnering together, Japan enhances the image of the UK as a reliable security provider that will remain committed to the Indo-Pacific.

The UK and India: essential allies

India and the UK also have a similar view of the Indo-Pacific, and cooperation to protect the FOIP, and preserve the rules-based order have been identified as a ‘key pillar’ of the UK’s defence outlook. There is a clear convergence of their interests since both states are looking to expand their military presence in the Indian Ocean. India and the UK have had previous defence ties in the form of a Defence and International Security Partnership and a Defence Equipment Memorandum of Understanding but these made slow progress in deepening cooperation.

The changing geo-political environment has shifted priorities and the mutual gains to be achieved have spurred a ‘quantum leap’ in UK-India relations. The Modi-Johnson virtual summit in May 2021 resulted in the ‘2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations’ which puts strengthening their defence ties – especially maritime security – at the centre of the plan to secure freedom of navigation. This has already been set in motion, with the inaugural India-UK Maritime Dialogue taking place in October 2021. Moreover, the CSG 21 conducted a war game with the Indian Navy on its deployment, marking what British High Commissioner to India, Alex Ellis, felt was an important demonstration of the UK and India’s commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi and London are currently in the final stages of signing a significant military logistics agreement giving them reciprocal access to each other’s military bases, which could prove useful for the UK’s plans to deploy two Offshore Patrol Vessels to the region for five years. Securing this access demonstrates how India fits into the UK’s defence planning as an avenue to become a persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific.

India has been waiting for the UK to engage in the Indo-Pacific and it signals to other regional powers the difference the UK can make. Given that India has a strong impetus to protect its national interests with the immediate threat of China on its northern border, the fact that New Delhi reciprocates London’s aspirations for defence cooperation and sees the UK as a capable security partner, promotes a reliable image of the UK. Additionally, the UK’s enhanced maritime presence through involvement with both India and Japan will be conducive to engagement with other European powers also seeking to exert influence in the area, and the UK’s potential inclusion in multilateral groupings like the Quad, or Quad Plus. By expanding its military presence in the Indo-Pacific through partnerships with Japan and India, the UK hopes to become an indispensable ally for cooperation and solidify its long-term engagement in the region.

Trilateral next steps?

Trilateral engagement between the UK, Japan and India on security and defence, particularly maritime issues, also has potential. As members of the Quad, Japan and India are closely aligned in the Indo-Pacific and also engage in bilateral cooperation. In their 13th Japan-India Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue they highlighted the importance of ‘third countries’ in their cooperation, and are currently involved in trilaterals with partners such as Australia, Italy and the US to promote stability in the Indo-Pacific. The UK would be an ideal additional ‘third party’. The CSG 21 carrying out naval exercises with both Japan and India demonstrates the scope for trilateral maritime defence cooperation and should be considered by London as an option to further embed the UK in the Indo-Pacific.

Japan and India fit into the UK’s defence outreach as like-minded partners who enable the UK to strengthen its security engagement in the Indo-Pacific and help it build a reliable and persistent presence. Their cooperation is therefore important to dampen doubts over the sustainability of the UK’s ‘tilt’ given its commitments to European affairs and limitations on defence spending in the context of the pandemic. Japan and India’s involvement in the UK’s defence planning is both essential to deepen the UK’s ties to the region but also to build trust in the strategy. Nevertheless, the strategy remains only a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, and the ability for the UK to balance its attention is already being tested with the Russia-Ukraine War and may present a challenge for its cooperation with Japan and India.