Alok Sharma on UK-Japan international cooperation

Minister for Asia and the Pacific Alok Sharma spoke at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Tokyo, on international cooperation between the UK and Japan

Alok Sharma MP

Thank you for those kind words and thank you for hosting me today. It is a great pleasure to be here and to address the Sasakawa Foundation – it is an important contributor to research on the key issues affecting Japan and the region. But let me start by commenting on recent developments in the UK.

Following the EU Referendum on 23 June, we have seen some major political changes. We have a new Prime Minister, and a new set of Ministers – I’m one of them.

It was the biggest democratic exercise we had undertaken in a generation. We gave the people a choice to remain a member of the EU or to leave. I personally campaigned to remain in the EU but the British people made a different choice: to leave the European Union.

It was a surprise to many of us, and there was some shock locally and internationally at the result because it was unexpected.

But it has become clear that our economy was well prepared and resilient. And in my meetings with businesses and foreign governments over the past two months I have been struck by their pragmatism, as they begin to grasp opportunities Brexit will bring for bilateral trade and investment in the UK.

I know some concerns have been expressed, here in Japan, about what might change when we leave the EU, and what the effect might be on UK-Japan cooperation.

UK commitment to Japan

That cooperation has been strengthening in recent years. It now covers a huge range of activity, from trade and investment, through research and innovation to security and defence. Prime Minister Theresa May is determined to strengthen our cooperation still further. Her commitment to the relationship with Japan is clear. She has already met Prime Minister Abe twice since her appointment.

I am the fourth Minister in Prime Minister May’s Government to visit Japan in the past two months. Japan matters very much to the British Government and to the British People.

Of course there will be changes in some areas following our departure from the EU, and I will address concerns about those in a moment. However, what I really want to focus on today are the many other areas where we cooperate and have the opportunity to do even more together in the future.

UK global and regional commitment

But first I want to set the referendum vote into context. The British people voted to leave the EU but not to leave Europe. The European Union is only one element of the UK’s broad array of international commitments. All the others remain unchanged.

That means we remain one of the world’s leading promoters and defenders of the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. We are a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We are the 6th largest financial contributor to UN Peacekeeping. We are the 2nd largest contributor to NATO. We are one of the world’s biggest economies and a leading member of the G7.

We are a leading voice in the Commonwealth and an active partner in the G20.

After Brexit, as before, we remain an outward-facing sovereign nation, and a force for good in the world. We will continue to work tirelessly to promote and defend global peace, security and prosperity, and the Rules Based International System.

We have always been and continue to be a globally focused nation. We are Global Britain.

UK-Asia Pacific relationship

When it comes to Asia Pacific, We will continue to work tirelessly in the region too. We’ve had relationships in this region for more than four centuries. Through our strong ties with Commonwealth countries.

And our historic links with Hong Kong, where the common law system and separation of powers are an essential British legacy.

In recent years we have invested significantly in new partnerships in Asia. Including with the emerging powers of ASEAN, where we now have an Ambassador or High Commissioner in every single one of the ten capitals.

Of course trade matters to the UK. We have always been a globally trading nation.

But just as important is our co-operation with partners on defence. Counter-terrorism. Counter-extremism. Peace-keeping. The international rule of law. And human rights.

That is why we have been steadily upgrading our defence cooperation with Japan, which I will talk about more in a moment. It’s why we continue to work with Indonesia and Malaysia to counter the threats of extremism and terrorism. And it’s why we have supported domestic peace processes in South-East Asia, in the southern Philippines and in Burma, drawing on our successful experience of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.

It’s also why we have consistently spoken up for democracy in Burma and Thailand, highlighted human rights abuses in the region, from Vietnam to China, and championed the rules-based trade and investment regime across the continent.


As the only western member of the P5 countries to have an embassy in Pyongyang, we take a close interest in the threat to international peace and security posed by North Korea.

We co-sponsored Security Council Resolution 2270. Our Foreign Secretary publicly condemned the most recent North Korean nuclear test earlier this month.

And I summoned the North Korean Ambassador to the Foreign Office to deliver a very strong message from the British Government. The North Korean regime’s actions, including recent missile and nuclear tests, are of global concern. We will continue to work with Japan, South Korea, the United States and other partners to ensure a consistent, robust response from the international community, including at the United Nations.

Nor will we turn a blind eye to North Korea’s human rights abuses, from the cruel abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s, to the deliberate destitution of its people today.

Events in the last few weeks have provided further evidence of the regime’s total disregard for the basic human rights of its people. While the regime conducted their nuclear test its people were suffering from devastating floods. The regime’s restrictions on information and access hampered efforts by humanitarian groups to provide assistance or even to find out the full scale of the tragedy.

So, as with Japan, our engagement with Asia-Pacific is underpinned at every level by our support for fundamental global values, including human rights, democracy and respect for the rules-based international order.

We reject the proposition that Asia should operate according to a different set of rules or values to the rest of the global system. 

South China Seas

The South China Sea is a case in point. Britain does not take a position on the individual sovereignty claims there. But we do take a view on how they are pursued, which must be in accordance with international law and internationally established norms of behaviour.

The UK opposes any actions which are likely to increase tensions in the South China Sea, including militarisation. We urge all parties to exercise restraint. To pursue the settlement of disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, including the recent and binding decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS. And to uphold freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.

UK-China policy

These are points that we make to China, just as we do to other Asian countries. And we are able to do so because we are building a comprehensive global partnership with China, as the Prime Minister Theresa May has recently reaffirmed during her attendance at the G20 meetings in Hangzhou.

We will continue to engage with China on bilateral economic relations – and have recently reconfirmed Chinese investment in our new generation of civil nuclear power stations.

And because it is a global partnership, we will continue to build co-operation with China to address the most pressing challenges facing the international community today: climate change, violent extremism, humanitarian crises, anti microbial resistance, nuclear proliferation. And where we disagree, we will continue to say so, including on human rights.

UK-Japan security cooperation

And now I want to focus on the special relationship between our two great countries, Japan and Britain. As I suggested earlier, one of the most important elements of our bilateral co-operation is our defence and security partnership.

As our most recent Strategic Defence and Security Review stated publicly, Japan is the UK’s closest security partner in Asia. We share the same objectives and cooperate together in many areas - in this region, and further afield. We consider Japan a great asset to the UN Security Council and we continue to support reform that would see Japan become a permanent member.

Our security cooperation is broad-ranging. We work together to frame the international response to North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, including on a new UN Security Council resolution, collaborate on counter terrorism and cyber security, and co-operate on Special Forces training and land-mine counter measures in the Gulf.

International security cooperation

Last year, we began a range of joint capacity building projects in South East Asia. This included running our very first joint seminar to ASEAN member states on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as working together to counter violent extremism in Indonesia.

This year, we expanded our joint work into Africa – from de-mining in Angola to tackling terrorism in Tunisia. We are also working together in Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal to promote the involvement of women in post-conflict reconciliation. This international cooperation is an exciting new aspect of our relationship and an area we hope will continue to grow.

Security cooperation in Japan

There is plenty of scope to do more together in Japan too, for example on Non-combatant Evacuation Operations and on emergency response. In particular we would be willing to share our experience of the London Olympics with the organisers of Tokyo 2020.

We are already our experiences about the Rugby World Cup, ahead of Japan’s hosting in 2019. Last year at the World Cup in England, Japan’s “Brave Blossoms” stunned the world with their opening victory over a top-ranked South African team. We hope Japanese rugby will continue to grow in stature and popularity ahead of 2019.

Defence cooperation

In the field of defence we are also working ever more closely together. Over the coming months you will see Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jets exercising with their Japanese counterparts here in Japan. This will be the very first joint military exercise in Japan with a country other than the US. It will be a fantastic opportunity for our air forces to work together and build the personal links, mutual trust and understanding that help to underpin our security.

We are also working together on important joint defence research – from developing specialised protective clothing, to the JNAAM high capability missile project.

Prosperity and security

Of course the UK and Japan also share the view that prosperity and security are closely linked. We understand that our citizens can only be safe if we tackle the root causes of insecurity around the world.

That is why I am proud that the UK is committed to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on development assistance and 2% of Gross Domestic Product on defence. We are still the only OECD country to do so.

Other cooperation

And our cooperation also includes vital medical research. Japanese and British researchers are working together to tackle Anti-Microbial Resistance.

We both recognise the serious threat it poses - to developed and developing countries alike. It is a threat that the international community must address. We welcome Japan’s leadership on the issue under their G7 Presidency.

As well as our security and research and development collaboration, we are also working together on commercial projects in the region. This year, these have ranged from supporting city planning in Burma and investment in Laos, to high speed rail in Malaysia.

Cultural exchange is also an incredibly important part of our bilateral relationship. Some of you may follow our Ambassador’s twitter account, where he releases a regular stream of “Twaiku” – twitter Haiku poems in Japanese! In return Japan has given the UK “Babymetal” – who recently secured the highest ever UK chart ranking by a Japanese band.

The important relationship between the Royal Family and the Imperial Household is a unique aspect of the close and very special ties between our people. I’m particularly pleased that Prince William Park in Fukushima Prefecture, which Prince William visited last February as part of his tour of areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, has now opened.

We’re proud that the UK is increasingly a destination of choice in the field of education. Today there are around 15,000 Japanese students studying in the UK. It is only 154 years since the very first Japanese students to study in the UK defied the Shogunate to travel to our shores – we hope they will be remembered next year, as Japan prepares to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration.

To me it is clear that UK-Japan cooperation is flourishing. And that there is plenty of scope for our two countries to do even more together.

Trade and investment

I will conclude shortly to allow time for questions, but before I do, let me just say a few words about our trade and investment relationship.

I know this is an area where Japan has expressed views about the possible impact of Brexit, and I would like to share with you what I have been saying – and what all my Ministerial colleagues have also been saying - to Japanese business leaders, both here and in London.

We place great importance on our trade and investment relationship with Japan. We want that relationship to remain as strong as possible. We recognise Japanese investors’ concerns and we are listening to them.

But we are also sharing with them our vision for the future and the many opportunities we see for the UK and Japan.

I am confident about the future. I am confident about the fundamental strength and attractiveness of the British economy; I am pleased that we continue to have a highly skilled workforce that embraces innovation. Most of all, I know that Britain is at heart a trading nation, with a long track record of engagement and openness and we will make Brexit a great opportunity for business and trade. Therein lies the opportunity for the UK and for Japan as we dedicate more time and energy to exploring new areas for collaboration.

I have also been making clear our desire to become the global leader in free trade, as Prime Minister May set out at the G20 Summit. And assuring Japanese government and businesses that we will continue to be a strong advocate for the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan while we remain a member of the EU. We hope it will be concluded by the end of the year.

And finally, in these meetings I am also stressing our appetite to strengthen and deepen cooperation across the full range of our bilateral relationship into the future – in the areas I mentioned earlier.


I will end by saying this. The UK is leaving the EU. That means change in some areas. But our cooperation in Japan covers a broad range of fields which are unaffected by the UK’s position in Europe. We value greatly this cooperation. We value greatly our special relationship. And we see opportunities to take it further, in ways that will benefit both our countries.

With energy and in great friendship and co-operation, let’s seize those opportunities together.

Thank you.

Published 30 September 2016