The UK and Japan have wound up their first military exercise in three years as commanders warn of “sharp destabilisation” in the security environment caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an increasingly assertive China.
The nine-day training operation to strengthen island defence, dubbed “Vigilant Isles 22”, is the latest sign of deepening defence ties between the two US allies in the Indo-Pacific.
Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force and the British army practised taking back an island seized by enemy forces in exercises at a military camp in Gunma, central Japan, and an air-to-ground range in Aomori in the north.
While Japanese and UK officials said the exercise did not target a specific country or island, the training took place as tensions mounted over Taiwan, particularly after China conducted large-scale military drills to protest US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.
The Pentagon said in a report on Tuesday that even before the visit, China had conducted increasingly frequent “island-seizure” exercises in 2021.
Following a closing ceremony on Wednesday, Lieutenant General Tadao Maeda, commanding general, stressed that “multinational defence co-operation” was necessary to address tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and the unpredictability caused by the war in Ukraine.
“We recognise that there is a whole new level of uncertainty and increasing complexity in the current world situation,” he said.
Citing North Korea’s nuclear programme and attempts by some countries in the region to change the status quo by force — a phrase Japan often uses to refer to China — Maeda added: “This is leading to a sharp destabilisation worldwide.”
Lieutenant General Ralph Wooddisse, commander field army, said that “exercises such as these contribute to our combined efforts to see a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The closer ties between the UK and Japan come as British prime minister Rishi Sunak warns the “golden era” of UK relations with China is over.
The UK and Japan are also working on a deal to develop a next-generation fighter jet with Italy, which if closed would mark the first time Tokyo has chosen non-US partners for such an important military programme.
In December, the two countries are expected to sign a defence pact called the Reciprocal Access Agreement to make joint exercises and logistical co-operation between the nations easier.
The SDF has also strengthened military drills with other European countries, with Japanese and German air forces conducting their first joint exercise in Japan in September.
This week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered his cabinet to find the funding to increase Japan’s defence spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027, setting a numerical target for the first time.
The country plans to boost its defence budget by roughly 11 per cent to more than ¥6tn ($43bn) for the year to March 2024. It is also considering developing counter-strike capabilities against enemy bases and wants domestically made cruise missiles with a range that can strike targets in China.