ANDREW NEIL: Our new £18billion deal with Japan gives us a vital role in curbing China

How the world turns. Eight decades ago, Britain and her allies were fighting a brutal war in Asia and the Pacific against Imperial Japan, in which our troops were subjected to atrocities far worse than anything we were experiencing in the fight against Nazi Germany.

I knew many of my father’s generation who’d fought in World War II and came, over time, to accept reconciliation with Germany. But they could never forgive Japan, such were the barbarities they’d seen or suffered.

Yet today Japan is a crucial ally in the defence of democracy and the battle against aggressive dictatorships.

‘Relations between Britain and Japan have never been closer or more important,’ a senior Downing Street adviser said to me this week. ‘And they are set to become even closer and more important still. We see Japan as a crucial partner for post-Brexit Britain in the 21st century. They think the same of us. This is a friendship which is flourishing.’

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should use his trip to Japan for this weekend’s G7 summit of the world’s biggest market economies to agree a major new Anglo-Japanese agreement with his opposite number, Fumio Kishida.

The G7 leaders pose for a group photo as they visit the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island in Hatsukaichi, western Japan on Friday

It’s been dubbed the ‘Hiroshima Accord’ because it was signed in Hiroshima, Kishida’s hometown and one of two cities on which America dropped an atomic bomb (the other was Nagasaki) 78 years ago to force Japan to surrender.

It is not without significance, as an illustration of the closer relationship between the two countries, that Sunak is the first British PM to visit Hiroshima, a site, within living memory, of unimaginable devastation.

The Accord will promote greater military cooperation, upping British participation in joint training exercises with Japan to protect supply chains and keep our economies going should China attempt to blockade Taiwan and disrupt global trade in the process.

It also heralds far greater co-operation in research and development, trade, science and cyberwarfare, where Britain has much to offer Japan, and will result in £18 billion of new Japanese investment in the UK covering everything from clean energy to the life sciences and affordable housing.

Crucially, it’s designed to help keep up the supply of microchips should China try to cut them off. These chips are vital to pretty much every part of a modern economy: phones, home appliances, robotics, cars, planes and advanced weapon systems all rely on them. A conflict in the South China Sea would undermine the entire global economy.

Japan is already the fifth-biggest foreign investor in the UK with £92 billion invested. On some official projections it could soon be second only to the United States.

The Accord talks about a ‘global strategic partnership’ and designates the two countries ‘closest security partners’ in Europe and Asia, which means Japan regards Britain as its most important European ally and Britain sees Japan as its most important Asian ally.

All this is an irrefutable and robust refutation of those who claimed Brexit would leave Britain adrift and friendless in the world, without any clear purpose.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that Brexit has been a success so far. It is increasingly clear that those who argued most passionately for it had no idea what to do with it if it ever happened. But it is nonsense to claim it has left us alone and pointless.

We remain best friends with the world’s biggest economy, America, with unmatched security, intelligence and economic ties. What’s not to like about becoming best mates with the world’s third-biggest economy, Japan, which occupies a pivotal position in the Pacific Rim, where the most important geopolitics of the 21st century will play out?

ANDREW NEIL: The deal Sunak struck in Hiroshima got decent enough coverage back in Blighty largely because he was travelling with a big UK press pack for the G7 summit

ANDREW NEIL: The deal Sunak struck in Hiroshima got decent enough coverage back in Blighty largely because he was travelling with a big UK press pack for the G7 summit

The naysayers, of course, will point out that Japan is not the economic powerhouse it once was, and it is true that ever since its property and stock markets imploded over 30 years ago, the Japanese economy has somewhat stagnated. But the German economy is not what it was either, yet we still rightly wish to retain close diplomatic, military and economic ties with Berlin.

Japan is still an economic powerhouse with a GDP of almost $5 trillion (£4 trillion), 40 per cent bigger than ours and bested only by the world’s two superpowers, America and China.

It is a prosperous and successful society by any measure — and the worst of its economic troubles may be over.

Its benchmark stock market index (the Nikkei 225) just this week hit its highest level since 1990 when it started a decades-long sojourn in the doldrums. Growth this year has been stronger than expected and a weak yen has bolstered its fabled export industries. Japan’s economy may have been down but it’s very far from being out.

The deal Sunak struck in Hiroshima got decent enough coverage back in Blighty largely because he was travelling with a big UK press pack for the G7 summit. But the true depth and extent of Anglo-Japanese relations remains largely unappreciated. The Hiroshima Accord comes fast on the back of a previous military pact agreed only in January, which facilitates the rapid deployment of military aid in both directions during times of crisis.

Put simply, we can deploy friendly forces on each other’s soil whenever either of us feels threatened by a hostile power and in need of help, without going through the myriad clearances and conditions such a controversial move would normally involve. That’s a true friendship.

So is the work that’s begun with Japan (along with Italy) to develop the next state-of-the-art, sixth-generation jet fighter, yet another example of our increasingly close military ties.

The two countries already deploy the current most advanced fighter, the Lockheed/BAE F-35. A senior figure in the Japanese defence ministry recently told me he looked forward to the day when Japanese F-35s could fly off Britain’s new aircraft carriers and talked of how the Japanese navy could provide a British carrier fleet in the Pacific with perimeter defence.

What has brought our two countries together? In a word, China. Some Japanese defence establishments have a map on their walls which show the world from Beijing’s perspective, with the arc of the Japanese archipelago acting as a massive barrier to China’s expansionist ambitions for a greater global role.

As China becomes ever more aggressive in pursuit of that role — and especially bellicose about taking back Taiwan — Japan becomes ever more nervous about its vulnerability. It is looking for friends — and re-arming fast.

It’s decided that Britain is the European nation with the most to offer, though obviously we pale in comparison with the importance of its alliances with America. But to retain the support of Washington and win over new friends like Britain, it knows it must be seen to be helping itself.

A senior figure in the Japanese defence ministry recently told me he looked forward to the day when Japanese F-35s could fly off Britain's new aircraft carriers (file image)

A senior figure in the Japanese defence ministry recently told me he looked forward to the day when Japanese F-35s could fly off Britain’s new aircraft carriers (file image)

So, a country which has not fired a shot in battle since it surrendered in 1945 is now doubling spending on its military.

The pacifist constraints of its constitution have been loosened as military spending is set to rise by a massive $330 billion (£265 billion) over the next five years (taking defence spending from one per cent to two per cent of its huge GDP) and its combined military, known as the Self-Defence Force, is given rather more latitude as to what constitutes self-defence.

A key feature of its new arsenal will be missiles with a range long enough to deter China from doing anything stupid. The Chinese are furious, describing the rearmament of Japan as a ‘long dark vortex’.

Britain and Japan have much in common. Both are independent island nations. Both parliamentary democracies. Both with an interest in stopping the totalitarians from reshaping the world to their advantage.

Japan has been staunch in its support for Ukraine because it knows Russian success would only embolden China to invade Taiwan. Britain stands with Japan and its allies to deter that.

And we’re constitutional monarchies, with friendly, modern ties. Emperor Naruhito studied at Oxford University in the 1980s, a time he looks back on so fondly he wrote a memoir about it. He went salmon fishing with the then Prince Charles at Balmoral and participated in the obligatory royal barbecues. Recently released letters from our national archives show how much he treasured his time here. A state visit — either the King to Tokyo or the Emperor to London — cannot be far off.

Personal relations and soft power matter when it comes to alliances. They will help to nurture this new era of Anglo-Japanese friendship. Along with the new submarines-and-technology ‘Aukus’ deal Britain has done with America and Australia, Britain is set to play an important role as the world pivots to the Pacific.

Suddenly the 21st century doesn’t look so lonely after all.