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Japan worries Brexit may affect Asian regional security issues

The Japanese government is keeping a close eye on post-Brexit global politics, worried that Britain's departure from the European Union (EU) will weaken the bonds among the Western nations that share with Japan the ideals of liberty and democracy, and lessen their voice in the world.

Tensions are rising as China advances into the East and South China seas, while tough negotiations between Japan and Russia over the disputed Northern Territories off Hokkaido continue. It's possible that the shifting international situation will have an impact on these issues, hence Japan's Brexit anxieties.

It was around the end of 2015 that the Japanese prime minister's office became seriously worried that Britain may leave the EU. The government was ramping up preparations for May's Group of Seven Ise-Shima Summit when people in the office began to realize, "The refugee crisis in the EU is worsening, and it seems like (Britain's) exit is becoming a more realistic possibility. It will be a very tough situation if they choose to leave," according to a senior official.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited London for talks with his British counterpart David Cameron in early May, where he stated to the news media that "Japan very clearly would prefer Britain to remain within the EU." Abe pointed out that there are some 1,000 Japanese firms operating in the United Kingdom, and that "many Japanese companies set up their operations in the UK precisely because the UK is a gateway to the EU."

When U.S. President Barack Obama expressed support for the "Remain" camp during an April visit, he was criticized in Britain for "intervening" in domestic affairs. As such, Abe prefaced his own comments by saying that "the decision is up to the citizens of the UK" and otherwise tried to avoid stirring up the "Leave" camp. However, Japanese firms are said to have made behind-the-scenes moves to prompt Abe to speak out in favor of Remain.

At the Ise-Shima Summit, too, Brexit became a major talking point. According to one Japanese government source, Cameron insisted that his nation's possible departure from the EU be treated as a major economic risk, and it was duly inscribed in the summit's joint declaration on the global economy. At the summit's closing news conference, Cameron stated that Britain should listen to the opinions of its G-7 friends.

With the June 23 referendum result, the British exit from the EU that Japan feared so much has now come to pass -- a fact that Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Shinsuke Sugiyama called "disappointing" at a June 24 news conference. The ministry will send Sugiyama on an emergency mission to the EU capital Brussels and to London starting on June 29.

Japan and the UK held a two-plus-two foreign and defense ministers' conference in Tokyo in January this year. There, with tensions in the South China Sea in mind, they agreed to strengthen security-related cooperation. One government source told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The British have recently come to see the South China Sea problem in the same way as Japan and the United States. However, with Britain's withdrawal from the EU, economic issues will take precedence, and Britain may forget about the South China Sea."

Brexit may also impact negotiations on a Japan-Russia peace treaty, which Prime Minister Abe is keen to see concluded. As Russia faces off against the U.S. over the crisis in Ukraine, Japan is seeking to break the peace treaty deadlock by showing its willingness to resolve disputes through dialogue. Britain was in favor of strict sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, and now that it will be leaving Europe, "perhaps (Russian President Vladimir) Putin now thinks it will be easy to break up the EU," commented an official at the prime minister's office. And this could make it more difficult for Japan to convince Russia to take a flexible approach to bilateral talks. (By Yohei Maeda, Political News Department)

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