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Shinzo Abe visit puts spotlight on Japan’s concerns over Brexit

Theresa May will join the Japanese PM in announcing new collaboration on medical research and robotics.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Netherlands on the eve of his trip to the UK (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Netherlands on the eve of his trip to the UK (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe is expected to urge Theresa May to avoid a no-deal Brexit in talks at Downing Street on Thursday.

The far eastern giant has more to fear than most from a disorderly UK withdrawal, with around 1,000 Japanese companies operating in the country, and many using it as a gateway to European markets.

Major manufacturers like Nissan, Toyota and Honda have warned a no-deal Brexit could cost their UK operations millions in additional tariffs and disrupt the “just-in-time” supply chains on which they rely, sparking concerns they might reconsider their presence in the country.

After talks with Mrs May at the G20 summit in Argentina last month, Mr Abe urged her to avoid no-deal and ensure “transparency, predictability (and) legal stability in the Brexit process”.

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Theresa May met Shinzo Abe during her visit to Japan in 2017 (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Another public warning of the dangers of no-deal is likely to be seen in London as an effective endorsement of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement ahead of the crucial vote in the House of Commons next week.

Following the recent conclusion of an EU-Japan free trade agreement, Mr Abe is expected to restate his country’s commitment to an ambitious post-Brexit bilateral arrangement with the UK.

Japan is the UK’s second-largest source of non-EU foreign direct investment and Britain’s largest export market outside the EU, US and China.

Japanese companies already invest more than £40 billion a year and employ more than 150,000 workers in the country.

Trade between the UK and Japan totalled £28 billion last year, up 5% on the previous year.

Setting off on Wednesday for his trip to Europe, which also takes in the Netherlands, Mr Abe said: “World attention is focused on the UK’s exit from the EU.

“Precisely because of this problem, it is very meaningful for me to visit the UK and exchange opinions. I want to properly convey Japan’s thinking.”

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Mr Abe held talks with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the first day of his visit to Europe (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Firms like Panasonic have announced they are moving their European HQs to the Netherlands because of Brexit, and Mr Abe’s visit on Wednesday allowed him to be briefed on efforts to maintain the flow of freight to and from the UK through the port of Rotterdam.

Mrs May and Mr Abe are expected to announce an ambitious programme, backed by £30 million of initial funding, for collaboration on medical research, robotics and the use of data.

And Japan has announced it is scrapping a 23-year-old ban on UK beef and lamb imports, in place since the “mad cow disease” crisis of 1996, in a move worth an estimated £127 million to British farmers over five years.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said:  “It is great news that British beef and lamb will be available on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus for the first time in more than 20 years.

“This will give a £127 million boost to farmers and food producers across the whole of the UK, from the Scottish Highlands to the Welsh Valleys.

“The UK and Japan are among the strongest champions of free trade and we look forward to an even closer trading relationship as we leave the European Union.”

The talks at Downing Street follow a visit by Mrs May to Tokyo and Kyoto in 2017.

For the first time, British and Japanese researchers and industry experts are set to work side-by-side on projects to tackle the major challenges identified by the UK’s Industrial Strategy and Japan’s Society 5.0 programme.

These include:

– Designing robotic systems to allow ageing populations to live independently at home for longer;

– Finding new treatments for chronic conditions like dementia and heart failure;

– New forms of greener transport and energy.

Downing Street said wider adoption of such technology could create 175,000 new jobs and boost the UK manufacturing sector by £455 billion over the next decade.

Speaking ahead of the visit, Mrs May said: “The UK and Japan are natural partners. We face many of the same challenges. But also the same immense opportunities.

“By agreeing to forge a new, dynamic partnership, we not only back some of the most cutting-edge sectors in our economy, but will also improve people’s lives and shape the 21st century for the better.”

The two leaders will also attend a briefing chaired by security minister Ben Wallace where emergency service chiefs will share the UK’s experience of hosting large international events ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics in Japan.

And agreements are expected on:

– Increased UK involvement in combined defence exercises and strengthened maritime co-operation;

– The deployment of Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose to Japan in early 2019, to enforce sanctions against North Korea;

– Collaboration on new defence technologies, including co-operation on future combat aircraft, missile development and autonomous systems;

– Strengthened cultural ties, with the National Gallery sending a major exhibition including Van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ to Japan as part of a year-long UK-Japan Season of Culture.

Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said Mrs May could not give Japan clarity on Brexit.

He said: “Theresa May’s proposed deal would harm the foundations of our existing relationship with Japan.

“Japanese investors will understandably be seeking clarity on the terms of our future relationship with the EU, but it is a clarity that Theresa May cannot give – because the future political framework that Parliament is to vote on next week is no more than a flimsy statement of intent.”

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