Theresa May will have to allay Japanese fears about the impact of Brexit on business when she flies to the country on Wednesday for a three-day trip billed as a visit to lay the groundwork for a new trade deal, but likely to be dominated by North Korea.
Speaking before the trip, the prime minister said the UK government was seeking a free trade deal based on the EU-Japan agreement, calling Japan a “natural trading partner”.
But in a series of interviews before her arrival, Japanese officials suggested completing the separate trade agreement with Brussels remained its top priority.
Shinichi Iida, an official at the Japan’s London embassy, said Japanese businesses had a “big stake” in the Brexit process but needed reassurance. “Yes, they are concerned with the Brexit processes to come and it is no secret the Japanese government as well as lots of Japanese companies preferred the situation in which the UK would remain within the EU,” he said.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan’s deputy chief cabinet secretary, said Brexit had created a “sense of crisis among businesses” and the country’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would be seeking May’s reassurances. “We need to make use of Prime Minister May’s visit for conveying Japan’s stance,” he told Reuters.
Japan said last September it was concerned about the repercussions of Brexit on its investment in and trade with the UK, though the car company Nissan has since committed to staying in the UK.
Downing Street hopes the trip will help repair May’s dented authority, and show that Britain will retain close relations with major trading powers after Brexit.
Putting trade at the heart of her visit, May is bringing with her the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, and a 15-strong delegation of business leaders, who will aim to impart the message that the UK can remain a key entry point for Japanese businesses to Europe even after Brexit.
Among the business delegation will be executives from Barclays, the Scotch Whisky Association and Aston Martin.
May’s spokeswoman said the prime minister and Abe would “spend a considerable amount of time together” and much could be achieved by using the EU trade deal as a basis for a future UK equivalent.
“We want the EU deal to be concluded swiftly,” she said. “We think that if that’s concluded swiftly it provides a good basis for continuity once we leave.”
The Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, said it was “staggering” that the government hoped to base a new trade deal on the EU version.
“The likes of Liam Fox were promising a new dawn of improved trade deals but this clearly shows that even the government now recognises that the best possible deal we can get with one of the world’s largest economies is the deal negotiated by the EU,” he said.
“The government is set on leaving the single market and customs union without the faintest idea of what our future trading relationships would be in a post-Brexit world, except more red tape.”
Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said Japan had been “entirely consistent” that the trading relationship could only be discussed once the UK had settled exit terms with the EU.
“Whilst Theresa May is desperately trying to spin this visit as scoping out a future bilateral trade and investment agreement, the reality is that the government is spooked by the fact that Japanese banks like Nomura have already announced their intention to relocate,” he said.
However, May is likely to find Abe and his colleagues distracted by what was only the third-ever North Korean missile flight over the country, seen as the most urgent such threat the country has faced in years.
Hopes for a smooth buildup to the trip were dashed when North Korea fired the missile across northern Japan in the early hours of Tuesday morning, triggering emergency alarms on the island of Hokkaido.
May condemned the launch as “reckless provocation”, and said it could prompt fresh international sanctions against Pyongyang.
Defence will form another pillar of May’s visit and she is due to address Japan’s national security council and tour the Izumo, a Japanese warship.
“As our closest security partner in Asia, we will also discuss how we can work much more closely together on cybersecurity, counter-terrorism and defence – more important than ever in this uncertain world,” May said.
Theresa May’s itinerary in Japan
Wednesday May is welcomed to Kyoto at a tea ceremony with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, before the pair travel together to Tokyo on the high speed bullet train, or Shinkansen.
Thursday May will spend the morning in the capital at a briefing at the headquarters of the Japanese maritime self defence force and on board Japan’s flagship Izumo aircraft carrier.
Later, addressing a UK-Japan business forum she will say the two countries are perfect partners for a future of strong economic, trade, security and defence ties.
May and Abe will meet the National Security Council and also engage in bilateral talks. The two prime ministers have already met at the G20 summit in Hamburg last month, at May’s country house Chequers in April and at the UN General Assembly in New York last year.
A press conference will follow the talks after which the delegation will attend a banquet with Abe and business leaders. It will be an opportunity for May to promote Britain as an attractive destination for investors.
Friday May is scheduled to visit Japan’s Imperial Palace to meet with the Emperor Akihito before watching a wheelchair basketball championship at the Mitsubishi Electric World Challenge Cup.
The visit will be rounded off with a reception at the ambassador’s residence that will focus on the future of the UK and Japan’s “cultural partnership”, according to Downing Street.
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