The Prime Minister is embarking on a three-day trip to Japan with aspirations to forge a free trade deal similar to the one being negotiated by the EU with the Japanese.
Theresa May, accompanied by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, will arrive just one day after it emerged North Korea fired a missile over northern Japan.
An emergency UN Security Council meeting is considering new sanctions against North Korea, with the UK pushing for “further strengthening of the sanctions regime”.
Security and defence was already high on the agenda but Mrs May is expected to say to Prime Minister Abe that the UK is “outraged by North Korea’s reckless provocation and strongly condemns the regime’s illegal tests.”
Her visit will allow plenty of time for discussions. It will include an audience with the Emperor of Japan, a banquet with business leaders, a ride on the bullet train, time spent in Kyoto and Tokyo and a bilateral summit and private dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Video: PM: N Korea’s actions ‘reckless provocation’
The Government says the UK is seeking to “cement its position as Japan’s strongest security partner in Europe.”
Critics say Mrs May is “spooked” by Japanese firms moving business to Frankfurt and that little can be achieved by the visit.
Fifteen business leaders are joining the delegation hoping to forge closer ties with their counterparts. But it’s notable that the relatively small group only includes one bank, Barclays Capital investment and one car manufacturer, Aston Martin.
The UK-Japan post Brexit trading relationship will be a central aspect of the visit.
Mrs May is expected to reiterate the UK’s commitment to a swift conclusion of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement.
She will also seek agreement from Prime Minister Abe that the UK and Japan should work to ensure that this deal can form the basis of a bilateral arrangement “quickly after Brexit.”
“We feel that’s a pretty good basis (for a UK deal),” said a government spokesperson, adding, “We want the EU deal to be concluded swiftly. It is right that Japan focuses on concluding that deal.”
The UK helped to work on the EU deal. It sees the benefits of that agreement for the UK in reduction of non-tariff barriers in key areas such as cars and medical equipment.
Video: Japan’s sirens ring out following N Korea missile
Speaking ahead of the visit, the Prime Minister said: “Building on our existing ties with friends and allies around the world is vital as Britain prepares for a new era outside the European Union.
“Japan has long been a natural trading partner for the UK as a like-minded nation with a shared belief in free trade and a rules-based international system, and my discussions with Prime Minister Abe will focus on how we can prepare the ground for an ambitious free trade agreement after Brexit, based on the EU-Japan agreement which I very much hope is nearing conclusion.
“As our closest security partner in Asia, we will also discuss how we can work much more closely together on cyber security, counter-terrorism and defence – more important than ever in this uncertain world.”
Japanese officials have signalled that there will be little progress on trade talks but rather more questions over Mrs May’s stance on Brexit.
Yoshiji Nogami, president of Japan Institute of International affairs, told the Financial Times: “We can’t negotiate until Britain is out of the EU. I think what Mr Abe wants to hear from the Prime Minister is where she hopes to land on Brexit.”
Last year the Japanese government released a 15-page document setting out assurances required from the UK over Brexit, including a commitment to secure the financial services passport to operate in the EU.
It also called on the UK to “maintain access to workers who are nationals of the UK or the EU.”
Video: A ‘really scary moment’ for Japan
Barry Gardener, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade said: “Prime Minister Abe has been clear that any future trade agreement with Japan will only be possible once the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU has itself been clarified.
“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 their European HQ to Frankfurt.
“Prime Minister Abe is only saying the same as senior US negotiators: get your house in order with the EU. Until you do, we cannot know what sort of a deal we need with the UK.”
The Liberal Democrats have challenged Mrs May to publish the correspondence between ministers and Nissan when the Japanese car manufacturer was reportedly prepared to pull out of Britain amid fears about tariff free access to the rest of the EU as a result of Brexit.
Image: Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake has called the Government negotiations ‘shambolic’
Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said: “Liberal Democrats put in a Freedom of Information request for the letter Nissan sent to the government containing information on the offer by ministers of a sweetheart deal.
“Whole chunks had been blacked out, but I think we all know what the government’s offer had contained: a blanked out blank cheque.
“Because of the government’s shambolic Brexit negotiations, no doubt this won’t be the only blank cheque given to multinational companies to stop them departing the UK.”
He added: “The government could still choose to stay in the single market and customs union – then it wouldn’t need to offer companies dodgy, under-the-counter deals.”
Japanese companies already invest more than £40bn in the UK and over 1,000 Japanese companies, including Honda, Hitachi, Fujitsu and Sony, employ 140,000 people in the UK.
The trip follows recent visits by the Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and International Trade Secretary, as well as the Prime Minister’s hosting of Prime Minister Abe at Chequers in April this year.