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Japan thinks Brexit is an 'act of self harm', says UK's former ambassador

The Guardian logo The Guardian 15/02/2018 Daniel Hurst in Tokyo
Japanese investment in the UK reached £46.5bn in 2016. © Photograph: Andrew Yates/Reuters Japanese investment in the UK reached £46.5bn in 2016.

Japan sees Brexit as an act of economic and political self-harm that will reduce the United Kingdom’s influence on the world stage, says a former British ambassador to Tokyo.

Sir David Warren, who served in the post from 2008 to 2012, argued it was time for plain speaking on the impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. He regarded the potential effect on UK-Japan relations as “grave”.

His comments follow a warning from Japan’s ambassador to the UK after meeting with Theresa May last week that Japanese firms could continue operations there only if they remained profitable.

Warren said many Japanese companies using the UK as their European base had been attracted to invest in the country because EU membership provided tariff-free trade and regulatory alignment with Britain’s largest market.

Related: EU economic growth hits 10-year high as Britain flounders over Brexit

Privately, Japanese policy analysts are puzzled by British government rhetoric about global opportunities flowing from Brexit, according to Warren. Japan, he said, believed the UK’s participation in the world’s biggest trading bloc for goods strengthened its economy and gave it a more powerful voice in the UN, G7 and Nato.

“Japan sees power projection as heavily dependent on economic clout. Brexit is therefore regarded in Japan as an act of medium – and long-term economic, and therefore political, self-harm,” Warren wrote in an essay published by Chatham House.

“The diminished economic expectations which Japan and other trading partners expect to flow from Brexit risk reducing the power of the UK’s voice accordingly; its ability to increase its diplomatic weight in the world by acting as part of the EU will disappear.”

Warren is well versed in Japanese perspectives, having been posted to the British embassy in Tokyo on three occasions. He now is an associate fellow in Chatham House’s Asia programme and chairs the Japan Society, which is dedicated to UK-Japan ties.

Last week, May met in London with representatives of major Japanese companies including carmakers, manufacturers and banks to reassure them of her commitment to secure “a new deep and special partnership with the EU”.

The prime minister pledged to seek “a trading relationship with the EU that is as tariff-free and frictionless as possible”, a Downing Street spokesperson said. May added that Japan and the UK would work to strike a trade deal based on the terms of the recently completed EU-Japan economic partnership agreement.

Nissan and Toyota declined to comment on details of the talks. However, Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s ambassador to the UK, who also attended the meeting, warned that if companies could make a perofit in the UK they would pull out.

Japanese investment in the UK reached £46.5bn in 2016.

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