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THE United Kingdom applied this week to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) bloc. While Britain would be a clear geographical ‘outlier’ among the trade agreement members, the intent underlines Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans, post-Brexit, to pivot towards the Asia-Pacific, especially longstanding allies such as Singapore.
There is a deep historical relationship between the UK and the economic dynamo which is modern Singapore. And this political and economic framework was updated, only last month, with a post-Brexit trade agreement taking effect from Jan 1 for trade in goods and services, intellectual property, and government procurement.
Beyond such bilateral deals, Mr Johnson has made no secret of its desire to create a multilateral ‘bridge’ from Europe to the Asia-Pacific and the Americas including by joining CPTPP, which removes most tariffs with not just Singapore but also Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The bloc, in one of the world’s fastest growing economic regions, could also see the United States join during Joe Biden’s presidency.
Beyond CPTPP, the UK is also establishing closer ties with long-standing ally Singapore via its new dialogue with Asean which also includes Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Brunei, and Laos. The first UK-Asean Economic Dialogues were held last year to strengthen cooperation between the two sides, post-Brexit, and bolster economic recovery efforts amid the pandemic. Since the inception of Asean over half a century ago, these economic relationships have grown deeper and broader with bilateral trade in goods and services today around £42 billion (S$76 billion).
The two sides are determined to build on this platform and explore opportunities for post-Brexit collaboration that support job creation and connectivity. And in last August’s session, it was clear there is much to gain from a closer UK-Asean dialogue, including strengthening economic resilience and pursuing sustainable economic growth that keeps markets open and transparent within the international rules-based system.
Moreover, both sides have committed to ensuring that digital innovation is a central pillar of their recovery from the pandemic. The UK has committed to deepen its digital partnership with Asean through its Digital Trade Network and by funding a new UK-Asean Digital Business Challenge, exploring how technology micro, small and medium enterprises can deliver solutions to tough business challenges.
The £19 million UK Prosperity Fund Asean Economic Reform Programme, launched in London in January 2019, has a number of strands in line with the objectives in the Masterplan on Asean Connectivity 2025. The UK will collaborate with Asean to deliver resilient and complex infrastructure projects that boost connectivity, digital innovation, seamless logistics and regulatory excellence.
This work will be driven by the Asean Business Advisory Council (ABAC), supported by the Joint Business Councils, including the UK-Asean Business Council. The UK will collaborate closely with ABAC to design a private-sector-led regional digital trade connectivity roadmap, complementing the Asean Single Window programme and other Asean trade facilitation programmes to deliver a more facilitative trade within Asean and beyond.
The two sides also agree on building a greener and more sustainable global economy, in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement in advance of the UK-hosted UN 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) in November. The UK is committed to supporting Asean with a science-based clean recovery that will create employment in the industries of the future while addressing public health challenges. This includes providing technical assistance to develop green financial systems and energy efficiency across the region through the £15 million Prosperity Fund Asean Low Carbon Energy Programme and £12 million global Green Recovery Challenge Fund.
The UK government wants its ‘pivot’ to Asean, and the CPTPP bloc, to be a key part of its continued commitment to international leadership, post-Brexit. As well as hosting the UN-led 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) on climate change too in November, London is currently chairing the UN Security Council and holding the rotating G-7 presidency.
However, while the prime minister is keen to explore these Asia-Pacific and Americas opportunities of the post-Brexit landscape, challenges are also mounting too, for the longstanding pillars of UK policy in the post-war period – its alliances with the US and Europe – are in flux. Not only is Mr Johnson at odds with Mr Biden on a number of issues, he also faces tricky ties with EU neighbours post-Brexit, despite the new UK-EU trade deal.
This creates a major headache for London at the same time that it must also now recalibrate its foreign and defence policy, beyond Europe, in every part of the globe from the Asia-Pacific to the Americas. This is a big task and what is already clear is that, while a massive amount of attention in recent years has focused on Brexit, comparatively little time has been spent focused on broader international affairs.
This is one of the big reasons why the UK is currently undertaking one of its biggest reviews of foreign policy in the post-Cold-War period. It is focused on delivering post-Brexit foreign goals and what this will require from the armed forces, security, diplomacy, foreign aid and intelligence communities, including in space and cyberspace.
In a previous generation, former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd asserted that Britain had been able to “punch above its weight” in the post-war era, despite it no longer being a great power. That statement may still be true today, but it remains to be seen if this is the case in five to 10 years once Mr Johnson’s post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ ambitions have reached their fruition.
COMMITMENT TO GLOBAL AFFAIRS
Over much of the last decade, Britain is widely seen to have lost global influence, despite the fact that it retains the fifth largest defence budget, the second largest aid budget and the fourth largest diplomatic network internationally. And this at a time when the UK faces a massive range of challenges from Russian stridency to post-pandemic economic recovery.
Ultimately, the issue of UK foreign and trade policy is not just a key issue for Britain, but also the rest of the world, including Singapore and other allies in the Asia-Pacific, as if London no longer punches so strongly on the international stage, it is also less able to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile. Continuing Britain’s proud traditions as a longstanding promoter of democracy, human rights and the rule of law long into the 21st Century would be best secured by a re-intensified commitment to global affairs, post-Brexit, after a decade of drift.
- The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics