The UK's pivot to Asia will be Global Britain's first big test – TheArticle

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It is hard to listen to Liz Truss talk about anything without the phrase “pork markets” ringing in your ears. Years before she became International Trade Secretary, the then Environmental Secretary told the Conservatives’ 2014 conference that she would be hopping over to Beijing that December to promote British swine. The resulting clip became internet famous.

There are, of course, worse causes to be known for than promoting British business abroad, especially given the increasing importance of Asia. Rapidly developing economies in China and India have turned attention back to the East, with some saying a Chinese or Pacific century is already underway.

Such economic facts underpinned one argument for leaving the European Union, namely that being independent would enable the United Kingdom to nimbly adapt to changing trade conditions. The successor to this is the “Global Britain” agenda, in which the Government seeks to show that Brexit is not a policy of isolation. 

To this end, on 1 February Truss began the United Kingdom’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade deal which emerged from the husk of the TPP after Donald Trump pulled the United States out of it. Due to comprise Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, the bloc will encompass half a billion consumers and 13.5 per cent of global GDP. 

The application is evidence of an Asian pivot in British foreign policy. In October Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the Foreign Affairs Committee: “If you were to ask me to carve out an area for extra attention, investment and time spent, it is the Indo-Pacific region”, adding that “proactively and strategically, that would be my priority for Global Britain”. Given recent diplomatic difficulties with our European neighbours, the Government is understandably keen to talk up opportunities further abroad. Truss claims that joining the CPTPP “will create enormous opportunities for UK businesses that simply weren’t there as part of the EU”. Among the alleged benefits are “lower tariffs for car manufacturers and whisky producers, and better access for our brilliant services providers, delivering quality jobs and greater prosperity for people here at home”.

Truss’s ministry has defied sceptics in signing many trade agreements to minimise disruption connected to Brexit. According to the Department for International Trade, deals have been reached with 60 of the 70 countries whose trade with the UK fell under an EU trade deal – alongside the agreement struck with the Union itself.

Such agreements will reassure the world that the UK isn’t retreating into itself, as many Remainers claimed would happen after Brexit. But the economic benefits of new deals must be set against the costs of increased friction with the EU, which remains our biggest trading partner, accounting for 43 per cent of all UK exports and 52 per cent of all UK imports in 2019.

Michael Plouffe, a lecturer in international political economy at UCL, told TheArticle that the impact of CPTPP membership of the UK will be “fairly limited”. “Distance will be a significant barrier for British exporters of physical goods, especially in the context of disrupted access to the EU market,” he said.

Even the economic benefits touted as a result of CPTPP membership are undercut by agreements the UK already has with 7 of the 11 members. Joining also entails agreeing to the Partnership’s existing conditions, which may prove inferior to what could be achieved through bilateral negotiations. That said, some spot future opportunities to deepen market access going forwards.

“The real opportunity for the UK lies in the flanking regulatory and commercial diplomacy that would accompany CPTPP membership,” said Elly Darkin, an associate in the trade and manufacturing practice for Global Counsel, an advisory firm. “Opportunities for the UK are likely to come from trade in services, data and digital trade, where CPTPP and related agreements have more chance of success compared to multilateral negotiations in these areas.”

As befits the Brexit agenda, Truss was keen to emphasise in The Telegraph that our independence will remain intact. “We will be able to enjoy the full benefits of CPTPP without having to compromise on our sovereignty, our borders or handing over cash to join,” she said. “This club is all about free trade, and nothing else.”

It is true that the CPTPP lacks European designs on statehood, but free trade is rarely just about free trade. As Darkin noted, the CPTPP complements the UK’s existing ties with the Five Eyes security alliance, which comprises the Pacific states of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. It is hard to believe the Government’s interests in the region are purely economic.

Pursuing such interests will entail more compromises in the future than the International Trade Secretary is happy to admit, as circumstances change and the UK responds. As a newly independent minnow in a big pond, the UK has much work ahead of it to make “Global Britain” more than a slogan. Liz Truss may look back fondly on a time when her most notable concern about the Far East was pork markets.

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