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The UK has moved a step closer to strengthening trade links with Asia-Pacific nations after the 11 members of the region’s overarching trade treaty have agreed to start negotiations for Britain’s entry.
Joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, an alliance of Pacific Ocean countries which spans a market of 500 million people, is a central plank of UK trade minister Liz Truss’s plan to refocus Britain’s trade relationships following Britain’s exit from the EU.
Its existing members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Truss has already begun direct trade talks with Australia and is hopeful that a broader agreement within the region would quickly follow. The UK also believes a deal will act as a counterweight to China – which it accuses of undermining trade and distorting markets with state subsidies.
However, the Australia talks have already run into controversy after Truss appeared to back measures that allowed the country’s industrial scale farms to export without tariffs or quotas to the UK, undercutting smaller British sheep, beef and sugar beet farmers.
Reports of a row in cabinet between Truss and the environment secretary, George Eustice, have been played down by No 10, but it is understood that Eustice secured a commitment that UK would seek a deal phased in over the next 15 years.
Truss has also been criticised for negotiating a system of secret commercial courts that allow businesses to sue governments if they can show a loss of income followed changes in government policy.
It is also unclear what leverage the UK will have to persuade CPTPP members to adapt their existing trade agreement to suit British exporters.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan’s minister in charge of negotiations, said a virtual meeting of the partnership’s commission agreed to allow the UK to begin the process to join.
Nishimura said the move would strengthen economic ties between the UK and Japan, and would give the UK access to a market similar in size to the EU.
Unlike the EU, it removes barriers such as quotas and tariffs but does not aim to create a single market or a customs union, or attain wider political integration.
“The commencement of an accession process with the UK and the potential expansion of the CPTPP will send a strong signal to our trading partners around the world of our commitment to support a free, fair, open, effective, inclusive and rules-based trading system,” the ministers said in a joint statement.
Britain filed a request to join partnership, which was created after president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the beginning of February, saying it hoped to build deeper ties with emerging economies in the Pacific.
At the time, Truss said membership would mean lower tariffs for car manufacturers and whisky producers, and better access for services providers, boosting employment and prosperity.
Truss said she welcomed the decision and would lay out her plans to parliament in the coming weeks.
She has refused calls by opposition MPs to provide an economic assessment of the benefits of joining the pact.
The process begins with the forming of a working party to assess Britain’s compatibility with the deal. Britain said it would work with Japan, which chairs the group this year, to conduct the negotiations as quickly as possible.
Britain struck its first major post-Brexit deal on trade with Japan last October.