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The U.K. launched negotiations Tuesday to join a trade partnership in and around the Pacific Ocean, as it explores new opportunities around the world following its departure from the European Union.
The British government said negotiating teams will be working over the coming months to join the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is home to around half a billion people.
The CPTPP removes 95% of tariffs between its members: Japan, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Singapore, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, Chile and Malaysia.
The U.K. says joining the free trade area would deepen ties with fast-growing economies across Asia-Pacific and the Americas. It singled out digital, services and finance as sectors that stand to gain from a trade deal, which it said should mean tariff-free trade for 99.9% of exports.
“Membership of the CPTTP free-trade partnership would open up unparalleled opportunities for British businesses and consumers in the fast-growing Indo-Pacific,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to build on this country’s entrepreneurial spirit and free-trading history to bring economic benefits across the whole of the U.K.”
Britain hopes to carve out a niche for itself in world trade as an exporter of premium consumer goods and professional services. Accession to the pact would supplement trade deals London is seeking or has already agreed, with larger members.
“This part of the world is where Britain’s greatest opportunities lie. We left the EU with the promise of deepening links with old allies and fast-growing consumer markets beyond Europe,” Trade Minister Liz Truss said. “It is a glittering post-Brexit prize that I want us to seize.”
The CPTPP is not expected to lead to a surge in British exports. But it locks in market access, including for legal, financial and professional services sectors, and is seen by ministers as an important way to gain influence in a region where China is increasingly the dominant economic force.
Unlike the European Union, the CPTPP does not impose laws on its members, it does not aim to create a single market or a customs union and it does not seek wider political integration.
The process of negotiating membership is largely about proving to existing members that Britain can meet the group’s standards on tariff removal and trade liberalization, and then setting out details of how and when it will do so.
“The CPTPP agreement has strong rules against unfair trade practices like favoring state-owned enterprises, protectionism, discriminating against foreign investors and forcing companies to hand over private information,” the trade department said in a statement.
“The U.K.’s joining will strengthen the international consensus against such unfair practices,” it added.
The government is expected to publish documents setting out its assessment of the benefits of membership on Tuesday but highlighted cars and whisky as goods exports that would benefit.
Britain made a formal request to join the trade deal in February.
Member nations of the massive free trade zone have agreed to allow the U.K. to start the process of joining the pact, Japan’s Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said earlier this month.
Last week, the British government negotiated the broad outlines of a trade deal with Australia that will see tariffs on a range of goods eliminated over coming years.
The United States, the world’s biggest economy, is not part of the partnership as former President Donald Trump withdrew the country from its predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
His successor, Joe Biden, has previously indicated that he would like to rejoin the grouping but has yet to set out any substantial plans since taking office in January.
China, the world’s No. 2 economy, also does not belong.
The British government said CPTPP countries accounted for around 110 billion pounds ($153 billion) worth of U.K. trade in 2019. Though substantial, the amount is around six times less than the business the U.K. conducts with the EU.