UK Pushes Pacific Trade Talks Amid Broader New Focus on Asia

BANGKOK (AP) -- The U.K. launched negotiations Tuesday to join a trans-Pacific trade bloc as it looks to explore new opportunities following its departure from the European Union and strengthen its strategic interests in Asia.

The start of talks to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, made up of 11 counties with a combined half billion people, came as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab met with his counterpart and other Vietnamese officials during his fifth visit to Southeast Asia in his current job.

Britain is also looking to attain "dialogue partnership" status with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, as it pursues a "tilt" toward the Indo-Pacific region in response to China's growing influence on the world stage that was recommended by a recent British government review of defense and foreign policy.

"The U.K. is committed to strengthening our friendship across the Indo-Pacific," Raab said ahead of the trip. "We are demonstrating this through our commitment to join CPTPP, partner with ASEAN and invest more energy, time and effort in our bilateral relations in the region."

The push comes as the region's countries are looking for "options and alternatives" to China as their main source of capital and trading opportunities, said Euan Graham, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security with the International Institute for Strategic Studies' office in Singapore.

For Britain to be taken seriously it needs to show that it's prepared to be engaged for the long-term, he said.

"It's no good just saying you're engaged from the safety of London, even in a pandemic you have to commit to face time in the region," he said.

Beyond trade, Britain earlier this year dispatched a strike group led by the Royal Navy's flagship aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth on a 28-week deployment to Asia. It is also expected to announce the forward deployment of smaller Royal Navy vessels to the Indo-Pacific, Graham said.

"That would be noticed in the region," he said. "It won't change the balance of power, but it does demonstrate to China and others that this is not only a U.S.-China bilateral dynamic,"

Whether the diplomatic, economic and military outreach will succeed, however, will take time.

"I think they can maintain their ambitions over a four-year timeframe, and that might be enough to develop the momentum that they need," Graham said, adding that closer ties to the region are probably more important for the Britain than vice versa.

Following Vietnam, Raab was to visit Cambodia and then end his trip to the region in Singapore.

Britain said joining the CPTPP would open new access to fast-growing economies across Asia-Pacific and the Americas, including Mexico, Malaysia and Vietnam. Other countries in the pact include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but Britain would be the first European country if it succeeds in joining.

Britain 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," 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."

The CPTTP is a much looser arrangement than the European Union, which the U.K. formally left last year, as it does not include any political integration.

After the conclusion of a transition period that was intended to smooth the U.K.'s departure, the country is now able to negotiate its own trade deals. 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 CPTTP; 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.