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Sir Lockwood Smith is a former New Zealand Trade Minister and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

The British Government has initiated discussions aimed at joining, post-Brexit, the Asia-Pacific regional trade agreement, CPTPP. Success would open a whole new world of opportunities for UK business. But joining be difficult if the UK ends up in some halfway house, without complete control over its own regulatory system.

The greatest benefits from trade liberalisation come from agreements at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  That’s because, in the modern world, value chains don’t just cross a border between neighbouring countries. They criss-cross the world, forging wider well-being and prosperity.

Despite this, many countries have negotiated a spaghetti bowl of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) of varying value. In the past decade, however, countries which understand that trade is the lifeblood of prosperity and a powerful driver in the elimination of poverty have attempted to negotiate larger regional agreements, in order better to support wider-reaching value chains and increase pressure on the WTO for progress.

The three biggest regional negotiations have been the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

TTIP hit strong headwinds, partly around EU regulations, and, under the Trump administration, it died. RCEP, involving the ten nations of ASEAN, plus Australia, New Zealand, China, India, South Korea and Japan, is also proving challenging, although negotiations continue.

The one that made it over the line was TPP, only to have the plug almost pulled post-signing when the Trump administration withdrew from it. Despite that, it will now be implemented without the US, albeit with some minor changes including the name: it is now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

CPTPP, a free trade agreement between eleven Asia-Pacific countries, involving around 30 per cent of the global economy, was almost 20 years in its evolution.  During the late 1990s, a project called P5 involving five Asia-Pacific, or APEC, economies was explored in an attempt to progress APEC’s Bogor Goals of free and open trade. A geo-political goal of equal importance was to enhance stability across the region.

The plan involved the United States and Chile, linking through New Zealand and Australia into East Asia via Singapore. By the middle of 1999, it became clear the project as planned wouldn’t get off the ground. New Zealand had been driving it and, undaunted, we negotiated an FTA with Singapore.

The direct trade benefits were useful but limited. The focus was strategic – to create a new model, twenty-first century trade agreement that others could join. In 2002, Chile came on board and Brunei in 2004, resulting in a new agreement known as the Pacific 4 or P4.

In 2008, the United States became involved and, eight months later, Australia, Peru and Vietnam joined in. Malaysia did likewise in 2010 and, following the APEC Leaders’ meeting in 2011, both Canada and Mexico sought to join.  2013 saw Japan board, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership was agreed by the end of 2015.

CPTPP is the largest free trade agreement in history, covering both goods and services. Apart from lowering and in most sectors eliminating tariffs, it also reduces non-tariff barriers to trade – regulatory barriers behind the border that often delay if not prevent trade.

Member countries are required to pursue good regulatory practice, and ensure that their customs procedures are applied in a way that is predictable, consistent and transparent. Food safety and bio-security measures must not create unjustifiable obstacles to trade, and must be based on sound science.]

The agreement has a whole chapter on regulatory coherence to help ensure an open, fair and predictable regulatory environment for businesses operating in CPTPP markets. While it allows members to pursue their own regulatory priorities, they must sign up to a quality management programme that would require them to have control over their own regulatory procedures.

If Brexit results in the Chequers approach, with the regulations dictated from Brussels, it’s difficult to see how the UK could meet these important requirements.

CPTPP’s coverage of services includes professional, business, education, environmental, transportation and distribution services, reducing barriers to their trade. Specific rules on financial services are also a significant step forward.

New elements in the agreement also ensure that economies at all levels of development, and businesses of all sizes, can benefit from enhanced trade. Provisions help small and medium-sized businesses understand the agreement, take advantage of its opportunities.

It is one of the first agreements to cover “next generation” trade issues and challenges, including those related to the Internet and digital economy. There is a chapter on electronic commerce which, among other things, recognises the importance of companies being able to transfer information across borders facilitating digital trade.

As well as preventing the imposition of customs duties on electronic transactions, the provisions tackle digital protectionist policies such as data localisation requirements and barriers to cross border data flows, setting a new global standard for trade liberalisation in the digital economy.

The United Kingdom is already a global leader in this sector. At G20 Digital Economy meetings, however, EU member states have been less than enthusiastic in supporting the environment of cross-border digital commerce with less burdensome regulation that the Internet facilitates.

So in the CPTPP, the UK has the opportunity to join an agreement that liberalises, and provides better access for one of the most rapidly growing sectors of its own economy. It would be such a lost opportunity if remaining part of the EU’s regulatory regime were to stand in the way of the UK joining.

While the ‘Common Rulebook’ approach to Brexit is intended to apply only to ‘goods and agri-foods’, modern goods often have services embedded in them. If the UK wants to be a serious player in moving forward on matters critical to the modern economy, remaining part of the EU’s regulatory regime, even just for goods, would not be helpful.

The prize CPTPP has to offer is real. During its negotiation, such countries as Japan moved further than ever before in liberalising sensitive sectors of their economy. Matching such progress in a purely bilateral negotiation would be difficult.

What’s more, the centre of gravity of global economic growth has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region. It embodies a dynamism less evident within European economies today. Strategically linking into that region has helped  toraise a country like New Zealand to prosperity from near bankruptcy 30 years ago.

The real prize from Brexit for the UK, and the way to win from leaving the EU, lies in embracing a smart global trade strategy. Bringing the dynamic of the Asia-Pacific region to Europe through joining CPTPP would be a powerful driver of innovation and growth across the entire region.

Now is the time to make decisions that will reap rewards for generations. Deciding to be a rule taker rather than a rule maker risks wasting this historic moment.

123 comments for: Lockwood Smith: Britain has a golden chance to join the biggest free trade agreement in history. But Chequers is likely to wreck it.

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