Professor of International Political Economy
University of York
Reader in Public Policy
University of Warwick
In its trade policy discourse, the UK has repeatedly made references to a ‘post-geography trading world’. Speaking in 2016, former Trade Secretary, Liam Fox argued that the UK is ‘much less restricted in having to find [trade] partners who are physically close’, such as its erstwhile fellow member states in the EU. Instead, a hard Brexit has been pursued by the Government to give ‘Global Britain’ the trade policy independence it needs to pursue new trade agreements with partners further afield.
Initially, the focus was on English-speaking states. The very diverse Commonwealth provided one anchor but was less significant as a spatial imaginary in Eurosceptic policy circles than the ‘Anglosphere’: the white-majority former settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, most importantly due to its relative economic size, the US. Closer association with the UK’s ‘kith and kin’ was seen as a viable alternative to EU membership. It actively translated into a policy of seeking new Free Trade Agreements with Australia, New Zealand and the US as soon as possible following formal Brexit.
The economic gains to be had from these agreements, however, are relatively meagre compared to the costs of a hard Brexit. The agreement with the US, which was the centrepiece of the Government’s initial trade negotiating flurry, was estimated to boost GDP by only around 0.07-0.16% according to the Government’s own modelling, several orders of magnitude lower than the estimated losses of leaving the EU Customs Union and Single Market.
The UK’s trade policy has not been focused primarily on economic gains, constrained as these are by the effects of economic gravity: closer and larger economies are more significant trading partners. Instead, it has been driven by a desire to perform its new trade policy independence: the UK has sought to emphasise the benefits of exercising post-Brexit sovereignty for sovereignty’s sake, differentiating itself from the EU. In the words of Liz Truss, former Trade Secretary and leading contender to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, its ‘values-based’ trade policy is anchored in ‘our fundamental values of sovereignty, democracy, the rule of law and a fierce commitment to high standards’. The EU, in contrast, reflects ‘the twin errors of values-free globalisation and protectionism’. The Anglosphere, with the UK at its core, was a different kind of space, less constrained by geography and united in its commitment to free enterprise.
The failure to make much progress in negotiations with the US led the UK to shift its focus from the spatial imaginary of the Anglosphere to the Asia-Pacific and membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Agreements with Australia (2021) and New Zealand (2022) were recast as steppingstones towards CPTPP accession. Once again, the logic is to re-imagine space in a way that allows the UK to perform its trade policy independence, and difference, from the EU.
There are three elements to this in relation to the Asia-Pacific. First, the policy reflects the idea that trade is increasingly unconstrained by geography; gravity does not constrain economic exchange. It is also reflected in the specific emphasis on rules for digital trade. The CPTPP promises differentiation from the EU’s data protection rules, said to constrain the information flows necessary to facilitate international exchange. Second, in the words of Liz Truss, the CPTPP offers free trade ‘without EU-style strings attached’. CPTPP is one in a series of ‘high standards, rules-based, modern trade agreements’. These stand in contrast to the EU’s sovereignty-diminishing model of regulatory harmonisation and oversight by the European Court of Justice. Finally, CPTPP is presented as the gateway to the dynamic East Asian region, a term used in the same breath as ‘Asia-Pacific’ and, increasingly, ‘Indo-Pacific’. In the words of Truss, ‘two-thirds of the world’s middle-class will be in Asia by 2030’. The UK would thus be swapping a ‘low-growth’ bloc, the EU, for a ‘high growth’ one. This is even though only a minority of CPTPP parties can be classed as being within East Asia.
In addition to coming up against economic gravity, the focus on ‘post-geography’ also ignores important geopolitical realities in the region. The UK Government has consistently othered China as a rule-breaker inimical to its ‘values-based’ trade policy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), moreover, was negotiated between the US and its client states to explicitly exclude China. When the US pulled out, and the remaining parties came together to sign the CPTPP this intention remained. And yet China and its economic weight remains implicit in the economic conception of Asia-Pacific region, especially if this is equated with East Asia. By presenting the CPTPP as a boundless space of like-minded states the UK is projecting an imaginary which suppresses the political norms of the region.
Expert article 3286
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