Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview with the Financial Times on October 7 that Japan would welcome Britain to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal "with open arms" after Brexit
. His remarks have been deemed to encourage Brexit supporters in the UK. It would be a good thing for the UK if it can join such a trade pact soon after it leaves the EU by March 2019, as scheduled, but this is not going to be an easy choice.
After the administration of US President Donald Trump withdrew from the TPP in January 2017, the trade pact has since been led by Japan as one of few multilateral organizations in which Tokyo plays a dominant role. Despite having 500 million people from 11 countries and 13 percent of the world economy within its fold, the TPP lacks major powers as its members to some extent limit its attraction. Although Japan and Canada are also G7 members, their say in international affairs comes more from the weight of G7 than themselves. If the UK, a Western power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, can join the TPP, it will enhance the pact's clout and draw more countries. This is probably what Abe is most interested in.
However, there are only slim chances that the UK will join the TPP. Since TPP members are mostly Asia-Pacific countries, the geographic distance is not conducive for the UK to deepen trade ties with these nations that are not London's major trading partners. After all, Brexit won't cut off the UK's trade with EU members and London focuses more on the huge European market. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, in 2016 the UK's major trading partners within the EU were Germany, the Netherlands and France. The US, China and Switzerland were its leading trading partners outside the EU.
It's also necessary to note that if the UK does hope to strengthen trade ties with Asian countries, joining the Belt and Road
initiative would be a better option than the TPP. Under the circumstance, the TPP is only an item that doesn't rank high on the list of UK's options after Brexit.
After concluding the Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU in July, Japan, with access to the huge EU market now, doesn't value much the UK market. Abe actually hopes to deepen Japan-UK military and security cooperation through closer economic ties. For instance, the UK has planned to send aircraft carriers to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation operation in recent years, which may have Japan's tacit support. As a country outside the South China Sea waters, the UK doesn't have much influence on this issue. But as Tokyo is trying to develop an alliance with the UK, London would then naturally be involved in Asia-Pacific affairs and maintain its status as a global power. In the meantime, Japan can become emboldened to confront China.
With bleak chances of joining the TPP, the UK will more likely sign other trade deals with Japan after its divorce from the EU, such as a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA). According to statistics by Japan External Trade Organization, by 2015, there were 1,021 Japanese companies in the UK, the second largest in Europe after 1,600 in Germany. These firms in the UK, which are mainly in manufacturing sector, have created nearly 160,000 jobs in the country.
In this sense, the UK will be more interested in signing bilateral FTAs with major economies in Asia like Japan. Despite Abe welcoming the UK into the TPP with open arms, London's attitude to joining the 11-member pact may not be optimistic. The author is an editor at the Global Times and an observer of Japan issues. email@example.com