Donald Trump abandoned a Pacific trade group not long after getting to the White House. But could the UK be eyeing it up?
Britain is reportedly exploring joining the Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP), as part of efforts to map out its trade future after Brexit.
The UK government has not been falling over itself to confirm the claims, but did say it was “not excluding” talks on joining such trade blocs.
Even mention of Britain entering negotiations has been met with scepticism from some trade experts who argue it’s unlikely to lead to a deal – and even if it did happen, the UK would not have much clout.
What is the TPP?
President Trump cast doubt over the future of the TPP when he honoured a campaign pledge and pulled out of the trade pact last year.
But the remaining 11 members – Canada, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam – have pressed on and are working towards an agreement.
The TPP pact is designed to deepen economic ties between these nations, by slashing tariffs and fostering trade to boost growth.
The agreement was designed so that it could eventually create a new single market. Not dissimilar to the EU.
What would be in it for the UK?
Well, put simply, fresh trade opportunities after Brexit.
For supporters of leaving the EU, the opportunity to do new trade deals was one of the great attractions.
The members of the TPP currently account for about 8% of British exports. The biggest single destination for UK goods and services in that group is Japan.
“Easier access would certainly be worth having for many British exporters,” says BBC economics correspondent Andrew Walker.
But even the very possibility of these talks has drawn criticism.
Labour MP and Open Britain supporter Chuka Umunna says new trade deals “would not come close to making up for lost trade with the EU after a hard Brexit”.
And if the UK did join the TPP, it risks holding “little leverage” in talks, according to Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
He says nations are highly unlikely to reopen negotiations on sensitive matters, simply to accommodate the UK.
“It took eight years to negotiate the original agreement, and finalising it is a matter of some urgency for Japan, Australia, and others,” he said.
Given the urgency to seal a deal, Mr Connelly warns the UK would be a “price taker” on the terms of the pact, particularly in areas like pharmaceuticals, state-owned enterprises, labour and the environment.
“If Brexit was about symbolically taking back control in these areas, then joining the TPP would do little to accomplish that,” he added.
So is a deal likely?
A Department for International Trade spokesman says it is “early days” in the UK’s quest to sign new deals.
“We have set up 14 trade ‘working groups’ across 21 countries to explore the best ways of progressing our trade and investment relationships across the world. We are not excluding future talks on plurilateral relationships”.
If included, the UK would expand the reach of the TPP to countries beyond those that border the Pacific Ocean.
“It had always been the idea that the TPP would expand,” says James Crabtree, Associate Professor of Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
But he argues practical constraints make the UK’s inclusion in the pact unlikely.
“The problem is there are all sorts of barriers to this happening,” Mr Crabtree says.
Those include the TPP having not yet been ratified and the considerable uncertainty over the UK’s final deal with the EU.
“It all sounds like a fairly desperate attempt by the British government to show that it has a vision for what happens after Brexit.
“They don’t have many options, and trying to get into this symbolises that Britain is serious about trying to build trade relationships.”