Security is never far behind trade, indeed the leading conceptual theory behind the European Union is that by creating an intricate network of trade in goods and services the cost of any conflict or even minor security issue would be too great – for even the largest of nations in the network.
What then are we to make of “Global Britain” beginning to flex its muscles in the Asia-Pacific region (‘ASPAC’)? The UK has officially applied to join the ‘Trans-Pacific Trade Group.’ This composes 11 countries in the ASPAC region and has all the hallmarks of a comprehensive free trade agreement which is meant to reduce tariffs and harmonise ‘non-tariff’ barriers which the government sees as an impediment particularly in the digital economy.
The FT claim it is an attempt at ‘backdooring’ favourable trade terms with the USA, but the Biden administration have shown zero interest in signing this deal as trade agreements have become bi-partisan poison in US politics. According to the FT, the plan (in isolation) looks little more than a stunt:
Britain’s application to join CPTPP while ending free trade with the EU — with Brexit generating vast amounts of red tape and border controls — is one of the apparent paradoxes of UK trade policy.
Distance remains a crucial factor. Even a recent trade deal with Japan was deemed by a UK government study likely to increase British gross domestic product “in the long run by about 0.07 per cent”.
By contrast, the economic consequences of Mr Johnson’s “Canada-style” EU trade deal were assessed by the Treasury as likely to cut almost 5 per cent from the UK economy over the longer term.
This was all in January as the PM boasted of this being part of the government’s celebration of the 1-year anniversary of Brexit. This month we had the follow up in security policy, the government wants to flex its muscles (thanks largely to international debt markets funding it) by increasing the size of the independent nuclear deterrent and other “full-spectrum” military build-up.
The government have published ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’ detailing their plans which will go beyond manifesto commitments on spending to GDP and modernisation of equipment for 2030. The government are following up on their courting of the ASPAC region with the following:
In 2021 the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, will lead a British and allied task group on the UK’s most ambitious global deployment for two decades, visiting the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. She will demonstrate our interoperability with allies and partners – in particular the United States – and our ability to project cutting-edge military power in support of NATO and international maritime security. Her deployment will also help the Government to deepen our diplomatic and prosperity links with allies and partners worldwide.
Although UK trade with this region is growing somewhere around 8% per year, it’s hard to see why the level of military build-up proposed by the government is necessary in 2021. China and the US might have standoffs over the south China sea but it’s difficult to see how the UK can add anything to this complicated maritime dispute.
As I hinted at earlier, the FT are dismissive of UK gov attempts on trade and security matters. They derided the plan calling it Britain’s attempt at being a ‘mini-superpower,’ which is hard to argue with as the nation does not have the vast reserves of finance, the industrial base with the skills and resources to build locally or even the political will (even within the Tory base) to start building Britannia 2.0. They point to how Johnson’s style of politics, which is averse to making hard choices, has failed to factor in the hard choices it will take for such a plan to be achievable.
Short termists will no doubt be jumping onto this bandwagon, expect Sammy et al to be talking up the possibility of contracts for the shipyard and smaller industries here. The reality is that if such a build-up takes place it won’t be the Belfast shipyard or Larne factory getting contracts, but the computer science schools and the tree lined streets of suburbia with cyber-security still being our greatest threat.
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.
*He writes in a strictly personal capacity*