What the UK joining the CPTPP could mean for Southeast Asia

The UK’s application to join the CPTPP trade bloc in February swept aside any vestiges of the notion that candidate countries must be possessed of ‘Asianness’ or Pacific geography. If admitted, their presence could influence major issues across Southeast Asia

Daniel McKay
April 4, 2021
What the UK joining the CPTPP could mean for Southeast Asia
Representatives posing for a picture before signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in Santiago, Chile, 08 March 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/Mario Ruiz

Not so long ago, heads of state openly regarded cultural commonality as a necessary precondition before trade negotiations could get underway, one that could reduce an otherwise promising venture into a slanging match.  

Thus Mahathir Mohamad, then-Malaysian prime minister, speaking with a Japanese journalist in the mid-90s on the question of whether Australia could affiliate with ASEAN, said: “You can’t simply decide to be Asian. You must have an Asian culture. This means, for a start, changing your attitude and improving your manners. Asians don’t go around telling others what to do.”

If distinctions like Mahathir’s were possible a quarter century ago, nowadays they have fallen out of fashion. Diplomats gripe and joke along such lines at the cocktail club, and former British Conservative MP Matthew Parris has published a witty book along such lines, but in Southeast Asia, at least, culturalist public statements are few and far between. 

Nor is it hard to find the reason why. Above all blame maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which suggest, contra Mahathir, that the ‘mannerly Asians’ vs. ‘bolshie outsiders’ distinction is now impossible to sustain. At the end of the day, it’s easy to take the high moral ground if your national territory isn’t being infringed upon by a near-neighbour (especially a neighbour with whom one is supposed to have something in common).

Then there’s the prospect of adding a new member to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade bloc, a country that also doesn’t have an Asian culture, but whose putative respect for customs and manners may suit rule-abiding members rather well. The UK’s application on February 1 this year has swept aside any vestiges of the notion that candidate countries must be possessed of ‘Asianness’ or, if it comes to that, Pacific geography.  

Distance doesn’t matter either, apparently, as Andrew Cainey put it: “It takes longer to fly to Singapore, in non-pandemic times, from Toronto or Ottawa than from London. If Canada is a CPTTP member, then why not the UK?” 

As negotiations develop, the intention is to hold up the UK as an example of the overall attractiveness of CPTPP membership, so as to entice other countries to join

So far, diplomatic statements and news coverage are in agreement, having framed the issue as one of economic expediency. But is that all there is to it? What if economics is not the only factor at play here?

If the shifting sands of geopolitics have changed the way Southeast Asian nations conceive of themselves, they have brought discomfort elsewhere also. Hard though it may be for British diplomats to realise, CPTPP accession talks aren’t necessarily about their country at all.  

Of course, nobody’s indifferent to the UK’s strength in financial services and a few other bits and bobs (Scotch, anyone?), but there’s a longer-term strategy developing and the UK is only a small part of it – small, but potentially significant. 

As negotiations develop, the intention is to hold up the UK as an example of the overall attractiveness of CPTPP membership, so as to entice other countries to join and, at the same time, maintain an uncompromising position on the terms and conditions. Writing for the RUSI think tank in London, Elly Darkin advanced exactly this view, speculating that CPTPP representatives will rebuff all or most of the UK’s attempts to negotiate membership conditions. It will be hard for the British to stomach this ‘take it or leave it’ approach, but the precedent will serve for future applicants, including, potentially, the US.

If this sounds like a poisoned chalice for the UK, think again. In fact, the situation might suit the British rather well. In part, this is because CPTPP regulations align with the UK’s current trade priorities, and also because the calculation in Westminster and, indeed, among current CPTPP members is that Washington must sooner or later return to the business of improving transpacific trade ties if it wishes to be taken seriously in the region.

For reasons both diplomatic and personal, Joe Biden isn’t likely to grant post-Brexit Britain a trade agreement during his first term of office. While that had been the hope at No. 10 Downing Street, so far the language coming out of Washington is that the UK, as a nation of some 65 million, just isn’t high enough up the league tables. Nothing personal, then. But everyone knows that Biden’s antipathy to Brexit is a factor in itself. Hence the face-saving prospect, for the UK at least, of using CPTPP as a way to get all parties together without the need for political showmanship. When that time comes, the US will of course know what is happening and will downplay its significance, if indeed they acknowledge it at all. For the British, the trick then will be to keep a low-profile status as the price to be paid for getting what they want.

In East Asia, a parallel to this can be found in the recently signed RCEP agreement of some fifteen countries, which includes Japan and South Korea. Though the flight time between these two countries averages only an hour or so, travel links have not done away with the legacies of the colonial period, which flared up again in 2019. Under these circumstances, not only was a country-to-country trade pact unthinkable, maintaining normal trade ties was becoming increasingly difficult. But by sitting side-by-side with other prospective RCEP trade partners instead of staring each other right in the eye, Japanese and South Korean negotiators have been able to indulge in the fiction that the other side isn’t really a factor. It isn’t true, of course, and both sides know that it isn’t. That’s what makes it useful.

Then there’s the military dimension. The fact that the UK will be the only nuclear-armed member of CPTPP might appear to be incidental, as might its two jet-capable aircraft carriers (Japan’s two Hyūga-class vessels carry helicopters only). But only if one believes that trade ties develop in a vacuum in which other forms of power projection are irrelevant. Since nobody seriously believes this, Westminster’s otherwise puzzling decision to raise the cap on the UK’s stockpile of nuclear warheads and to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea makes sense as a form of diplomatic leverage.

Writing for The Spectator, Francis Pike notes: “Some might question why, after Britain has snapped into line to support the US, American government officials have let it be known that UK-US trade negotiations are going to be kicked into the long grass.” But this is to mistake the Royal Navy’s deployment as an attention-grabbing move aimed at senators in Washington.  While it’s certainly showy and historically significant (Boris Johnson never liked the retreat of British forces East of Suez), a UK-US trade agreement is not the prize for the moment.  

The question is, will British negotiators extract concessions from their CPTPP counterparts, particularly those with claims over the South China Sea, by alluding to the advantages of a Royal Navy presence in the region, or will they join with no questions asked, the better to form a united front when those future candidate members come knocking?  

For Southeast Asia and the UK alike, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Daniel McKay is associate professor in the Graduate School of Global Studies, Japan. His journal article publications are downloadable from the usual places and his opinion pieces can occasionally be found on website of the Australian journal Overland. 

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