The UK has been accepted into an Indo-Pacific trade bloc in what the government says is its biggest trade deal since Brexit.

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is a free trade agreement between 11 countries across the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – and now the UK.

The partnership sees the countries open up their markets to one another, reducing trade barriers and tariffs, with the hope of bolstering the economies of its members.

Sunak hails UK joining CPTPP – live politics updates

Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch said the UK’s accession to the CPTPP was formally confirmed in a telephone call between her and counterparts from the group at 1am BST on Friday.

The UK is the first European country to enter the agreement, and the government claims it will lead to a £1.8bn boost to the economy “in the long run”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the deal shows “what we can achieve when we unleash the benefits of Brexit”.

While the UK already has trade agreements with most of the CPTPP members, apart from Malaysia, UK officials said it would deepen existing arrangements, with 99% of UK goods exported to the bloc now eligible for zero tariffs.

This includes cheese, cars, chocolate, machinery, gin and whisky, while Downing Street said the services industry would also enjoy “reduced red tape and greater access to growing Pacific markets”.

The deal has been praised by a number of business groups, including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Standard Chartered bank and the world’s second-largest wine and spirits seller Pernod Ricard.

But other trade experts have warned it will not make up for the economic hit caused by leaving the European Union.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said joining the CPTPP is a “massive opportunity” for British exporters and shows “our influence in this part of the world is becoming more significant”.

Ms Badenoch told Sky News the difference between being part of the CPTPP and the EU is “we make the rules and regulations on our standards”.

She promised the deal is “not going to displace farmers in the UK” and said it will provide more competition for EU countries so “people don’t have to buy what they don’t want”.

Ms Badenoch admitted the lower tariffs will apply to palm oil, which is responsible for destroying orangutan habitats, but said you “have to make trade-offs” when doing a deal and said the UK currently buys 1% of Malaysia’s exports and “moving to 2% from 1% is not what is going to cause deforestation.”

She claimed the UK will have “more influence” on sustainability as part of the bloc – despite Greenpeace calling the deal “outrageous”.

“Palm oil is actually a great product, it’s in so many of the things we use,” she added.

“This is not some illegal substance we’re talking about and actually there are other crops in the EU that are causing deforestation that fit within EU rules.”

The UK began negotiations to join the bloc in September 2021 when Boris Johnson was in Downing Street.

The signatory countries of the CPTPP are home to 500 million people and the government claims the deal will be worth £11 trillion in GDP, accounting for 15% of global GDP.

However, critics said the impact will be limited, with official estimates suggesting it will add just £1.8bn a year to the UK economy after 10 years, representing less than 1% of UK GDP.

Mr Sunak said the agreement “puts the UK at the centre of a dynamic and growing group of Pacific economies”.

“We are at our heart an open and free-trading nation, and this deal demonstrates the real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms,” he added.

“As part of CPTPP, the UK is now in a prime position in the global economy to seize opportunities for new jobs, growth and innovation.”

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‘Real milestone for British industry’

The announcement was welcomed by business group the CBI which called it “a real milestone for the UK and for British industry”.

Interim general director Matthew Fell said: “Not only does the agreement provide greater access to a group of fast growth economies representing 14% of global GDP and over 500 million consumers, but membership reinforces the UK’s commitment to building partnerships in an increasingly fragmented world.

“CPTPP countries and business need to work together to future-proof the rules-based trading system and stimulate growth with a focus on digital, services and resilient supply chains.”

Labour said the agreement represented “encouraging” progress but it needed to see details.

The party’s shadow trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The Conservative government’s track record in striking good trade deals is desperately poor.

“Other countries joining CPTPP arrangements have secured important safeguards and put in place support for their producers: it is vital that ministers set out if they plan to do the same.”

Members of a wild otter family called 'Bishan10' at Singapore's Marina Bay
Image:
Singapore is one of the now-12 members of the CPTPP


‘EU should be priority’

The Institute of Directors said it was “vital the UK signs trade deals to restore our international reputation since Brexit”.

But it added “complete reorientation” to the Indo-Pacific would not solve “the very real problem that businesses currently face – namely that they have many more trade related challenges than they did six years ago”.

“From our surveys, directors have told us that the EU-UK relationship is a priority issue the government needs to address in order to support business,” they said.

“UK companies still rely on the long-established links they have with EU markets, which are directly on our doorstep and with whom they have closer historical ties.

“The Indo-Pacific strategy will open up important opportunities for UK businesses, but the government must not forfeit the significance of our relationship with the EU in order to do so.”

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