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Lessons from smaller nations for Britain’s post-Brexit trade deals

It should have been the year of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This was to be the first of three mega-regional trade deals, designed to join the US and NAFTA partners with key Asian economies, Australasia, and emerging nations in South America. US president, Donald Trump, put paid to that by withdrawing at the beginning of 2017.

Trump’s decision leaves in the lurch those trading partners who don’t have current bilateral preferential trade agreements (PTAs) with the US. That includes larger countries including Japan, but is more worrying for smaller countries such as New Zealand and Brunei. They will now be unable to gain preferential access to the US market, even if the other TPP members can establish a TPP minus the US.

For smaller states, access to the world’s top markets is crucial. They face difficulties getting in the goods and services they need for economic development and innovation. And because they’re small, producers and providers seekign scale need to look beyond their borders for new customers.

World Bank data from 2016 shows that on average, trade as a percentage of GDP is particularly high in small states: 103% compared to 84% for the eurozone. For these countries, domestic demand can’t act as a backstop as it does for the US, EU or China.

All in this together? ArtisticPhoto/Shutterstock

Staying open

That has prompted a group of smaller states in the Asia-Pacific to take trade openness to heart. Since the 1980s and 1990s, they have developed active policies of unilateral reduction of trade barriers and pursuit of PTA networks. Chile, Singapore and New Zealand, stand out.

Singapore has benefited from its location at the heart of the South-East Asian growth economies and manufacturing hubs. It has established itself as an access point for the region with its port, service industries, membership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and PTAs covering 31 partners.

Chile positioned itself as a “gateway to Latin America” for European, North American and – later – Asian business, by developing an extensive network of PTAs. Chile’s PTAs cover 61 countries. Both Chile and Singapore have negotiated PTAs with the US, EU and China. New Zealand, meanwhile, has PTAs with 16 partners, including China, and will soon embark on negotiations with the EU.

Calm waters for New Zealand? Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

Their success in creating PTA networks lies in a flexible approach and adaptation to their partners’ needs. For instance, Chile initially negotiated a trade in goods agreement with China – and only negotiated an agreement on services once China had decided that trade in services deals could be beneficial. Their PTAs are, therefore, diverse in terms of coverage and scope. This contrasts with the use of templates by the US and the EU’s insistence on a number of areas that must be included in PTAs.

Their small size has aided them in pioneering PTAs with new partners. They are not seen as a threat. This makes larger and more protected markets willing to negotiate with them. Less than 1% of Singapore land is given over to farming, and it contributes the same to its GDP. That means sensitive agricultural issues are eliminated from negotiations with the US, EU and China. Even New Zealand, a highly successful exporter of dairy and agricultural goods, is viewed in a relatively benign light. It was able to sign an FTA with Chinain 2008 – seven years before Australia – as, even with somewhat improved agricultural market access, it would be unable to severely damage Chinese agriculture.

This enables these states to offer something of unique value to negotiation partners: a safe environment in which to learn about PTAs, and practice and test new approaches. New Zealand actively courted this by becoming the first developed state to negotiate a PTA and grant China market economy status and, now, the first to engage in upgrading negotiations with China.

Brexit blueprint?

TPP itself emerged from small states’ vision to overcome their market limitations and enhance their attractiveness as PTA partners. Limited progress on trade liberalisation within APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organisation) led Singapore, Chile and New Zealand (and later Brunei) to negotiate the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (also known as P4) of 2005. The intention here was that others may join. When, in 2008, the US announced it would do just that, TPP negotiations began. With the initial agreement was signed in 2016, it looked like their gambit had succeeded.

Although the US will not participate in TPP for now, the project has reinvigorated interest in trade negotiations in the region. It has also enhanced the attractiveness of smaller trade partners – look to the EU negotiations with Asian and Australasian states as proof of that.

Moreover, decades of East and South East Asian initiatives for regional agreements coalesced in 2012 against the TPP backdrop in the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between ASEAN and its PTA partners: China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Battle lines drawn for Brexit. Davis and Barnier. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

It remains unclear whether RCEP will conclude this year, but it has become the last remaining of the major mega-regional initiatives after the stalemates in TPP and TTIP. Asia-Pacific states whose governments have committed to trade openness are keen to join this initiative in the absence of TPP.

Shifts in policies in the major economies will continue to affect smaller economies. However, smaller Asia-Pacific economies have shown they can exercise agency in their trade strategies, and retain and expand their attractiveness as trade partners.

The UK will shortly find itself thrust into a new world of FTAs and PTAs as it imagines life outside the EU. It might just be able to copy the blueprint of a flexible approach and a unique proposition to potential partners. But crucially, whether it can present itself as a non-threatening economic force is another matter entirely.

This article has been published as part of the World Economic Forum series, The State of Trade.

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