UK agrees to join Pacific trade pact in post-Brexit deal

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LONDON (AP) — The U.K. has agreed to join an Asia-Pacific trade pact that includes Japan, Mexico and Australia — the biggest new trade deal Britain has struck since leaving the European Union three years ago.

The British government said Friday that it had clinched an agreement after almost two years of negotiations to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

The government said membership would reduce tariffs on British dairy products and other goods and remove red tape for services, boosting the U.K. economy by 1.8 billion pounds ($2.2 billion) “in the long run.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the deal “demonstrates the real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms.”

“Joining the CPTPP trade bloc puts the U.K. at the center of a dynamic and growing group of Pacific economies, as the first new nation and first European country to join,” Sunak said.

The deal comes as the U.K. pursues an “Indo-Pacific tilt” in its economic and foreign policy in response to the region’s economic growth, and China’s rising influence on the world stage.

Critics said the deal with nations thousands of miles away is insignificant compared to Britain’s trade with its neighbors in the 27-nation EU. Brexit has imposed barriers to trade between Britain and the bloc, which remains by far the U.K.’s biggest economic partner. The government’s Office for Budget responsibility said in November that Brexit had had “a significant adverse impact on U.K. trade.”

David Henig, a trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, said CPTPP membership would not have a huge economic impact but “on balance” it was good for Britain.

“Doesn’t do a lot for us (services provisions for example are weak), but trade policy is all about marginal gains these days, and it should be that,” he wrote on Twitter.

Members of the CPTPP are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The United States, the world’s biggest economy, is not part of the CPTTP; former President Donald Trump withdrew the country from its predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His successor, Joe Biden, has not rejoined.

China, which has the globe’s second-largest economy, has applied to join, a move that would quadruple the group’s total population to some 2 billion people.