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Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement.

My Lords, as a supporter of free trade the UK takes a close interest in RCEP, which should help standardise rules and facilitate trade between partners in the region. The Government are committed to enhancing our trade with RCEP members, having concluded the CEPA with Japan and negotiated with Australia and New Zealand, along with our intention to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—plus, of course, our bilateral trade engagement with partner countries.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate him on the work that he and his colleagues have done in this whole area. But this new regional comprehensive liberalisation partnership, although it is much shallower than other market liberalisation such as the EU single market, for instance, is actually much bigger than any other. It covers 2.3 billion people and a third of the world’s trade; and it is in the region where most of the world’s growth will be over the next 10 years. Does my noble friend agree that we need to engage very closely indeed with this development? Now that we are aiming to join the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership, and are involved in the Japan agreement that he mentioned, does he agree that this should all be seen as part of what his right honourable friend Elizabeth Truss, the International Trade Secretary, calls the “Pacific mindset” in our overseas commercial strategy? That is thoroughly welcome and to my mind, as some would say, overdue.

I agree with my noble friend that RCEP is a very interesting trade agreement, and it is a notable achievement that it has been concluded. However, we feel that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a significantly deeper agreement that will set standards globally in a large number of areas; that is our priority.

My Lords, RCEP is a much shallower and less significant partnership than the CPTPP, as my noble friend just stated. Does he agree that it is hard to see how China could be accepted as a member of the CPTPP, given its provisions on transparency, anti-corruption, state-owned enterprises and labour and environmental protection? Does he also agree that it is very important that UK accession to the CPTPP should be fully agreed during Japan’s presidency, which necessitates a formal request for accession early in the new year?

My noble friend is right: we intend to move forward as quickly as we can with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and we hope to be able to make an application for accession early in the new year.

I fully take the point about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement—regional integration and multilateralism, serving other nations’ prosperity, is in the UK’s interest, so fully endorsing the importance of our linking to major trade blocs is a priority. However, as the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, has just drawn attention to, the China relationship is fraught, as it is for others, for multiple reasons. Does China’s inclusion hamper our ability to deepen trade relations with the RCEP community, or is RCEP viewed as a practical bridge-building mechanism?

We are watching RCEP closely, but at least six ASEAN and three non- ASEAN signatories need to ratify the agreement before it enters into force, and there is then a gap of 18 months before any other country can enter—so it would be many years before it would even be possible for us to consider entry into RCEP.

My Lords, before looking to very long-term ambitions for joining regional economic partnerships, is it not better for the Government to focus absolutely on the trade agreements that we already have and are struggling to roll over? The update from the Government yesterday says that, for the first time that we know of, we will, from 1 January, be trading on WTO terms with countries that we had a trade agreement with before—a real failure of this Government. One of the RCEP countries is Vietnam; when will we see the details for the rollover agreement for Vietnam so that we can debate it in this Parliament and judge whether the Government are performing as they should be?

My Lords, we have now concluded 27 agreements with 59 countries. There is a very small number of countries that we will not have completed agreements with before the end of this year, but I am pleased to say that the agreement in principle with Vietnam was concluded last week, during the Trade Secretary’s visit, and full details will be made available to the House in the normal way in due course.

My Lords, when he answered the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, a few minutes ago, the Minister was equivocal about whether the UK was considering joining RCEP. Could he give a clear yes-or-no answer as to whether, if China were a member by that stage—and it has applied to join—we would apply?

I am happy to give a clear answer to the noble Lord: at the present time, we have no intention of concluding a free trade agreement with China or of applying to join RCEP.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the Government have no intention of signing a free trade agreement with China, and I welcome RCEP because it could well have positive implications for companies in the EU and the UK. Does my noble friend agree that this arrangement will allow companies to ship products across the region more easily, without the rule-of-origin problems and with lower costs for those companies and their supply chains across the region? Does he agree that the UK would benefit from that if, rather than leaving the EU on WTO terms, we could retain our agreements with the EU?

My Lords, I have learnt that it is not easy to give answers that are completely up to date in relation to the EU negotiations. Noble Lords realise that these negotiations are proceeding, and a Statement will no doubt be made as to their conclusion in due course.

My Lords, UK trade with CPTPP members is £110 billion—more than our trade with China. Does the Minister agree that UK accession to the CPTPP would be a clear display of intent that the UK would continue to back the international rules-based trading order after leaving the EU? Does he also agree that it would display that it intends to remain an open economy—and, therefore, securing an EU deal is all the more important to press on to seize these opportunities? Will he confirm that, with India not being a member of either the CPTPP or RCEP, the Government will make the most of the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to India to fast-track an FTA with India?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s comments in relation to India and am very pleased to be able to say that the UK and India have agreed to pursue an enhanced trade partnership, which is, of course, the first step to a wider road map to deepen trade ties. This is an ambitious approach, and I look forward to it moving to a conclusion in due course.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the climate impacts of RCEP, particularly its impacts on disciplining the fossil fuel subsidies around the world, which are currently $500 billion? Is this being considered in all our trade negotiations, along the lines that New Zealand and others are aiming for with the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability?

My Lords, because we have no intention of joining RCEP at present, we have made no assessment of its effect on climate change.

My Lords, is it compatible with Britain’s sovereignty to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership? We have just re-established our sovereignty by sloughing off the multilateral agreements we have made, which clearly share sovereignty with the European Union, so why on earth are this Government considering going into other multilateral agreements in which we will have to share some of our sovereignty with others, whichever countries they are? I am very glad that they do not include China.

My Lords, UK accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement would secure increased trade and investment opportunities and help us diversify our trading links, and we believe that that would be to the benefit of the United Kingdom.

My noble friend said that we had signed 27 out of 59 free trade agreements; are those 59 agreements all those that we were party to through our EU membership? When might those negotiations on the remaining EPAs be concluded?

My Lords, only a small handful of agreements have not yet been concluded. We are anxious and keen to conclude those but, of course, it takes two to make a trade agreement, and we are in the hands of our partners for the timing of some of those.