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UK aims to gain TPP entry in 2022: trade secretary

Liz Truss says China still far from qualifying for Pacific trade pact

Among Conservatives, British International Trade Secretary Liz Truss enjoys one of the highest approval ratings in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's cabinet.   © Reuters

LONDON -- The U.K. wants to secure a place in the 11-member Trans-Pacific trade bloc, known as CPTTP, by the end of 2022, British International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told Nikkei, as the nation seeks economic opportunities after its exit from the European Union.

"I anticipate [the timeline] will be months rather than years," Truss said of the trade pact negotiations, which formally began Tuesday.

"I do hope we are able to reach a conclusion during 2022," she said.

The U.K. applied in February to join the trade pact, officially called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It views the framework, which includes Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, among other nations, as a crucial part of its post-Brexit trade policy.

Countries seeking to join the trade pact must negotiate tariffs and other market access conditions with each of its existing members. The British agricultural industry have voiced concerns about opening up the U.K. market to foreign competition.

Still, Truss said the U.K. is confident that it "can successfully negotiate the market access chapters."

"We've recently secured an agreement in principle" for a free trade agreement with Australia, a CPTPP member, she said.

China has also expressed an interest in joining the CPTPP. But the pact requires members to reform state-owned companies and to eliminate tariffs on a range of products, which many believe would pose a major challenge for Beijing.

Truss echoed this view, saying China still "needs to do more" to be fully compliant with World Trade Organization rules, let alone the more stringent requirements imposed on CPTPP members. If the U.K. becomes a full-fledged members of the Pacific pact, it would play a part in screening new applicants like China.

"There are still areas of the WTO where China is not being -- for example -- transparent about its industrial subsidies, where there are issues of forced technology transfer," she said. "They also have caused issues with forced labor."

WTO reform is expected to become a major topic at the Group of Seven trade ministers' meeting that Truss will chair in October. One of the most pressing questions is on how the WTO categorizes developing countries.

The body grants developing countries certain perks, like the ability to export agricultural and industrial goods for cheap to advanced economies. Each country can decide for itself whether it is developing, and China continues to claim developing status even after becoming the world's second-largest economy.

"When the WTO was formed in 1995, China's economy was a tenth the size of the U.S. economy," Truss said. "We're now in a very different position."

"Developing country status should be being used for those least developed countries who need assistance in order to participate in the World Trade Organization and lift people out of poverty through trade," she said.

Truss wants to address that issue, as well as other challenges like the WTO's log-jammed dispute settlement system, at the October meeting, in preparation for the WTO ministerial conference to be held later this year.

In terms of a free trade agreement between the U.K. and the U.S., Truss said the countries "continue to talk about the potential" of inking a deal.

U.S. President Joe Biden has been cautious about the idea, and the two sides are believed to face deep rifts when it comes to agricultural products. "That deal has to be right for the U.K. and the U.S.," she said, adding that she has no immediate timeline.

"We won't sacrifice quality for speed," she said.

Since entering parliament in 2010, Truss has held several key posts, including secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, and for justice. She has one of the highest approval ratings of any cabinet member among British Conservatives.

When asked about her ambition for the prime minister post, she stressed her focus on her current position.

"There's such a great opportunity to really shape Britain's future trade policy and make us a global hub of digital services and manufacturing, working with our close friends and allies like Japan," she said. "So I'm not thinking about anything else. I'm thinking about trading 24 hours a day."

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