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UK keen for TPP entry and Japan trade deal after Brexit

Beijing should be mindful of Belt and Road 'debt trap,' says foreign secretary

The U.K. wants to "carry on trade with Japan after Brexit," and join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- The U.K. hopes to secure free-trade relationships with Japan and other Asian countries after it leaves the European Union, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Nikkei on Tuesday, expressing a desire for both bilateral and multilateral deals.

Hunt also touched on issues regarding Beijing and frictions with Moscow, as well as London's trade and security relationships with Brussels after the divorce set for March 2019 -- known as Brexit -- in the interview held during his visit to Tokyo.

Asked if London was interested in joining the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact -- which does not include the U.S. -- or in forging a free trade agreement with Japan, Hunt answered: "Both, actually. We want to carry on trade with Japan after Brexit, and we want to be a part of the TPP."

With regard to China, the U.K. has "a good bilateral relationship" on the investment and trade fronts, Hunt said. The secretary visited China in July shortly after his appointment that same month, in his first official visit to an Asian country. Hunt added that there are "many positive things" in Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and suggested it will contribute to the development of China and other countries.

But some have described Belt and Road as a "debt trap" in which Beijing saddles other countries with massive debt over infrastructure projects, then extracts concessions in return -- such as a lease for a strategic port, as was the case with Sri Lanka. Beijing should "take account of these issues," Hunt said.

He added that Beijing's behavior in the South China Sea -- such as building artificial islands and asserting controversial territorial claims -- came as a "surprise to everyone." Hunt said China ought to follow international law and other multilateral rules.

Hunt is known for his strong ties to Asia, since his wife is Chinese and he himself taught English in Japan earlier in his career.

The foreign secretary also touched on Moscow's alleged involvement in a March attack in the south of England, in which a former Russian intelligence officer living in the U.K. and several others were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. "The Russian government authorized the use of chemical weapons on British soil," Hunt said, calling the move a violation of international law.

The U.K. has expelled a number of Russian diplomats over the incident. It is considering additional sanctions against Russia, Hunt said, suggesting another such attack could take place "if the price is not high enough."

Hunt did not get into the specifics, but since the British economy relies heavily on Russian money, many believe any new penalties will likely be limited to security officials and other individuals linked to the Novichok attack.

His comment may have been intended to press Japan to take a firm stance against Moscow with other Group of 7 members. The U.S., France and others have joined the U.K. in punishing Russia over the attack. But Tokyo has been wary of provoking Moscow as it seeks progress in its territorial dispute over a Russian-administered chain of islets north of Hokkaido, which Japan calls the Northern Territories. 

As for Brexit, "the atmosphere has improved" in negotiations with Brussels, Hunt said. Alluding to the possibility that the two sides could fail to reach an agreement, causing a chaotic break, the secretary warned that "nobody wants a no-deal Brexit, but we need to be very careful" to prevent such an outcome.

Hunt suggested that the U.K. would be willing to continue contributing to European security even after the split, saying "the peace we had in Europe has been built because of the very close relationship between the U.K. and continental European countries." But he cautioned that a no-deal Brexit would "change the British people's attitude toward Europeans."

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