Exclusive: The Foundation for Independence wants the UK to adopt a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”
Senior Brexiteers have called on Boris Johnson to prioritise ties with Asian democracies such as India, Taiwan and South Korea rather than focusing on an EU trade deal and getting closer to China.
A fresh round of post-Brexit trade negotiations begins in Brussels on Monday with the UK and EU both optimistic of a breakthrough following a recent summit between the Prime Minister and European leaders.
The two sides have earmarked October as the deadline for striking a deal which can be ratified in time for the end of the post-Brexit transition period on 31 December.
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The Government is adamant it will not extend the transition, but some Eurosceptic campaigners are concerned ministers could end up backsliding.
The Foundation for Independence, a pro-Brexit think-tank, argues in a new report that Mr Johnson should put less emphasis on trade talks with the “stagnant” EU.
It also warns against cosying up to a “malignant” Chinese government – instead, the report says, the UK should improve its own infrastructure capacity and drugs manufacturing in order to reduce economic dependence on China.
‘Wealth of opportunities’
The foundation – set up by John Longworth and John Mills, veteran businessmen who helped lead Vote Leave – calls for a new “special relationship” with India, building up ties through moves such as encouraging more Indian students to attend British universities.
As part of a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”, it recommends seeking trade deals with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore as well as Commonwealth allies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Mr Mills said: “Brexit presents the UK with a wealth of opportunities to bolster free trade with areas of the world, like the Indo-Pacific, where existing ties are currently underdeveloped. Effective free-trade arrangements will be central to fuelling both Britain’s and the world’s post-Covid economic recovery.”
The Foundation for Independence is intended to maintain pressure on the Prime Minister and his team to keep their promises about the post-Brexit future. Some Leave supporters are worried Mr Johnson could use his large Commons majority as political cover to soften his position.
Monday’s UK-EU trade talks are the first to take place face-to-face since the start of lockdown. No 10 negotiator David Frost is taking a team of officials to Brussels for discussions with his opposite number Michel Barnier.
The envoys have previously complained about the difficulty of conducting talks via video – including the lack of opportunity for the informal interactions that can produce a breakthrough.
Separately Liz Truss has asked officials to push through three complete trade agreement by the end of this year. The Trade Secretary has made it clear she wants negotiations with the US, Japan and Australia to conclude in 2020. But negotiators have warned her that the timeline is unrealistic given most trade deals take several years to agree.
The informal deadline for a deal with the US is the country’s election in November, due to fears that Joe Biden could be less keen to strike an agreement than Donald Trump. The Japanese government has said it wants to conclude a deal over the summer.
If – as Ms Truss wants – the UK also managed to reach agreement with Australia, and EU talks run out of the Cabinet Office were also a success, Britain would have established four new deals in the first year after Brexit.
Critics insist that rushing the agreements through would reduce Britain’s leverage and result in less comprehensive deals. Ms Truss has told allies she will not sign the UK up to unpopular provisions, such as accepting controversial food products from the US, because of the risk to her own reputation and career.
A Department for International Trade source said: “The Secretary of State has been very clear that there is no deadline on these talks, and that we will only do deals that are in the best interests of the British people and our economy. We have a strong team of negotiators working around the clock across three continents and multiple time zones to get these deals done.”