(Bloomberg) -- The lone non-Asian trade minister at last week’s Southeast Asian leaders’ summit in Singapore, U.K. Trade Minister Greg Hands had plenty of room to make the case that Brexit won’t interfere with his country’s ambitious plans in the region.
As it scrambles to roll over some 40 European Union trade deals into individual agreements with the U.K., London has its eyes on plenty of additional negotiations. Growth-blessed Southeast Asia, with which it traded 32 billion pounds’ ($44 billion) worth of goods and services in 2016, is a priority.
“It’s really important, particularly in the Brexit context, to see that Britain is remaining the same outward-looking, engaged country as it always has been,” Hands said in an interview Sunday in Singapore. “There’s a lot more we could be doing – our trade with, say, Indonesia is quite low.”
The U.K. already has ramped up resources to boost its trade with Southeast Asia. Fresh intellectual property attachés in major capitals are adding to the 90 U.K. officials dedicated to trade in the region, said Hands. Fellow Tory MP Ed Vaizey was recently appointed as a trade envoy to the region, with particular focus on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Hands’s meetings on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit included talks with Koh Poh Koon, Singapore’s senior minister of state for trade and industry, as well as Indonesian Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita.
He also met with trade representatives from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, while warning that “obviously we cannot conduct trade entirely independently of politics and humanitarian crises,” referring to the possibility that the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar could imperil burgeoning trade prospects.
The Asean leaders’ meetings, following the finance ministers’ gathering earlier this month, represented another occasion for the region to emphasize its staunch pro-free trade position.
“More and more countries are feeling that we need to be advocates for trade,” said Hands. “If countries like the U.K. and Singapore aren’t making the case for trade, then we really would be in trouble.”
At the same time, Hands said he doesn’t think a “trade war” is brewing between the U.S. and China.
“Obviously there are a number of trade disputes around the world, as there always are,” he said. “I think we’re concerned about the position of trade around the world, but I wouldn’t use language like that.”
Hands was also tasked with doing his best to convince trade partners in the region that Brexit won’t alter the U.K.’s existing trade arrangements with Asean economies, or impede negotiations for new deals.
Some U.K. lawmakers have been skeptical that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will be able to transition those E.U. deals when the Brexit negotiation period begins in March 2019, with any new agreements effective from the start of 2021. Two of those E.U. agreements are with Singapore and Vietnam.
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