The UK is seeking to revive post-Brexit trade relations with Latin America

The UK hopes joining the Asia-Pacific trade pact will open up markets for British businesses in Latin America, part of a wider effort to revive ties with the region long neglected by London.

At the end of his trip to Colombia, Chile and Brazil, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the level of trade with Brazil’s $2.1 billion economy was “not as high as it should be”, partly because of a lack of mutual understanding.

“Some British businesses are not thinking about Latin America,” he told the Financial Times. “We have to make sure. . . it is a region that is on the shopping list of British businesses.”

Although its population is 664 million people. He shrewdly noted in a speech in Santiago, Chile that Latin America accounts for just 2 per cent of UK imports and 2.5 per cent of exports. “I know there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “We need to be ambitious in our future relationship.”

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Part of the government’s response is the Comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership. The UK completed negotiations in March to join the pact, which includes Asian powerhouses such as Japan and Vietnam, as well as Pacific nations including Chile, Peru and Mexico. Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay also applied to join.

But the UK faces an uphill battle against China, whose voracious appetite for food and critical minerals has made it South America’s biggest trading partner over the past two decades.

Chinese companies have bought up lithium and copper mines in the region, as well as much of the soy and meat produced by Brazil and Argentina.

Asked if he announced any business or investment deals during his visit, Cleverly said his trip was “not just a short-term transactional thing” but “about strengthening a serious, really important, long-term bilateral relationship.”

He also highlighted his trip to the Amazon rainforest to visit a science project and his signing of a climate partnership agreement with Brazil, which builds on £80m of funding to tackle deforestation announced this month by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

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Cleverly’s week-long visit was the first by a UK foreign secretary in five years, but he avoided Argentina, South America’s second-largest economy, where a long-running dispute over British sovereignty over the Falklands is further straining relations.

Jeremy Browne, chief executive of Latin American forum Canning House, said Cleverly deserved credit for “swimming against the institutional tide to focus more on Latin America”, given the “obvious trading opportunity post-Brexit”.

But he added: “The test will be whether the Secretary of State and the wider government can maintain a more multidimensional global outlook, moving from a narrow view of foreign policy interests to new partnerships in previously neglected parts of the world, such as Latin America.”

William Hague’s previous effort as foreign secretary in 2010 to restart relations with Latin America failed to boost trade and investment levels. The government’s updated defense and foreign policy review published in March mentions Latin America only once in 63 pages.

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Cleverly said the review was “not intended as a name check or an explorer’s guide to countries and regions” but made clear the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, which includes the Pacific coast of Latin America.

A senior Latin American diplomat based in London welcomed the UK’s renewed focus on the region, but questioned how realistic London’s ambitions could be.

“We’re seeing a certain element of overstretch,” he said. “The UK has the Indo-Pacific tilt, the war in Ukraine, the special relationship with the US and rekindled EU relations. That’s a lot of priorities.”