Boosting Trade, Investment May Be UK Asia-Pacific Minister Alok Sharma’s Priority
Colombo, July 25: Going by his professional background and areas of involvement earlier in his political career, the newly appointed British Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Alok Sharma, will in all likelihood promote trade and investment with the countries of South Asia rather than harp on human rights, according to The New Indian Express.
In his statement on taking over, Sharma said: “I look forward to working closely with my new colleagues and my counterparts across Asia and the Pacific, with a particular focus on strengthening commercial ties, increasing investment opportunities in both directions, and promoting human rights in the region.”
Note that promotion of human rights is the last of his priorities.
The Conservative MP for Reading West, was an ardent advocate of Britain’s staying with the European Union (EU) and that, on economic grounds. He set up a cross-party “British Indians for IN” group to ensure that the undecided votes went in favor of “Remain”.
“A vote to remain guarantees us (the British) continued unfettered access to Europe’s free trade single market of 500 million consumers, meaning lower prices, more jobs, increased investment and financial security,” Sharma exhorted his people.
He was only too aware that 44 per cent of what Britain exports went to the EU, and 3 million jobs in the UK were dependent in some way on trade with that unified market.
A Chartered Accountant by profession, Sharma’s involvement in politics has been essentially in the economic aspect of it. He has served as a member of the Commons Treasury Select Committee; a member of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee; and a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Treasury. In 2016, he was appointed Prime Minister Cameron’s “Infrastructure Envoy” to India.
In his own constituency of Reading West, Sharma earned a good name by supporting local businesses. He has organized local business export seminars and helped deliver reductions in business rates for local businesses.
Prior to entering parliament in 2010 (the current stint is his second), Sharma had worked for 16 years in banking, first with the Japanese firm Nikko Securities and then with Enskilda Securities (the investment banking arm of SE Banken), where he held senior roles based out of London, Stockholm and Frankfurt, including serving as a member of the bank’s Corporate Finance Global Management Committee.
In South Asia
With Britain opting to stand on its own feet now that it exiting EU, Sharma will have to promote his country as a trade and investment partner aggressively. In South Asia, his focus will essentially be promotion of trade and investment. And the prospects are good with India on a growth trajectory and Sri Lanka trying to promote ethnic reconciliation through development with the assistance of all countries including those of the West.
The UK is the third largest source of foreign direct investment in India. And India is the third largest source of FDI (in terms of the number of projects) in the UK, after the US and France. The UK imports more and more from India, though the level of its exports to the country has recently begun to stutter after several years of growth.
UK-India economic relations is a two way street. India invests more in the UK than in the rest of the EU combined, and the UK is the largest G20 investor in India. Both sides committed to further strengthening the economic relationship, including through deepening the bilateral trade and investment relationship. Contributing greatly to UK-India ties are the 1.4 to 1.7 million Indians in the UK who are doing well. Indians are 2 percent of the UK population but are 12 percent of UK doctors.
It is therefore not surprising that the first country that Sharma will visit as Minister is India.
Britain accounts for about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s total exports to the world. UK ranks the second largest export market for Sri Lanka after the USA. The total value of Sri Lanka’s exports to the UK in 2014 stood around US$ 1,115 million.
Over 80 percent of the Sri Lanka exports to the UK are accounted for by apparel and clothing accessories. Other main items exported to the UK include rubber and rubber articles (4 percent), tea & spices (1.2 percent), footwear, animal/vegetable fats, fishery products, toys and games, and essential oils.
The value of Sri Lankan imports from the UK has been averaging around US$ 290 million. Sri Lanka’s import basket includes a variety of products such as parts and accessories for aircraft, machinery and mechanical appliances, articles of iron and steel, paper and paper boards, beverages and sprits, pharmaceutical products, plastic and plastic products, and man-made fibers.
The new Sri Lankan government is trying to get the 500,000 strong, predominantly Tamil, Sri Lankan Diaspora in the UK to invest in the island. They are also being co-opted in the country’s constitution making and reconciliation processes.
In his profile, Sharma has mentioned Pakistan and India as a special area of interest perhaps because of the nature of his constituency. Fortunately for him, UK-Pakistan economic relations are also strong. In 2014, bilateral trade in goods and services was £2.535 billion, which showed an increase by 14% as compared to 2013.
Despite the worrying security situation in Pakistan, over 100 UK companies have established operations in that country, and many hundreds of others have appointed agents and distributors to promote their products. A substantial section of the 1.17 million Pakistani origin people in the UK are in business and have been promoting UK-Pakistan trade and investment.
Lankan Tamil Question
Like all South Asian British MPs, Sharma has also been interested in promoting human rights, but he has not been in the forefront on the Sri Lankan Tamil question unlike some others like Jeremy Corbyn, Siobhain McDonagh and Garath Thomas, Simon Hughes, Robert Halfon and Lee Scott. Sharma has attended meetings called to support the Tamils and spoken sometimes. But his interests clearly lie in economic matters.
Britain’s carefully crafted policy on Sri Lanka has changed since the advent of a new government in the island headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in January 2015. And it is likely to remain steady under the new leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May.
It was only on very recently (July 21) that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office released its report on Sri Lanka for the period January to June 2016. The report was appreciative of what the new regime in Sri Lanka had been doing rather than being critical. FCO’s assessment clears the ground for making trade and investment the basis of UK-Sri Lankan relations.
The report said: “The human rights situation in Sri Lanka continued to improve between January and June 2016. However, much remains to be done for Sri Lanka to fulfil the commitments made in Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in October 2015. For the remainder of 2016 we expect the positive trajectory to continue, and the government to take steps to address areas of concern
“The UK,” it added: “will continue to encourage and support the government of Sri Lanka in fulfilling its commitments to improve human rights and democracy, and to address the legacies of the past. We will continue funding our project work to improve human rights, including on the prevention of torture and ending sexual and gender-based violence, transitional justice, and interfaith work.”