Speech delivered by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to UK and local businesses at the British Chambers of Commerce in Hong Kong
Good morning, it is a pleasure to be back in Hong Kong to address the British Chambers of Commerce, especially at such an exciting time as the UK forges a new role for itself in the world.
I first came to Hong Kong over 20 years ago, before the transfer of sovereignty.
It was one of the most exciting, compelling places that I had ever encountered.
Although I have returned since, I have never lost that first impression; every time I arrive, I am struck again by Hong King’s vibrancy and dynamism.
In fact, 2 years ago, almost to the week, my wife and I spent Christmas here.
But today, I return in a new capacity, as the United Kingdom’s first ever Secretary of State for International Trade.
My department was created in July last year, in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a political development of which I’m sure most of you will be aware.
Following this, there has been concern expressed in some quarters that, on the 23rd of June, Britain voted for insularity.
That as nation we chose to surrender our place in the world, and turn our back on our global relationships and commitments.
But nothing can be further from the truth.
The creation of my department is proof, if it were needed, that the UK will be more internationally engaged than ever before.
For the first time in a generation, we have the ability to shape our own destiny.
It is this Government’s ambition to put Britain at the centre of the argument for global free trade; and to become the world’s natural business partner.
We will work tirelessly to reduce, and where possible remove, barriers to free trade wherever we find them and we have had some very fruitful discussion on this topic over the last few days here in Hong Kong.
You may have heard the mantra that ‘Britain is open for business’.
It is perhaps well-used, but that does not make it any less true.
It is especially important at a time when the growth in global trade is slowing – we have seen the growth in global trade drop below global GDP growth for the first time since 2011. Britain and our closest free trading allies, like Hong Kong, must stand firm against rising protectionism.
For the rewards of free trade are counted in human, as well as economic terms.
By spreading prosperity, trade has freed millions of people from poverty.
By spreading competition, trade has driven down prices and raised standards of living across the globe.
And of course, by creating a more open, dynamic, free trading nation, we can safeguard the prosperity of Britain, and build an economy that works for everyone.
But we cannot achieve this vision without the help of our closest commercial allies.
And, as I hardly need tell those in this room, Britain’s relationship with Hong Kong is one of the most fruitful and valued in our history.
Last year, UK exports to Hong Kong totalled almost £8 billion.
Over 630 British companies have offices here, and thousands more come to close deals and conduct trade.
This remarkable corner of the world, no larger than Greater Manchester, is our second largest trading partner in Asia.
There is no mistaking the importance of Hong Kong to Britain - as one of our most important foreign direct investors, it is a partnership that creates thousands of jobs and supports families across the UK.
Just one example is Detroit electric, who I will be visiting on this trip.
They are a fast-growing and innovative car company who, despite the name, are Hong-Kong owned and based in Leamington Spa.
Having recently launched their electric supercar, they are taking advantage of the UK’s highly educated workforce to invest and expand their engineering operations.
After a 200 year trading partnership, Britain and Hong Kong remain at the cutting edge and long may this continue.
That is why I am here today to promote our mutual relationship.
My Department wants to offer more support to those UK companies who want to export to Hong Kong, and do to more to engage investors – from Hong Kong and mainland China – to take advantage of opportunities in the UK.
You are our ideological partners in free trade, and I am discussing with my counterparts here in Hong Kong how we can do more together, working to break down barriers and liberalise our bilateral trading relationship.
It is a relationship unlike any other.
The unique nature of the Hong Kong economy does not lend itself to a catch-all agreement.
And, as Britain’s exit from the European Union moves forward, it is vital that our new, closer trading relationship with Hong Kong is firmly established. It is already a tariff free or low tariff zone and we can use those relationships already established by our close commercial and political ties to take a pro-active approach to removing any remaining barriers to trade.
Together, we will engage in a continuous dialogue to identify those impediments that still exist.
In this way, we can quickly and easily identify the ‘low-hanging fruit’ - those barriers which can be removed easily on a case-by-case basis to our mutual advantage.
This will allow us to begin, almost immediately, the work of establishing our re-invigorated trading relationship.
It is no exaggeration to say that this work is vital to Britain’s national interest.
It cannot be forgotten that Hong Kong serves as the UK’s access point to China, as it has for the past 2 centuries.
I will not waste words here establishing the sheer size of the Chinese economy, its strong growth record over the last 3 decades and more recent development into an innovation led economy.
Naturally, two-thirds of the capital outflows of this economic giant flow through Hong Kong.
The UK is already the number one destination in Europe for Chinese investment, and our government is already committed to working closely with China on its outbound programme.
As you will know, Hinckley Point C, which is close to my constituency in North Somerset, has been given the green light, and during last year’s state visit by President Xi to the UK, we committed to a new Alliance to support British and Chinese companies on infrastructure projects.
Yet there is more to be done.
Hong Kong companies, and especially all the members of the British Chambers of Commerce, are in a unique position to facilitate further trade between the UK and China and drive Anglo-Chinese commercial collaboration.
Many British firms, large and small, are still wary of the complexities of doing business in China and as I’ve often pointed out, only 11% of British businesses export beyond our borders.
There are some well-known barriers, yet UK businesses form a vast pool of untapped potential for both the UK and China.
Hong Kong can provide the answer.
Facing both ways, in towards China and out towards the world, Hong Kong and her firms can provide a degree of familiarity in a less familiar market, a slice of British language and business culture, not to mention a large expat community, right next to the world’s second-largest economy.
You can bring together the partnerships that will enable Britain and Hong Kong to prosper for a generation or more.
Hong Kong can facilitate trade not only with China, but across East Asia.
As global trade moves towards these surging economies, the United Kingdom will seek to open up trade with willing partners in the region, helping to remove barriers and spreading the free trading values that bring huge benefits.
Leaving the EU will allow us to build relationships with Asia like never before. Trade is a vital part of our relationship and the UK will be the most open for business economy in Europe.
Lastly, I cannot pay a visit to this astounding, exciting, compelling place without making reference to the political situation.
We in Britain, perhaps more than anyone else, understand the attraction of sovereignty.
When Britain signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the British Government believed that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was the way to protect Hong Kong’s long-term security and prosperity, and that view remains unchanged.
Independence is not a practical option, but further progress on political reform, in line with the Basic Law, would strengthen the government here and that is what the UK would like to see.
The Basic Law further enshrines the separate legal system and those fundamental freedoms – of expression, of the press, academia – that make Hong Kong the global city it is.
I have always had a special regard for Hong Kong, and returning to it today, in my new capacity, fills me with hope for the future.
We are bound not only by commerce, but by history, language and values.
And it is those shared values of global free trade that will be the cornerstone of our relationship.
As Britain adopts her new position as the beating heart of global trade, the unbreakable bond of our friendship will become more important than ever before.