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Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt attends the weekly meeting of the cabinet at 10 Downing Street in London on Dec. 4, 2018.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is scheduled to give a speech in Singapore Wednesday outlining how Brexit Britain will “strengthen its links” with Asia-Pacific and other key markets in North America and the Middle East. His visit to the city state underlines the emphasis London is putting on consolidating ties with key non-European countries, including Canada, with Britain’s departure from the EU on the horizon.

Mr. Hunt’s vision is shared by Prime Minister Theresa May. Both believe the United Kingdom needs to tap into the prosperity of “the most dynamic economies of the world” in 2019 and beyond.

Mr. Hunt was keen to stress on Wednesday that Britain will remain a “global power" post-Brexit, as the fifth-largest economy in the world, with the second biggest NATO military budget, and one of the globe’s two biggest financial centres. Both he and Ms. May have asserted that she wants to rediscover the U.K.’s heritage “as a great global trading nation." This commerce would engage emerging markets such as China, India and the Gulf Co-operation Council states, plus industrialized economies such as Canada, Australia and the United States.

British Trade Secretary Liam Fox has already confirmed that he is already discussing, informally, new post-Brexit U.K. trade deals with at least a dozen countries. And he has even hinted that London might try to seek membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the new 11-member trade and investment deal with Asia-Pacific countries.

At the same time that informal talks have begun with multiple countries on bilateral trade agendas, Mr. Fox has also opened discussions with the 164-strong body of the WTO over post-Brexit terms of membership. The U.K.’s current membership is governed by its status within the European Union, with Brussels making commitments on trade tariffs and quotas on behalf of the 28 member governments.

In potentially tough forthcoming negotiations, Mr. Fox is seeking to replicate as much as possible the U.K.’s current schedule of WTO commitments. Upon leaving the EU, these obligations would serve as the baseline from which London would seek to negotiate new trade agreements.

While these WTO negotiations contain significant opportunity, they also have risk. For if Britain fails to achieve a new schedule of WTO commitments, the country’s trading arrangements will be severely disrupted, with a proverbial cliff-edge scenario a looming danger.

A central challenge for Mr. Fox with both these potential bilateral trade deals and his WTO agenda is that no agreements can be formally negotiated, let alone finalized, before the United Kingdom actually leaves the EU. Thus, while there has been much fanfare over a potential new U.K.-U.S. trade deal, for instance, any such agreement could probably not be secured till the end of Donald Trump’s current four-year term when the administration will likely have lost much traction in Congress, which would also need to vote on a deal.

Moreover, while there are key areas ripe for agreement between the two countries in such a pact, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods, there are potential disagreements too. These include issues such as harmonizing financial services regulations, while other possible icebergs lie on the horizon too, not least given the U.S. President’s rhetorical commitment to “America First."

Likewise, Mr. Fox can only engage in informal talks with other WTO members until a final Brexit deal is in place. Until then, many WTO members are adopting a cautious, wait-and-see approach pausing to see the exact terms of the U.K.’s exit arrangements.

Outside of trade, Mr. Hunt made clear in his speech that – post-Brexit – the U.K. will continue to take a major part in international security. While London will play a genuinely global role through continued membership of forums such as the UN Security Council, its renewed commitment to Europe will also be very important going forward.

With Downing Street intent on leaving the European Single Market, this potentially extensive web of security and defence relationships would be strongest if moulded upon the type of “bold, ambitious free-trade agreement with the EU” with “the freest possible trade on goods and services” that Ms. May has set out as one of her key Brexit negotiating objectives. In the Prime Minister’s own words, this would allow for “tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade that is frictionless as possible,” while permitting the United Kingdom to pursue its own trade agreements.

At this stage, the EU has not yet formally commented in great detail on post-Brexit security and foreign policy co-operation with Britain. However, it is likely that many national leaders, including in Germany, France and Eastern Europe, will particularly favour a continued strong working relationship given the growing array of external security challenges facing the union.

Taken over all, Brexit offers a new opportunity for the United Kingdom to reinvent its world role, especially in the context of trade relations. However, major uncertainties shroud this agenda, and it will not be clear until the 2020s exactly how successful it proves to be given that no new trade deals can be forged until after Britain leaves the EU.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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