LONDON: The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of 53 independent states where most share a common history: They were once territories of the British Empire.
Members range from tiny Pacific Islands, Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and emerging powerhouse India, to Canada. Altogether, they make up about a third of the world’s population.
The Commonwealth has no constitution or charter, but it champions values like democracy, good governance and economic development.
Once every two years, leaders from member countries gather to discuss issues of common interests at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This time round, they are convening in London from Monday (Apr 16) to Friday.
Political watchers say the United Kingdom will use this chance to reinvigorate its relations with Commonwealth nations, particularly in light of Brexit.
British High Commissioner to Singapore Scott Wightman said the Commonwealth has always been a priority for successive British governments.
"It’s something Her Majesty The Queen feels very, very deeply about as head of the Commonwealth," he stated.
Mr Wightman added: “With its leadership position in the Commonwealth over the next couple of years, the UK government wants to try to reinvigorate the organisation and help give it greater relevance and ambition.
“For the UK, nationally, as we leave the European Union, there are opportunities for us to strengthen the relationships with individual Commonwealth countries”.
President of the British Chamber of Commerce in Singapore Bicky Bhangu said businesses are ready for the Commonwealth of Nations to do more in the sector.
“When I look at the intra-Commonwealth trade and productivity green field investments, there is an opportunity to unlock US$1.6 trillion by 2020," Dr Bhangu said, noting that it is 20 per cent faster to execute commercial agreements within the Commonwealth compared to other global matrix indices.
“We have been stagnant for a while”, he added.
Leaving the European Union means the UK needs to forge new relationships with other trading partners. For pro-Brexiters, the Commonwealth is a viable alternative.
“Unfortunately, this is largely a fantasy," said Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy associate professor-in-practice James Crabtree.
Britain's trade with the EU makes up about half of the country’s total trade, while the Commonwealth makes up only about a tenth.
The organisation is not a trading bloc, and does not offer any trade privileges. Intra-Commonwealth trade has been growing at at average of 10 per cent annually since 1995, believed to be because of factors like historical ties, similar regulatory systems and a widespread use of the English language. This is expected to exceed US$1 trillion by 2020.
However, observers say the figures are skewed, given the fact that there are huge differences in the levels of trade conducted by individual countries.
“One of the more fantastical ideas is that Britain might join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This is still quite unlikely, but it’s not impossible that as TPP expands, that a country like Britain can join. And actually, joining TPP would be a better way of Britain engaging with Commonwealth nations (in the TPP), rather than focusing on the Commonwealth itself," said Mr Crabtree.
Besides trade and investment, other key topics at this year’s CHOGM will be climate change and cybersecurity. But because the Commonwealth does not have any executive authority, critics have called it a talking shop. Others questioned its relevance.
“The real question is, if (the Commonwealth) doesn’t exist, would anyone bother to invent it? I think the answer is clearly no," said Mr Crabtree.
Mr Crabtree added that finding its role and achieving its full potential have always been perennial problems for the association. He noted that while the Commonwealth champions democracy and good governance, some of its member countries have “appalling” human rights records.
What it needs, he suggested, is stronger political leadership.
There are also concerns about the future of the Commonwealth without Queen Elizabeth.
“I think the Queen does have a glue-like effect on the institution, so when the time comes when the Queen is no longer head of the Commonwealth, I think that will weaken the institution," Mr Crabtree said.
But the outlook is not totally bleak.
The meetings are a platform for smaller nations to lobby for bilateral trade deals, for example, and to rub shoulders with more influential members to raise matters of concerns.
The outcome of this year’s gathering remains to be seen, but it seems that those for and against the Commonwealth agree on one thing: It needs to have more bite.