Manila - Regional and bilateral agreements are the way to go for now as the ultimate goal of an extensive Asia-Pacific free trade area still has some way to go before it can be established, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday evening.
Speaking to reporters from Singapore at the end of the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders' meeting, he explained why such trade pacts have to be accepted as "a second-best solution".
Firstly, even though the Apec economies agreed in principle to a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) several meetings ago, a study on how to make it a reality has not been completed and so it was not discussed in detail.
Also, the "reality is to get a comprehensive agreement in the World Trade Organisation takes forever", Mr Lee said. "We have been doing it since 2001 and we have only got the trade facilitation agreement to show for that, and even that one is not quite ratified yet."
He said that different economies had already come to accept that agreements such as the wide-ranging Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are "practical ways" to making progress in trade liberalisation.
"Our attitude should be, 'Well this is a practical solution, let us do it this way'. But let us have in mind the ultimate goal, how eventually we can fold it all back in one day into a bigger whole which would be the FTAAP," he said.
Asked to discuss the outcomes of the discussions trip to Manila, he cited the TPP meeting -the first since an agreement was reached last month and which was held on the sidelines of the Apec Summit.
"The main achievement this time is the TPP ministers met after the agreement had been completed and... there was a little bit of celebration, and also to commit ourselves to completing the process to sign and to ratify as soon as we can," he said.
As for the Apec meetings, he cited discussions that covered inclusive growth, human resource development, climate change and, to a lesser extent, terrorism.
In separate remarks, Apec host and Philippine President Benigno Aquino told journalists that he was proud that the meeting had been able to lay "the foundations on which Apec can chart a course to improve trade and strengthen quality growth".
"We discussed the critical regional and global issues we face as one Asia-Pacific region. If past Apec meetings were highly technical discussions on trade issues, the discussions over the past couple of days have taken a broader approach," he said at a press conference at the international media centre.
"We have sought to address the challenges presented by the ever-changing global economic milieu ... We shared ideas on how to encourage technological innovation, while at the same time easing its disruptive effects on the job market by giving rise to more resilient economies.
"We have likewise been able to exchange ideas on how to foster greater inclusivity in our economies. Since inclusive growth has always been the guiding principle of our administration, we are proud to have put this approach front and centre throughout our hosting Apec this year."