The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) will not only be an economic boon but also have the strategic function of giving countries in the region"a stake in each other's success" and thereby fostering peace, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told 20 other Apec leaders yesterday.
While he acknowledged that "watertight proof" of its benefits has not yet been marshalled, and that it would be challenging to realise the vast free trade area in the face of political sensitivities between some Asia-Pacific countries, he said that it is a goal worth pursuing.
Speaking to reporters later, after the Apec leaders endorsed a roadmap towards the FTTAAP at the end of their annual meeting, Mr Lee said that China had done the 21-member grouping a favour by pushing the initiative as host.
"I think the Chinese naturally see this as beneficial to themselves, otherwise they would not consider it. But it's also beneficial to other countries too, otherwise it would not be resonant, it would not be picked up and we would not be able to move ahead. The FTAAP is not a Chinese idea. This is an idea which was there at the beginning. It was the reason why we created Apec back in 1989."
Beijing had originally hoped to set a date of 2025 for the FTAAP's realisation, but reportedly backed down from a concrete target in the face of US reluctance to shift focus away from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
Asked what Singapore's considerations are given that it is a part of US-China rivalry, Mr Lee said that Singapore is a good friend of both major powers.
He dismissed talk of rivalry between the TPP and the FTAAP, noting that the TPP nations do not rule out China joining in the future, nor does China rule out joining them.
It is not political rivalry that prevents China from joining the TPP nations, but that its economy will need some time to develop to the stage where it can meet the pact's high standards, he said.
US President Barack Obama has clearly stated the US' support for the FTAAP to the other Apec leaders, he added.
Mr Lee noted that bilateral sensitivities between countries like China and Japan are actually another argument in favour of establishing the FTAAP.
"A regional FTA like the FTAAP may well offer a more neutral framework within which to foster free trade and win-win cooperation than bilateral FTAs," he earlier told Apec leaders during their meeting.
Mr Lee said the FTAAP is the "next logical step" for the grouping after regional trade pacts like the TPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are completed.
Singapore and other countries in the region want to participate in China's rise and benefit from it, said Mr Lee, noting that he welcomes China's efforts to show that they can "be helpful" to the region such as through the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to lend to developing countries for their infrastructure needs.
Such moves will help Beijing extend its influence and soft power, but China must also manage and contain its territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Japan and some Asean countries and prevent them from souring its overall relationships or affecting security and confidence in the region, he said.
"Then all the infinite possibilities will be realised," Mr Lee said, echoing a phrase that Chinese President Xi Jinping used during the Apec summit to illustrate the "Asia-Pacific Dream".