'US must maintain presence, engage in region'

(From far left) Congressmen Denny Heck, Bradley Byrne and Rick Larsen, who are part of the US Congressional Singapore Caucus, met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other Cabinet ministers during their visit here. They say they will take home lessons
(From left) Congressmen Denny Heck, Bradley Byrne and Rick Larsen, who are part of the US Congressional Singapore Caucus, met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other Cabinet ministers during their visit here. They say they will take home lessons gleaned from Singapore, such as its forward-planning approach in everything from education to workforce training.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The United States must continue to have a sustained presence and an active engagement in the Asia-Pacific, whether in trade, defence or in wielding its "soft power". A perception that it is reducing this presence will make countries question its ability to continue to lead and have a rules-based world order.

That is the key message that visiting members of a bipartisan US congressional group, dedicated to promoting US-Singapore relations, will take home to the new Trump administration.

Singapore, they say, as a thought leader within Asean and a fellow proponent of a rules-based system of governance, is vital to the continued presence of the US here.

"I don't see President (Donald) Trump backing away from this region one bit," said Republican congressman Bradley Byrne, who co-chairs the US Congressional Singapore Caucus. "I think he is going to understand just how important this region is, to have a continued if not enhanced presence here, not just for our people-to-people and trade relationships, but also international defence and security relationship."

Mr Byrne is on a five-day visit to Singapore along with Democratic congressmen Rick Larsen and Denny Heck, who is also co-chair of the congressional group. They met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other Cabinet ministers, as well as members of the American Chamber of Commerce.

THE VALUE OF SOFT POWER

One thing I've consistently heard from the leaders in Singapore is that the United States should not underestimate the value of our soft power. Our diplomacy, culture as well as the economic role we play in the region. I don't think we're going to underestimate that. I do believe we will grab that and run with it.

DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSMAN RICK LARSEN, a member of the US Congressional Singapore Caucus.

The caucus, first established in the US House of Representatives in 2002, has nearly 50 members from both political parties. It was renewed recently for the 115th Congress.

Even though President Trump withdrew from the ambitious 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) shortly after taking office last month, the lawmakers say the US is still committed to playing a key role in the region, especially when it comes to tapping into the fastest-growing economies in the world.

"Trade liberalisation in this region is going to move forward with or without US direct involvement, and there is a preference for a Western rules-based trade architecture, but that doesn't mean it's not going to move forward," said Mr Larsen. While it is "unfortunate" that Mr Trump dropped the TPP, there are elements of the trade deal that could go into future treaties, he added.

"The US needs to be a part of establishing those rules of trade. If we don't, China wants to fill that gap and I don't think that's in our best interest, and the US will act in our best interest eventually."

The outlook for bilateral relations between Singapore and the US remains positive, said the congressmen. The two nations are bound by several partnerships, such as a free trade agreement under which bilateral trade reached $75.5 billion in 2015.

"It's hard to imagine a country where we have stronger shared values and more aligned strategic interest than Singapore," said Mr Heck. He singled out two key officials in the new administration who know Singapore well: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was former chief executive of ExxonMobil, one of Singapore's biggest foreign investors; and Defence Secretary James Mattis, who met then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean when he visited Singapore in 2008.

"I see Singapore as the lynchpin of Asean, Asean as the lynchpin of China; China is the lynchpin of an Asian policy that is part of a bigger global issue," said Mr Heck.

Just last week, he and Mr Byrne led a group of 21 congressmen, including Mr Larsen, in delivering a letter to Mr Trump urging him to stay committed to Asean and to attend the East Asia Summit later this year in the Philippines.

The visiting lawmakers say they will take home lessons gleaned from Singapore as well, such as its forward-planning approach in everything from education to workforce training.

"This is the most intentional and strategic nation on the face of the planet," said Mr Heck.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline ''US must maintain presence, engage in region''. Print Edition | Subscribe