Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan pitches benefits of trade at Washington conference

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made a strong pitch for free trade at the American Jewish Council's annual Global Conference on Monday (June 5).
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made a strong pitch for free trade at the American Jewish Council's annual Global Conference on Monday (June 5).PHOTO: ST FILE

WASHINGTON - Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made a strong pitch for free trade to a friendly audience at the American Jewish Council's annual Global Conference on Monday (June 5).

"We hope that at some point good sense will prevail and the United States will realise it's in your own enlightened self interest to come back" to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Dr Balakrishnan said.

The comment in a moderated discussion, drew applause from the 2,500-strong audience. The American Jewish Council (AJC) had backed the 12-nation TPP, but President Donald Trump pulled America out of it in his first few days in office, citing unacceptable job losses due to what he called unfair free trade agreements.

The President has also said the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), signed by the US, Canada and Mexico, will be renegotiated.

Asked for his view on the TPP, Dr Balakrishnan said the US pullout was a "great disappointment."

But Singapore would sign on to the TPP-11 - the original agreement minus the US - if all signatories agreed to proceed without reopening the text, he said.

He noted that Singapore has had a free trade agreement with the US since 2004, and the US runs a trade surplus with Singapore.

"We're not complaining" he said. "The reason is we believe that free trade, creating interdependence, collaborations and win-win outcomes, is the way to secure peace and prosperity."

"For us this is not a debating point or posture, trade is our lifeblood" he added. "The benefits to Singapore would have been marginal but we believe… there are enormous opportunities out there and for America not to take full advantage.. is a great pity."

"But beyond the dollars and cents we believe the strategy is more important than economics and certainly more important than the military dimension. The real benefit of globalisation is when we reach the age of interdependence when it is in our mutual interest to invest in each other to have good relations."

"It's a missed opportunity to build an inclusive, fair and open architecture which we believe would have secured the peace and prosperity for both America and for Asia."

Asked about the US relationship with China, he said it should not be seen as a zero-sum game. Referring again to trade, he noted that Asean was negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with China, India, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Though not as ambitious as the TPP, the RCEP would be wider in scope, including about 45 per cent of the world's population and a third of the world's GDP.

"What we were really after was to put these two pieces together, TPP and RCEP, and construct a free trade area on the Asia Pacific, coming back to our fundamental belief that creating interdependence and mutual investments as a recipe for peace and prosperity."