Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan emphasised the critical importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal to US lawmakers at the start of his three-day working visit to Washington on Wednesday, asking them to support the deal when it comes before them for a vote.
Speaking at a reception for members of the Congressional Singapore Caucus - a bipartisan grouping of lawmakers with interest in Singapore - Dr Balakrishnan laid out the rationale for the deal while acknowledging that free trade is politically controversial in the US now. The 12-nation TPP was signed last year and now awaits ratification from the domestic legislatures of member countries.
"The reason why we are firm believers in the TPP is because we believe the US is a resident Asia-Pacific power and the TPP has strategic significance that goes far beyond just trade," he said.
"It is a manifestation of commitment and strategic alignment and the fact that the US commits to being a permanent part of the strategic and economic architecture across the Pacific Ocean."
He added: "I know it's controversial, I am not trying to make a hard sale today."
He pointed to the US-Singapore free trade agreement as an example of how such deals can be a boon to the US. He said trade volume between the two countries has doubled since the agreement was signed more than a decade ago, and the US actually holds a trade surplus with Singapore.
He added that Singapore companies in the US create around 33,000 jobs in the country, with American exports to the island estimated to account for a further 200,000 jobs.
Dr Balakrishnan's visit to the US comes as the two sides gear up for a highly anticipated state dinner to be hosted at the White House by President Barack Obama for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in August. Singapore is the only South- east Asian country to be honoured with a state dinner during Mr Obama's eight years in office. At the same time, recognition of the importance of US-Singapore ties has been growing among US lawmakers.
The Congressional Singapore Caucus, which was relaunched in June last year with 22 members, has more than doubled in size to 46. Meanwhile, one of the co-chairs of the caucus, Congressman Denny Heck, has sponsored a resolution in the House of Representatives that reaffirms bilateral ties in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relationship this year.
Mr Heck said he hopes the resolution will be voted on and approved by his colleagues soon.
"I am optimistic, I have my fingers crossed... I hope we have that done before Prime Minister Lee makes his official visit here in August," he said.
On Wednesday, Dr Balakrishnan also met White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and they discussed the close US-Singapore partnership in addressing challenges such as terrorism and trade.
A statement from the White House said that Dr Rice affirmed the US' "strong commitment to continuing to play a long-term role in the Asia-Pacific by strengthening our ties with key partners like Singapore and Asean".