With free trade, US faces stark decision on Asia - is it in or out? - Minister Shanmugam

Minister K Shanmugam (right) presenting the Public Service Star (Distinguished Friends of Singapore) to Singapore’s Honorary Consul-General in Chicago Newton Minow, on June 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Minister K Shanmugam (right) presenting the Public Service Star (Distinguished Friends of Singapore) to Singapore’s Honorary Consul-General in Chicago Newton Minow, on June 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) answering questions from prominent US diplomat Stapleton Roy during a forum at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Monday. -- PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG
Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam (left) answering questions from prominent US diplomat Stapleton Roy during a forum at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Monday. -- PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG
Minister K Shanmugam (centre) speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on June 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Minister K Shanmugam (centre) speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on June 15, 2015. -- PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Are you in or out?

That, said Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, is the stark prospect facing the United States as American lawmakers continue to struggle to push through key trade legislation that would pave the way for completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington at the start of a working visit to the US, Mr Shanmugam made some of his strongest statements yet calling for the US government to support the 12-nation Pacific Rim free trade deal.

He warned that US influence in an increasingly important region economically would fade if the TPP stalls.

"If you don't do this deal, what are your levers of power? How integrated are you into the Asian economies? Meanwhile there are a whole series of other trade deals that have happened, will happen and from which you will be excluded. So the choice is a very stark one: Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region?" he said.

"And if you are out of the region… not playing a useful role, your only lever to shape the architecture, to influence events is the Seventh Fleet and that is not the lever you want to use. Trade is strategy and you're either in or you're out."

The visiting foreign minister also said that a failure to deliver on an issue that is supported by the president and a large number of people would lead many countries to question how much they get done with the US.

"Let's be frank about it, the president wants it, everyone knows this is important, yet you can't get it through, how credible are you going to be?" he said. "The world doesn't wait, not even for the United States. New histories are being written every day, a new chapter is being written every day and you're either in or you're out. That's how stark it is."

A measure critical to giving the US president fast-track negotiating authority on trade failed embarrassingly last week when Democratic lawmakers once again blocked the trade agenda of a president from their own party. Lawmakers are expected to try again to get that measure passed this week as both sides are intensifying lobbying efforts.

Mr Shanmugam answered a wide range of questions at the forum on Monday, touching on everything from the importance of the code of conduct in the South China Sea to the continued threat posed by the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The remarks that seem to get the most attention from the American audience though was his answer to a question on US' China policy. When Ambassador Stapleton Roy, the prominent US diplomat who was moderating the forum, asked Mr Shanmugam about the US approach to China, the foreign minister spoke pointedly about America's need to find a way to accommodate the rise of China.

Mr Shanmugam said that China's primary interest is on growing its economy and it has no desire for a dispute with the US. However, Beijing does also seek its rightful place in the world.

"They are rational actors. At the same time, as they grow in power, they demand their rightful place in the world. And if the US and the West does not accommodate legitimate requests then China will look for alternate means," he said.

He gave the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as an example. IMF member countries agreed to quota reforms five years ago that would give more weight to the voices of developing countries like China. However, the reforms have never been implemented because the US Congress has not ratified them.

"They have the second largest economy in the world. But their legitimate request with respect to the IMF which your administration has negotiated has been blocked in Congress.

"And China today is in a position such that you block them there, they are able to set up another international bank, to which a lot of countries subscribe to."

He added: "So you have to understand, it is a multipolar world. It's not a world you can completely dominate all by yourself… And if you don't you will find alternate multilateral institutions being set up where you are completely excluded. Your influence will not grow, it will reduce.

"That is one aspect, it requires a certain - for a want of a better word - an adult approach towards dealing with some of these issues."

Besides the speech at CSIS, Mr Shanmugam also presented the Public Service Star (Distinguished Friends of Singapore) to Singapore’s Honorary Consul-General in Chicago Newton Minow at a reception held in the latter's honour to recognise his outstanding contributions to Singapore.  

In addition, the minister met a group of academics and members of prominent US think tanks to discuss geopolitical developments, particularly in the Middle East, said Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.