Australia, Singapore upbeat on concluding RCEP talks by end-2019

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, flanked by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, meeting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (third from right), flanked by Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Sim
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, flanked by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, meeting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (third from right), flanked by Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham and Foreign Minister and Minister for Women Marise Payne, at the Istana. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

PM Lee says this will send strong signal to companies that region is open for business

Singapore and Australia expressed confidence yesterday that talks for a 16-nation mega free trade pact will conclude by the end of this year.

At a joint press conference with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "We are reasonably confident that with sufficient political will and willingness to make difficult trade-offs, it's possible to conclude the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) by the end of 2019."

PM Lee noted that when leaders of the RCEP's participating countries met last November, they had expressed a strong political commitment to push for the conclusion of talks by the end of this year.

The RCEP comprises the 10 Asean members and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Formal negotiations began in 2012. The RCEP aims to lower trade barriers and secure improved market access for goods and services for businesses in the region.

Mr Morrison said progress on the RCEP has "had some frustration" due to the "electoral cycles of the partners, particularly over the first half of this year".

Australia, India, Indonesia and Thailand have held elections from March to last month.

Mr Morrison, who was re-elected as Australia's PM last month, said there is "a very good opportunity for considerable focus" to be placed on the RCEP, with those elections completed.

Both leaders also affirmed the importance of the RCEP yesterday.

 
 
 
 

PM Lee said concluding the RCEP this year will "send a strong signal to the business community, that our region is open for business and is committed to continue operating on the basis of an open, free and rules-based environment".

Mr Morrison added that the trade pact "acknowledges the need for an open architecture of trade relations in our region".

During yesterday's press conference at the Istana, PM Lee was also asked what Singapore - which is currently evaluating its laws to strengthen responses against foreign interference in domestic politics - could learn from Australia.

Australia had passed a package of laws last year, which includes a ban on foreigners making political donations, stronger espionage laws and tougher penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

PM Lee said Singapore's current thinking is "broadly aligned with Australia's approach", which is to detect and expose foreign interference efforts early.

"And we want to put in place safeguards and disclosure requirements at all the likely entry points: funding, key leadership roles in organisations, or mass information or disinformation campaigns on the social media."

"So we want to be able to detect as early as possible attempts by foreign actors to manipulate information online to sway public opinion," he said.

Singapore also needs to develop responses to digital-age tactics, such as the use of bots to occupy mind space through sheer volume, PM Lee added.

"At the same time, of course, we need to build up the ability of Singaporeans to discern and respond appropriately to resist foreign interference, through educating the public and working with our media to call out falsehoods, disinformation and half truths," he said.

Mr Morrison is on an overseas trip and had visited the Solomon Islands and London before meeting PM Lee in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2019, with the headline 'Australia, S'pore upbeat on concluding RCEP talks by end-2019'. Print Edition | Subscribe