TOKYO • With the world at an inflexion point on trade and security issues, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean urged countries yesterday to find ways to manage bilateral and multilateral ties, even if they do not see eye to eye.
They should also "conduct foreign relations based on mutual respect and trust", Mr Teo told the 24th Nikkei Future of Asia Conference.
In his wide-ranging speech, delivered on the last day of a three-day visit to Japan, Mr Teo noted how trade frictions and protectionism have arisen owing to the uneven distribution of trade benefits between and within nations.
Countries are watching how the world's two biggest economies will iron out their differences on trade. China has emerged as a vocal champion of free trade, while the United States has turned inwards.
Mr Teo added: "Unilateral and tit-for-tat actions, if implemented, will hurt businesses and can undermine the multilateral trading system."
The system, he said, "ensures that all countries, big and small, can have a level-playing field, and contribute to and benefit from this international network of cooperation".
If the dispute between the US and China were to escalate, their strained ties will make it harder for them to cooperate on other pressing global issues. He also warned against the flip side - the two countries cooperating to set rules that benefit only themselves.
Mr Teo and his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday championed the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership deal which covers 14 per cent of the world economy.
Their comments came hours after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the forum that free trade should not be conducted at the expense of smaller economies like Malaysia, and he called for more protection of their markets.
Mr Teo, in response to a question, said: "For small countries, we would not have as big a market if we were not able to take part in the global economy and sell to the world."
Speaking to Singapore reporters later, Mr Teo lauded better Sino-Japan ties as beneficial to Asean.
"In many ways, the two economies are complementary," he said. "There is a lot of scope to work together and they should find a way to put (their historical) issues in perspective and look forward."
He said there are more than enough infrastructure projects to go around in the region, and that they may even "cooperate on some projects (which will) open markets and connectivity (to our benefit)".
Mr Teo, accompanied by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, also met Dr Mahathir yesterday evening.
He said he conveyed to the Malaysian leader Singapore's hopes to "proceed on projects that we have according to current agreements".
Dr Mahathir has said Malaysia will scrap the planned high-speed rail project that links Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.