The winning logic of free trade deals

By endorsing a road map for building a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) in Beijing this week, leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping averted an acrimonious confluence of abbreviations. That would have been ominous both for trade and peace. The FTAAP, viewed as a Chinese initiative, is seen in some quarters as a move to undercut the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership, a United States-led trade deal that excludes China. Meanwhile, the Beijing-backed RCEP, or Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which excludes the US and Japan, is viewed as an additional Chinese attempt to frustrate America's avowed attempt to hold sway in the region through a network of interlocking economic and strategic interests.

If the pessimists are to be believed, free trade initiatives are but a political game destined for attritional conflict, with smaller countries taking what advantage they can from the deals offered. The truth, however, is that trade-liberalising initiatives do not have to be exclusive or contradictory. What matters is not their political provenance but their economic promise.

This logic guides the approach adopted by Singapore (a part of both the TPP and the RCEP) of treating free trade proposals on their merits. As it is, the FTAAP is not a Chinese idea, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed when he linked it to the very reason for creating Apec in 1989. What the FTAAP would do today would be to give regional economies a strategic interest in one another's success, contributing to peace.

Certainly, Sino-American rivalry could undermine this historic economic process, but that outcome is not fated. China, according to Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, is now the largest trading partner for 17 of its 23 neighbours. This telling statistic should prompt the US to reinvigorate its economic relationship with Asia. Likewise, Chinese who envy American leadership of world affairs - from battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to fighting Ebola - must step up to their mandate to help ensure peace and stability in the world. Attempts to contain China's rise or to dislodge America from its place in Asia are not a realistic alternative to the need for a sense of shared responsibility for the global commons.

Free trade areas are an intrinsic part of that common geography of peace. A single free trade protocol achieved by the World Trade Organisation would remove the need for piecemeal bilateral or regional agreements. In the absence of a global consensus, countries must strive to maximise their economic advantages on a realisable scale. Greater integration is the only way to move ahead.