SYDNEY - Recent moves by the United States to protect domestic industries have raised the spectre of tit-for-tat trade wars, warned Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (March 15) as he urged countries to continue promoting free trade.
While noting that Singapore has been impacted by US trade measures, he said his concern was that a precedent had been set and countries were now "under pressure to retaliate".
"If trust is broken and tit-for-tat trade wars break out, all countries, big or small, will suffer," he said.
"It is therefore even more critical that Australia and Singapore work with other like-minded countries to uphold the WTO (World Trade Organisation) system, and promote trade liberalisation and regional economic integration."
Mr Lee's remarks - a written response to questions from the Australian media ahead of his visit to Sydney - come amid a global firestorm sparked by tariffs on steel and aluminium imports announced by US President Donald Trump.
"Whether or not we label the Trump administration as protectionist, it is clear that they take a radically different approach towards trade," Mr Lee said.
Apart from the recent tariffs, the US took steps this year to protect its solar panel industry.
Stressing the importance of countries pushing back against the protectionist tide, Mr Lee added that Singapore is pleased with the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade pact that initially was to include the US, before Mr Trump withdrew from it.
The CPTPP, signed by 11 members, is a "high-quality agreement" that will set a new standard for free trade deals, he added.
"The door is open for the US, China and other countries to join when they are ready to meet the CPTPP's standards. I hope the US will find its way to join one day, though I do not realistically expect that to happen soon," said Mr Lee.
Responding to questions on Singapore-Australia ties, he noted that relations are strong and multifaceted, underpinned by similar strategic interests and perspectives.
Bilateral defence ties continue to deepen, with Singapore investing up to A$2.25 billion (S$2.3 billion) to jointly develop training areas and facilities in Queensland, he said.
Economic cooperation, too, has been boosted with the upgraded Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect in December last year.
People-to-people links are also strong, with a million Australians visiting Singapore every year, and 400,000 Singaporeans visiting Australia.
Looking ahead, Singapore is keen to update its Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement with Australia to catalyse trade and investment flows and to conclude an Open Skies Agreement, which will enable airlines of both countries to serve travellers better, Mr Lee said.
He noted that the increased economic might of China and India has reconfigured strategic relations in the region, adding that "how other countries can accommodate legitimate interests of the new powers will significantly impact regional peace and stability".
Mr Lee will be in Australia until Sunday to attend a bilateral leaders' summit and the Asean-Australia Special Summit.