Small states like Singapore can do little to influence the big powers, but they are not entirely without agency, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
There are many opportunities for smaller countries to work together to deepen economic co-operation, strengthen regional integration, and build up multilateral institutions.
"This way, we can strengthen our influence as a group and advance a collective position on issues that matter to us, be they trade, security or technology," he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
In a speech that set the historical geopolitical context for US-China relations and their impact on the international environment, he touched on the need for countries to strive for regional or plurilateral arrangements, while seeking to strengthen global multilateral institutions.
He said that these are far from perfect today.
"The WTO (World Trade Organisation) is one of the major institutions in the post-war global order, but now it is almost paralysed and urgently needs reform," he said.
He noted that multilateral global deals like the Uruguay Round are no longer practical, when agreement requires a full consensus among 164 member countries of hugely diverse interests and philosophies.
The WTO was also designed for an agricultural and manufacturing-based world economy, but the world has moved on to services and now increasingly digital and intellectual property, which need much more complicated rules.
The US, he noted, has lost faith in the WTO. "It often acts unilaterally, imposing tariffs and trade sanctions outside WTO rules. It prefers negotiating bilateral deals one on one against smaller countries in tests of strength. It gives more weight to the US' direct benefits in the disputes at hand than to its broader interests in upholding the multilateral system."
This, he said, has caused concern to many of the US' friends and allies.
Singapore cannot afford to adopt the same point of view, as being small, the Republic is "naturally disadvantaged" in bilateral negotiations. "We need to reform and strengthen multilateral institutions, not cripple or block them."
Confining itself to a bilateral approach means Singapore would forgo win-win opportunities which come from countries working together with more partners.
Short of universal trade agreements, countries should at least strive for regional or plurilateral arrangements. "This may be a second-best solution, but it is a practical way to incrementally build support for lower trade barriers and higher standards, which can then be adopted by other countries."
This was the rationale behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US was originally on board the deal, but later withdrew from it, with the remaining 11 members later signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is now in force.
More countries have expressed interest in joining the CPTPP, and China is also watching the trade pact closely.
PM Lee also expressed the hope that the US would one day become a member of the partnership it had a leading role in designing.
Turning to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which covers North-east and South-east Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand, he said that its inclusive configuration minimises the risk of it being misperceived as a bloc that excludes the US and its friends.
PM Lee said that regional cooperation goes beyond trade and cited Asean which, despite its limitations, has contributed to the well-being of its members and the security of the region.
New platforms for regional cooperation have emerged, notably China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Singapore supports and views as a constructive mechanism that engages China positively with the region and beyond.
This is why Singapore is an active participant working, for example, with the World Bank to promote financial and infrastructure connectivity and providing supporting professional and legal services to BRI countries, among others.
The substance of the BRI, and the way in which it is implemented, is very important. Specific projects must be economically sound and commercially viable, and must bring long-term benefits to their partners.
"This has not always been the case; some BRI projects have run into significant problems. Overall, the BRI must be open and inclusive, and must not turn the region into a closed bloc centred on a single major economy," said PM Lee.
As Asian countries deepen their links with China, they also need to grow their ties with the US, Europe, Japan and others.
PM Lee said: "The BRI should help China to integrate with the world. The end result should be to strengthen globalisation, and not to divide the world into rival spheres of influence."