THE United States may find itself irrelevant in Asia if it continues to drag its feet on free trade and if it fails to find a way to accommodate the rise of China, said Singapore Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in Washington yesterday.
Mr Shanmugam, who is at the start of a week-long working visit to the US, gave a hard-hitting critique of Washington's policy on Asia during a forum at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Pulling few punches at the hour-long dialogue, he issued his strongest remarks yet on the US failure to make meaningful progress on the mega trade pact with Asia known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The deal presented a stark choice to the US, he said.
"Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region?
"If you are out of the region, not playing a useful role, your only lever to shape the architecture, to influence events is the Seventh Fleet and that's not the lever you want to use, or you can't use it at every instance. Trade is strategy and you're either in or you're out... The world doesn't wait, not even for the United States."
Mr Shanmugam delivered a similar message yesterday at a separate forum organised by The Atlantic magazine. He said US credibility would be severely impacted if it failed to push through the free trade deal.
"How do you remain and be taken seriously if, after having committed so much of your prestige to this, you don't do it?" he said.
His remarks come just days after US President Barack Obama's trade agenda took a big hit in Congress from members of his own party. Last week, Democrats blocked a measure key to granting the President fast-track negotiating authority under a Bill known as the Trade Promotion Authority.
Mr Shanmugam was similarly frank when asked about the US' approach to China.
He said the US can no longer dominate the whole world, that it now must make room for China as well. He gave the example of the International Monetary Fund, where US failure to ratify a 2010 quota reform granting China a larger say in the organisation likely led to the formation of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
"You have to understand, it is a multipolar world... You have to accommodate the rise of China. And if you don't, you will find alternate multilateral institutions being set up where you are completely excluded."
He then added: "That's one aspect, it requires a certain - for want of a better word - an adult approach towards dealing with some of these issues."
Mr Shanmugam did, however, say that he remains optimistic about the US but worries that the current internal troubles are undermining its ability to lead the world.
"We are supreme realists and the realism makes us think that America eventually will get it right as it always has done."