G-20 summit kicks off with sharp debate on trade

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with G-20 leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chin
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with G-20 leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg yesterday.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Some countries take aim at US, while PM Lee calls for benefits of trade to be redistributed

At a summit where the battle lines on trade and protectionism have been sharply drawn, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday called on leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies to redistribute the benefits of global trade more equally to arrest the sentiments rising against it.

The risks are high if the mood spreads to more countries because it could hurt the livelihoods and prosperity of hundreds of millions of people, he said on the opening day of the Group of 20 (G-20) Leaders' Summit in Hamburg.

Mr Lee was making the case for countries to support the multilateral trade model, such as the European Union and the Asean Economic Community.

The tone for the feisty summit had been set earlier, with United States President Donald Trump saying he still wanted Mexico - with whom he wants to renegotiate a trade pact - to pay for a border wall.

In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping took a swipe at the US for retreating from globalisation.

Meanwhile, Europe threatened to hit back with counter-measures if Mr Trump followed through on his promise to protect the US steel industry with tariffs, said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

 
 

In her opening statement at the summit earlier, host and German Chancellor Angela Merkel told leaders compromise is needed to address pressing global challenges.

She said: "Solutions can only be found if we are ready for compromise and move towards each other, but without - and I stress this - bending too much, because of course we can also state clearly when there are differences."

Expanding on the theme, Mr Lee said the trading system has come under siege in some countries, as workers and unions become anxious about jobs.

He acknowledged that there are "pluses and minuses within each country, but these can and must be squared off by governments through domestic policies, adjustment packages and political understandings," he said.

Singapore was invited to attend the G-20 summit as convener of the 3G, an informal group of 30 small and medium-sized countries. The G-20 is a group with 19 countries and the European Union.

While international trade has been an engine of prosperity and growth for all countries, it has become clear in recent decades that its benefits are not distributed equally, Mr Lee said. As a result, global trade is blamed for "painful domestic dislocations" although the evidence is far from clear.

With workers and unions growing more anxious about jobs, more question if an open, rules-based multilateral trading system is a shared good. This has political consequences, said Mr Lee.

Yesterday, Chinese President Xi Jinping slammed unnamed "major" developed nations for stoking geopolitical risks through calls to reverse globalisation and return to protectionism.

It could have been interpreted as an allusion to Mr Trump, one of whose first acts was to pull the US out of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and pursue "America First" policies.

Separately, Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their first high-stakes face-to-face meeting.

The start of the summit was marred by clashes between police and protesters in the northern German port city. Protesters tried to disrupt the summit hours after the police used water cannon on a group of about 1,000 people marching to the site of the meeting.

After the day's drama, the leaders attended a classical concert before dinner.

The summit continues today, with Mr Lee due to meet Mr Trump for the first time.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'G-20 summit kicks off with sharp debate on trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe