Countries need to foster greater, freer trade to continue to prosper: PM Lee

DANANG (VIETNAM) - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Nov 11) reiterated Singapore's support for the rules-based multilateral trading system.

While acknowledging that the mood towards globalisation is shifting - and there are concerns if the current system is fair and allows all to benefit as they ought to - he said he firmly believes that "we should foster more and freer trade to continue to prosper".

"In today's world, no single country can be self-sufficient. Everything from the supply chain to research and development, and economies of scale requires the support of a wider global market," he said.

Even then, he added, there is still some way from the ideal of fully open trade in the region.

Citing the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which United States President Donald Trump criticised a day earlier for turning a blind eye to unfair trade practices, PM Lee said it was an important forum to build and improve the global framework for trade.

But it takes time to secure a deal among all 164 WTO members, "so we have to explore less comprehensive but more timely measures", he told the leaders of 20 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) economies at their annual meeting.

At an interview with Singapore media later to wrap up his trip, PM Lee said all countries were in agreement with wanting to promote trade with mutual benefits, but had different views on how this should be done.

A day before, Mr Trump, who abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal shortly after taking office last year, had declared the US would no longer enter into large agreements.

Speaking right after him, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged support for multilateral trade deals. They were both speaking at an Apec meeting for business leaders.

Asked about this, PM Lee said while the US wants to achieve closer economic integration and cooperation on a reciprocal basis and bilaterally, the other Apec members want to keep to a multilateral framework "which in the view of many of us has benefited all the countries including the US".

But he said they understood the political pressures and reasons behind the US administration's stance.

He added that they still hope they will be able to work together with the US, and among likeminded countries like the 11 that have remained in the TPP, in order to advance Apec's goal of free and open trade in the region.

"It doesn't mean that there's a consensus, it doesn't mean there's no conflict in perspectives, no tension...there is. But we hope we'll be able to work through them and maintain the cooperation which has delivered peace, stability and prosperity to many countries for a very long time," he said.

Earlier, at the leaders' meeting, PM Lee urged support for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) involving all 10 Asean members and six key partners, including China, Japan and India.

The RCEP, when concluded, can make a significant contribution to economic integration in the region, he said.

He added that the Apec grouping itself was one way of promoting free trade.

PM Lee said the remaining members of the TPP deal were also pushing ahead to bring the pact into force.

"We have reached agreement on the deal and I hope that the details can be worked out and everyone can sign onto it," he said.

A scheduled meeting on Friday between leaders of the 11 remaining TPP members, including PM Lee, had been postponed after a no-show by Canada.

But on Saturday, trade and foreign ministers 11 countries announced that they have agreed on the "core elements" for the deal.

PM Lee said developments such as China's Belt and Road Initiative, which includes many Apec and non-Apec member economies, will also promote greater connectivity, infrastructure investment and economic integration.

Noting that Apec has grown from an informal gathering of 12 economies in 1989 to having 21 members today, PM Lee said the grouping has come a long way.

Tariffs in Apec today are a third of what they were when it was founded, and Apec economies represent 60 per cent of global GDP and half of all global trade.

PM Lee commended Vietnam, this year's Apec chair, for setting up an Apec Vision Group to kick-start the review process of goals for free and open trade, and investment among Apec's developed and developing economies by 2020, first set in Bogor, Indonesia, in 1994.

He said: "As we approach 2020 for the Bogor goals, it is timely to reflect on the aspirations of APEC for the longer term."