Vivian pitches free trade but also urges balance

Free trade is the way to secure peace and prosperity, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said at the American Jewish Committee's (AJC's) annual Global Forum in Washington.

And in a pitch for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), he said: "We hope that, at some point, good sense will prevail and the United States will realise it's in your own enlightened self-interest to come back." The comment at a moderated discussion on Monday drew applause from the 2,500-strong audience.

The AJC had backed the 12-nation TPP but President Donald Trump pulled America out of the trade deal soon after taking office, citing unacceptable job losses due to what he called unfair free-trade agreements. The decision dismayed the other 11 signatories, including Singapore, Japan and Vietnam.

"It's a missed opportunity to build an inclusive, fair and open architecture, which we believe would have secured the peace and prosperity for both America and for Asia," the minister said.

In addressing trade scepticism, he acknowledged the problem for free-trade advocates "is that we have not paid enough attention to the asymmetrical impact it has on different segments of society".

"There are some people at a local level who are at risk of being left behind, or who are not equipped or trained or qualified to harvest the fruits," he said.

"We need to get the balance between domestic policies, to make sure no one is left behind, and open and free trade."

Politicians' responses to anxiety and fear as middle class wages stagnate and many middle class white-collar jobs disappear - not because of trade but because of technology - had been unconvincing. It was easier to express anger than to retool societies to equip them for new challenges, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore has had a free-trade agreement with the US since 2004, and the US runs a trade surplus with Singapore.

"We're not complaining," he said. "The reason is we believe that free trade, creating interdependence, collaborations and win-win outcomes, is the way to secure peace and prosperity."

He also said Singapore would sign on to the TPP 11 - without the US - if all signatories agreed to proceed without reopening the text.

Asked about the US relationship with China, he said it should not be seen as a zero-sum game.

"The question is how do we secure the peace in a multipolar world," he said.

He said Asean was negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Though not as ambitious as the TPP, the RCEP was much wider in scope, including about 45 per cent of the world's population and a third of the world's GDP.

"What we were really after was to put these two pieces together, TPP and RCEP, and construct a free-trade area of the Asia-Pacific, coming back to our fundamental belief that creating interdependence and mutual investments is a recipe for peace and prosperity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Vivian pitches free trade but also urges balance'. Print Edition | Subscribe