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PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong remains hopeful that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact can be ratified before January 2017, but is "not very optimistic" about the prospect.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in New York City, he spoke of the tight deadline for the ratification, coming just as the US enters the run-up to its November presidential election: "You have got to get ratification and you don't have a lot of time before November. Some people hope that you can settle it before January. I hope so, but I am not very optimistic."
United States President Barack Obama is due to leave the White House in January to make way for the next president.
A transcript of Mr Lee's interview with the WSJ was released by the Prime Minister's Office to the Singapore media on Friday. The Singapore leader, in the US for a week-long visit, is now in Washington, DC to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.
Mr Lee, referring to the US's position as chief negotiator for the TPP, which also includes Singapore and 10 other Pacific Rim nations, said: "It's important you do ratify this and not either let it stand for years unsettled or, worse, at some point, say 'We are not satisfied, let us come back. I am asking for an even better deal'.
"Because that would considerably undermine American credibility and seriousness of purpose and confidence in America all over the region."
Mr Lee added that Singapore views the TPP as a strategic move, not just an economic one, as it is a "demonstration with substance" that the US wants to deepen its ties with the important economies in the Asia-Pacific region.
"It's important for the openness and the stability of Asia beyond what good it does to your own investments and interests there," he said.
"The TPP is a very important part of this because whatever you say about rebalancing - and even if you have security and military resources committed - finally, you have to make that argument that this is in aid of mutual interest for Americans and for the countries in the region."
Mr Lee also addressed the implications for the region and the US if the TPP fails to get the green light from the US Congress or remains in prolonged limbo.
"You can say that you are rebalancing towards Asia, but is it words or is it deeds? And even if, in fact, you are rebalancing towards Asia with aircraft carriers and aeroplanes, what is it in aid of?"
But while the US has an administration that understands the country's international responsibilities and interests, there is an anxious and tired population that does not want to bear any burden and pay any price.
"That is very difficult for whoever becomes President. You are tired of blood and treasure, you are uncertain about jobs and competition and to say that we need free trade and you need to be present in far-flung places. It is true, but it is very hard to make the argument and I don't think many of your legislators are doing that," he said.
When asked if a re-negotiation of the pact was possible, given that leading presidential election candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have openly opposed it, the Singapore leader said it would be "very hard" to do.
"It has been with (Mr Obama) personally pushing every year, and every opportunity has taken us since about 2010 until now to settle," said Mr Lee.
The deal, which accounts for 40 per cent of global gross domestic product, was formally signed by trade ministers in Auckland in February after five years of talks.
Mr Lee added: "To renegotiate and reopen, you are giving more or you are asking for more? And if you are asking for more, who is going to volunteer to give? Your candidates have to face election, (and) Japanese Prime Minister (Shinzo Abe) faces re-election too."
Mr Lee noted that Mr Abe had lobbied for Japan to join the TPP, albeit at a political cost.
"If, at the end of it all, (the US) let him down, which next Japanese Prime Minister is going to count on (the US)?
"If we are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?"
While in Washington, Mr Lee had back-to-back meetings on Thursday with US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and US Trade Representative Michael Froman.
He later joined more than 50 world leaders at the White House for a dinner hosted by Mr Obama to kickstart the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit.
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