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TPP is the path towards regional free trade: PM Lee

Monday, September 19, 2016 - 08:14
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The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is one of the paths towards free trade in the Asia-Pacific region and countries have to work towards free trade so as not to miss out on the many opportunities for cooperation.

THE Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is one of the paths towards free trade in the Asia-Pacific region and countries have to work towards free trade so as not to miss out on the many opportunities for cooperation.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made this point in an interview with Chinese magazine Caijing, which had asked how he viewed the fate of the TPP, particularly as United States presidential candidate Donald Trump has gained a lot of support by opposing it while the other presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton appears to have an increasing reluctance in supporting it.

To this, Mr Lee said the negotiations for the TPP have been completed, the agreement has been signed and the next step is for it to be ratified by all parties involved. "It is difficult to say at this stage how things will unfold. During an election campaign in America, it is very seldom popular to talk about free trade and to be in favour of free trade," he explained, adding that after the US election, there will be time either before or after January for the new president to "decide what to do in the interests of the US".

In time though, Singapore hopes the TPP will grow and expand to include more countries, he added. China, noted Mr Lee, is not part of the TPP at this point, but if the deal can be concluded and ratified, the opportunity may come for China to participate. Korea, which is not a member of the TPP, is interested in participating and joining in the next phase, he pointed out.

Besides the TPP, there are also other trade initiatives within the Asia-Pacific region that Singapore is pursuing, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - a trade agreement between China, Japan, Korea, the Asean countries, India, Australia and New Zealand. Mr Lee noted that the RCEP is ambitious "because the countries are very diverse and the approaches to trade are not identical", so it is not certain how far the agreement will go. But he said that it was the right direction as trade volume has grown considerably within Asian economies. Such an agreement would raise the level of cooperation within Asia and give confidence to all the countries that they are able to compete on a level playing field.

In the interview, Mr Lee also said that a strong and cohesive Asean community would mean the region is able to make contributions to areas of economic and security cooperation. "If Asean is split and South-east Asia becomes a region where different powers contend with each other and try to jockey and gain advantage and play one country against another, it will raise tensions in the region and it will be very bad for all the Asean countries. It will not be to the advantage of the powers either, because it would mean a less-stable Asia and that means more trouble and less ability to work together."

The interview also touched on the ongoing disruption to the economy and Mr Lee said governments have to help companies and workers upgrade and set up the right regulatory environment so that it is possible for change to take place in a manner that is not so disruptive.

On the question of whether he has started to think about the qualities and qualifications of his successor, Mr Lee replied that the key issue is who will best fulfil the criteria and if the successor is able to work together with the team and with Singaporeans.

"We are looking for somebody who has that judgement and that experience, and the leadership ability, both to understand problems, analyse them, and also connect with Singaporeans and explain to people, and mobilise people to work together to achieve our national goals.

"So the individual will have to be a mobiliser and a communicator, and concurrently, a doer, an analyst, an implementer, and a team-builder," he added. "It takes time, but I have a promising team of younger ministers and I am quite sure from among them, one leader will emerge."