PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong remains hopeful that US President Barack Obama can push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact and get it implemented before he leaves the White House next January.
This mega free trade pact involves 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Singapore, and was signed in Auckland earlier this month after five years of negotiations. The deal now needs to be ratified by each country, a difficult process that could take up to two years to complete.
"We hope very much that President Obama will be able to clear this and not leave it as unfinished business for his successor," said Mr Lee in California on Tuesday (Wednesday morning, Singapore time).
He was speaking to members of the Singapore media at the end of the two-day US-ASEAN Summit hosted by the American leader at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage.
"(The TPP) needs to be ratified and that is a major hurdle in several countries, including in the US. Ideally, it would have been done and ratified before the end of (Mr Obama's) term and we still hope that will be so, but November is coming up close, so there isn't a lot of time," said Mr Lee.
With the US gearing up to vote in a new president this November, almost all the candidates from both the Democrat and Republican camps have either opposed the TPP or not taken a position on it.
Many Americans think the deal would affect their wages and hurt jobs; this sentiment came through outside the US-ASEAN Summit venue, as a group of anti-TPP protesters voiced their displeasure.
Mr Lee expressed concern about the anti-trade rhetoric that has been expressed on the election campaign trail of late, as it reflects a "certain mood on the ground" that is not enthusiastic about trade.
"At the same time, it sours the mood on the ground, because by working up these sentiments, the candidates make it harder later, if in fact they want to sign it, to change their position," said Mr Lee, adding that people would have been entrenched in their attitudes by then.
He said much would depend on whether the next US president who had made strong anti-trade rhetoric during the campaign would be able to change his position or be persuaded by officials to take a different approach.
"American politics is like this. If you look at the history of it, on the campaign trail, often you have a candidate or many candidates who take strident positions against China," said Mr Lee. "But when they become president, all of them have to look at the problem seriously, reality sinks home and almost every president since (Richard) Nixon has concluded that he has a stable, sound relationship with China. So we hope that will be the case for the TPP."
On the second day of the summit, Mr Lee spoke on two occasions - once on the impact of climate change, and the other, on the threat of terrorism.
On the latter, he pointed to the need to strengthen international co-operation, given that terrorists do not recognise borders.
"Theirs is a multi-national endeavour, so too must our anti-terrorist co-operation go beyond borders," he said, adding that Singapore has readily participated in the counter-ISIS coalition.
"The ultimate aim of terrorism is to make a sharp and violent divide between 'us' and 'them'. But if we strengthen our co-operation, if we band together to counter their ideology and take a firm and united stand, I am confident that they will not prevail, and eventually, we will defeat terrorism," he said.
On the issue of climate change, the Singapore leader urged all countries to follow through on the agreement reached in Paris last December, although he admitted that this would be tough.
At the summit held in the French capital, almost 200 nations agreed to keep average global warming to less than 2 deg C by the year 2100.
"Even in the US, there is pushback from certain parts within the political system," said Mr Lee as he called on future US administrations to continue to lead the way in climate change, just as Mr Obama has done.
"Without US leadership, no other country will reach a deal, much less implement an agreement. But if we do and implement the agreement, then we can ensure the sustainability of our environment and make the world a better place for our children," he said.
Separately, Mr Obama announced a new "US-ASEAN Connect" initiative, with plans to set up a network of three offices - in Singapore, Jakarta and Bangkok - to better coordinate America's economic engagement with South-east Asia and bring entrepreneurs, investors and businesses closer together.
Collectively, ASEAN is the fourth-largest trading partner of the US. Two-way trade in goods and services has tripled since the 1990s, topping US$254 billion in 2014.
This article was first published on February 18, 2016.
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