SINGAPORE - It is imperative that the United States not just sign but also ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as failing to do so would call into question its commitment to Asia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday.
He asserted that the free trade pact, which covers 12 nations including Singapore and the US, goes beyond being a trade instrument, arguing that it is integral to America's strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific.
Concluding and ratifying the landmark pact would lend weight to the US pledge to rebalance its foreign policy towards Asia at a time of fast-moving geopolitical developments and a host of multilateral trade deals in the region.
If the US lets the ball drop on the TPP, it could lose "a great deal", Mr Lee said in an interview with Singapore media to wrap up what he called a "productive" trip to Washington and New York.
"If you're not even prepared to do the TPP, it calls into question the whole story of your commitment and your engagement. And I think it would be very, very damaging," he added.
Based on his discussions this week with top US officials, including President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Mr Lee felt the administration was "completely convinced" of the TPP's importance in deepening US relations with Asia.
"When I was... calling on Susan Rice, President Obama dropped in for a few minutes and we talked, and the TPP was foremost on his mind," Mr Lee said.
But not all the lawmakers he met were equally committed to the pact, he noted.
"What we need to be able to know is that between the administration and Congress, and the American people, they can work together to deliver the ratification... once the deal is sealed."
Mr Obama hopes a deal can be reached by November, when he will visit the region to attend the Apec summit in China, the East Asia summit in Myanmar and the G-20 summit in Australia.
The TPP talks are taking place amid a series of rapid shifts in Asia that threaten to undermine America's influence there.
Trade deals that exclude the US are being negotiated, such as the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will include ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. Scheduled for completion next year and covering a third of the world economy, the RCEP "will have some heft and substance", Mr Lee said.
"So the region is moving. So if America is not moving, you may be part of the game but you're not in play," he added.
Meanwhile, China's growing economic and military might is posing challenges for Washington, seen as the only effective counterbalance to Beijing in Asia.
Mr Lee said the US is watching China's moves in the South China Sea, where it is staking territorial claims that overlap with those of some other Asian countries.
"This is an important interest for all of us, and we want it to be worked out in a satisfactory way for all of the participants, which means compromises have to be made," he added. "But at the same time, we also want stable US-China relations - the most important bilateral relationship in the world. And the two are not mutually exclusive, but you have to manage both sides."
During his trip, he launched Temasek Holdings' new office in New York and spoke with US business leaders. On whether American firms are concerned about doing business in Singapore amid the foreign labour curbs, he said they still have "a lot of desire to do more in Singapore".
Noting that the US also faces immigration issues, he said he had explained the trade-offs in Singapore's labour policy.
"I think I convinced them that we very much had in mind the importance of keeping the economy vibrant and (being) able to grow and improve year by year."
This article was first published on June 28, 2014.
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