TPP deal 'less about economics, more about US strategy in Asia'

Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told US lawmakers yesterday that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal was critical, more because of its implications on America's strategy towards Asia than any economic considerations.

While the debate has raged in the United States over whether free trade is good or bad for its workers and economy, Mr Shanmugam said economics was actually a smaller part of the equation.

Speaking to a newly reformed Congressional Singapore Caucus at the US Capitol Building, he said if it was simply about economics, Singapore would have little reason to push for the trade pact.

"Why are we plugging the TPP when we have a free trade agreement with the US? We have a free trade agreement with China, with Japan, with other countries that matter," he said.

"Strategically, what is your engagement with Asia, what is your leverage of engagement with the fastest-growing region in the world? The only game in town is the TPP."

This was the second day in a row Mr Shanmugam had issued a strong call for the US to move on free trade, and comes as congressional leaders continued to scramble to find a way forward for a key trade Bill that was blocked by Democrats last week.

The Foreign Minister had said at two different forums that the US risks losing its credibility in Asia if it fails to deliver on the trade deal, and he repeated that message directly to lawmakers yesterday.

"For some years now, American administrations from the president downwards have been coming out to Asia and have been saying how important it (TPP) is as part of American engagement of Asia Pacific. …And it is really the litmus test of American ability to deliver on what it has promised, what the president has said is the most important thing America is doing in the Asia Pacific."

He added: "These are tough messages but that's what friends are for, to tell it to you as it is."

The TPP aside, Mr Shanmugam reaffirmed the strong Singapore-US bilateral relationship and welcomed the relaunch of the Singapore caucus in the US House of Representatives.

The caucus, which was first started in 2002, is being relaunched this year with new co-chairs, Democrat Denny Heck of Washington state and Republican Bradley Byrne of Alabama. The caucus lost one of its previous co-chairs in an election cycle.

The caucus brings together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle that have an interest in Singapore or have a significant Singaporean presence in their districts. Mr Byrne, for instance, represents a district in Alabama that is host to ST Aerospace.

Mr Shanmugam hailed the caucus as a "strong signal of bipartisan support" for Singapore-US ties.

He also pointed out the many ways the friendship and trust between the two countries have been mutually beneficial.

Singapore was the US' third-largest foreign direct investor in 2013 and Singapore firms have created close to 40,000 jobs in the US.

At the launch ceremony, Mr Heck told reporters that there had been a lot of enthusiasm from lawmakers for the relaunch of the caucus.

Said Mr Heck: "A couple of us who had an interest reached out to other members and said, 'This used to exist, we think it should exist again, especially in (the) light of the emerging importance of ASEAN...

"Lo and behold, we barely turned around and there were 20 other people who said yes. Clearly, there was some interest there, some latent interest, and we just tapped into it."

He also said he appreciated the tough message from Mr Shanmugam: "I think that is how good friends talk to one another. I don't have a problem with that at all. In order to build on success, you've got to be straight with one another."

Separately yesterday, Mr Shanmugam met US National Security Adviser Susan Rice and was hosted to lunch by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken. At both meetings, the leaders reaffirmed the close ties between Singapore and the US.

This article was first published on June 18, 2015.
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