PORT MORESBY: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has described the Pacific region as “an ocean of opportunity”, even as leaders from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) nations meet under a cloud of trade uncertainty.
Speaking to representatives from Pacific Island countries on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Saturday (Nov 17), Mr Lee called for digital links that “can overcome limits of geography and facilitate economic growth".
He also urged them to continue investing in infrastructure and education, so as to reap the full benefits of the digital economy.
Small island states, Mr Lee said, must work together to boost common causes, citing the Forum of Small States (FOSS) that Singapore set up in 1992 as a way to advocate their interests.
He also pointed out areas in which Singapore and the Pacific Island States have built relationships, such as in development and policy, noting that close to 5,000 officials have visited Singapore over the years.
US-CHINA TRADE DISPUTE POSES GREATEST RISK AND UNCERTAINTY: SINGAPORE CEOS
This spirit of collaboration has not quite spilled over into the main APEC meetings, such as the CEO Summit, one of the annual convention’s signature forums.
While Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison led calls for open trade, and espoused integration over isolationism, his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad warned that the benefits of such a model may not be equitable, and could result in poorer nations being left behind.
The contrasting speeches come as the United States and China continue to row over trade. American Vice President Mike Pence said at the CEO Summit that there will be no end to American tariffs unless Beijing reverses its “unfair trade practices".
Singapore firms, meanwhile, look on with uncertainty. The Singapore Business Federation (SBF) said its recent polls of CEOs identified the US-China trade war as the biggest question mark for growth.
“If there is a continued commitment to a rules-based world or system, openness to trade leading to greater economic integration – this will be extremely beneficial to countries around the region,” said SBF CEO Ho Meng Kit, who is part of Prime Minister Lee’s delegation in Port Moresby.
Mr Ho said the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which comes into force in December, and promising negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), have softened the blow of the ongoing trade tensions.
He also urged Singapore businesses to take advantage of the Republic’s bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with both the US and China.
“They must have the skill to exploit and make use of the FTAs,” Mr Ho said. “I think this is an important area of work for Singapore businesses going forward.”