SINGAPORE: There are many opportunities for smaller countries like Singapore to work together “to stem the growing hostility and instability” between the US and China, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.
“Small states like Singapore can do little to influence the big powers, but we are not entirely without agency,” he said on Friday (May 31) at the opening of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, held against a backdrop of US-China tensions on various issues.
“There are many opportunities for smaller countries to work together to deepen economic cooperation, strengthen regional integration and build up multilateral institutions.”
Mr Lee said this would allow countries to strengthen their influence as a group, and advance their collective position on issues like trade, security or technology.
AN “ALMOST PARALYSED” WTO
Mr Lee noted that multilateral institutions are far from perfect, highlighting the World Trade Organization (WTO) as one institution which is “almost paralysed and urgently needs reform”.
“The WTO was designed for an agricultural and manufacturing-based world economy, but the world has moved on to services and now increasingly digital and intellectual property, which need much more complicated rules,” he said.
Mr Lee pointed out that the US has lost faith in the WTO, adding that it often acts unilaterally, imposing tariffs and trade sanctions outside WTO rules.
“It prefers negotiating bilateral deals one on one against smaller countries in trials of strength,” he said.
“It gives more weight to the US’ direct benefits in the disputes at hand, than to its broader interests in upholding the multilateral system. And this has caused concern to many of the US’ friends and allies.”
However, Mr Lee said Singapore cannot afford to adopt the same point of view, noting that as a small nation, it is “naturally disadvantaged” in bilateral negotiations.
Instead, Singapore needs to “reform and strengthen” multilateral institutions, Mr Lee said, noting that confining itself to a bilateral approach would mean forgoing “win-win opportunities” that come from countries working together with more partners.
“We need to build a broader regional and international architecture of cooperation,” he added. “When groups of countries deepen their economic cooperation, they will enhance not just their shared prosperity but also their collective security.
“With more stake in one another’s success, they will have greater incentive to uphold a conducive and peaceful international order.”
Therefore, short of universal trade agreements, Mr Lee said Singapore should at least strive for regional or pluri-lateral arrangements.
“This may be a second best solution, but it is a practical way to incrementally build support for lower trade barriers and higher standards, which can then be adopted by other countries,” he added.
For instance, Mr Lee said he was pleased that more countries, including South Korea, Thailand and the UK, have expressed an interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
“China is also watching the CPTPP carefully,” he said. “They are not ready to join now, but I hope that they will seriously consider doing so sometime in the future.”
Similarly, Mr Lee added that he hopes it would one day become become “politically possible” for a US administration to rethink the US’ position on the partnership, and recognise that it stands to gain, economically and strategically from becoming a member of the partnership that it played a leading role in designing.
BELT AND ROAD MUST BRING LONG-TERM BENEFITS
Nevertheless, Mr Lee noted that regional cooperation goes beyond trade.
He pointed to how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has become an “effective regional partner” of other countries, and enabled its members to “project a stronger external presence” as a group.
And amid the geopolitical shifts, Mr Lee said new concepts and platforms for regional cooperation have emerged, notably China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Mr Lee said Singapore supports the BRI, noting that it works with the World Bank to promote financial and infrastructure connectivity, and provides supporting professional and legal services to BRI countries.
“Of course the substance of the BRI, and the way in which the BRI is implemented, are very important,” he added. “The specific projects must be economically sound and commercially viable, and must bring long-term benefits to its partners.”
Mr Lee noted that this has not always been the case as some BRI projects have run into “significant problems”.
“Overall, the BRI must be open and inclusive, and must not turn the region into a closed bloc centred on a single major economy,” he said, adding that while Asian countries deepen links with China, they need to also grow ties with the US, Europe, Japan and others.
“In other words, the BRI should help China to integrate with the world,” Mr Lee stated. “The end result should be to strengthen globalisation, and not to divide the world into rival spheres of influence.”
Mr Lee said he believes that China appreciates this, pointing out that Chinese leaders have clearly stated that the BRI would be “open, green and clean”, while China’s finance minister has set out debt sustainability requirements for Belt and Road projects.
Added Mr Lee: “In the nature of such reassurances, the test will be how these statements of intent are implemented in practice, but these are steps in the right direction.”
FURTHER REGIONAL COOPERATION
The Prime Minister also brought up other initiatives that have been proposed for regional cooperation, highlighting various concepts of an “Indo-Pacific cooperation” as one example.
While these ideas are less fully elaborated or implemented than the BRI, Mr Lee said Singapore’s attitude towards them is consistent.
“We support regional cooperation initiatives which are open and inclusive platforms for countries to cooperate constructively, and deepen regional integration,” he said, stressing that the initiatives should strengthen existing cooperation arrangements centred on ASEAN.
“They should not undermine them, create rival blocs, deepen fault lines or force countries to take sides. They should help bring countries together, rather than split them apart.”