WASHINGTON: There is great scope for US businesses to grow new markets, make fresh investments and create prosperity on both sides of the Pacific but key to this, is the US attitude, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Oct 23) during his official working visit in Washington DC.
Speaking at the Economic Club of Washington DC, Mr Lee said whether the US still believes that it has the most to gain from an interdependent world, open exchanges and multilateral rules and how US-China relations develop will determine not just prosperity, but war and peace, not just in Asia, but the world.
He said the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was one way to deepen economic cooperation in the Asia Pacific, and to achieve a strategic objective. While the US’ withdrawal is disappointing, the remaining TPP countries hope the US will continue to maintain and enhance its economic ties with Asian countries in other ways.
While now is “not the time to start major new trade initiatives”, Mr Lee said the “US should still uphold free trade and tackle trade issues that arise cooperatively with partners”.
He said the US must continue to adopt a policy of sustained economic engagement of the region as Asia has abundant opportunities for US businesses.
“There are investment and technological gaps American companies can fill. There are also growing middle classes to purchase innovative and high quality US products.”
SUBSTANCE OF US-ASIA RELATIONS HAS NOT CHANGED
While noting that the Trump administration has “a radically different approach” from its predecessor, Mr Lee said the substance of US relations with Asia has not changed.
US economic interests with Asia are substantial and growing and Trans-Pacific trade exceeds Trans-Atlantic trade at this point.
US MNCs have major investments in many Asian countries.
These economic ties are complemented by major strategic and security interests
America’s major US allies are in Asia. Mr Lee named countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and described America’s ties with China as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”.
The peace and stability of the Asia Pacific is a vital US national security interest, he said.
ASIAN ECONOMIES AMONG THE FASTEST GROWING
While he noted that hype about an “Asian Century” has cooled, Asian economies are still among the fastest growing, and account for two-thirds of global growth today.
Chinese companies like Alibaba and Huawei, or Indian companies like Bharti Enterprises and the Mahindra Group, are world class MNCs.
Mr Lee also noted how the region as a whole is becoming more integrated and interdependent.
The ASEAN Economic Community is expected to be the fourth largest single market by 2030.
In addition, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership brings together ASEAN and all its FTA partners, including China and India and covers half the world’s population and one third of global GDP.
India is making progress in its “Act East” outreach and China has been the single most important driver of Asia’s prosperity and integration. While its growth rate has slowed, it is still “impressive at more than 6 per cent", he said.
China is the largest trading partner of most Asian countries and Mr Lee said they welcome China’s initiatives to develop win-win partnerships with its neighbours through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt & Road Initiative.
Mr Lee said these schemes help Asian countries meet their urgent need for financing and better infrastructure and connectivity and they are also a constructive, stabilising way to accommodate China’s growing influence into the international system.
A GLOBAL MULTILATERAL SYSTEM OF TRADE
At the same time, “Asian countries want an open, inclusive regional architecture, not a world divided into rival blocs”, he said.
“They have prospered under a global, multilateral system of trade and finance and have substantial economic links with Europe and the US.
“They want to maintain and grow these links, even as they deepen cooperation within the Asian region,” he said.
Mr Lee will meet President Trump at the Oval Office on later on Monday and be hosted to a bilateral working lunch with Cabinet Secretaries and key White House officials.
He will have separate meetings with Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, National Security Advisor H R McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. The Prime Minister is also scheduled to meet key Congressional leaders.
When asked at a question-and-answer dialogue about the message he will convey to these leaders about Asia's importance to the US, Mr Lee said: "I know you are preoccupied with domestic matters and every country has its own domestic issues to handle.
"But the external world is moving, Asia is dynamic and America ... you not only have a role to play, it's really your game to lose. Don't lose it."
Economic Club of Washington President David Rubenstein also asked Mr Lee about his intention to find a successor.
"I do not want to stay the whole term after the next election," said Mr Lee. "I've said that soon after next election, I strongly hope that there will be a successor ready and in position to take over from me."
"I really should not be Prime Minister beyond 70 if I can help it at all." Mr Lee is 65 years old.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Lee also answered questions on why Singapore is considered a good place in which companies should invest.
"It's where you are able to have political stability, a good environment to live, a good business environment to work, a workforce which works very hard and is disciplined and will be cooperative with management," said Mr Lee.
Singapore is in the middle of a region which is prospering, said Mr Lee. "And from Singapore, you can cover a big part of the region."