SINGAPORE: New trade tariffs imposed by the US on steel and aluminium imports and the resulting jostling among countries for exemptions from them portend a "major change in the international trade order", Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said on Sunday (Mar 11).
In a Facebook post, Mr Goh said this change is "bad for the world, and especially for countries like Singapore which depend on trade and an open economic environment".
US President Donald Trump announced duties of 25 per cent on imported steel and 10 per cent on aluminium last Thursday, to come into force in 15 days. The move stoked fears of a tit-for-tat trade war that could drive up prices and depress growth around the globe.
While the tariffs are also being imposed on US allies, they can negotiate for exemptions or lower tariffs, Mr Goh pointed out.
"So, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel says, 'It's purely business.'"
The European Union and Japan have urged the United States to grant them exemptions from metal import tariffs, while Canada, Mexico and Australia are likely to be spared.
The jostling among countries reflects US President Donald Trump's bilateral deal-making at work, Mr Goh said, adding: "The US is like a heavyweight sumo wrestler brow-beating wrestlers of lighter weight."
Mr Goh said that if the US succeeds with its "strong-armed bilateral negotiation on tariffs", other big countries may follow suit.
"Beyond trade, the current liberal international system in which countries have thrived, is beginning to disintegrate," he said.
China may step in to fill in the void left by an "America First" policy, but it will carry different values and rules," he added.
"In a world where, as Lee Kuan Yew once said, 'Big fish eats small fish, small fish eats shrimps', these are worrying times for Singapore. That is why Singapore and 10 other countries signed the Comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership to keep international trade open and rules-based. Hope the sensible countries win."
China's Commerce Minister Zhong Shan criticised the US tariffs on Sunday saying: "There are no winners in a trade war. It will only bring disaster to China and the United States and the world."
The US is the world's biggest importer of steel, purchasing 35 million tonnes of raw material in 2017. Of those imports, South Korea, Japan, China and India accounted for 6.6 million tonnes.