The Prime Minister of Singapore gave a spirited and detailed defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that cedes sovereignty to the treaty’s administration, at a Tuesday press conference with President Barack Obama at the White House.
If the United States does not join the Trans-Pacific Partnership it could lead to armed conflict in the region and American allies, such as Japan, seeking other arrangements, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who also addressed a Chamber of Commerce dinner the night before in favor of TPP.
“If you set the wrong direction in the next 50 years, maybe you will turn around, but it will cost you many years and the world will have to pay quite a high price,” the prime ministers said, sharing the platform with President Barack Obama in the White House’s East Room. In addition to the president hosting a formal state dinner for the prime minister Tuesday evening, Obama ceremonially greeting the prime minister on the South Lawn of the White House in front of military personnel from each of the armed services in full dress uniforms standing in formation.
The official language of Singapore is English, which like the United States, was a colony of the British crown. Lee spoke without a translator in quick, comfortable American-style English with diplomatic subtly that flagged issues without being alarming.
Singapore was occupied by Imperial Japan for three years during the Second World War, so it would follow that Lee’s comments invoked his city-state’s trauma during those years.
“Where do we go for the next 50 years?” Lee asked. “That depends if we go toward interdependence and therefore peaceful cooperation or we go for self-sufficiency, rivalry and a higher risk of conflict.”
Lee said, “Asia has tried both. The world has tried both. In the 1930s, with a very difficult international environment, you had a rivalry with Japan, which led to war.”
The prime minister said one of the causes of the Cold War with the Soviet Union was its lack of commerce between the United States.
“One of the reasons why you have a manageable relationship with China now is because you have trade,” Lee said.
“Both sides want to maintain that relationship,” he said. “If you didn’t it would be like the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”
Obama grew fidgety at his podium. Perhaps, he is not used to sharing the spotlight with foreign leaders, or at least foreign leaders more capable of making the case for TPP than he has proven.
Again, as has been the case for the last 18 months, Obama also had to acknowledge the Republican nominee for president Donald J. Trump–always the other man in the room, whether he is in the room or speaking to thousands of supporters an hour away in Virginia, as he was when the president spoke: “It is absolutely true, the evidence shows that some past trade deals have not delivered on all the benefits that were promised and had very localized costs.”
“Localized cost”s apparently means it hurt real people in real cities and towns.
“There were communities that were hurt because plants moved out. People lost jobs. Jobs were created because of those trade deals, but jobs were also lost. And people who experienced those losses, those communities didn’t get as much help as they needed to,” he said, adding:
What is also true as a consequence of globalization and automation, what you’ve seen is labor, workers losing leverage and capital being mobile, being able to locate around the world. That has all contributed to growing inequality both here in the United States, but in many advanced economies. So there’s a real problem. These forces of globalization and technology have not always benefitted everybody evenly. There are fears and anxieties that people may be left behind. And these anxieties are legitimate. They can’t be ignored.
The prime minister also discussed TPP in ways that reflected the Confucian mindset that has informed Singapore’s development over the last 50 years as a sovereign city-state. In the Confucian system, everyone is governed by relationships that balance benefits and obligations.
Lee said America needs to understand that it has relationships on the line with TPP, as every one of the leaders from other countries faced down domestic pressure against participation.
“Your friends, who have come to the table have negotiated–each one has overcome some objection, some sensitivity, some political cost to come to the table and make this deal,” he said.
“If the bride does not arrive, I think people will feel very hurt,” he said.
People like the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe.
Many of Abe’s predecessors walked away from the opportunity to join TPP or similar talks, Lee said. Singapore and the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement in 2004.
But,Abe stepped up and made the public and political commitment.
“He wants to his country to benefit and open up its market,” Lee said. “This is one way to do that–You don’t do this, it hurts the relationship with Japan.”
At risk is not just the commerce between nations, but military cooperation and alliance with Japan, he said.
“The Japanese are living in an uncertain world,” he said.
“They are depending on the American nuclear umbrella,” he said. The Japanese are looking for signals as to whether they can count on America or not–but, it is not discussed openly.
Lee made a strong case, but he was also careful not to engage in American politics. While Lee stood at his podium, Obama took the first question about Trump’s back-and-forth with the family of a Muslim Army officer killed in Iraq and pronounced that the New York City developer’s response to being accused of having a “black soul” made him unfit for office.
The prime minister took himself out of that and other political questions and told reporters Singapore has dealt with Republicans and Democrats in the White House and it always turns out fine.
“Our experience of American elections, presidential elections, has been that many pressures build up during the election campaign,” he said. “After the elections, in a calmer, cooler atmosphere, positions are re-thought, strategies are nuanced, and a certain balance is kept in the direction of the ship of state. It doesn’t turn completely upside down.”
Then, the prime minister offered a concise summary of the system The Framers left to us: “The Americans take pride in having a system with checks and balances so that it is not so easy to do things, but it is not so easy to completely mess things up and we admire that and sometimes we depend upon that.”