Ally Singapore says US credibility in Asia on the line over trade pact

WASHINGTON – Staunch ally Singapore said Monday that U.S. credibility in Asia is on the line amid uncertainty over its participation in a 12-nation free trade pact.

Singapore’s Foreign Minister K Shanmugam said the United States faces a “stark choice” on whether it wants to have continuing leverage in a region where it has long been the guarantor of peace and prosperity.

Shanmugam was speaking at a Washington think-tank as Congress wrangles over legislation crucial to U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP.

Legislation to enhance President Barack Obama’s authority to negotiate such trade deals was dealt a stunning setback Friday, mainly by members of his own party. Obama and his legislative allies were scrambling for ways to revive that effort, although Democrats and Republicans alike said all options face serious hurdles.

“If you don’t do this deal, what are your levers of power? How integrated are you into the Asian economies?” Shanmugam told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ahead of meetings with senior administration officials Tuesday. “The choice is a very stark one. Do you want to be part of the region or you want to be out of the region?”

City state Singapore, which is Southeast Asia’s most advanced economy, is one of the 12 nations in TPP. The free trade pact, which would also set standards on labour, environment and intellectual property, is a key plank of Obama’s effort to re-engage with Asia after years of intense focus on the Middle East.

Other participants are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Vietnam.

While there’s heavy support among Republicans in Congress for the trade pact, Democrats are strongly opposed because they fear it would send U.S. jobs overseas. To derail the trade agenda on Friday, scores of Democrats voted against a program they’ve embraced for years to provide federal aid to workers displaced by international trade.

Obama has described TPP as an opportunity to “write the rules” for regional trade, rather than let rising power China, which is not part of the pact, do so.

Shanmugam was blunt in his assessment of how failure on TPP would impact America’s standing in the region, and whether it is able to complete trade deals at a time when many are being completed by Asian nations.

“The president wants it, everybody knows this is important and you can’t get it through,” he said. “How credible are you going to be?”