Interview

Singapore Foreign Minister: Failure is Not An Option for U.S. Trade Pact

Singapore Foreign Minister: Failure is Not An Option for U.S. Trade Pact

The foreign minister of Singapore, one of the United States’ most important economic and military allies in Asia, is in Washington this week to encourage the Obama administration to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The agreement been a tough sell both internationally and domestically, but Asia-Pacific countries have been looking to the United States to close the massive trade deal, most recently during President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia in late April. For Singapore, the message is clear: Failure is not an option.

"If the TPP doesn’t go through, it will significantly impact both U.S. economic interests and U.S. standing in the region. And it will lead to many questions about U.S. reliability," Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told Foreign Policy in an interview on Tuesday, May 13.

The United States "has staked its prestige" in the region on the passage of the TPP, Shanmugam said. "Everyone can see that this is as important for [the United States] as it is for others." Not passing the agreement will hurt the U.S. economy because China and other countries will make their own regional pacts and free trade agreements, he said. The United States also will not be as engaged in the growth of the Asia-Pacific region as it would with passage of the agreement, and a failure to pass it will lead other nations to question whether Washington has the ability to get a deal done, the foreign minister said.

U.S. credibility in the region has been tested by what Asia-Pacific officials privately describe as a wobbly response by the Obama administration to Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, which has led some to doubt if the United States will honor its commitments to protect the security and territorial integrity of its allies. (Singapore is not a treaty ally with the United States, though the two countries have deep and longstanding military and economic ties.)

This is especially pronounced with Japan, which is locked in a territorial standoff with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. For the United States to effectively ameliorate tensions between the two nations, "the Chinese have to be assured that the United States is not trying to contain them through a series of alliance," said Shanmugam, while noting that the "very nervous" Japanese seek assurance as well. "It’s not a very happy situation right now," he said.

Most recently, a territorial dispute in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China has led to a tense naval standoff and raised questions about how far Washington is willing to go to stand up to a rising and increasingly assertive China. In early May, Beijing dispatched an oil rig to drill in waters close to the Paracel Islands, over which China and Vietnam have claimed sovereignty, just six days after Obama’s Asia tour — which was designed to reassure allies that the United States would stand up to China’s maritime provocations.

Shanmugam described as "very puzzling" China’s decision to lay a claim to drilling rights now. "One possible conclusion is that this is in direct response to the statements made by the president of the United States."

That may be the only conclusion. (The administration certainly seems to think so.) In remarks to reporters on Monday, May 12, Secretary of State John Kerry, who had just met with Shanmugam to discuss the TPP, among other issues, said the United States is "deeply concerned about this aggressive act" by China. "We want to see a code of conduct created; we want to see this resolved peacefully through the Law of the Sea, through arbitration, through any other means, but not direct confrontation and aggressive action," he said.

For his part, Shanmugam expressed doubts that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would be able to resolve the dispute on their own. "It’s not going to be easy, because China looks at it as a bilateral issue," and not a matter for ASEAN to settle, he said. "We have an interest and a role in making sure the area is peaceful … and we have gotten China to agree that ASEAN should be negotiating a ."

Shanmugam called that a "significant" development in regional stability. "But nevertheless, ASEAN’s ability to deal with or manage or reduce tension on any given incident is not significant."