World

S’pore, Australia urge US to remain engaged in Asia-Pacific, ratify TPP

S’pore, Australia urge US to remain engaged in Asia-Pacific, ratify TPP
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (right), during a bilateral meeting at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Photo: Pool via AP
Published: 10:14 AM, October 13, 2016
Updated: 12:31 AM, October 14, 2016

CANBERRA — Singapore and Australia have jointly urged the United States to stay engaged in the Asia-Pacific region, while calling on American lawmakers to ratify the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

Speaking at a joint press conference on Thursday (Oct 13), visiting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull also noted that closer ties and partnership between their two countries were not aimed at third parties in the region.

Responding to a query from the Australian media on whether Beijing would interpret closer Singapore-Canberra ties as an attempt to obstruct its rise in the region, Mr Lee pointed out that Singapore and Australia “have been friends for a very long time”.

“I don’t think Singapore and Australia together could possibly be seen as a bloc. We are good friends, but we are not treaty allies, and neither are we opposed to any countries in the region,” he said, adding that China is the biggest trading partner for both Singapore and Australia.

“So this is part of a network of inter-relationships and cooperation in the region. Not everybody is in on every arrangement, but collectively the arrangements add up to a constructive and robust network of cooperation and architecture.”

Mr Lee added it is important that there are good relations between America and China, as well as America and Japan, which will enable them to discuss difficult issues like the South China Sea dispute in a broader context “so that there are restraints on pushing difficult problems over the limit”.

Commenting on the longstanding role played by Washington in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, Mr Lee said it is the intent of the US to participate actively and constructively in the region — from security issues to economics to people-to-people relations — and that makes it an important partner to Asia.

“What is important for the US in Asia is not just specific tactical moves but its broad strategic direction — that it pays emphasis on Asia Pacific as an important part of the world, that it engages the Asia-Pacific on a broad range of areas,” added Mr Lee. “From that point of view, if you ask me, is it important if there is a 7th Fleet in the region (for the maintenance of security), I think the answer is yes.”

Echoing Mr Lee’s comment. Mr Turnbull said: “The importance of American engagement in our region cannot be overstated. It is of vital importance to the region, it is of vital importance to our countries.
 
The US’ presence in our region has underpinned the peace and the stability that have been the foundation of our prosperity for the past 40 years.”

During the press conference, Mr Lee also urged the US Congress to ratify the TPP soon, saying it is of vital importance to the region. Singapore and Australia are signatories of the 12-nation trade pact, which would account for about 40 per cent of global economic output if it comes into effect.

Mr Turnbull added: “The ratification of the TPP by the US Congress, would be of enormous importance to the region and certainly we see it, both Prime Minister Lee and I see it, and the region sees it, as a profoundly strategically important commitment, and that is the argument that we have been making.”

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Lee and Mr Turnbull witnessed the signing of several key agreements under the ambit of the two countries’ Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), covering trade, defence, innovation, as well as combatting transnational drug crime. Australia and Singapore signed a joint declaration on the CSP last June to deepen economic integration, expand defence cooperation, promote innovation and entrepreneurship, and strengthen people-to-people ties over the next decade.

In a joint communique, Mr Lee and Mr Turnbull also highlighted both countries’ “unwavering commitment to the principles of free and open trade”, as well as their “increasing strategic convergence”.

On the South China Sea issue, the two leaders “underlined Australia and Singapore’s shared interests in freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded trade” and urged parties involved in the territorial dispute to avoid actions that would escalate tension.

China claims a large swathe of the South China Sea. Four countries from the Association of South-east Asian Nations — Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines — as well as Taiwan also have claims to the strategic waterway.

The communique added: “They called on all parties concerned to resolve disputes in the South China Sea peacefully, with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes and in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

“They urged all parties to avoid actions that would escalate tensions, including the further militarisation of outposts in the South China Sea. They reaffirmed their support for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the expeditious conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”

The next round of annual high-level CSP talks will be held in Singapore next year.