Singapore Minister Chan: ASEAN wants to uphold the global trade system

Singapore's Boat Quay in 1968; photo taken by Leonard Shaffer.

The ASEAN economy ministers’ meeting in Singapore this week aimed to show unity as governments try to address the challenges of technological disruption and threats to the global trade system, Singapore’s Minster of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said on Saturday.

“We believe that this is the best way to overcome many of the challenges that we are facing in the current global economic environment,” Chan said at a press conference on Saturday at the Shangri-La Hotel at the close of the meeting.

“At the macro level, by coming together, it is also a strong signal to the market that we have many like-minded countries and partners who want to uphold the global trading system,” he added. “It’s very clear that the ASEAN countries and the RCEP countries all believe in a multilateral system and a rules-based system.”

RCEP, or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, is a proposed free trade agreement between the 10 ASEAN nations and six other Asia-Pacific countries: New Zealand, Australia, Japan, India, China and South Korea. The pact was “substantially” negotiated at the meetings this week, with a basic agreement expected to be signed by the end of the year.

Chan’s comments come as the global trading system has faced pressure from a newly belligerent U.S. trade policy under the Trump administration. U.S. trading partners have faced concerns that the Trump administration wouldn’t honor U.S. commitments under existing trade deals, while it also appears to be trying to poke holes in the global rules-based trading system. The Trump administration has also unilaterally imposed tariffs, including some aimed at allies, and spurring retaliatory measures.

Additionally, U.S. President Trump said in a Bloomberg News interview which was published on Thursday, U.S. time, that he would pull the U.S. out of the World Trade Organization (WTO) if it didn’t “shape up,” claiming that the organization which has been a bedrock of global trade has treated the U.S. “very badly” and calling it the “single worst trade deal ever made.” To be sure, Trump has described many trade deals as “the worst ever.”

Singapore’s Chan said some of the meetings were aimed at addressing the causes of protectionism and any backlash against both globalization and technological disruption.

“I think every one of us will acknowledge that technology and globalization will bring about net benefits for our respective countries, but how these benefits are distributed across and shared with our people is equally important,” Chan said. “These are common challenges. But the way you overcome such challenges is not to isolate ourselves from technology or from greater connectivity.”

Chan pointed to his own history in the labor movement and said that the priority wasn’t to protect jobs, but to protect workers.

“The way to protect the workers is to make sure they know where are the new opportunities, [and] they have opportunities to be re-skilled to take full advantage of those new opportunities. The jobs will change but our workers will remain,” he said, adding topics of how to people who have been disrupted transit to new types of work were among key issues the ministers discussed.

“If we are unable to do that successfully, there will be a backlash and some of it will manifest in … protectionism,” Chan said.

Other ministers at the meetings also used their public remarks to reject the protectionism of recent U.S. policy.

James Carr, Canada’s minister of international trade diversification, issued some pointed criticism, while indicating his country’s desire to pursue an ASEAN-Canada free trade agreement.

“Canada’s goals in ASEAN are for mutual advantage: For trade that creates jobs on both sides of the Pacific, for trade that protects and builds on the benefits of the trade that we enjoy today and for trade that respects and upholds the rules-based international trading system and multi-laterialism,” Carr said. “We value a rules-based order where might does not equal right.”

Canada’s representative wasn’t the only country to appear to criticize Trump administration policies in public remarks.

Earlier in the day, Damien O’Connor, New Zealand’s minister of state for trade and export growth, also took aim: “Firstly, we’ll be defending the rules-based system centered on the WTO,” O’Connor said on Saturday.

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