WASHINGTON – Relations between the United States and Japan will suffer if U.S. President Barack Obama fails to win Congress approval of a Pacific free trade agreement before leaving office in January, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Tuesday.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Obama after they met at the White House, Lee said the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership has implications beyond trade for the Japan-U.S. relationship.
Failure to ratify the agreement would hurt Prime Minister Shinzo Abe domestically and affect Washington’s security agreement with Tokyo, he said.
“The Japanese, living in an uncertain world, depending on an American nuclear umbrella, will have to say on trade: ‘The Americans could not follow through. If it’s life and death, whom do I have to depend upon?’ ” Lee said. “It’s an absolutely serious calculation, which will not be said openly, but I have no doubts will be thought.”
Lee said that the TPP represented an integral component of a U.S. strategic “rebalance” to Asia, a policy pursued by the Obama administration to counter the rise of China, and that it showed “a strong signal of the U.S. commitment to continue its deep engagement in the region.”
Its fate has become uncertain as the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and business mogul Donald Trump, have voiced opposition to it.
“Lee’s . . . comments on Japan carry additional weight, because he is in effect talking on behalf of all of the TPP’s Asian partners, who have been led up the negotiating mountain,” wrote Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, on the institute’s Interpreter blog. “Frankly, if that doesn’t have impact, nothing will.”
Graham said that regardless of the TPP’s economic merits, Obama understands Lee’s point about U.S. credibility in the region suffering in the event of the deal’s failure.
“The question is whether enough members of Congress can be persuaded to ratify it by a vote in the lame-duck session,” Graham said. “The prospects for this look at best uncertain.”
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, said late last month that Japan understood Obama was making efforts to get the TPP through Congress by the end of the year.
Suga said the Japanese government aimed to win ratification of the pact during an extraordinary Diet session slated for autumn. Abe’s government regards the TPP as one of the pillars of its growth strategy.
Speaking at Tuesday’s news conference, Obama agreed with Lee’s views and said he wanted to make the case for the Pacific trade deal to lawmakers from both parties after the Nov. 8 election.
“Hopefully, after the election is over and the dust settles, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal and it won’t just be a political symbol or a political football,” Obama said.
“I am a strong supporter of TPP because it will reduce tariffs — taxes, basically — on American goods, from cars to crops, and make it easier for Americans to export into the fastest-growing markets of the world,” he said.
Covering about 40 percent of the global economy, the TPP groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
“TPP levels the playing field for our workers and helps to ensure countries abide by strong labor and environmental rules,” Obama said. “I’m really confident I can make the case that this is good for American workers and the American people.”
Obama said Abe “has taken some significant risks because he knows that he needs to make his economy more competitive, and as a consequence is willing to open access that we haven’t seen in the past.”
Citing the fact that China is not part of the TPP, Obama said that if the United States and other TPP members fail to “establish strong rules and norms for how trade and commerce are conducted in the Asia-Pacific region, then China will.”
He has described trade agreements that Beijing promotes as not paying enough attention to labor and environmental standards, human trafficking and anti-corruption measures.
“If America isn’t creating high standards, then China’s rules will govern in the fastest-growing part of the world,” he said.