Amid anti-trade sentiments, PM Lee makes case for multilateral agreements at G20

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HAMBURG, Germany: Against the backdrop of heated anti-globalisation protests in Hamburg, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for multilateral trade to continue – adding that the spread of protectionist and anti-trade sentiments “could hurt the livelihoods and prosperity of billions of people.”

Speaking at a G20 Leaders’ Summit working session on Friday (Jul 7), which involved leaders of the world’s top 20 economies, Mr Lee said multilateral agreements are a “comprehensive strategy” for countries to “cooperate for the common good”, and that countries have “more scope to reach win-win deals” through multilateral trade.

“Some (countries) have decided that they will deal with trade issues only bilaterally, Mr Lee said. “But many others, especially small countries, like Singapore and members of the Global Governance Group (3G), strongly prefer the established multilateral route.” He was referring to the informal group of 30 small and medium countries, which Singapore represents upon invitation at the G20 summit.

Prime Minister Lee’s comments come even as opposition to international or free trade grows in the West. In March, the United States declined to endorse a statement in favour of free trade at a G20 finance ministers’ meeting. The sentiments have also led to international trade pacts stalling or falling through. Beyond the dissolution of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the European Union–Singapore Free Trade Agreement also hangs in the balance.

“International trade has been blamed for painful domestic dislocations, though the evidence is far from clear,” Mr Lee said, adding that the “pluses and minuses” of trade “can and must be squared off by governments through domestic policies, adjustment packages and political understandings.”

Mr Lee, who is in Germany for a week-long working visit, has renewed his call for the EU-Singapore trade pact to be ratified, a view echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Mr Lee had met Mr Rutte earlier on Friday, following meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chancellor Merkel on Thursday.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit on 7 July 2017. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

Both Mr Lee and Mr Rutte reaffirmed “excellent” bilateral relations and agreed to step up cooperation in areas like cybersecurity, according to the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office.

During the working session, Mr Lee also cited the European Union as the “best example of countries working multilaterally with one another.” Incidentally, The EU and Japan signed a broad trade agreement on Thursday to lower tariffs on goods.

Mr Lee added that the “ideal” of multilateral trade was the World Trade Organisation (WTO), calling it the “ultimate forum for all trading nations to work together and build a global framework for trade.” He added that he hoped the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference in Argentina would “take meaningful steps forward supporting multilateral trade.”

Mr Lee is set to meet other world leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit, including United States President Donald Trump, before visiting Munich later this week.

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