TOKYO -- It is up to Japan and China to drive free trade and economic integration in Asia, and they have to do it "in tandem, not as rivals," Goh Chok Tong, Singapore's former prime minister, said on Monday. On the Trans-Pacific Partnership, specifically, Goh called on Japan to take the lead and open the door for China to eventually join the pact.
Speaking at Nikkei Inc.'s Future of Asia conference in Tokyo, Goh warned that the growing sentiment against economic integration in the West is "not in Asia's interest."
"It is time for Asia to stand up for free and fair trade, reap the full benefits of globalization, and shape the new global agenda," he said.
Asia is "well-placed" to champion free trade and further economic integration, Goh said, making the case as to why Tokyo and Beijing need to improve their relationship. Now that U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the TPP, he urged Japan to become the torchbearer and "send a signal" that China is welcome to come aboard.
As for when China might actually sign on, he said, "I don't think it happens in five years," since the country does not appear ready to meet the TPP's high standards, which include rules on trade in services and intellectual property. Nevertheless, the invitation would be "one gesture to China," he said.
For the two Asian giants to work together more closely, what is missing is "trust," Goh said.
Addressing an audience primarily from Japanese business circles, Goh suggested Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative could "potentially advance multilateral trade and globalization" if Beijing pushes for free trade deals. The initiative -- a plan to build infrastructure stretching from Asia to Europe -- "integrates the region, as opposed to dividing it," Goh said.
The former prime minister expressed concern about Trump's "America first" policy, citing the danger of a "hub and spoke" model under which the U.S. only negotiates deals when it has a clear upper hand. "The worry is that the smaller countries have no chance" in one-on-one negotiations, he said.
On the security front, Goh noted the rising threat of organizations in Southeast Asia linked to the Islamic State group. "What is more worrying for us is that [IS] is trying to create a foothold in the Philippines" and trying to build a "virtual caliphate" with regionwide connections spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand and Singapore.
To ease tensions with North Korea, meanwhile, Goh spoke of the potential for small countries like Singapore to engage the regime.
He revealed that North Korea once invited Singapore to develop an industrial park. The city-state considered the proposal but eventually dropped the idea due to international sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. Still, Goh said, the park could have been "another example of small countries playing a catalytic role to get North Korea to understand the benefits of economic development."