SINGAPORE – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Singapore to talk up an Asia trade agreement that has hit snags in final negotiations.
Kerry arrived in the Southeast Asian city-state Tuesday and is to give a speech highlighting the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He will then travel to Malaysia for a regional security forum at which China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea will likely be a major focus.
In Singapore, Kerry will stress the importance of trade in the Obama administration's pivot to Asia and the role the TPP can play in it. The speech comes just days after Pacific Rim trade ministers were unable to reach agreement on the deal, which would cover nearly 40 percent of the global economy.
The Obama administration has said the pact would boost U.S. economic growth and help keep high-quality jobs in the country by increasing exports. It is a central element of Obama's efforts to boost U.S. influence in Asia and to serve as an economic counterweight to China.
The negotiations, which failed Thursday at the talks in Hawaii, are aimed at erasing most tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment among participants. It would also clarify and standardize trade rules, making it easier for companies to sell goods and services in the Pacific Rim. The talks have addressed tariffs on autos, rice and dairy products, as well as intellectual property protections for pharmaceuticals.
But critics have complained that the deal is being negotiated in secret and that it favors multinational corporations over workers and consumers.
The agreement was proposed by Chile, New Zealand and Singapore in 2002, but Washington has taken the lead in promoting it since joining the talks in 2008. Participants include the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
China, the world's second largest economy after the U.S., is not part of the talks. But there's potential it could join the pact later. On its own, Beijing has been negotiating a separate agreement with many of the same nations that's called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
From Singapore, Kerry will travel to Kuala Lumpur to participate in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations annual meeting.
As they have for several years, tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over maritime disputes are expected to be a major topic of discussion. The U.S. takes no position in the disputes but wants them settled amicably and says it has a national security interest in maintaining stability in the region.
China and five other claimants have competing claims to all or part of the South China Sea, home to rich fishing grounds, potentially significant mineral reserves and some of the world's most crucial shipping lanes. China has been on an island-building spree in the disputed waters that has rattled its neighbors and strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
U.S. officials say the meeting in Kuala Lumpur will be an opportunity for the Chinese to hear from many of the 10 ASEAN members, as well as Kerry, about the need for restraint.
"There's a broad consensus on the need to tap the brakes, so to speak, when it comes to exploitation or reclamation of the land features in the South China Sea," one official said. "This is a forum where the Chinese will hear for themselves what their neighbors and their foreign partners think about both their activities and about their actions."
Last week, China's Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of militarizing the South China Sea as Beijing makes increasingly bold moves to assert its claim to virtually all of the sea's waters, islands and reefs.
The rejoinder was prompted by comments critical of the island building by the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, who warned that such work undermines international norms that have long governed the global economy and political order.
The Defense Ministry said U.S. close-in reconnaissance of Chinese armed forces, frequent military exercises and strengthened military alliances with the Philippines and other nations are raising tensions and creating risks of incidents in the air and at sea.