Security, trade top agenda in Biden’s Singapore trip

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United States vice president Joe Biden (left) speaks with Grace Fu Hai Yien, a minister from the prime minister’s office, during a visit to the National Orchid Garden in Singapore on Friday. AFP PHOTO

SINGAPORE: United States (US) Vice President Joe Biden was to meet Singaporean leaders and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday in talks likely to be dominated by regional maritime disputes and trade.

Biden, who arrived in the city-state on Thursday, was scheduled to meet Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, influential elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, later in the day.

President Barack Obama’s number two will also meet Abe, who is visiting Singapore as part of a tour of Southeast Asia following his fresh victory in upper house polls.

Officials and analysts said maritime disputes and US trade ties with the region—the focus of a strategic shift by Washington to counter growing Chinese influence—are expected to be on top of the agenda.

A senior US administration official said in Washington ahead of the visit that Biden would use the meetings to discuss efforts to manage overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea, a potential flashpoint for regional conflict.

China says it owns virtually all of the sea and has increasingly taken steps to enforce its claims, sparking protests from rival claimants the Philippines and Vietnam. Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, also claim parts of the sea.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has been urging China to negotiate a legally binding code of conduct aimed at preventing conflict in the waters.

Beijing, however, has been reluctant to discuss such a code with the 10-nation regional bloc, saying it prefers to deal with individual Asean claimants.

Biden, in a speech at George Washington University ahead of his Asia trip, stressed the importance of a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

“With regard to maritime disputes, it’s critical that all nations have a clear understanding of what constitutes acceptable international behavior,” Biden said.

“That means no intimidation, no coercion, no aggression, and a commitment from all parties to reduce the risk of mistake and miscalculation,” he said, adding that “setting clear rules is the first step to managing these disputes.”

Japan and China are locked in their own maritime dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

Euan Graham, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said economics would be on Biden’s agenda as much as security.

He said Washington is seeking “to flesh out the economic leg” of its strategic re-balancing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement, in addition to other initiatives to deepen ties with Asean.

Led by the US, the TPP talks currently involve 12 countries—Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Japan joined the TPP talks for the first time this month.

Biden has said the US aims for the completion of a TPP deal this year, which would create one of the world’s biggest free trade zones.

On Saturday, he will visit a facility of US aerospace giant Pratt & Whitney and tour the US Navy’s littoral combat ship USS Freedom.

The warship has been deployed to Singapore and the surrounding region for the next eight months to give teeth to Washington’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia.

He will leave for Hawaii later on Saturday.

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