Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minster, speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama, right, listens during an official arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. The occasion marks first official visit by a Singapore prime minister since 1985. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and US President Barack Obama in Washington © Bloomberg

President Barack Obama and a key Asian ally, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, fought back on Tuesday against critics of a new Pacific Rim trade deal, presenting it as a vital tool to maintain Washington’s strategic role in Asia and counter the influence of a rising China. 

The Trans-Pacific Partnership between the US, Japan and 10 other countries is in jeopardy as chances of US congressional approval shrink under the weight of political opposition. The deal had become a “political football”, Mr Obama said.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, have both come out strongly against the TPP as they battle for blue collar votes in rust belt swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

But Mr Obama warned on Tuesday that failing to ratify the TPP would be the wrong response to what he called legitimate “fears and anxieties” about globalisation and technological change. He also rejected calls from critics for Congress to block a vote during his administration. 

“Right now I’m president and I’m for it. And I think I’ve got the better argument,” Mr Obama said. “We are part of a global economy. We are not reversing that. It cannot be reversed.” 

Mr Lee, who has called the TPP a “litmus test” for US credibility in Asia, praised Mr Obama for backing the pact in the face of political opposition. 

“Not only will the TPP benefit American workers and businesses, it will send a clear signal, and a vital signal, that America will continue to lead in the Asia Pacific, and enhance the partnerships that link our destinies together,” he said. 

If the US failed to ratify the TPP after years of negotiations, he said, it would leave many US allies including Japan’s Shinzo Abe politically damaged and undermine Washington’s relationships in Asia for years. 

Despite an upsurge in antitrade rhetoric on the campaign trail this year, the Obama administration is working hard to secure congressional approval for the TPP in the so-called “lame duck” session of Congress following the November 8 election and arguing that failure to do so would throw the agreement into a deep freeze for years. 

“Hopefully after the election is over and the dust settles there will be more attention to the actual facts of the agreements and it won’t just be a . . . political football,” said Mr Obama. “I am really confident I can make the case that this is good for American workers and the American people.” 

The Obama administration is staking most of its hope on the ability of pro-trade Republican congressional leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan to muster enough votes from their own party with the vast majority of the president’s own Democrats likely to vote against the agreement. 

The administration is also counting on support from a business community that has been using this year’s election to target members of Congress in their own districts. 

Speaking at a reception for Mr Lee on Monday, Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, called securing ratification of the TPP “an effort we can’t — and won’t — give up on because the stakes are just too high”. 

"We know how important the Asia-Pacific region is to the United States, and, indeed, to the entire world," he said. 

But Mr Obama’s push for support comes as most analysts and even TPP advocates concede those prospects currently look bleak, largely because Mr Trump’s antitrade positions have rewritten the usual election playbook in which Republican advocacy for free trade and open markets balances opposition from Democrats. 

“There is nothing remotely comparable to this. We have not seen a campaign in the post-world war two period where both of the leading candidates have come out against trade liberalisation,” said Ted Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Even if Mr Trump lost the election in November his ability to win the Republican nomination this year on an antitrade platform was likely to undermine support for trade within the party in the longer term, said Mr Alden, casting further doubt on a lame-duck session vote for the TPP. 

“Donald Trump has captured the Republican party on an anti-trade . . . platform and to believe that is not going to result in significant defections on trade [in Congress] is probably wishful thinking,” he said. “Business has been utterly unable to get what they wanted in the [Republican] primary campaign. Why are they suddenly going to be able to exercise this muscle effectively in the lame duck?”

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