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‘Multilateralism is yet alive’: PM Lee urges G-20 nations to press on with reform of WTO, development banks

NEW DELHI – Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday urged leaders of the Group of 20 (G-20) countries to press on with reforms of multilateral institutions in order to address the world’s development challenges.

While noting that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) remains the best guarantor of common growth and effective and resilient supply chains, PM Lee said its rules need to keep pace with digital transformation and remain relevant for the modern economy.

“We therefore urge the G-20 to provide a strong impetus to advance negotiations on WTO reform, in particular, to restore a fully functioning dispute settlement system as soon as possible,” he said in his speech at the final session of the G-20 summit in New Delhi, titled One Future.

Many disputes among WTO members remain in a state of limbo, as the United States has since 2017 blocked the appointment of new judges to the trade organisation’s appellate body that is responsible for reviewing appeals.

In their consensus declaration on Saturday, leaders of the G-20, which comprises 19 major and emerging economies and the European Union, committed to “conducting discussions with a view to having a fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system accessible to all members by 2024”.

PM Lee said there was also a need to reform the international financial architecture so that it can better respond to the challenges of sustainable development.

In particular, he said, there was a need to encourage multilateral development banks, which include the likes of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to make better and more efficient use of their balance sheets to carry out their mandates.

He noted the need for innovative ways to increase and mobilise development funding from the private sector to complement and amplify public funds.

PM Lee stressed at the annual forum that “multilateralism is yet alive”, even as he noted that cooperation among nations to address global issues had weakened.

He cited the conclusion in March of a new agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which ensures the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, as a reason for “cautious optimism” regarding multilateral cooperation.

“The G-20’s leadership in reinvigorating multilateralism is urgently needed to respond to the development challenges,” he said

Speaking to the Singapore media after his address, PM Lee said that while cooperation between nations can be difficult when there are tensions and distrust between the world’s major powers, it is still possible to move forward.

“First, try and preserve what exists of the multilateral framework and not let that weaken further. Second, if you can’t bring everybody in, can we have smaller groups of like-minded people, people who can work together, and let’s try to make progress on a second-best basis,” he explained.

Examples of such efforts include Singapore’s recently upgraded strategic partnership with Britain, in which both countries committed to working closely in several areas, including the economy, security and technology.

The island republic also enjoys multifaceted relations with the EU that cover a free trade agreement and a digital partnership, as well as scientific and cultural cooperation.

These ties were reaffirmed on Sunday, when PM Lee met European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. At the meeting, they welcomed the recent launch of negotiations for the EU-Singapore Digital Trade Agreement, exchanged views on the global geopolitical outlook, and reaffirmed the importance of upholding the rules-based multilateral order.

“From Singapore’s point of view, we would much prefer to have one big framework which works for everyone. But we are not going to have that. So in this environment, we do our best to make friends… to see what we can work out,” PM Lee told the media.

“Countries will still work together. It means we have to work harder,” he added.

The G-20, which includes countries such as the United States, China, Russia and Japan, makes up about 85 per cent of global gross domestic product and two-thirds of the world’s population.

Singapore is not a member of the G-20 but is regularly invited to take part in its meetings.

The Republic is the convener of the Global Governance Group, an informal grouping of 30 small and medium-sized members of the UN.

PM Lee attended the annual forum at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on behalf of India, which holds the rotating G-20 presidency for 2023. Brazil will take over the grouping’s presidency in 2024.

The Delhi summit produced consensus on a joint declaration by world leaders, but there were compromises made over the war in Ukraine as well as action on climate change.

“I think we did well to have a communique, and to have a meeting where substantial issues were discussed and the views were aired,” said PM Lee.

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