Faster US Customs clearance for Singaporeans

Singapore and the United States are working on a Trusted Travel plan, whereby eligible citizens can clear immigration and Customs faster using automated kiosks in the near future in both countries.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US President Barack Obama have instructed their respective officials to "work closely and expeditiously to achieve this goal", according to a White House press statement last Saturday.

A similar plan is to be implemented between South Korea and the US by January next year. This arrangement would link the US Global Entry Program and Korea's Smart Entry System, allowing eligible, pre-screened US and Korean citizens to clear immigration and Customs expeditiously using automated border gates when travelling between the two countries.

Mr Obama and the 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum were also to launch yesterday a new "Apec Travel Facilitation Initiative" to make travel across the Asia-Pacific region easier, faster, and more secure, according to the statement.

With traveller numbers expected to increase in the coming decades, these efforts by Apec and the US reflect the economic importance of travel to and within the Asia-Pacific region, the world's biggest air-passenger market.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama announced last Saturday the framework for a vast free-trade agreement spanning the Pacific as he sought a new era of American leadership in a fast-growing region.

Mr Obama said nine countries had reached a "broad outline" on a free-trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and hoped by next year to be working on the legal text of a full agreement.

The pact could serve as an "additional safety raft'' as well, said PM Lee in Honolulu.

"Singapore is totally dependent on trade. It is critical to us, it is our lifeblood," he added. "At a time of instability in the world economy, if you look at what's happening in Europe, I think (the TPP) would be an additional safety raft."

The TPP was signed in 2005 as an obscure agreement among Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Mr Obama suddenly turned it into the cornerstone of the US free-trade drive, with Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Peru, the United States and Vietnam now also in the talks.

PM Lee said: "When you are in a free-trade agreement, it gives you better access to the markets. So it is not just the existing businesses which may get slightly better margins. We hope new businesses will be stimulated by the free-trade agreement, and therefore grow the trade and relationship with our main partners.

"I think (the stalled Doha round of world trade talks linking countries to a common trade agreement on goods and tariffs) is not likely to come to any conclusion anytime soon. So, in the absence of Doha, we have to look for other second- best solutions."

The growing rivalry between the US and China was evident at the summit. Mr Obama, shortly before holding talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, warned that Beijing must "play by the rules" in international trade.

Taking China to task with some of his sharpest language yet, Mr Obama threatened punitive action unless it started "playing by the rules" on currency and trade.

Earlier, Mr Hu insisted on more clout for China as an emerging global power. He also made clear Beijing prefers to work through existing global trade architecture rather than allow itself to be subject to US-led efforts to pry open Asia-Pacific markets.

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