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Marcos backing for RCEP premature, think tank says

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s declaration of support for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is premature pending the resolution of the agriculture industry remaining unresolved, a think tank said.

Policy research group Focus on the Global South said that the RCEP agreement is awaiting the Senate’s concurrence, where the trade deal is being studied by experts appointed by the foreign relations committee.

The committee, chaired by Senator Maria Imelda Josefa Remedios R. Marcos, has thrown the matter to a technical working group (TWG) amid objections to the trade deal raised by the agriculture industry.

“But the TWG met only once and it focused on hearing the same arguments for RCEP from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and against RCEP from the (agriculture) stakeholders,” Joseph M. Purugganan, the think tank’s program coordinator, said via chat.

“In other words, if they push for concurrence after only one TWG meeting then it casts doubt on the sincerity of the Marcos administration to address the concerns of stakeholders,” he said.

The Senate failed to ratify RCEP last year, with senators citing the lack of safeguards for agriculture.

The free trade agreement involves the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and dialogue partners China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

“The agriculture stakeholders put forward in good faith concrete conditions — on the need to address smuggling, transparency in the agriculture budget, protection of sectors that will be exposed to threats, and the need for a concrete action plan to minimize these threats and maximize the projected gains,” Mr. Purungganan said.

“None of these conditions has been met.”

Raul Q. Montemayor, chairman of the Federation of Free Farmers, said the Department of Agriculture (DA), which is currently headed by Mr. Marcos, has failed to “formally” consult his group and other industry associations on the ratification proposal “even as it has joined other agencies in endorsing RCEP.”

Mr. Montemayor was among those who participated in a Senate hearing on RCEP in December.

“It was our understanding that the government, in consultation with the private sector, will draw up a list of things to do to prepare the sectors and the country for RCEP. A TWG was created, but it did not focus on drawing up this list,” he said via Viber.

“The concerns of the agriculture sector remain unaddressed,” he added.

During the campaign, Mr. Marcos called for a review of RCEP to ensure the agriculture industry is adequately protected.

Mr. Montemayor said Mr. Marcos failed to deliver on his campaign promise to conduct the review.

Earlier this week, the DTI asked the Senate to ratify RCEP before the end of the first quarter, saying that the Philippines is already missing out on the deal’s benefits.

The Senator has “the whole of February to conduct hearings,” Trade Assistant Secretary Allan B. Gepty told reporters late Tuesday. “And then there’s March. Basically, two months. I hope it gets finished because we are already delayed.”

Mr. Purugganan of Focus said the push is ill-timed, especially because the country “continues to be in the midst of an agriculture crisis.”

RCEP ratification would only worsen the situation because the Philippines has resorted to bringing in more imports amid prices costs, he said. “Unfortunately, the government’s response to the crisis is import, import, import.”

“RCEP will not reverse this but rather will make things worse for agriculture.”

Agriculture accounts for about a 10th of gross domestic product (GDP). Agriculture output contracted by 0.1% in 2022, missing the DA’s 1.2-1.5% full-year growth target.

RCEP is viewed as a means for China to minimize US influence in the region. As a counter, the US has offered the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a bid to achieve greater economic integration.

Advocates of trade liberalization have been pushing for the adoption of RCEP, saying it complements the government’s economic agenda.

“It provides continuity to the country’s liberalized foreign trade regime, consolidating and regionalizing market access within ASEAN+, other major Asian markets like China, Japan, Korea and even New Zealand and Australia,” Benvenuto N. Icamina, vice-president and chief operating officer at The Wallace Business Forum, said via Viber.

“Bilateral agreements already exist between ASEAN and many of these countries, so it will be a matter of taking the next step of expanding trade opportunities through regionalization,” he added.

Under a trade liberalization regime, the Philippines should not just focus on products but also services “where the Philippine appears to have some competitive advantages,” Mr. Icamina said. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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