Seven months lost | Opinion of the applicant
Our country’s delay in ratifying membership of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) for more than seven months now, after negotiations that lasted a decade, has been a big waste that has won us nothing, and most likely already cost. This illustrates how the poor dissemination of the right information and the widespread belief in false or distorted information can mislead people and their government into unwarranted and undesirable actions. (What else is new, one might ask, when recent election results have been shaped by precisely the same issue?)
As the world’s largest free trade agreement (FTA) in history, RCEP is a hugely attractive trading bloc that any country seeking new opportunities for economic growth through broader market access for its products would not want to miss. Already, Bangladesh and Hong Kong are applying to become its next members. And yet, it seems we don’t even want to be a part of something that others are so eager to join. Specifically, too many loud voices give all the wrong reasons to stay out of it or delay joining. And sadly, our politicians in the Senate have allowed themselves to be swayed by these loud voices that have created ghosts of RCEP that just aren’t there.
The biggest imaginary ghost is the specter that once our country ratifies RCEP, we will suddenly be inundated with an influx of agricultural imports from other RCEP members, as if a closed door suddenly opens. . If those who keep saying this only cared enough to understand the real situation enough, they wouldn’t be fighting RCEP tooth and nail like they have, as if the deal meant death for Filipino farmers and for Philippine agriculture. This same ghost has led others to argue for a delay in ratifying RCEP even though they claim to be for it, thinking that ratifying now will suddenly open our import floodgates when it will not. There are two reasons.
First, our country has already had free trade relations with all other RCEP members for at least 12 years now. We have long traded freely with other ASEAN members under the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) which replaced the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) of 1992. We also have a long-standing free trade relationship with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea under ASEAN+1 bilateral FTAs with these countries; the Asean-China FTA was the last to see the light of day, in 2010. Even so, we have long made exceptions for sensitive products like rice. RCEP simply consolidates these different FTAs for all 15 members, with the added bonus of unified rules that make things less burdensome for everyone. What has changed is how the five partner countries now have FTAs with each other, whereas before RCEP some did not. Japan, for example, previously had no FTAs with China, Korea and New Zealand. But for ASEAN members like us, no floodgates will suddenly open, as they have been wide open for many years.
The fact is, the positions successfully won by our RCEP negotiators have even tightened, rather than loosened, those import gates! Department of Agriculture data on final traded positions shows RCEP would have higher final duty rates than ATIGA for 280 agricultural tariff lines, higher than ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand for 234 lines , Asean-China for 275 lines, Asean-Korea for 273 lines and Asean-Japan for 241 lines, making a total of 1,303 more protective tariff concessions covering live animals, frozen meat, fish, vegetables and coffee. In contrast, only 40 tariff concessions will ease (by 1 to 12 percentage points, with most final tariff rates reduced by less than 5 percentage points), in trade with Australia, China, Korea and New Zealand. Nothing has slackened in our agricultural trade with ASEAN and Japan. In most cases, small reductions in final tariff rates will only occur in 10 to 15 years.
So why does RCEP have to scare our farmers when it turns out it would protect them more? And why even delay ratification, when it robs us of far more benefits and opportunities elsewhere in the economy? Foolish? I’m still scratching my head.
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