RCEP ratification: The aftermath
For agriculture, we can turn the disadvantages of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) into advantages.
RCEP’s danger is mainly because (partially illegal) imports will cause more damage to our agriculture sector. This is because good governance mechanisms are not yet in place. The industry must also become more capable and competitive.
And now that it has been ratified, our sad state when we joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) is in danger of being repeated. But even if RCEP was rejected, our agriculture decline would continue because of government inaction.
This time, however, in an unprecedented move, and unlike during our WTO accession, the Senate included conditionalities which the executive branch must implement. This way, we will finally get the competent and caring support other governments give their agriculture sector, thus enabling us to be competitive.
A look back
On Jan. 5, 2022, the AgriFisheries Alliance (AFA), composed of the three agriculture sectors of farmers and fisherfolk (Alyansa Agrikultura or AA), agribusiness (Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Fisheries, Inc.), and science and academe (Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines) issued a position paper on such conditionalities to the public-private Philippine Council of Agriculture and Fisheries (which I must note has an excellent staff).
A year later, last Jan. 20, AFA published in media the following statement: “Considering only agriculture, RCEP has more advantages than disadvantages. However, if it is proven that the benefits to the industry and services sector outweigh the disadvantages to the agriculture sector, RCEP should be ratified. But to minimize the damage to our agriculture sector, the following conditions must first be met …”
On Feb. 7, AFA presented six of these conditionalities to the Senate Committee on RCEP, through its chair Senate Pro-Tempore Loren Legarda, and Senate President Miguel Zubiri. During a follow-up meeting of the RCEP technical working group (TWG) on Feb. 13, AA received information that their views were considered to form an integral part of the RCEP.
In her Feb. 15 sponsorship speech, Legarda presented a resolution that contained four of the six recommended conditionalities. The resolution stated: “For the effective implementation of the RCEP agreement and other Free Trade Agreements to which Philippines is a party, the Senate of the Philippines deems it necessary that the following be encrypted and implemented …”
AA then discussed with the Senate staff the rationale for the missing two conditionalities. Last Feb. 22, the Senate voted to ratify RCEP, with all six conditionalities finally included.
While the executive branch did not act on any of AFA’s six conditionalities for more than a year, the Senate acted decisively on these in only 15 days, from Feb. 7 to Feb. 22.
To ensure these conditionalities will happen, a “Special Oversight Committee in the RCEP Agreement” was formed as part of the resolution, with Legarda as chair and 11 other senators helping her.
The resolution states: “This committee, with the assistance of concerned stakeholders, shall … address implementation groups, as necessary, including recommendations for measures to improve performance and exact accountabilities.” With the power of the purse to decrease the budgets of non-performing agencies, the Senate can effectively exact these accountabilities.
The RCEP, with its important and unprecedented conditionalities, can turn a disadvantage into an advantage. There is only one remaining action left, which Zubiri clearly stated during his opening statement last February 15 (albeit not explicitly included in the resolution).
It is the formation of an advisory body composed of private sector stakeholders, specifically in agriculture. To help ensure that there will be more action than talk, private sector participation must be harnessed immediately. Only then can RCEP be more of a promise than peril for agriculture.
The author is Agriwatch chair, former secretary of presidential flagship programs and projects, and former undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Trade and Industry. Contact is firstname.lastname@example.org.