Clock is ticking on RCEP stipulations
The government’s time is running out in completing the critical conditionalities identified by the Senate in the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Action must be taken immediately to help ensure credibility and in order to address the needs of the disadvantaged agricultural sector.
In agreeing to the RCEP, the Senate last Feb. 21 indicated: “The RCEP Oversight Committee shall be provided with a comprehensive strategy and plan to harness competitiveness in various economic sectors, within three months of the adoption of this resolution.”
May 21 is just around the corner.
We take a look back at what happened last Jan. 3. Organizations totaling 131 signed a document expressing strong reservations about RCEP, especially on its impact on agriculture. In addition, the AgriFisheries Alliance, which is composed of coalitions from the three sectors of farmers and fisherfolk, agribusiness and science, appealed to the Senate to include six conditionalities before ratifying RCEP. These same conditionalities were approved by the international trade committee of the public-private Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries. No action was taken.
In an unprecedented move, thereafter, Sen. Loren Legarda, also the RCEP committee chair in the Senate, included these and 24 other conditionalities in the ratification document.
Then on April 13, at the Senate special oversight committee on the RCEP agreement, the Alyansa Agrikultura reported that reasonable progress had been made on six conditionalities but there were things that still needed to be done. Legarda asked for a similar report on the 24 other conditionalities for the next meeting.
With limited resources and the need for focus, the 30 RCEP conditionalities must be prioritized. In fact, these are not new and will hardly impact the RCEP’s performance. The private sector must participate in this process and must be held responsible alongside the government.
On a side note, RCEP proponents had surprisingly quoted the same economist who had wrongly predicted a rosy future when the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization (WTO).
When the 131 organizations wrote their strong reservations about RCEP, they cited a forecast from Dr. Rashmi Banga, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development senior economist, which was totally opposite that of the aforementioned resource person. Which economist will be proven correct? This will largely depend on the implementation of the RCEP conditionalities.
Much more must be done before May 21.
On the conditionality that the private sector must be involved in monitoring the Department of Agriculture (DA) budget, I am once again highlighting this fact to prove a point: the Commission on Audit had earlier unearthed more than P20 billion in unliquidated and unexplained expenses in the DA budget.
Since there is no response yet to the farmers’ request for a Senate blue ribbon and agriculture committees’ investigation into the matter, the only way to stop such unexplained expenses from happening again is to reinstate a previously successful private budget monitoring.
Another important conditionality is restoring the public-private oversight committee on antismuggling that reports directly to the President. A senior official had asked about a similar structure before, which successfully brought down smuggling rates. Upon hearing about this successful model, they promised to change their proposal. Since then, however, we have not heard of any changes that they have done.
The agriculture decline that started with our accession to the WTO will only become worse if we do not provide the necessary protection in the RCEP. These steps are already embodied in the RCEP conditionalities that the Senate identified. We must take immediate action before May 31. Otherwise, we will be doomed to a government of rhetoric rather than reality.
The author is Agriwatch chair and 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 email@example.com.