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[OPINION] Joining RCEP is a must (3)

By: Peter Wallace – @inquirerdotnet
Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:06 AM May 30, 2022


For 76 years (since the end of World War II), the Philippines has protected its agriculture sector from outside competition in the belief farmers weren’t ready to face competition from lower-cost produce from more efficient farmers.

For 76 years, government after government has promised to make agriculture competitive. It has never happened. Get that, 76 years of promises, 76 years of continued uncompetitiveness, 76 years of 12 governments unable to put their minds to a problem that needs fixing, that they kept promising to do, but never did. Will Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. be the one now to do it?

Agricultural workers are one of the poorest sectors in the Philippines. The poverty incidence among farmers and fisherfolks stood at 31.6 percent and 26.2 percent, respectively in 2018. The national average was 16.7 percent.

So what on earth do those clamoring to still protect our farmers until they are competitive expect to achieve now by delaying joining RCEP? A miracle? A sudden new government with the backbone, and a never-before-found capability to suddenly make us competitive; to suddenly be able to stop the smuggling, the influx of subsidized imports, and corruption; to correct the many ills of the sector with inducements and tough measures that work—when no one has before. On this, it’s important to note that smuggling, subsidized imports, and corruption are not in any way connected to whether we join RCEP or not. They exist with or without RCEP so they have to be addressed as problems on their own.

As it is, the market is already open for most of our agricultural products. Thus, the alleged fear of increased competition or influx of more agricultural goods is misplaced. It is not correct to say that agricultural products will be further liberalized under RCEP. Under existing FTAs (Asean+1 agreements), most agricultural products have already been liberalized except for some products classified as highly sensitive.

In RCEP, the Philippines has only offered 33 agricultural tariff lines for further liberalization or improvement. Out of these 33 agricultural tariff lines, 17 tariff lines are raw materials and eight are inputs. Only eight others are final produce.

Moreover, the very sensitive agricultural products remain excluded from tariff commitment. In fact, more agricultural tariff lines will be excluded from tariff commitments under RCEP than currently are by the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) and the Asean+1 FTAs.

Protecting the farmers and fishermen won’t save them, massively reforming how we support them will. The pressure of RCEP may help do that. Anyway, who are we trying to protect, the less than 10 million workers in the agriculture sector or 110 million people who have to eat? Some 26 million Filipinos can’t meet their basic living needs, 11 million of whom are so poor they can’t even meet their basic food needs. They need cheaper, readily available produce.

Not joining RCEP doesn’t help the Filipino farmer.

In conclusion, being part of RCEP is aligned with the current programs and projects of the national government in positioning the Philippines as a manufacturing hub, innovation hub, and center for training and education in the region including trade promotion initiatives for local products. And it is consistent with the open policy direction set by the laws this Congress has enacted.

Joining RCEP lowers the cost of business transactions, brings the Philippines into a market of 2.3 billion people on an equal footing, and shifts all bureaucracy online. It also results in lower tariffs for raw materials and components, giving us the ability to become world-competitive, as well as sets standards and rules that all must abide by, creating a stable platform investors will love. It sends a positive signal that the country is indeed open and able and willing to embrace high-quality FTAs. It’s a block of one-third of the world’s trade. Over time RCEP will become a similarly powerful block to the European Union.

The bottom line is it helps the people who matter the most: the 110 million Filipino consumers. They get more choices and lower-priced goods of consistent quality. We have no choice but to be in it. We can’t be a pariah sinking out of sight from where the world is heading. The Senate in the 18th Congress must ratify RCEP for the sake of our countrymen.