The struggle against trade liberalization continues

The Senate has concurred in the ratification of RCEP with a vote of 20 in favor, 1 against and 1 abstention.

Trade Justice Pilipinas joins the other 130 organizations and 9 individuals who issued a collective statement calling on the Senate to reject RCEP in lamenting the results of the Senate vote.

We would also like to express our gratitude to Senator Risa Hontiveros for a gallant effort to raise the critical issues, and for shedding light on very specific concerns that the proponents chose to gloss over in their well-scripted plenary deliberations.

The campaign to resist RCEP, which started a decade ago, had been wrought with many challenges. The “consultations” were infrequent and quite challenging since the negotiators from all RCEP countries had agreed not to reveal anything of substance. When CSOs would ask if there would be a chapter on a specific subject matter, they would be told that that type of information cannot be revealed. Up until the conclusion of the negotiations in 2020, the public had been kept in the dark on what the agreement was really about. At one point, campaigners had to rely on leaked documents in order to get a sense of the direction of the negotiations and raise our critique to the most objectionable provisions and chapters being deliberated on. By and large the RCEP talks have been non-transparent and provided very little space for civil society engagement. Contrast this with the privileged access given to corporations whose interests are the ones truly driving this agreement. When the stakeholder engagement process was put in place, as a response to public clamor, these spaces drew very little interest from State parties and were reduced to tokenism. Nevertheless, in good faith many CSOs, including Trade Justice Pilipinas, engaged these spaces in order to voice out our clear opposition to specific provisions and to the agreement in general.

In the middle of the pandemic and despite calls from over 400 CSOs who issued a statement calling on States to prioritize response to the Covid-10 pandemic over trade negotiations, States ignored these demands and pushed the negotiations forward anyway, even using the pandemic as an excuse to fast track the process. Thus, RCEP negotiations were concluded in November 2020 as the world was wrapped in uncertainty brought about by the pandemic..

When it was first transmitted to the Senate for its concurrence, Trade Justice Pilipinas participated in the hearings of the committee on foreign relations. At the first hearing we were in fact the lone voice of opposition to RCEP amidst the cacophony of pro-RCEP voices from government and the corporate sector. The struggle against RCEP concurrence got a much needed shot in the arm when the agriculture stakeholders joined the process and mobilized the support of various groups under the umbrella of Bayanihan sa Agrikultura, which eventually led the broad based opposition to RCEP in the final stages of the campaign against Senate concurrence..

The message of the campaign was very clear and grounded on the experience of the farmers and fishers with the long history of trade liberalization, going all the way back to the WTO Agreements. The group cited the contradictions between the rosy projections and promised benefits from joining free trade deals–from the WTO, to the various ASEAN+1 FTAs, to JPEPA, to the unilateral policies on importation–and the reality. For the agriculture sector, liberalization has not delivered the benefits and instead has caused more harm than good. The agriculture sector continues to be in a crisis and badly needs solutions that benefit the farmers and consumers. The government’s solution has so far been business-as-usual, including further liberalization by entering into trade agreements such as RCEP. Trade liberalization has never been a solution and RCEP is no different as this does not bring added value to agriculture.

We challenged the government’s rosy projections on RCEP benefits by citing the peer-reviewed study conducted by reputable economists who looked into the actual tariff concessions made by State parties, and analyzed the market access implications using SMART simulations available on the World Bank’s World Integrated Trade Solutions. But the government and the Senate chose to downplay and at times even dismissed the evidence and the methodology of this study, choosing to rely on projections from studies that continue to utilize the discredited CGE modeling that are anchored on unrealistic assumptions and so-called experts that have consistently made wrong conclusions about impacts on jobs and development in all our previous FTAs, including the WTO.

We called on the Senate to reject RCEP. We asked the Senators: Which side are you on? We asked the Senators to make a clear stand on whether they support the interests of big corporations and concur with the Executive on RCEP based on motherhood statements and rosy projections or take the side of various stakeholders- farmers, fishers, workers and small businesses that have raised serious concerns about the threats to livelihoods and jobs

In the end the corporate agenda won as it was deemed by the Senators who supported RCEP to be more important than the welfare of our agriculture stakeholders. In the end they chose to stand on the side of the powerful and influential economic players and against the interest of our small scale food providers.

What now for the RCEP campaign? We will continue to demand accountability on the part of the negotiators who pushed this agreement to deliver on the promised benefits and to ward off the threats. The critical engagement of the agriculture stakeholders, “the oppositors” as the Senators referred to them, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was able to put in the Resolution of Concurrence guidelines to ensure that the benefits are realized and threats are minimized, particularly for our embattled agriculture sector. These resolutory sections in the Resolution will be the basis of our continuing engagement on RCEP. We trust that once the celebratory air from delivering RCEP to Malacañang has cleared, that the Senate, particularly Senators who voted for the concurrence, will take the tasks they outlined for themselves seriously and buckle down to work on fulfilling these commitments.

We fear that RCEP will pave the way for a more aggressive push by the Marcos government for more ambitious and comprehensive trade and investment deals. There are already talks with the United States for a US-PH FTA; the negotiations for an EU-PH FTA are also poised to restart soon, and then there’s the comprehensive Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that could lead to a whole range of commitments to liberalize our economy further.

As if these were not enough, this administration has started the process of amending the 1987 Philippine Constitution in order to open to foreign investors some of the most critical sectors of the economy.

The campaign against trade liberalization and corporate-driven economic policies will continue and further intensify as RCEP takes into effect.#


22 February 2023

Joseph Purugganan


[email protected]