The Senate concurred in the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Feb. 21, with a vote of 20 in favor, 1 against and 1 abstaining.In lamenting the results of the Senate vote, Trade Justice Pilipinas joins 130 other organizations and 9 individuals who issued a collective statement calling on the Senate to reject the trade agreement.
We are expressing our gratitude to Sen. Risa Hontiveros for her gallant effort to raise critical issues and shed light on specific concerns that the proponents glossed over in their well-scripted plenary deliberations.
The campaign to resist RCEP, which started a decade ago, has been difficult. The “consultations” were infrequent and quite challenging because the negotiators from all RCEP countries had agreed not to reveal anything of substance to civil society organizations (CSOs) demanding specific information.
In the dark
Up until the conclusion of negotiations in 2020, the public was 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 talks and to raise our critique of the most objectionable provisions and chapters.
By and large the RCEP talks have been nontransparent and provided very little space for civil society engagement. Contrast this with the privileged access given to corporations whose interests were the true drivers of this agreement. When the stakeholder engagement process was put in place, as a response to public clamor, it drew very little interest from state parties and was reduced to tokenism. Nevertheless, many CSOs, including Trade Justice Pilipinas, persevered in good faith to oppose specific provisions and the agreement in general.
In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, over 400 CSOs called on states to prioritize response to the pandemic over trade negotiations. But this was ignored and the talks were pushed forward; the pandemic was even used as an excuse to fast-track the process.
RCEP negotiations were concluded in November 2020 as the world was wrapped in the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic.
Lone voice of opposition
When the agreement was transmitted to the Senate for concurrence, we took part in the hearings of the committee on foreign relations. At the first hearing we were the lone voice of opposition amid the cacophony of pro-RCEP voices from the government and the corporate sector. 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 campaign message was very clear and grounded on the experience of farmers and fishers with trade liberalization, going all the way back to the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. The campaigners cited the contradictions between the rosy projections and promised benefits under the free trade deals—from the WTO, to the various Asean+1 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), to JPEPA (Japan-PH Economic Partnership Agreement), 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 sector continues to be in crisis and badly needs solutions that benefit farmers and consumers. The government’s solution has so far been business-as-usual, including further trade liberalization through agreements such as RCEP.
But trade liberalization has never been a solution, and RCEP is no different as it 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. They chose to rely on projections from studies that continue to utilize the discredited CGE (computable general equilibrium) modeling, which is anchored on unrealistic assumptions, and on so-called experts that have consistently made wrong conclusions on the impacts on jobs and development in all previous FTAs, including the WTO.
We called on the Senate to reject RCEP. We asked the senators: Which side are you on? The interests of big corporations and the Executive based on motherhood statements and rosy projections on RCEP, or the 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. The senators who backed RCEP deemed it more important than the welfare of small-scale food providers.
What now for the RCEP campaign? We will continue to demand that those who pushed this agreement deliver on the promised benefits and ward off the threats to the embattled agriculture sector.
Through the critical engagement of the agriculture stakeholders—“the oppositors,” as the senators referred to them—with the Senate committee on foreign relations, the Resolution of Concurrence guidelines was put in place to ensure that benefits are realized and threats are minimized. This resolution will serve as basis for our continuing engagement on RCEP. We trust that when the celebratory air from delivering the agreement to Malacañang clears, the senators who voted for concurrence will buckle down to work on the commitments they outlined for themselves.
We fear that RCEP will pave the way for a more aggressive push by the Marcos administration for more ambitious and comprehensive trade and investment deals. There are already talks with the United States for an FTA; the negotiations for such an agreement with the European Union are poised to restart soon. And there’s the proposed comprehensive Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that could lead to a whole range of commitments to further liberalize the Philippine economy.
As if these were not enough, the administration has begun the process of amending the 1987 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 effect.