RCEP success seen depending on stronger smuggling controls

THE success of Philippine participation in the world’s largest trade deal will require adequate border inspections and quarantine controls to deter smuggling, Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said.

In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Zubiri said the upgrading of border controls on commodity imports will also need to be accompanied by capacity-building programs for the agriculture industry to allow it to survive in the face of import competition.

The Senate is currently debating Philippine accession to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement which has raised concerns mainly from farmers.

“Our attack is two-pronged to make agriculture competitive against imports:  strengthen border and quarantine controls against smuggling, and we will modernize and empower our own sector,” he said.

The Department of Agriculture is currently pursuing an Agriculture Modernization Plan, but Mr. Zubiri said other measures can be harnessed to support the industry like trade promotion, shared services facilities, the Philippine Export Competitiveness Program, and, indirectly, a revival in manufacturing.

A Senate Special Oversight Committee will be established to ensure proper implementation of the RCEP agreement, Mr. Zubiri said, adding that the committee may also generate legislative proposals to pursue the needed structural reforms and address implementation gaps.

“We will also have an advisory group of stakeholders to guide the committee in its functions, which will include our agriculture stakeholders,” he said.

“As an agriculturist, I understand the fears of farmers,” Mr. Zubiri said. “That’s why I want to assure the sector that RCEP will not step on our farmers, and it will not kill our agriculture.”

He said highly sensitive agricultural products such as rice, pork, poultry meat, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, sugar, and carrots, will be excluded from tariff liberalization under RCEP.

“In RCEP, the Philippines merely gave additional preferential arrangements to 33 agricultural tariff lines, specifically for Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Korea, compared to the existing ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) +1 FTAs (free trade agreement),” he said, “and these tariff lines are only equivalent to 15 products, most of which pose no threat to our local products.”

The products are fish fillets, frozen mackerel, celery, sausages, olives, spinach, olive oil, live swine, live chicken, black pepper, palm nuts and kernels, preserved sweet corn, chilis and other capers, preserved onions, corn starch, and feed for primates.

“Our trade in these products is very insignificant,” Mr. Zubiri said. “Compare it to the benefits we will get from RCEP. There is no doubt that the arrangement we got is better.”

Trade Secretary Alfredo E. Pascual, also on Thursday, assured that agriculture will not be negatively affected by the trade deal.

“They will not be affected by the reduction in tariff, which means that the concern of the country being flooded by imports of these farm produce is not correct because they will still be protected,” he told One News.

“We have existing agreements with ASEAN countries. The tariff there will be respected,” he added.

Nonetheless, Mr. Pascual said that “It doesn’t mean that after we sign the agreement, everything will fall into place,” he said. “We have to exert effort.”

“We still have to improve our farm productivity with or without RCEP, with or without WTO (World Trade Organization) to improve the economic condition of our farmers,” he added.

The issues, Mr. Pascual said, was that farmers were not directly connected with their markets.

“Their products have to go through a series of traders along the line,” he said. “The solution is, and this is where DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) comes in, is to improve the efficiency of our supply chains between the farm, the consumer and institutional users of farm products.”

“We already have an arrangement,” he added. “The idea is to connect the farmers to institutional buyers.”

There is also a plan to organize farmers because individual farmers, Mr. Pascual said, do not have the bargaining power against buyers of their produce.

The DTI will direct the Cooperative Development Authority to focus on organizing and promoting farming cooperatives so that farmers can work together.

This, Mr. Pascual said, will also facilitate their ability to make arrangements for cold storage for their produce.

The committee report on the trade deal, which had 16 signatories, was endorsed to the plenary session late Wednesday. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan