SENATORS suspended consideration of the RCEP after two hours of interpellation of the main sponsor, Foreign Relations committee chairman Sen. Koko Pimentel, who expressed hope the wide-ranging framework agreement would finally muster enough votes for ratification if it is put to a vote on Wednesday (June 1).
Senate President Vicente Sotto III led off with the interpellation, repeatedly expressing his reservations about rushing assent to the trade deal, while recalling the country’s “bad experience” when lofty promises for its joining the World Trade Organization were not fulfilled.
Senators Panfilo Lacson and Kiko Pangilinan also threw a barrage of questions and observations at Pimentel, who relied on the technical background of the Philippines’ pointman in the 8-year-long RCEP negotiations, Trade Assistant Secretary Allan Gepty.
Sotto said: “I m coming from a bad memory, bad experience with past trade deals,” Sotto said, addressing Pimentel. “When we entered the WTO, [we were told] it was the Olympics of trade—and we were not ready for the Olympics; we were ready for the Liga ng mga Barangay.”
Ironically, in a separate event, Neda chief Karl Chua was saying that competitiveness is not a precondition for joining the RCEP, an exercise that he also likened to the Olympics, where, he said, many nations join without the expectations of a podium finish.
Toward the end of his interpellation, Sotto dropped a bombshell. He cited a top-level intelligence report that he obtained while he and Lacson were leading a Committee of the Whole inquiry into vegetable smuggling. The report said “at least 22 personalities are involved” in vegetable smuggling, five of whom are from the Department of Agriculture and six from the Bureau of Customs.
Sotto said, “I hope the incoming administration is aware of this;,” adding that he will write and file a committee report so the inquiry results are on record.
The Senate President stressed that the BOC, which is crucial to implementing the Philippines’s treaty obligations should it ratify RCEP, needs to do a “super shape-up.”
Nonetheless, he thanked Pimentel for his defense of RCEP, promising to “study all of your answers” to the concerns he raised.
For his part, Pangilinan said that, “admittedly, RCEP would be good for industry, it would be good for services, but I have many reservations on its impact on agriculture.”
Pangilinan added that “food security is definitely a concern,” adding that, “to me, my fear is, the agriculture sector would suffer unless [there are] interventions of government.”
The senator noted that the Philippines is a net importer of agriculture products, adding, “We will be buried in terms of competition.”
Citing 2020 data on Philippine farm exports, Pangilinan estimated that in Asean alone, their exports are about four times larger than ours. So definitely, in terms of being able to compete, we are far far behind in that regard.”
In terms of its capacity to support the sector, the Philippines spends only 2 percent of GDP for the farm sector, versus Vietnam’s 6 percent and Thailand’s 4 percent.
The Senate plenary will resume deliberations on the RCEP on Wednesday, its last session day before adjourning, but Pimentel expressed hope it can be put to a vote and ratified.
Image credits: AP/Bullit Marquez