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RCEP reaches Senate plenary for the second time

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) reached the Senate plenary anew on Wednesday.

This, after Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri and Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda sponsored the mega free trade deal during the session—a step towards the chamber's concurrence to its ratification.

Zubiri said in his sponsorship speech that in a globalized economy, the Philippines cannot afford to isolate itself from the rest of the world or even send a signal to that effect.

"Sadly, to date, the Philippines is the only RCEP signatory state that has not yet concurred in the ratification of the RCEP Agreement, and businesses and foreign investors are already getting wary about the consistency of our trade and investment policy direction," Zubiri said.

He claimed that after RCEP took effect last January 1, 2022, countries in the ASEAN have already been reaping the benefits of the trade deal.

The Senate president said the RCEP promises better trading, more jobs, and cheaper commodities.

While he cited many benefits of RCEP in other countries that are signatories to the trade agreement, Zubiri said they understand the issues and concerns of some groups of farmers who oppose the ratification of the agreement.

He gave an assurance that RCEP will not kill the local agriculture sector, as highly-sensitive agricultural products are not included in the tariff liberalization.

"Gusto ko pong tiyakin sa sektor na hindi tatapakan ng RCEP ang ating mga magsasaka, at hindi nito papatayin ang ating agrikultura. Hindi
ko rin naman po ito isusulong kung hindi benepisyo ang nakikita kong dala nito—at ako ang unang haharang dito kung makakasama ito sa atin," Zubiri said.

The Department of Trade and Industry has since clarified that highly sensitive agricultural products for the Philippines are excluded from the country’s Schedule of Commitments, which means that these products are still protected by tariffs.

Some of these agricultural products include swine meat, poultry meat, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbages, sugar, carrots, and rice.

Meanwhile, Legarda, who presided over the last two hearings on RCEP, proposed several measures that should be adopted by the government to address the concerns of the agriculture sectors while implementing the treaty.

These include:

  • Promoting inclusiveness
  • Reviving Anti-smuggling committee, public-private agriculture budget monitoring committee
  • Strengthening public-private cooperation through joint consultative and monitoring mechanisms
  • Pushing for transparency in all forms of trade
  • Reforming and improving current programs by setting targets and timeframes
  • Creating comparative advantages for our economic sectors
  • Creating oversight committee on RCEP implementation.

"We should not see RCEP as a mere agreement for setting rules for regulating trade and trade-related activities. RCEP, as in other global and regional trading agreements, will help our economic sectors to push their performance. This will benefit our consumers," she said.

"The end goal, however, is for the various areas of production to find a niche that will allow them to be a part of the global and regional value chain," she added.

It is the second time that the RCEP was sponsored in the Senate.

RCEP was approved by the previous administration in September last year and brought to the Senate for concurrence.

In the 18th Congress, then-Senate foreign relations committee Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III sponsored the trade deal in the plenary for its ratification. However, the Senate was not able to finish the debates on RCEP.

Recently, President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. called for the ratification of RCEP in the Senate.

After which, the Senate formed a subcommittee that tackled RCEP as Senate foreign relations committee chairperson Imee Marcos— the President's older sister— expressed reservations on the immediate ratification of the treaty.

Despite some senators' reservations, Zubiri earlier said he expects RCEP ratification within February.

During one of the hearings of the subcommittee, poultry and agriculture producers had asked the government to give a “clear path for development” for their sectors before the ratification of the RCEP.

Sixteen senators signed the committee report on RCEP, namely Zubiri, Legarda, Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, Minority Leader Pimentel, Senators Francis Tolentino, Robin Padilla, Mark Villar, Jinggoy Estrada, Lito Lapid, Bong Revilla, Sonny Angara, Win Gatchalian, JV Ejercito, Nancy Binay, Ronald dela Rosa, and Grace Poe.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement first floated in August 2012, covering members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

Before he assumed office, the President expressed his reservations about the RCEP, saying he wanted to look at how it would impact the country’s agriculture sector.

But in his latest statements, the President said "time will prove that it is to our advantage."—AOL, GMA Integrated News