By AIRA MARIE SIGUENZA
MANILA – Twenty senators recently signed the resolution for the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) even if various sectors reiterated the call to junk it.
The RCEP is the world’s largest free trade agreement among 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines – and its five Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners consisting of Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
This agreement is officially the largest trade bloc in the world, even bigger than the World Trade Organization (WTO). It also encompasses 29 percent of the Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 30 percent or more than two billion of the global population.
According to Sarah Raymundo of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), RCEP can result from the multipolar rivalry between the United States (US) and China, where the latter experienced the US’ “decoupling policy.” According to a report, “decoupling largely involves discouraging imports to safeguard or repatriate US jobs and ensure the safety and security of America’s civil and military infrastructure.”
Raymundo said that the two countries exercise power and economic influence through these global agreements at the expense of, among others, plunder, killings and abuse in the workplace.
Not for farmers
Farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said that trade agreements like RCEP are not based on equality, mutual benefit, and the Filipino people’s interest.
Rafael Mariano, chairman emeritus of KMP and former agrarian reform secretary, said that since the country became part of the WTO in 1995, the Philippines’ agricultural trade deficit reached an estimated $70 billion or $9 billion annually.
Aside from this, more than one million agricultural jobs disappeared and the agriculture sector’s share in the GDP became smaller.
In KMP’s report, some 9.6 million hectares of farmlands were acquired in 2008 by international corporations in the countries already belonging to RCEP.
Mariano also slammed some provisions in RCEP, such as Chapter 11 (Intellectual Property Rights) which will privatize seeds and proliferate genetically modified organisms (GMO), including the hybrid rice program.
Last February, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. approved the use of hybrid rice despite opposition from farmers. Unlike certified seeds, hybrid seeds cannot be planted again so the farmers must buy new seeds every time.
“It is callous for SL Agritech Corp. to propose such a measure when it is the top producer of hybrid seeds in the country. Only the big seed corporations will benefit from Marcos Jr.’s hybrid seeds program and not the farmers,” KMP said in a statement.
The farmers’ group also projected that Philippine membership in RCEP would result in increased imports from China, particularly plastics, rubbers and mechanical appliances. Generally, the RCEP would also result in decreased exports in various Asian countries including the Philippines.
The group reiterated that the Marcos administration should not prioritize RCEP and instead focus on strengthening local production and resolving the food crisis in the country.
Not for fisherfolk as well
Import liberalization, conversion projects and massive privatization of aquaculture are among the adverse effects of RCEP on the fisheries sector, a fisherfolk group said.
The National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines (Pamalakaya) stressed the irony of the Philippines importing fish even if it is an archipelago. From 2018 to 2022, almost 200,000 metric tons of galunggong were imported from China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
“Once this agreement is ratified, importation will worsen, and the local fishing industry will die. Also, imported fish is not safe as they use chemicals to maintain the freshness of the fish even for two years,” Fernando Hicap, national chairperson of Pamalakaya, said.
Aside from this, private aquaculture funded by China will also multiply through RCEP. Pamalakaya said that an estimated 70 percent of aquaculture would be owned by foreigners. “As they railroad the RCEP, the Marcos administration blatantly expresses their submissiveness to foreigners, particularly China. They did not even consider the dispute in the West Philippine Sea before approving the agreement.”
Lower salaries, fewer jobs for workers
Last February 28, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) announced that inflation hit another record-high rate of 9.3 percent from 8.5 percent last January.
Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) said that the country’s security is sinking due to severe economic crisis resulting in poverty, hunger and joblessness. With the ratification of RCEP, this situation would worsen.
KMU Secretary General Jerome Adonis said that increased importation of finished products is RCEP’s harmful effect on workers. This would result in lack of job opportunities for the youth.
Aside from this, the already insufficient salary of workers would become lower and the violation of workers’ union rights will worsen.
“It is not true that the country will develop after joining RCEP. They will profit from us, and this will not do any good in our economy,” Mariano said.
Lack of environmental protection
For the Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CEC), RCEP would be deleterious to the environment due to the increased exploitation of the country’s natural resources.
The CEC cited RCEP’s Chapter 13 which stipulates confidentiality of information as countries part of RCEP are not required to release information on their projects. Because of this, the community would not know how these projects affect them. In addition, the environmental issues of mining, logging, and plantations would worsen because the country’s natural resources would be more liberalized to foreign investors.
“Foreign trade agreements should prioritize people’s needs, especially the poor and vulnerable, instead of profit,” Lia Mae Torres, executive director of CEC, said.
No accessible healthcare
Access to safe, effective, affordable medicines and treatment would be far from reach once the RCEP is ratified, according to Jocelyn Andamo of the Health Alliance Democracy and the Filipino Nurses United. For health practitioners, RCEP would entrench the power of big pharmaceutical companies to extract profits instead of giving access to affordable treatment.
Aside from this, the health group highlighted that RCEP would open the country to dangerous industries such as tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and processed foods, which are the main drivers of non-communicable diseases.
For Sonny Africa, executive director of Ibon Foundation, trade liberalization has been futile. “The country is weak and, with RCEP, will become even weaker.”
The three decades of free trade agreements (FTAs) from 1993 to 2022 resulted in a weak economy and a low employment rate. Africa added that the country had more imports than exports, affecting the development of local industries and severely impairing the agricultural sector.
He also disputed the claims of government officials that RCEP will produce more and better jobs as the three decades of FTAs resulted in weaker job creation. From 1995 to 2016, there was a 58.83 percent decrease in the jobs created annually from 693,000 to 313,000.
The investor-state dispute settlement found in the agreement is also dangerous for the Filipino people as the corporations can file lawsuits against the Philippine government once they do not reach their target income. The big companies can ask for compensation from the government which will come from the people’s taxes.
For Africa, the alternative that the government should push instead of RCEP is to “develop Filipino producers, protect domestic manufacturing, give subsidies, and be very calibrated in opening the economy only to those products where we do already have competitiveness.” (JJE, DAA)