Mr Roberto Romulo's op-ed "Time to strengthen RP capacity for trade negotiations," which appeared on the Philippine Star last June 28, hit the nail right on its head when it called for an inter-agency trade negotiating body that would oversee the country's trade negotations and ensure that they are well synchronized with and supportive of domestic policies.
However, Mr. Romulo's endorsement — in the very same article — of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) seems to fly in the face of his own trenchant analysis.
The reasons he set forth in favor of an inter-agency negotiating body—i.e. the need to build national consensus and develop local expertise in articulating the country's trade interests—are, in fact, the very same bones that those who criticize the JPEPA have been picking on.
Mr Romulo wrote that our present ad hoc negotiating teams, composed as they are of co-equal governmental bodies, cannot make objective decisions because of their naturally divergent mandates and constituencies. This is precisely why the toxics waste brouhaha in the JPEPA had to happen. The DENR vigorously opposed the inclusion of wastes, but the DTI, a co-equal body but the lead negotiator, nevertheless went ahead. Even President Arroyo, as former DENR Secretary Mike Defensor acknowledged, was not informed of the waste trade provisions when she signed the JPEPA in Helsinki.
The JPEPA was also negotiated without "a sustainable national consensus," because the details about the agreement were so jealously guarded by the DTI that one civil society group felt compelled to petition the Supreme Court to (quite embarrassingly) ask for a copy.
It is important to remember that a bilateral agreement such as the JPEPA is not a free trade agreement. It lowers the tariff barriers between Japan and the Philippines to the exclusion of all others. While much is made of the forecast that the JPEPA will improve the Philippine GDP by 0.09 %, nothing is said about how the JPEPA will impact on our other equally vital economic relationships with the United States, the ASEAN or Japan's competitor in the region, China.
If we join the yen bloc that Japan is building in the region, how exactly will it impact on, to use the colorful words of John Maynard Keynes, the "separate [trade] blocs and all the friction and loss of friendship they must bring with them?" It is a distinct possibility that rather than creating and expanding trade, JPEPA might just be diverting it toward Japan, to the detriment of our political friendship with other countries.
We must negotiate our bilateral trade agreements with extreme caution and not fool ourselves that by virtue of those agreements alone we are expanding the sphere of freedom in commerce. Mr Romulo's proposal for an inter-agency negotiating body is a big step toward the right direction, but free, fair and expanding trade can only be achieved by an inclusive process that will deliberate on exactly where our national trade--and political--interests lie.