Industries put act together; trade rep’s office pushed

By Max V. de Leon
Published on Page A1 of the September 6, 2006 issue of the BusinessMirror

CONCERNED that they are now being left out by their foreign counterparts, Filipino businessmen have taken the initiative to bring together all stakeholders under one roof and craft what they call the Philippine free-trade roadmap.

Benigno N. Ricafort, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (CCP), said the roadmap will “maximize the convergence and minimize the divergence” in business advocacies of different industries and sectors in the country on matters of forging bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs).

CCP president Melito Salazar Jr. said the different industries are right now presenting their cases according to their individual advocacies—one reason why the Philippines is being left out by its neighbors in forging FTAs.

“The business sector is struggling to survive because we don’t have access to markets that other countries have,” Salazar said.

In a separate forum, a former trade secretary made a similar pitch for better coordination as a means to solidify the position of Philippine industries in global trade negotiations.

In a keynote speech at a forum of the Fair Trade Alliance, Sen. Mar Roxas pushed for the creation of a Philippine Trade Representative Office (PTRO).

“Right now, it’s hard to spell out our [trade] direction—it is sporadic, opportunistic, and lacking coherence,” said Roxas at the forum cosponsored by the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development Foundation Inc.

The chairman of both the trade and economic affairs committees of the Senate said the creation of a PTRO will pave the way for a “more institutionalized approach” to trade negotiations, rather than a “personalistic approach” that depends just on who is the trade or agriculture secretary at the time.

Roxas as trade secretary from 2001 to 2004 had sat in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha and Cancun ministerial meetings as the Philippines’ chief negotiator.

Separate agencies at present handle trade negotiations in both multilateral (i.e. WTO) and bilateral (individual and regional FTAs) levels. Key figures are the DTI chief, the DA and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Policymaking is done by the Tariff and Related Matters Committee under the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda).

At the CCP forum, meanwhile, Salazar said local industries are losing their competitiveness because they are not getting the concessions their counterparts in other economies are getting because of the FTAs their governments have forged.

Ricafort said the situation indicates the need for a coordinated and cohesive charting of a roadmap by all stakeholders, and this is why CCP launched the series of forum-workshops to gather all these people.

“The CCP forum for key groups is precisely aimed at consolidating inputs that can be considered by the Philippine trade officials involved in trade negotiations,” he said.

Ramon Kabigting, director of the Bureau of International Trade Relations, admitted that while the local trade policymaking body composed of different agencies could not put their acts together, the Philippines’ neighbors are already making substantial progress on FTAs.

Singapore and Thailand have separate FTAs with the South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Australia and the US, apart from the regional FTAs that Asean as a whole is negotiating.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Edsel Custodio said through FTAs, the market access can be enlarged, tariffs on certain products reduced, and movement of goods, capital, investments and people will be freer.

Donald Dee, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, noted that while the country is part of negotiations for regional FTAs, the government has not taken any significant step toward bilateralism. With B. Fernandez

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