Business World (Manila) | 9 October 2008
RP-Japan free trade pact approved
The Senate finally gave its concurrence to the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA), heeding to Palace appeals for the approval of the country’s first-ever bilateral free trade deal before the congressional break.
Senators voted 16-4 in favor of the so-called "mega-treaty," signed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and then Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi in Helsinki, Finland in September 2006, despite stiff opposition from various groups.
Approval of the free trade pact was sidelined for months amid disputes over provisions supposedly permitting the entry of toxic waste from Japan as well as allowing Japanese equity in many sectors where the Philippine constitution bans foreign ownership.
Manila and Tokyo had to negotiate two side agreements where the latter vowed not to export toxic waste and violate the Philippine constitution to convince senators to approve the landmark treaty.
The JPEPA will take effect a month after the two countries official notify each other "that their respective legal procedures necessary for entry into force of this Agreement have been completed."
Sixteen senators were needed to secure the two-thirds votes required to approve treaties. Some lawmakers who had gone home were even called to go back to plenary for voting, with proponents careful to make sure they have the numbers to ratify the deal.
Those who voted for the approval of JPEPA include Senate President Manuel B. Villar, Jr., Senate Majority Leader Francis N. Pangilinan, Senators Edgardo J. Angara, Rodolfo G. Biazon, Alan Peter S. Cayetano, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Jose "Jinggoy" E. Estrada, Juan Ponce-Enrile, Richard J. Gordon, Gregorio "Gringo" B. Honasan II, Panfilo M. Lacson, Loren B. Legarda, Manuel "Lito" M. Lapid, Ramon "Bong" B. Revilla, Jr., Manuel A. Roxas II and Juan Miguel F. Zubiri.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Q. Pimentel, Jr., Senators Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" C. Aquino III, Francis Joseph G. Escudero and Ma. Ana Consuelo "Jamby A. S. Madrigal voted "no."
Senators Joker P. Arroyo and Pilar Juliana "Pia" S. Cayetano were absent. Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV, facing mutiny charges, is barred from attending sessions.
The Japanese Diet ratified the JPEPA just months after it was signed.
Under the JPEPA, tariffs on 95% of Philippine exports to Japan will be eliminated while import duties on industrial goods such as electronics and cars will be phased out within a ten-year period.
The approval of the JPEPA puts the Philippines in league with other exporting nations in the scramble for bigger export markets following the collapse of multilateral trade talks under the World Trade Organization.
JPEPA proponents have argued that without such a deal, the Philippines would lose out to neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia, which already have their own free trade deals with Japan.
The Philippines, though, has a separate free trade deal with Japan through the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Aside from the free trade zone among ASEAN countries, the regional bloc also has free trade agreements with China and South Korea, and will soon sign one with India. Negotiations are underway with the European Union and Australia and New Zealand.
International trade expert Jeremy I. Gatdula said the Senate’s decision should be respected, adding that freeing up trade by opening markets could help the country minimize the fallout from the global economic slowdown.
"The JPEPA may actually be a good spark plug to excite our own economy and prevent any unwise slide towards protectionism," he said. - Bernard U. Allauigan and Felipe F. Salvosa II