US, PHL officials discuss possible free trade agreement

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will have a one-on-one meeting during the November ASEAN meeting in Manila.

“The US is “prepared to move forward” and proceed “to high-level discussions in the near future.”

Senior Philippine and United States officials have discussed ways to further deepen bilateral economic cooperation between their two countries, including the possibility of pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) between these longstanding allies.

Discussions led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III with Jeffrey Gerrish, the US Deputy Trade Representative for Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Industrial Competitiveness, centered on America’s interest in initiating “informal preparatory meetings” with the Philippines on the “scope, timing and process” leading to an FTA between Manila and Washington.

The meeting, which also included Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez and Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, follows up on the earlier dialogue between President Duterte and President Trump in November last year in Manila, where they discussed ways of further strengthening Philippine-US bilateral trade ties.

Gerrish said the US also wants to resolve several concerns involving certain agricultural products such as rice, meat and poultry; the Philippines’ customs processes; intellectual property rights (IPR) and the need for an open, competitive market for electronic payment (e-payment) services before moving into discussions on the FTA.

He said the US is “prepared to move forward” and proceed “to high-level discussions in the near future” to determine how these concerns should be addressed, possibly through a series of agreements between the two countries.

Dominguez, for his part, made it clear that the government under the Duterte administration is committed to promoting “open markets and free trade.”

The finance chief also expressed the government’s concern over the brewing trade spat between the US and China, which, he said, would benefit the Philippines only in the short term, but would lead to negative repercussions felt by economies across the globe if the feud worsens.

Gerrish, in turn, said that discussions with China on how to resolve this concern “have been continuing.”

During the meeting, Dominguez also invited, through Gerrish, US companies to get involved in the Philippines’ infrastructure modernization program.

Dominguez said US participation in the “Build, Build, Build” program would widen the field of “good and strong companies” to choose from to help the government fulfill its infrastructure agenda.

Also in the meeting were Finance Undersecretary Antonette Tionko, and Karl Ehlers, the Acting Assistant US Trade Representative; Michael Klecheski, Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Manila; Lynne Gadkowski, Deputy Economic Counselor, US Embassy and Brian Breuhaus, Economic Counselor, US Embassy.

Bilateral trade between the Philippines and the US amounted to $16.6 billion in 2017. The US ranked second among the markets for Philippine merchandise exports with a total of $9.2 billion in 2017, which is 4 percent higher than that in 2016.

The US ranked fourth as a market for Philippine imports, with imports from the US reaching $7.4 billion in 2017.

Last September 5, US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim announced America’s commitment to provide emergency relief and recovery assistance to the conflict-affected communities in Marawi City in the amount of $20.90 million (approximately P1.07 billion).

Through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), US assistance will focus on two main objectives: a) help establish an enabling environment (e.g., reactivation of electricity services, development of rehabilitation plan, improve market access and address land tenure issues) in and around Marawi for sustained peace, stability and economic recovery and revitalization and b) reduce the influence of the major factors that drive community-based conflict and violent extremism.