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PHL, US eye ‘next steps’ towards free trade talks

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MANILA and Washington announced on Tuesday gains in resolving “a number of recurring bilateral trade issues” amid their intention to start talks on a prospective free trade pact.

The joint statement by Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon M. Lopez and US Trade Representative (USTR) Robert E. Lighthizer said the latest developments, under the 1989 Philippine-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), follow Aug. 31 talks between Mr. Lopez and Deputy USTR Jeffrey D. Gerrish on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Ministers Meeting in Singapore.

The latest talks under TIFA focused on issues like cooperation in further development of cold chain facilities in the Philippines; Philippine steps to ensure World Trade Organization-consistent valuation of farm imports; access to the United States for mangoes, young green coconuts and carrageenin; expansion of the Generalized System of Preferences program to include travel goods; as well as the Philippines’ continued acceptance of vehicles that meet the US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and policies that permit cross-border flows of electronic payment services, do not restrict number of service providers and do not favor domestic suppliers over foreign counterparts.

At the same time, the statement also said that both countries will continue talks on common “priority issues” like the Philippines’ request for relief from recently imposed US safeguard measures on solar cells as well as tariffs on steel and aluminum.

A Reuters report in July had quoted Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel G. Romualdez as saying both countries were preparing to start this semester talks on a prospective free trade agreement that could take up to two years to complete. The report said that about three-fourths of Philippine exports to the United States enter duty-free and that the Philippines was seeking market access for its garments and textiles, as well as wristwatches and farm products like seaweed and carrageenin.

A separate statement of the Department of Trade and Industry quoted Ceferino S. Rodolfo, undersecretary for Industry Development and Trade Policy, as saying that both countries “could soon discuss next steps.” “We recall that President (Rodrigo R.) Duterte in November 2017 met with (US) President Donald Trump who welcomed the Philippines’ desire to explore a possible free trade agreement with the United States,” Mr. Rodolfo said.

Asked when both parties will discuss the scope of free trade talks, Mr. Lopez told reporters in a Viber message: “Wala pa sched (There is nothing scheduled yet) but planning on that one.”

“We hope this sets a cooperative and positive tone for possible bilateral negotiations of a trade agreement at a level above the TIFA, an agreement that AmCham believes is not only very important but much overdue,” John D. Forbes, senior counselor of the The American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc., said via text yesterday.

Philippine-US trade totaled $27 billion in 2016, according to the joint statement, composed of $18.2 billion worth of goods and nearly $9 billion in services, with the world’s biggest economy having a $1.8-billion merchandise trade gap. The USTR has said that the Philippines was the US’ 31st biggest export market in 2016, with about $1.5 billion worth of Philippine goods entering the US duty-free every year. — Janina C. Lim

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