PH, US start talks to clinch bilateral free trade deal

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US President Donald Trump holds out a hand to shake as President Rodrigo Duterte welcomes him to the 31st ASEAN Summit. A fortnight after the two leaders' meeting, DFA and DTI announced much ground was covered in talks between PH and US officials on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in Washington. (Ali Vicoy/Pool)

MANILA – Trade and Industry Undersecretary Ceferino Rodolfo has confirmed that the US and the Philippines have “begun discussions” on negotiating and concluding a possible bilateral free trade agreement.

Rodolfo said the talks took place during a meeting under the two countries’ Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in Washington, D.C on November 29.

Quoting Ambassador to US Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the two nations had a wide-ranging discussion of bilateral economic issues.

“This TIFA meeting came barely a fortnight after the successful bilateral meeting between Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte and US President Donald J. Trump in Manila, where the two leaders affirmed their commitment to further deepen the extensive United States-Philippines economic relationship,” Rodolfo quoted Romualdez as saying.

The DFA said Duterte and Trump had a “productive bilateral meeting” in Manila last November.

“This early follow-up is a clear demonstration of the two countries’ shared resolve to enhance our long-standing partnership for mutual prosperity,” Romualdez said.

He said Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano gave him “explicit instructions” to build on his recent visit to Washington, together with the Philippine economic managers, and to follow-up on US-Philippine’s mutual efforts to advance core economic interests.

“I find it auspicious, therefore, that we had a productive and frank TIFA meeting with the US side on my first official day as Philippine Ambassador to the United States,” he said.

In their opening remarks, Rodolfo and Acting Assistant US Trade Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Karl Ehlers welcomed the opportunity to provide substantive action to the pledge of Presidents Duterte and Trump to nurture the economic ties.

The annual TIFA meeting, which was first held in 2002, is a consultative mechanism established by the two states to periodically review the status of their bilateral economic relationship.

According to the DFA, it provides a forum to address specific issues and concerns of interest to both countries with a view to improving cooperation and enhancing opportunities for trade and investments.

The US is the third biggest trading partner of the Philippines in 2016 (out of 226 trading partners), and its second-biggest market for exports (almost 16 percent of total Philippine exports), and third largest investor in the country.

An FTA provides certainty on lowering or eliminating tariffs on Philippine exports, including those already entering the US market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program.

An FTA also provides more economic incentives that will allow the Philippines to remain an attractive place for investors to build, invest, and start businesses, the DFA added.

The Nov. 29 TIFA meeting in Washington was a follow-up to the formal TIFA meeting in Manila last July.

The next TIFA meeting is expected to be held in Manila in 2018.