Philippine values and trade

my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Along with discussions on the veracity of our economic numbers and of the reality of rising unemployment, the matter of trade policy is equally important. Unfortunately, international trade has lost the allure it had almost a decade ago and any conversation on the matter admittedly -- even for your Trade Tripper -- has become quite boring. But it need not be so.

The formulation of a proper (and publicly knowable) trade policy remains a vital concern. It’s obviously a significant tool for economic development for the Philippines. However, properly considered, it also is a valuable instrument for advancing foreign policy. And that foreign policy, also properly considered, should include the values that the Philippines allegedly professes.

US Trade Representative Michael Froman seemingly expressed the same thoughts in his recent speech at the Center for American Progress. In "A Values-Driven Trade Policy," Mr. Froman stated that the US will "focus on trade policy’s role in furthering three of our core values: Standing up for workers, protecting the environment, and promoting widely shared innovation."

One way of doing that is through its present trade negotiations. Regarding workers’ rights for example, in the negotiations relating to the "TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) we are seeking to include disciplines requiring adherence to fundamental labor rights, including the right to organize and collectively bargain, and protections from child and forced labor and employment discrimination."

On the environment: "Our values also tell us that the future global economy should be more sustainable than it is today." "Here, too, trade has an important role to play and, through TPP and T-TIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), as well as the WTO (World Trade Organization), the United States has taken the lead in advancing this agenda.

"We are working to set the world’s highest standards in the environment chapters of our trade agreements."

And, most tellingly: "our position as the world’s oldest democracy and most innovative economy, calls for us to cultivate global norms rooted in promoting commerce, scientific progress and the freedom of expression -- norms reflected in our Constitution that encourage innovation and creation."

That, I believe, is the correct view to trade. Anyone who supports the idea of free and fair markets knows the inherently democratic spirit underlying market transactions: one essentially votes through ones wallet.

That is why for an enlightened citizenry, assuming the choices are there in terms of quality and price, one will refuse to buy products that involved labor violations, animal cruelty, exploitation of women, or endangers the environment.

And yet, by reasons of pure pragmatism or greed, what apparently is the right thing to do at the citizen level is ignored at the State level.

In which case, what does it say of us then to declare that our goal as a people is to "build a just and humane society, and establish a government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace" when that same society and government turns away from those ideals in dealing with other countries for commercial and economic reasons (i.e., money)?

To cut it short: what does that say of us as a country when we forget the democratic rights we say we stand for simply because we want China’s money?

Yes. China is one of our three top export and import partners. And, yes, the volume of trade is huge (with the balance of trade usually in favor of the Philippines). And this does not count the direct investment we get or could get from China.

But in doing so we turn a blind eye to the fact that China remains (at least according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) a continued violator of fundamental international human rights, particularly of speech and religion. It continues to disregard international norms relating to worker rights (Apple, for instance, had to fire one of its Chinese suppliers in January 2013 after finding it violated rules on child laborers). It has persistently continued to impose population planning policies that violate women’s rights.

Oh. And China insists in taking parts of our territory away from us.

Now, I’m not saying we stop trading with China. What I’m saying is that our trade partnership with China (as well as other countries, like Myanmar) could be utilized to lead to a more meaningful relationship based on mutual respect. And that respect should include China giving due consideration for our values and interests, which are substantially shared by the rest of the world.

As Samuel Gregg wrote (in Constitutions, Culture, and the Economy), a country’s constitution expresses "fundamental principles that a society considers valuable enough to merit special protection. In this sense, constitutions (like all laws) perform a pedagogical function."

So should our trade agreements (which, technically, are "laws") embody the fundamental principles and values of our people.