‘New dimension of economic integration’: Singapore calls for APEC digital pact

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for a new regional digital economy agreement to set the rules and best practices of cross border digital trade and investment, warning some countries in the Asia-Pacific and their workers are at risk of being left behind.

Singapore’s leader said the new deal could come through either an expansion of the country’s existing digital economy agreements, which include Australia, New Zealand and Chile, or an new agreement between members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc.

The 21 APEC member countries’ economies account for nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population and more than 60 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP). APEC partners make up more than 70 per cent of Australia’s total trade in goods and services.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon addressing the APEC virtual summit

Speaking at the APEC CEO Summit on Thursday, Mr Lee said it was timely to extend regional economic integration to the digital domain, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement coming into force in January.

The Singapore Prime Minister’s call also comes ahead of Friday’s virtual meeting of APEC leaders, which will include China, the US and Australia.

Mr Lee said enhanced cooperation in the digital economy could be achieved through APEC members developing a digital economy agreement or partnership agreement.

“This will be a new dimension of economic integration. It will enable businesses to connect more easily across borders and reach new markets in the digital economy.”

The Prime Minister said existing arrangements between ASEAN nations which share information and best practice on digitisation and information technology could be adapted into a broader regional context to take advantage of the potential of the digital economy.

“The economic potential of the digital economy is huge,” Mr Lee said in his pre-recorded address to the virtual event.

“Within Southeast Asia alone, the internet economy is projected to triple in size by 2025, to over US$300 billion per year. And by then, the annual total ICT spending in the Asia-Pacific will exceed US$1 trillion.”

Mr Lee said a “coherent and concerted’ global response to managing the digital transition is also needed to improve access and participation, warning the divide between “digital haves and have-nots” had widened.

“Global digital standards and cooperation initiatives are important,” he said.

“They will enable more people to participate meaningfully in the digital economy. There are many areas to consider, for example, fair and secure access to data, freer cross-border data flows, addressing misinformation and cyber threats, and strengthening multilateral cooperation to exploit digital technologies for sustainable development.”

Mr Lee said the “global digital architecture” should be based on guiding principles of inclusion and social outcomes.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison used his address to the APEC summit on Thursday to lash large technology platform companies, warning online harassment was rising.

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