ASEAN bloc agrees to work on digital trade pact that might get real by 2025

South Korea wants to play, too, and has just the model it thinks will do the trick


The ASEAN economic and free trade bloc has agreed to develop a digital trade pact, and South Korea wants to play.

ASEAN has ten members that collectively have about the same economic heft as the UK or France, and negotiate as one on trade matters with other blocs like the European Union. Bloc members Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are seen as likely to grow very quickly in coming years, making ASEAN of considerable importance to global trade and diplomacy.

The bloc's ministers with economic responsibilities have met over the last week, and one item they've agreed on is the "ASEAN Digital Transformation Agenda to Accelerate ASEAN's Economic Recovery and Digital Economy Integration" – a document that describes a plan "to deepen ASEAN's digital integration and connectivity from 2021 to 2025 against the backdrop of COVID-19".

The Transformation Agenda describes a wider agreement called the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) that the ministers have agreed to define by 2023 and start negotiating by 2025.

The aim of the agreement is seamless and secure flows of data among members, in the service of faster flows of physical goods. Harmonisation of rules is required to make that all work, hence the rather long horizons on getting the Framework Agreement written.

South Korea is not an ASEAN member, but fresh from its Monday decision to sign up to the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA) – a trade pact that has very similar aims to ASEAN's DEFA – suggested DEPA might be a very fine model for a pact between South Korea and ASEAN, or perhaps for ASEAN itself.

Again, smoother trade is the aim. So is providing a counterweight to China's ambitions, as the Middle Kingdom's Belt and Road initiative includes both physical infrastructure to move goods and digital initiatives to ease the unavoidable administrivia that accompanies cross-border trade. ®

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