UK and Singapore open digital trade talks

By on 29/06/2021 | Updated on 29/06/2021
Tech giant: Singapore hopes that a digital economy agreement with the UK will help connect its own strong tech sector with the UK’s. Pic by William Cho

The UK has become the first European country to begin negotiations with Singapore on a Digital Economy Agreement (DEA), following a model under which the Asian nation seeks to foster digital commerce and remove barriers to co-operation.

DEAs, such as the agreements Singapore has already completed with Australia, Chile and New Zealand, are intended to align digital standards, support exchange of data while preserving rights, and encourage innovation in frontier tech, according to an online statement by the Singaporean government.

“A cutting-edge deal with Singapore will keep us at the forefront of the technological revolution, ensuring we lead the way in digitally delivered trade and industries like fintech and cybersecurity,” UK international trade secretary Liz Truss said.

Closer co-operation

The UK-Singapore negotiations will focus on a range of issues relating to digital co-operation, from cross-border data flows to sectors of mutual interest like fintech and ‘lawtech’.

In part, the talks are aimed at maximising commercial opportunities: the UK hopes to “cut red tape for UK businesses by promoting digital trading systems such as digital customs and border procedures that will save time and money when exporting,” its government said.

And negotiators will also explore “securing open digital markets for exporters, allowing them to expand into new markets and sell traditional products in new ways.”

“Digital restrictions are among the fastest-growing trade barriers,” Miles Celic, chief executive officer at trade body TheCityUK, said: “Over 50% of trade in services is facilitated by digital exchange, but restrictions on digital trade doubled in the decade leading up to 2019.”

But the two countries also hope to shore up consumer and business protections. The UK has pledged to uphold “high standards of personal data protection” in the talks, while also “working with Singapore to strengthen our collective cybersecurity capabilities and keep our countries safe.”

Digital trade

Singapore signed its first DEA, the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), with Chile and New Zealand in June 2020. This was shortly followed by its second, the Singapore-Australia Digital Economy Agreement (SADEA), in August of the same year.

For businesses, “DEAs establish common frameworks and rules for digital trade that will enable companies in Singapore to connect digitally with their overseas partners more seamlessly,” a Singapore government statement said.

“The goals of the DEAs are ultimately to lower the cost of operations, increase business efficiency and create more seamless and easier access to overseas markets.”

They include modules on strategic sectors like Artificial Intelligence, digital ID, and e-payments.

“Digital Economy Agreements herald a new era of global digital connectivity,” Singapore’s trade minister S. Iswaran said. “With like-minded partners establishing clear and harmonised interoperability rules, and working together to address new issues brought about by digitalisation, we can create new possibilities for digital economies.”

While the DEAs are a landmark Singaporean government initiative, the UK, US and other countries are seeking to incorporate new digital provisions in their trade agreements.

According to the UK Trade Policy Observatory, last year’s trade agreement between the UK and Japan included “striking” new measures to support cross-border data flows alongside other changes. The US has also treated digital integration as a trade priority.

A recent UN working paper found that, overall, “Some recent [trade agreements] contain ambitious provisions to reduce regulatory barriers in digital trade and facilitate cross-border data flows,” but most fell short of significant integration and failed to support digital development and inclusion.

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