APAC’s Digital Leadership

This blog can be attributed to Esther Peh, Lead – External and Regulatory Affairs, Asia-Pacific, AT&T.

The global digital economy is a bright spot and APAC is playing a leading role in writing the rules of the road.

APAC is leading the way in the adoption of new technologies. According to Cisco’s Annual Internet Report, the Asia-Pacific region will account for 56% of global mobile traffic by 2022 – the largest share of traffic by any region by a substantial margin. Devices, such as smartphones, tablets and other IoT devices, and connections are estimated to reach 407 billion by 2022.

COVID-19 has only accelerated APAC’s digital transformation as APAC governments have invested more in adopting digital tools to drive economic recovery. We have seen such domestic efforts enable and complement businesses’ shift to digital to better cope with disrupted markets and trade. In the midst of the pandemic, Singapore (2nd), Hong Kong (5th) and Korea (8th) rank in the top 10 most digitally competitive countries, according to the Swiss Institute for Management Development (IMD) which carried out its Digital Competitiveness Survey this year. Further, the internet economy in six Southeast Asia countries combined – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – almost doubled from $38 billion last year to $62 billion this year; it is expected to reach $172 billion by 2025.

Now, as we try to find our way out of the pandemic, APAC must ride the tide of digital transformation towards policies that sustain and grow a vibrant, open and inclusive digital economy. A prime example of this is the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which plays a key role as an incubator of ideas and a conduit for regional cooperation. The APEC Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) Framework is a positive example of ideas translating to a concrete voluntary mechanism for cross-border data flows. The APEC CPBR is based on internationally accepted data protection principles with strong and enforceable accountability mechanisms. It has been incorporated in binding trade agreements, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), US-Japan Digital Trade Agreement (US-Japan DTA) and Singapore’s Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs).

APEC also has the potential to lead regulatory discussions and approaches to new and emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), cybersecurity, and data innovation, through experience and information sharing by businesses, academia, policymakers, and communities. Such information sharing and cooperation in new areas fosters understanding and builds confidence in specific use cases with the potential for broad use and establishing shared principles. AT&T welcomes APEC Leaders’ endorsement of the APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040, with digitalisation and innovation as a key economic driver. We commend Malaysia’s APEC 2020 Chairmanship and look forward to taking APEC’s work on the digital economy to greater heights in New Zealand’s 2021 Chairmanship. 

Recent trade and digital trade-only agreements in the region establish fit-for-purpose and interoperable rules and governance. Rules in one market must be scalable and inter-operable across others for APAC businesses – large and small and across all sectors – to scale their international footprint. Fragmented rules disproportionately impact small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the engine of growth across APAC economies. Clear and inter-operable rules are all the more important in the digital space where physical geography is no longer a barrier. The high-ambition digital and data rules contained in CPTPP, US-Japan DTA and the recently signed UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership (CEPA), position APAC governments to navigate the digital economy more effectively.

Notably, Singapore’s series of DEAs presents an interesting model. DEAs contains a hybrid of rules built upon the CPTPP and commitments to cooperate and share best practices in new and emerging technologies, including AI and cybersecurity. Two such agreements – a trilateral involving Chile, New Zealand, and a bilateral with Australia – have been concluded. A third is also underway with Korea.

Now, more than ever, APAC is at the forefront of the policy discourse. We encourage leaders and policymakers across APAC to engage with academia, businesses, and communities, as well as with each other and other like-minded partners, in important conversations that will ultimately help conversations and establishing the “rules of the road” towards a vibrant, open and inclusive digital economy.

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