SINGAPORE - The growing contestation between the United States and China carries the risk of technological bifurcation, or a situation in which companies and countries may have to choose between or operate on two separate tech systems, said Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo on Tuesday (July 13).
Just as international cooperation and multilateralism are needed in combating new Covid-19 variants, more international partnerships are needed to forge a digital future together, she added.
Mrs Teo was speaking during a fireside chat at the inaugural Asia Tech X Singapore event with her Brunei counterpart, Minister of Transport and Infocommunications Dato Abdul Mutalib Yusof. It was moderated by CNBC news anchor Martin Soong.
While Asean will not be able to determine the outcome of the contestation between the US and China, Mrs Teo noted that the region has 400 million Internet users and is poised to become the fourth-largest economy in the world in the not-too-distant future.
"What Asean can do is to demonstrate what it looks like to be digitally integrated, and how that can potentially benefit our people and our businesses," she said.
"Instead of technological bifurcation, we are actually seeking to have more interoperable systems and standards. We are thinking of how this can promote cross-border data flows and to grow digital trade that will help our companies, both large and small."
Signs of a potential bifurcation between Chinese and American tech have already been observed in the race to develop 5G wireless technology.
The US and several of its major allies have made moves to block or sideline 5G equipment built by the Chinese tech giant Huawei, which could mean other countries may one day have to choose between the US and China when it comes to adopting 5G infrastructure.
It could also mean devices designed to work on a US network may not be operable on a Chinese network, and vice versa.
Mr Abdul Mutalib noted the need for technological neutrality and interoperable systems within the region as well as the importance of a spirit of cooperation and learning from each other in Asean's digital transformation plans.
Brunei holds the chairmanship of Asean this year.
In response to a question from the audience on what values Asean regulators should promote in the context of digital regulations such as legal frameworks, Mr Abdul Mutalib said inclusivity would be fundamental.
"There's a big youth population within Asean, but do not forget about those who have missed the boat, in terms of age," he said, adding that digitalisation efforts should also be sensitive to the needs of the underprivileged segments of society and people with disabilities.
Mrs Teo said that while regulations should reflect each society's values, there are some aspects that are universally valued.
She cited safety, in terms of how user data is being stored and who has access to it; transparency, in terms of how this data is being used; as well as accountability, in terms of how people and organisations have to account for its use.