76 countries, regions agree on talks to set e-commerce rules

Trade ministers participate at the World Trade Organisation Informal ministerial gathering in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan 25, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DAVOS • Impatient with a lack of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules to cover the explosive growth of e-commerce, 76 countries and regions, including the United States, the European Union and Japan, have agreed to start negotiating a set of open and predictable regulations.

China, which is locked in a trade war with the US, signalled conditional support for the initiative but said that it should also take into account the needs of developing countries.

E-commerce, or online trade in goods and services, has become a huge component of the global economy. A WTO report put the total value of e-commerce in 2016 at US$27.7 trillion (S$37.6 trillion), of which nearly US$24 trillion was from business-to-business transactions.

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, negotiators from the 76 countries and regions agreed yesterday to hammer out an agenda for discussions they hope to kick off this year on setting new e-commerce rules.

"The current WTO rules don't match the needs of the 21st century. You can tell that from the fact there are no solid rules on e-commerce," Japan's Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters in Davos.

In their joint statement, the members of the coalition said: "We will seek to achieve a high-standard outcome that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks with the partici-pation of as many WTO members as possible."

China's WTO Ambassador Zhang Xiangchen said the e-commerce declaration "could have been better drafted", but Beijing was still willing to co-sponsor it and would play an active role in the exploratory talks.

Another Asian giant, India, did not join the initiative. It has previously said that the WTO should finish the stalled but development-oriented "Doha Round" of talks before moving into new areas.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2019, with the headline 76 countries, regions agree on talks to set e-commerce rules. Subscribe