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EU sets sights on Indo-Pacific to roll out its digital ambitions

The European Union’s trade policy plans in the Indo-Pacific strongly focus strongly on the digital aspect of things, a new Communication unveiled today confirms.

The EU is rolling out its Global Gateway – a pendant to China’s Belt and Road – through a new strategy initially requested by the EU’s member states. France and Germany developed their national Indo-Pacific strategies, setting the stage for a region-wide approach to a region that ranges from Eastern Africa to Oceania and North-East Asia.

Today’s Joint Communication on the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific further emphasises new EU trade concerns such as supply chain resilience and diversification.

Value-chain focus

Contrary to member state conclusions of last spring the Commission puts greater emphasis on cooperation with ASEAN as a region as well as with Taiwan, with its special
status as a non-sovereign state.

“The EU will work with its Indo-Pacific partners to reinforce value chains by strengthening and diversifying trade relations, implementing existing trade agreements, finalising ongoing trade negotiations and developing cooperation in strategic sectors,” the Commission and European External Action text says.

“For semiconductors, for example, it will do so with partners such as Japan, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan,” the two institutions announce.

“The EU will also cooperate with partners to strengthen rules to protect international trade against unfair practices, such as industrial subsidies, economic coercion, forced technology
transfers and intellectual property theft,” the text says.

Traditional approach to trade agreements

There is little that is new in the way the EU approaches traditional trade policy and its free trade agreements in the region.

“Progress in ratifying the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI)… will be determined by the wider political context of EU-China relations.”

“The EU will continue to negotiate trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia and continue to work towards and Economic Partnership Agreement with the East
Africa Community.”

The text also references recently re-launched trade and investment talks with India.

“The EU remains interested in further engaging ASEAN and its member states, including through the possible resumption of trade negotiations with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, once the conditions are right, and by the eventual negotiation of a region-to-region agreement.”

Whilst falling short of announcing the launch of formalised talks with Taiwan towards a bilateral investment agreement – a key demand by the European Parliament – the document pays particular attention to the island-country.

“The EU will also pursue its deep trade and investment relationships with partners with whom it does not have trade and investment agreements, such as Taiwan.”

Digital partnerships and adequacy decisions

The most novel aspect of the Indo-Pacific strategy is the EU’s emphasis on digital talks with several countries in the region.

There is the issue of setting standards in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

“The EU will work with likeminded Indo-Pacific partners on standard setting and other regulatory priorities, in compliance with [World Trade Organization] principles,” we read.

The definitive document released today confirms our report that the EU is seeking digital partnership agreements with Japan, Korea and Singapore.

“The EU will seek (…) Digital Partnership Agreements to be negotiated with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific,” the text says.

The aim is to “expand the bilateral trade and investment relationship by enhancing cooperation on and interoperability of standards for emerging technologies”.

These partnerships are seen as a “complement” to ongoing negotiations on e-commerce at the WTO.

The text mentions an already existing digital partnership cooperation mechanism set up wit India earlier this year which covers artificial intelligence, high performance computing and quantum technologies.

The EU is further seeking to increase significantly the number of countries which it would consider granting an ‘adequacy’ decision for their data privacy protection regimes – with the
aim of safeguarding cross-border data flows.

The candidate countries listed for this are India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.

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