76 countries to start talks on e-commerce rules

China is among more than 70 countries set to open negotiations on a global rule book for e-commerce.

Asia’s leading economy is reported to have signalled its provisional support for a plan launched by 76 World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states - including the US, the European Union and Japan - to start negotiating a new framework for online trade in goods and services, according to Reuters.

The agreement, which emerged amongst negotiators on the fringes of the World Economic Forum in Davos, sets a timetable for the beginning of discussions within the coming year.

It is significant that China has indicated its willingness to engage with negotiations, despite ongoing trade tensions with the US, however its support for the opening of negotiations is reportedly conditional on the talks taking into account the needs of developing countries.

WTO director general Robert Azevedo outlined the need for co-ordinated guidelines between trading partners to keep up with the rapid growth of e-commerce on a global scale.

“I’ve said for quite some time it was unacceptable that by 2018 ... the WTO won’t have a deeper, more effective conversation about a phenomenon that is driving the global economy today,” he said.

“China was not an original signatory but now they are. They have reaffirmed their intention to start negotiations on electronic commerce. I think this is a welcome development.”

In an interview at Davos last week, Daniel Zhang, chief executive of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said the world should prepare to use data-driven trade in the digital era as part of the "fourth industrial revolution".

He also highlighted the strength of e-commerce players such as Alibaba in promoting world trade objectives for supporting developing countries.

"To enable the participants on the platform to do a better business … because of technology, we can help our merchants, our sellers, to have efficient operations on our platform. Because of this, we can help farmers from, for example, Rwanda … to sell directly to China," said Zhang.

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, used his appearance at Davos to call for reform and warned of the need to exercise caution in tackling the challenges of digital upheaval and e-commerce.

"The first world war was because of the first technology revolution. The second technology revolution caused the second world war. This is the third technology revolution – we’re coming,” he said.

Ma also said it was necessary to create a level playing field among companies of all sizes and called for tariff-free trade on all transactions under $1 million.

“Most of free-trade zones today are designed only for big companies. We think there should be free trade zones for small companies to import and export,” he said.

In a separate intervention on the sidelines of Davos, Japan’s trade minister Hiroshige Seko echoed calls for action for new regulations on e-commerce.

“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,” he said.

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