The Sydney Morning Herald | 8 December 2021
Australia urges US to push back on ‘digital authoritarianism’
By Matthew Knott
The Morrison government is pushing the Biden administration to strike a digital free trade agreement with democracies across the Indo-Pacific in a bid to counter China’s “digital authoritarianism” and make it easier for Australian businesses to tap into international markets.
Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Arthur Sinodinos, will meet with President Joe Biden’s top trade official, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, on Thursday (AEDT) to make the case for the ambitious pact.
Their meeting comes a day before Biden hosts a virtual democracy summit with the leaders of over 100 nations, an event aimed at finding ways to counter the influence of illiberal rivals such as China and Russia.
Australia’s ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos said a regional digital free trade agreement was a major priority for the embassy.
Australia’s ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos said a regional digital free trade agreement was a major priority for the embassy. Credit:Sarah Baker
Sinodinos said creating a first-of-its-kind regional digital free trade agreement was a “major priority” for the Australian embassy in Washington 2022.
Sinodinos told an online forum that such a pact “would help us to set rules and standards for digital trade, something that will be of particular benefit to small and medium-sized businesses that are trying to get payment systems recognised across international borders so they can trade more easily internationally”.
The battle for the digital space
Australia and Singapore signed a landmark digital free trade agreement last year, and the US and Japan reached a similar agreement in 2019.
“Our pitch to the US has been that we regionalise these agreements and part of it is to establish a set of digital rules of the road that are open and transparent, promote trade and economic progress and push back against digital authoritarianism,” Sinodinos said.
“That is, against measures where some countries seek to dominate the digital space in a way that is for national advantage rather than mutual advantage.”
As well as Australia and the US, the Morrison government believes New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Singapore would be ideal countries to join the agreement.
Getting Australian credit cards accepted overseas
The move would aim to standardise e-payment systems to avoid current problems with Australian credit cards not being accepted by US businesses and vice versa.
Data rules would also be streamlined, a measure the government hopes would make it easier for small local businesses to compete more effectively with online retail giants such as Amazon.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan discussed the idea during meetings with US officials in Washington in June, and more recently with US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in Singapore.
Speaking at the National Press Club in September, Tehan said a focus of his talks with US officials was creating a digital regional trade agreement “as a step of getting US engagement, economic engagement, back into the Indo-Pacific”.
“There’s been some positive noises out of Washington on that and we will continue to advocate for a regional digital trade agreement and we very much are keen for the US to play a key role in that agreement,” he said.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan has been lobbying for a regional free trade agreement in his discussions with US officials.
In November, a group of 13 Republican senators wrote to Biden urging him to negotiate and establish an Indo-Pacific digital trade agreement.
“Our refusal to get into the game to set the rules for trade in the Indo-Pacific encourages potential partners to move forward without us and ensures China will hold the reins of the global economy,” the senators wrote.
“Foremost, digital rules must reflect American values, and directly confront China’s abusive trade practices.
“These rules must ensure free flows of data, prohibit discriminatory measures, including duties and taxes, support consumer protection, promote cybersecurity, protect human rights, combat censorship, and preclude governments from forcing the transfer of proprietary source code and algorithms.”