The European Union has set out plans to reset relations with the United States when Joe Biden enters the Oval Office next year. The proposals include a “transatlantic technology space” to shape regulatory frameworks across global tech and address global challenges. Brussels’ proposal reflects rising tensions in diplomatic circles on technology and data issues. Speaking at the Asia House Global Trade Dialogue in Singapore last year, Arancha Gonzalez, then executive director of the International Trade Centre, colourfully revealed the unanswered questions on tech and data driving debate at the World Trade Organization. “Where will data sit? Who will own it? How will we protect it?” are common concerns raised among WTO members, Gonzalez said. Answering those questions is a work in progress, but pressure is mounting. The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted the digital economy and the appreciation of the strategic use of data. This has raised the stakes in rivalries for global tech and data dominance both at the corporate and at the state level. The pandemic has brought about lasting economic change. While areas such as physical retail, hospitality and travel have been devastated, online entertainment and e-commerce have surged, with consumers shifting online and spending at record levels. International and cross-border e-commerce is one area that could prove transformative, offering new opportunities for traditional retailers willing to go digital. The numbers coming out of China bear this out. In the third quarter, Alibaba Group Holding’s Tmall Global marketplace saw the number of foreign brands setting up on the platform quadruple, with 200,000 new products on sale. In the US, cross-border e-commerce apparel exports in June were up 121 per cent on last year, according to Total Retail data. As Joe Biden faces a China emboldened in its race to tech supremacy, what policies will he pursue? Lower overheads combined with easier access to international markets also makes cross-border e-commerce a viable option for developing economies and in particular SMEs, as noted in a report by the WTO last month which identified ‘a clear interest in transitioning to the digital economy’ among these markets. Despite the obvious benefits, barriers continue to stifle the full potential of cross-border e-commerce; now is the time to remove them. Yet there is reticence to haul trade policy into the 21st century. The world’s largest trade deal, RCEP, signed last month, is a mammoth agreement covering 30 per cent of global GDP. The deal covers 15 Asian economies – home to some of the most dynamic and innovative digital economies in the world. But despite having a digital chapter, RCEP avoided prohibitions on data localisation, data barriers, cross-border data flows, and customs duties on electronic transmissions. A great opportunity to remove barriers to digital trade slipped away. There are, however, signs of progress. The Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, signed in 2018 has a stronger digital chapter, and a membership that is likely to want to go further on digital trade. The Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), concluded between Singapore, New Zealand and Chile (all CPTPP members) earlier this year, could offer a way forward. The world’s first digital-only trade deal, DEPA scraps duties on digital products, provides a framework for personal data protection and includes a disputes mechanism. Its real strength though is in its modular design, which enables trade partners to ‘plug in’ to different blocks without having to commit to the deal in its entirety. In a world where faith in multilateralism is wavering, the flexibility offered by DEPA’s innovative approach could be a winning ticket. The US-China tech cold war has turned hot – but would a Biden presidency change things for Huawei and others? But while regional and plurilateral deals are leading the way, data governance remains a global issue. Data is not oil, but it does have similar geopolitical, national security, and economic associations. A free but fair global data regime could be a significant growth driver. According to a McKinsey report, global GDP growth could increase by between US$250 and US$450 billion per annum if and when data flows freely. Countries that support cross-border data flows are already reaping a 40 per cent economic benefit over less connected countries. It is essential that we see a redoubling of efforts to engage with this critical issue. This means a more structured dialogue at the highest policy levels to emphasise the mutual benefits that agreement on data can bring. The ‘Osaka Track’ at last year’s G20, which saw the WTO convene world leaders to commit to cooperation on digital rules-making, was an encouraging development. Similarly was the WTO’s Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce, involving 76 members. Big challenges require big ideas. There are calls for a ‘World Data Organisation’ to multilaterally build a level digital playing field and erode the obstacles that currently exist. There is merit in the idea – mainly in that it will elevate data as an issue among policymakers. But regardless of the forum, until there is committed and genuine engagement on data, the full value of digital trade can never be realised. Tech can be a force for good in the world. But it is the good will of policymakers that is needed now. The role of tech in global trade was a key theme of this year’s Asia House Global Trade Dialogue , featuring Kai-Fu Lee and other distinguished speakers. Ed Ratcliffe is Head of Advisory at Asia House, a centre of expertise on trade, investment and public policy, which aims to drive political, economic and commercial engagement between Asia and Europe.