Global E-Commerce Trade Talks Are Starting Soon; Why China Might Sit This One Out

As leaders from around the world prepare to launch negotiations about e-commerce standards, one of the countries at the forefront of the industry — China — may be sitting them out.

Anonymous sources told Bloomberg that in preliminary discussions, the country resisted the wording of a statement announcing the negotiations, and ongoing trade tensions with the U.S. may discourage their participation.

The decision isn’t final, but the deadline is closing in as talks are set to commence on Friday, the second-to-last day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In addition to the ongoing tariff standoff with the Trump administration, China’s strict control of the internet inside its borders could stymie the likelihood of its cooperation in an agreement that seeks to facilitate the movement of data between countries.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has been examining e-commerce issues since 1998, but the group has yet to come up with any concrete e-commerce rules or standards. In July 2018, a coalition of business and tech associations sent a list of recommended priorities to the WTO, including prohibiting tariffs and taxes on cross-border data flows and digital products, allowing data to move freely across borders, simplifying and expediting customs clearance and providing protection for companies’ intellectual property.

The latter has been a sticking point in President Trump’s relationship with China. He has repeatedly accused the country of stealing U.S. software and technology via cyberattacks and other forms of economic espionage. (China has called the allegations “slander,” saying it has “already put in place a full-fledged legal system to protect intellectual property rights.”)

Still, according to a draft of the WTO announcement obtained by Bloomberg, all WTO members are encouraged to participate. “We will seek to achieve a high-standard outcome that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks, with the participation of as many WTO members as possible,” it says.

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