context: The pact is considered to be an inclusive inter-governmental cooperation framework for the digital economy that offers alternative solutions to the US/EU rules on digital trade. However, Beijing’s strict regulations on data localisation will get in the way of upcoming negotiations.

MofCOM (Ministry of Commerce) announced on 18 Aug 2022 that a working group has been set up to advance China’s accession to the DEPA (Digital Economic Partnership Agreement) under the pact’s joint committee. Beijing first applied in October 2021 to join the pact, the world’s first regional agreement on digital economy that currently comprises Singapore, New Zealand and Chile. A dozen ministerial dialogues have been held between the PRC and DEPA member countries, elaborating China’s rules and regulatory practices on digital economic issues.

According to the 2021 Global Digital Economy white paper, China’s digital economy has reached a scale of $5.4 tn, ranking second in the world and growing by 9.6 percent y-o-y in 2021. China’s accession will bolster the pact’s global influence with the PRC’s fast-growing market scale in the digital economy, contends Bai Ming 白明 MofCOM International Market Research Institute deputy director.

DEPA runs to 16 chapters on issues including commerce and trade facilitation, paperless transactions, internet security, digital identity, fintech cooperation, individual information privacy, consumer protection, data management and transparency. Compared to CPTPP and RCEP, the pact has a broader coverage of digital trade and economic issues, such as non-discriminatory treatment of digital products and cross-border free data flows, as well as collaborative arrangements on emerging technologies like AI and fintech. It also offers greater accession flexibility that allows interested countries to sign on to different chapters instead of the whole package.