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Asean, Australia to make it easier for businesses to conduct cross-border digital trade

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Protectionism is a "dead end", Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday, as he and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a strong push for countries to continue working together on free trade.

[SYDNEY] Protectionism is a "dead end", Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday, as he and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a strong push for countries to continue working together on free trade.

Speaking at an Asean-Australia business summit, Mr Turnbull said Australia will continue to work with its closest neighbours in the region on trade liberalisation.

"You dont grow stronger by closing the door to other markets. Protectionism is a dead end. It is not a ladder to get you out of the low-growth trap. It's a shovel to dig it much deeper," he said.

"We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it, and do so on the basis of strong and transparent rules, fair and open competition and non-discriminatory legislation."

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Mr Turnbull's remarks echoed those made by Mr Lee on Thursday in an interview with Australian media, in which he said that recent moves by the United States to protect its domestic industries have raised the spectre of tit-for-tat trade wars.

He warned that steps taken by US President Donald Trump, such as imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, set a precedent and countries were now "under pressure to retaliate".

Speaking at the business summit on Friday, Mr Lee noted that Asean continues to work towards strengthening regional economic integration.

"The global mood may be moving in the opposite direction, but within Asean, within Southeast Asia, we are trying our best to strive forward to deepen integration, to deepen interdependence, to work together to trade and open up markets, to co-prosper together."

In one such move, Asean and Australia will work together on a new Digital Standards Cooperation Initiative, said Mr Turnbull.

These will be a set of standards to make it easier for businesses to conduct cross-border digital trade.

"The digital trade standards will underpin the benefits of new technologies, everything from big data to artificial intelligence, and harness the opportunities they bring to our region," he said.

The standards will ensure that the region can tap the potential of digital trade to gain greater acess to markets and secure a more certain online environment in which to do business, he added.

"It will show the world yet again what can be achieved when nations work together."

Mr Lee welcomed the initiative, saying it is a good first step in developing interoperable digital standards, which will facilitate trade and reduce costs for businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises.

During Singapore's Asean chairmanship this year, Asean is pursuing an agreement on e-commerce to streamline the varying regulatory systems across member states and make electronic transactions safer and more convenient, he added.

Mr Lee noted that Asean's growing digital economy is a compelling area of opportunity for Australian businesses.

"Though still in its infancy, it is fast becoming more vibrant. In 2017, Southeast Asian start-ups attracted a record US$8 billion from investors; these startups include Grab, Go-Jek, and Southeast Asia, which have quickly become household names," he said.

Asean is a compelling market for Australian businesses for other reasons, he added.

Asean's economic fundamentals are sound and the prospects for growth are strong and its combined population is expected to become the fourth-largest in the world by 2030, he noted.

Incomes are also growing, with Asean's annual consumer spending forecast to reach US$2.3 trillion by 2020, he said.

More than 60 per cent of its population is under 35 years old, which means a steady workforce and a growing consumer market in coming years, he added.

The business summit is taking place on the sidelines of the 3rd Singapore-Australia Leaders' Summit and the Asean-Australia Special Summit. Mr Lee is in Sydney until Sunday to attend both events.

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