One area of particular importance for smaller firms engaged in e-commerce is dealing with problems at customs. Many e-commerce companies are not shipping 40 foot containers but a few boxes or even just one package straight to consumers or to other companies. Yet the paperwork and processing requirements to send one small box can be exactly the same a huge container. Firms often face complicated and cumbersome paperwork requirements at the border. Some markets charge high fees or inspect every single parcel, which causes expensive delays. Sometimes these issues are so significant that companies simply stop trying to send goods overseas at all. These problems are not unique to e-commerce shippers, of course, but if one important goal of RCEP is to facilitate trade for e-commerce, then a final agreement that does not address the real impediments to trade in smaller size, smaller value shipments at the borders will be a missed opportunity. The benefits of a robust e-commerce chapter that does not simultaneously tackle customs issues could be lost or watered down.
Overall, the review of policy at the domestic level shows that governments have not yet figured out the best approach for creating supportive and enabling frameworks for digital trade and e-commerce. To date, much of the official response has been fragmented between ministries and agencies, with little coordination. Digital trade is unlike many other sectors—it cuts across an increasingly wide swath of the economy and regulatory policies in one area often has knock-on or unintended consequences in other areas. It is also rapidly evolving, which is making it difficult for government officials to address. If governments are too far out in front, too prescriptive or too forward leaning, they risk cutting off new sources of innovation and growth. They may unintentionally box in specific technologies or platforms. Yet it can be very difficult to think about regulating for outcomes, since it requires bureaucrats to have a visionary sense of the future that few individuals are likely to have. Creating digital economy policies at the domestic level, in any case, is probably not the best or most effective way to create sensible regulations. The digital economy does not recognize national boundaries. It does not logically stop at a customs border. Hence, the more efficient and effective way to manage digital policies is at the regional or international level.
Officials have clearly got a focus on helping the smallest firms in RCEP benefit from the final agreement. This is a welcome development, since every country in the grouping is dominated by smaller size companies. The one area of sustained focus in RCEP that will be most promising for SMEs is e-commerce and digital trade. E-commerce and digital trade represent the fastest and easiest way for smaller firms to connect to suppliers, consumers and lead firms. Given the relatively higher levels of connectivity in Asia compared to other regions, this pathway can be developed further quickly with the right policies in place and help lead to new growth opportunities. Even getting this chapter right is difficult, since it requires that officials think hard about the rules that should structure the business environment today and still remain relevant tomorrow. The rules need to provide adequate protections for consumers, deal effectively with security concerns but not unduly hamper business plans now or in the future.