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Asean, APEC move to boost e-commerce and bridge Asia's digital divide
HONG KONG (CNN) -- Efforts to bridge the widening digital divide between Asia's e-commerce haves and have-nots are being stepped up, with the Asean countries set to sign a treaty that lays down a framework for regional online trading.
The treaty follows the lead of leaders from Asia-Pacific nations, who pledged at a summit in Brunei earlier this month to triple the number of people with Internet access in their region by 2005, and provide all people in the region with individual or community-based Web access by 2010.
Analysts believe both developments are realistic despite the extremely early stage of e-commerce in developing Asian nations such as Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
The Asean e-commerce treaty is a key element of the Asean summit in Singapore this week, and comes as Asean forms closer ties with the e-commerce industry through a memorandum of understanding with computer giant IBM to collaborate on technology developments in the region.
Asian has formed a dedicated "e-Asean" task force headed by former Philippine foreign minister Rovert Romulo to oversee e-commerce progress in the region.
The gap between Asia's most advanced nations and those only just tapping into the Internet is extremely wide. Its member countries are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Singapore is the most "wired" with claims that every house on the island is connected to the Internet via high-speed broadband cable. At the other end of the spectrum, more recent entrants into Asean such as Burma and Laos have restrictions on the ownership of computers and access to the Web.
Hong Kong-based Lane Leskela, a research director at e-commerce think tank Gartner Asia Pacific, told CNN.com the moves by government organizations to encourage internal and cross-border trade online was "extremely positive".
"You won't get literally 100 per cent of people online, but to the extent that we're talking mostly about government to government transactions I think 2010 is very reasonable in terms of having selected government processes and communications networks talking to each other by that time," he said.
"Of course, formalizing this is not just a very positive sign but also a very necessary process to get all countries involved."
Prominent in a closing statement by the economic leaders of APEC in Brunei was an acknowledgement that the Internet and other forms of communications technology have dramatically boosted the development of the global economy.
"However, we realize that the technology and the benefits it can bring have not yet reached millions of our people," the statement said. "Our vision is to prepare each of our economies and all of our people to use the technology revolution as a passport to the fruits of globalization."
Formed in 1989, APEC is a loose grouping of nations on both sides of the Pacific. It includes the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Australia and Indonesia. The grouping represents two-thirds of the world's population, nearly two-thirds of its wealth and almost half of its trade.
Collectively the nations have been pushing for free trade in the region -- by 2010 for developed nations and by 2020 for developing countries.
The leaders agreed to derive policies to enable the people of urban, provincial and rural communities in every APEC economy to have individual or community-based access to information and services offered via the Internet by 2010.
"As a first step toward this goal we aim to triple the number of people within the region with individual and community-based access by 2005," their statement says. They also called on the private sector to assist them, claiming that "governments alone cannot achieve this vision".
"We cannot close the digital divide without your efforts to provide distance learning, to donate software and low-cost computers for villages, and to train people to use them," U.S. President Bill Clinton told a group of company executives.
The objective of the arrangement between IBM and the Asean Secretariat is to put in place a long-term program of collaboration in which IBM will serve as the technical adviser on information technology matters.
IBM will also participate in the setting up of a task force to drive the implementation of the Asean Secretariat’s IT blueprint for its member governments.
ASEAN leaders hope to cement economic ties, security pact
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