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Digital Economy Agreements: The New Phase in Economic Alliances

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During the crisis year of 2020 a new trend has set in the formation of international economic alliances that was to a significant degree expedited by the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. The emergence of digital economic agreements (DEAs) was a response to the need to forge ahead with opening markets amid the excesses of protectionism, while at the same time addressing the rising demand for digital services and international cooperation triggered by the Covid crisis. The propagation of digital economic accords may deliver a crucial contribution to bolstering the dynamism of the global economy in the face of a massive economic downturn.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging accord covering international cooperation in the digital economy area was the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which entered into force on December 30, 2018 for Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, New Zealand and Singapore, with Vietnam joining the block in the beginning of 2019. In early 2020 (with the CPTPP accord serving as a guide) Singapore, New Zealand and Chile signed the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA). More recently, Singapore and Australia signed the Digital Economy Agreement (DEA) (approved in August 2020). The deal envisages provisions with respect to data protection, paperless customs procedures, e-invoicing and targets lower costs in e-commerce. The bilateral agreement in effect upgrades the Singapore-Australia FTA (SAFTA) via a new digital economy chapter and is to serve as a benchmark for other digital trade agreements.

At the end of 2020 digital trade facilitation received a major boost from the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is currently the largest regional economic block in the world accounting for nearly 30% of global GDP. E-Commerce is singled out as a key priority in chapter 12 of the trade pact, which targets electronic authentication and electronic signatures, facilitation of paperless trading, online consumer protection as well as online personal information protection.

Singapore is one of the leading countries advancing the digital economic agreements in the world economy – so far it is part of all of the abovementioned digital economy accords. Singapore’s advances in expanding its network of digital alliances raise its competitiveness in attracting trade, investment and corporate platform activity. As stated by S. Iswaran, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information with reference to the creation of DEAs, “our goal is to build the necessary trade infrastructure for businesses based in Singapore to thrive in the digital economy. Companies can look forward to improved efficiency, reduced cost and enhanced trust when doing business with their overseas partners. Businesses can also better manage their global platforms and digital services out of Singapore, with an open digital trade architecture that supports secure and free flow of data”.

The use of digital platforms at the macro-level of countries and regions may also facilitate the formation of hybrid alliances at the corporate level that bring together corporates from different fields of operation to pursue priority vectors in economic integration. The formation of such hybrid alliances may be exemplified by the announcement of a joint project developed by Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RFDI), Mail.ru, Alibaba as well as Megafon to promote e-commerce.

Of all of the different parts of the global economy Eurasia stands to benefit the most from greater digital connectivity and inclusivity, given the prominence of the “distance factor” that constrains the intensity of economic cooperation within the region. The gravity of distance is particularly costly for Eurasia’s land-locked economies – in fact Eurasia harbours 26 out of 44 (59%) of all of the world’s landlocked countries. Moreover, the scale of “inwardness” of some of the regions of Eurasia in terms of geographical location is truly unique, whereby Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, while Bishkek is the farthest capital city from the coast in the world (all top-5 of the most distant capitals from the sea coast in the world are in Asia, primarily Central Asia).

There are several ways in which the gravity of distance could be mitigated – one is economic integration across countries and regions, another one is the creation of digital platforms, whether at the corporate or at the country/regional level.

Existing research suggests that digital platforms may exert a sizeable effect in reducing the gravity of distance: as noted by Pierre-Louis Vézina, “distance between countries impedes international trade, but it matters 65% less for trade on the eBay platform than for traditional offline trade… The online world is flatter”. The study on the role of digital platforms in reducing distance barriers (”There Goes Gravity: eBay and the Death of Distance” by Andreas Lendle, Marcelo Olarreaga, Simon Schropp and Pierre-Louis Vézina is published in the March 2016 issue of the Economic Journal) argues that the benefits from the expansion in online economy may be significant given that “online platforms like eBay lower trade barriers as they enable people and firms to connect across oceans and cultures, potentially bringing about substantial further reductions in trade costs and thereby boosting trade and incomes”.

The gravity of distance varies across sectors, with trade in services broadly exhibiting lower susceptibility to the gravity of distance compared to the trade in goods. As noted by PWC experts, “sectors that tend to be sold as part of – or embedded in – goods, such as construction and repair services, are weighed down by gravity. At the other end of the spectrum, the UK’s cultural exports, such as music and performing arts, fashion, films and TV, are examples of services exports that have strong global appeal, not just in geographically proximate markets”. It is this latter category of trade in services (music, TV, etc.) that apart from showing lower dependency on distance is also characterized by high levels of digitalization. With digitization rising further in services such as financials, education, health care, the gravity of distance is likely to be further undermined.

Yet another study focusing on the EU evaluated the importance of distance for e-commerce. This study of 721 regions in five countries of the European Union shows that while distance is not “dead” in e-commerce, there is evidence that express delivery reduces distance for cross-border demand. Most tellingly, however, the resilience of digital trade/e-commerce to the distance factor was amply demonstrated during the pandemic, when against the backdrop of increasing distance (in effective terms on the back of the restrictions associated with the pandemic) the share of e-commerce in retail sales increased markedly across countries in 2020.

In view of the features of Eurasia with respect to the gravity of distance, a common Eurasian platform for digital economic agreements may address some of the very fundamental constraints facing the region’s economies. A common platform would allow the region to attenuate the effects of severe economic fragmentation – most notably in the regulatory sphere – emanating from the sheer size of Eurasia and the multiplicity of regional integration arrangements. By consolidating regional, bilateral, as well as corporate alliances a common Eurasian digital platform would allow its members to introduce greater consistency and compatibility into the existing set of agreements and weed out the contradictions, thus providing the conditions for multilateralising existing digital arrangements and for creating new digital economic accords. The digital platform may also serve to keep track of the agreements concluded by Eurasian economies with third parties as well as provide for monitoring of compliance with the key items of the concluded agreements. Another aspect to constructing such a digital system is to envisage a role for the WTO and provide for WTO-compatibility of the various agreements included into the system.

From our partner RIAC

Head of the analytical Department of Sberbank's corporate and investment business (Sberbank CIB) — Sberbank Investment Research, RIAC Member

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Iran has an integral role to play in Russian-South Asian connectivity

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Iran is geostrategically positioned to play an integral role in Russian-South Asian connectivity. President Putin told the Valdai Club during its annual meeting in October 2019 that “there is one more prospective route, the Arctic – Siberia – Asia.

The idea is to connect ports along the Northern Sea Route with ports of the Pacific and Indian oceans via roads in East Siberia and central Eurasia.” This vision, which forms a crucial part of his country’s “Greater Eurasian Partnership”, can be achieved through the official North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) and tentative W-CPEC+ projects that transit through the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The first one refers to the creation of a new trade route from Russia to India through Azerbaijan and Iran, while the second concerns the likely expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC, the flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative [BRI]) westward through Iran and largely parallel to the NSTC. W-CPEC+ can also continue towards Turkey and onward to the EU, but that branch is beyond the scope of the present analysis. The NSTC’s terminal port is the Indian-backed Chabahar, but delays in fully developing its infrastructure might lead to Bandar Abbas being used as a backup in the interim.

CPEC’s Chinese-backed terminal port of Gwadar is in close proximity to Chabahar, thus presenting the opportunity of eventually pairing the two as sister cities, especially in the event that rumored negotiations between China and Iran result in upwards of several hundred billion dollars worth of investments like some have previously reported. The combination of Russian, Indian, and Chinese infrastructure investments in Iran would greatly improve the country’s regional economic competitiveness and enable it to fulfill its geostrategic destiny of facilitating connectivity between Russia and South Asia.

What’s most intriguing about this ambitious vision is that Iran is proving to the rest of the world that it isn’t “isolated” like the U.S. and its closest allies thought that it would be as a result of their policy of so-called “maximum pressure” against it in recent years. While it’s true that India has somewhat stepped away from its previously strategic cooperation with Iran out of fear that it’ll be punished by “secondary sanctions” if it continued its pragmatic partnership with the Islamic Republic, it’s worthwhile mentioning that Chabahar curiously secured a U.S. sanctions waiver.

While the American intent behind that decision is unclear, it might have been predicated on the belief that the Iranian-facilitated expansion of Indian influence into Central Asia via Chabahar might help to “balance” Chinese influence in the region. It could also have simply been a small but symbolic “concession” to India in order not to scare it away from supporting the U.S. anti-Chinese containment strategy. It’s difficult to tell what the real motive was since American-Indian relations are currently complicated by Washington’s latest sanctions threats against New Delhi in response to its decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense systems.

Nevertheless, even in the worst-case scenario that Indian investment and infrastructural support for Iran can’t be taken for granted in the coming future, that still doesn’t offset the country’s geostrategic plans. Russia could still use the NSTC to connect with W-CPEC and ultimately the over 200+ million Pakistani marketplaces. In theory, Russian companies in Pakistan could also re-export their home country’s NSTC-imported goods to neighboring India, thereby representing a pragmatic workaround to New Delhi’s potential self-interested distancing from that project which could also provide additional much-needed tax revenue for Islamabad.

Iran must therefore do its utmost to ensure Russia’s continued interest in the NSTC regardless of India’s approach to the project. Reconceptualizing the NSTC from its original Russian-Indian connectivity purpose to the much broader one of Russian-South Asian connectivity could help guarantee Moscow’s support. In parallel with that, Tehran would do well to court Beijing’s investments along W-CPEC+’s two branch corridors to Azerbaijan/Russia and Turkey/EU. Any success on any of these fronts, let alone three of them, would advance Iran’s regional interests by solidifying its integral geo-economic role in 21st-century Eurasia.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The phenomenon of land grabbing by multinationals

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Since 2012 the United Nations has adopted voluntary guidelines for land and forest management to combat land grabbing. But only a few people know about the guidelines, which aim to protect small farmers particularly in Third World countries.

When multinational investors buy up fields for their huge plantations, the residents lose their livelihood and means of support and will soon only be sleeping in their villages. If they are lucky, they might find work with relatives in another village. Many also try their luck in the city, but poverty and unemployment are high. What remains are depopulated villages and the huge palm oil plantations that have devoured farmland. People can no longer go there to hunt and grow plants or get firewood. The land no longer belongs to them!

Land grabbingis the process whereby mostly foreign investors deprive local farmers or fishermen of their fields, lakes and rivers. Although it has been widely used throughout history, land grabbing – as used in the 21st century – mainly refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the global food price crisis of 2007-2008.

From 2000 until 2019 one hundred million hectares of land have been sold or leased to foreign investors and the list of the most affected countries can be found here below:

Such investment may also make sense for the development of a country, but it must not deprive people of their rights: local people are starving while food is being produced and turned into biofuels for export right before their eyes.

In 2012, after three years of discussion, the UN created an instrument to prevent such land grabbing: the VGGTs (Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security:

Detailed minimum standards for investment are established, e.g. the participation of affected people or how to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples and prevent corruption. Formally, the document provides a significant contribution to all people fighting for their rights.

The document, however, is quite cryptic. The guidelines should be simplified and explained. Only in this way can activists, but also farmers and fishermen, become aware of their rights.

Others doubt that much can be achieved through these guidelines because they are voluntary. After all, the UN has little or no say in the matter and can do no more than that. If governments implemented them, they would apply them as they will.

In Bolivia, for example, there are already laws that are supposed to prevent land grabbing. In the Amazon, however, Brazilian and Argentinian companies are buying up forests to grow soya and sugar cane, often with the approval and agreement of corrupt government officials. Further guidelines would probably be of little use.

At most, activists already use the guidelines to lobby their governments. Together with other environmental and human rights activists, they set up networks: through local radio stations and village meetings, they inform people of the fact that they right to their land.

Nevertheless, in many countries in Africa and elsewhere, there is a lack of documentation proving land ownership. Originally, tribal leaders vocally distributed rights of use. But today’s leaders are manipulated to pressure villagers to sell their land.

The biggest investors are Indians and Europeans: they are buying up the land to grow sugar cane and palm oil plantations. This phenomenon has been going on since 2008: at that time – as noted above – the world food crisis drove up food prices and foreign investors, but also governments, started to invest in food and biofuels.

Investment inland, which has been regarded as safe since the well-known financial crisis, must also be taken into account. Recently Chinese companies have also been buying up thousands of hectares of land.

In some parts of Africa, only about 6% of land is cultivated for food purposes, while on the remaining areas there are palm oil plantations. Once the plantations grow two or three metres high, they have a devastating effect on monocultures that rely on biodiversity, because of the huge areas they occupy. There is also environmental pollution due to fertilisers: in a village, near a plantation run by a Luxembourg company, many people have suffered from diarrhoea and some elderly villagers even died.

Consequently, the implementation of the VGGTs must be made binding as soon as possible. But with an organisation like the United Nations, how could this happen?

It is not only the indigenous peoples or the local groups of small farmers that are being deprived of everything. The common land used is also being lost, as well as many ecosystems that are still intact: wetlands are being drained, forests cleared and savannas turned into agricultural deserts. New landowners fence off their areas and deny access to the original owners. In practice, this is the 21st century equivalent of the containment of monastery land in Europe that began in the Middle Ages.

The vast majority of contracts are concentrated in poorer countries with weak institutions and land rights, where many people are starving. There, investors compete with local farmers. The argument to which the advocates of land grabbing hold -i.e. that it is mainly uncultivated land that needs to be reclaimed – is refuted. On the contrary, investors prefer well-developed and cultivated areas that promise high returns. However, they do not improve the supply of local population.

Foreign agricultural enterprises prefer to develop the so-called flexible crops, i.e. plants such as the aforementioned oil palm, soya and sugar cane, which, depending on the market situation, can be sold as biofuel or food.

But there is more! If company X of State Y buys food/fuel producing areas, it is the company that sells to its State Y and not the host State Z that, instead, assigns its future profits derived from international State-to-State trade to the aforementioned multinational or state-owned company of State Y.

Furthermore, there is almost no evidence of land investment creating jobs, as most projects were export-oriented. The British aid organisation Oxfam confirms that many land acquisitions took place in areas where food was being grown for the local population. Since local smallholders are generally weak and poorly educated, they can hardly defend themselves against the grabbing of the land they use. Government officials sell or lease it, often without even paying compensation.

Land grabbing is also present in ‘passive’ Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Lithuania and Bulgaria are affected, but also the territories of Eastern Germany. Funds and agricultural enterprises from “active” and democratic Europe, i.e. the West, and the Arab Gulf States are the main investors.

We might think that the governments of the affected countries would have the duty to protect their own people from such expropriations. Quite the reverse. They often support land grabbing. Obviously, corruption is often involved. In many countries, however, the agricultural sector has been criminally neglected in the past and multinationals are taking advantage of this under the pretext of remedying this situation.

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No let-up in Indian farmers’ protest due to subconscious fear of “crony capitalism”

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The writer has analysed why the farmers `now or never’ protest has persisted despite heavy odds. He is of the view that the farmers have the subconscious fear that the “crony capitalism” would eliminate traditional markets, abolish market support price and grab their landholdings. Already the farmers have been committing suicides owing to debt burden, poor monthly income (Rs. 1666 a month) and so on.”Crony capitalism” implies nexus between government and businesses that thrives on sweetheart deals, licences and permits eked through tweaking rules and regulations.

Stalemate between the government and the farmers’ unions is unchanged despite 11 rounds of talks. The farmers view the new farm laws as a ploy to dispossess them of their land holdings and give a free hand to tycoons to grab farmers’ holdings, though small.

Protesters allege the new laws were framed in secret understanding with tycoons. The farmers have a reason to abhor the rich businesses. According to an  a  January 2020 Oxfam India’s richest one  per cent hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent  of the country’s population. India’s top nine billionaires’ Inc one is equivalent to wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The opposition has accused the government of “crony capitalism’.

Government has tried every tactic in its tool- kit to becloud the movement (sponsored y separatist Sikhs, desecrated Republic Day by hoisting religious flags at the Red ford, and so on). The government even shrugged off the protest by calling it miniscule and unrepresentative of 16.6 million farmers and 131,000 traders registered until May 2020. The government claims that it has planned to build 22,000 additional mandis (markets) 2021-22 in addition to already-available over 1,000 mandis.

Unruffled by government’s arguments, the opposition continues to accuse the government of being “suit-boot ki sarkar” and an ardent supporter of “crony capitalism” (Ambani and Adani). Modi did many favours to the duo. For instance they were facilitated to join hands with foreign companies to set up defence-equipment projects in India. BJP-ruled state governments facilitated the operation of mines in collaboration with the Ambani group  just years after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks for captive mining (MS Nileema, `Coalgate 2.0’, The Caravan March 1, 2018). Modi used Adani’s aircraft in March, April and May 2014 for election campaigning across the country.

“Crony capitalism” is well defined in the English oxford Living Dictionaries, Cambridge and Merriam –Webster. Merriam-Webster defines “crony capitalism” as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants, and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market

If there’s one”.

Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “ an economic system in which family members and friends of government officials and business leaders are given unfair advantages in the form of jobs, loans, etc.:government-owned firms engaged in crony capitalism”.

A common point in all the definitions is undue favours (sweetheart contracts, licences, etc) to select businesses. It is worse than nepotism as the nepotism has a limited scope and life cycle. But, “crony capitalism” becomes institutionalized.

Modi earned the title “suit-boot ki sarkar” when a non-resident Indian, Rameshkumar Bhikabhai virani gifted him a Rs. 10 lac suit. To save his face, Modi later auctioned the suit on February 20, 2015. The suit fetched price of Rs, 4, 31, 31311 or nearly four hundred times the original price. Modi donated the proceeds of auction to a fund meant for cleaning the River Ganges. `It was subsequently alleged that the Surat-based trader Laljibhai Patel who bought the suit had been favoured by being allotted government land for building  a private sports club (BJP returns ‘favour’, Modi suit buyer to get back land, Tribune June21, 2015).

Miffed by opposition’s vitriolic opposition, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Categorically denied collusion with Modi’s government earlier this month. Reliance clarified that it had never done any contract farming or acquired farm land, and harboured no plans to do so in future. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group also had clarified last month that it did not buy food grains from farmers or influence their prices.

Modi-Ambani-Adani nexus

Like Modi, both Adani and Ambani hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat, just, who served as the state’s chief for over a decade. Both the tycoons are reputed to be Modi’s henchmen. Their industry quickly aligns its business strategies to Modi’s nation-building initiatives. For instance, Adani created a rival regional industry lobby and helped kick off a biannual global investment summit in Gujarat in 2003 that boosted Modi’s pro-business credentials. During 2020, Ambani raised record US$27 billion in equity investments for his technology and retail businesses from investors including Google and Face book Inc. He wants to convert these units into a powerful local e-commerce rival to Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Inc. The Adani group, which humbly started off as a commodities trader in 1988, has grown rapidly to become India’s top private-sector port operator and power generator.

Parallel with the USA

Ambani and Adani are like America’s Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s in the USA’s Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century (James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India’s New Gilded Age).

Modi government’s tutelage of Ambanis and Adanis is an open secret. Kerala challenged Adani’s bid for an airport lease is. A state minister said last year that Adani winning the bid was “an act of brazen cronyism.”

Threat of elimination of traditional markets

Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including the big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.

The farmers fear the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.

Is farmers’ fear genuine?

The farmers have a logical point. Agriculture yield less profit than industry. As such, even the USA heavily subsidies its agriculture. US farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019, the highest level of farm subsidies in the last 14 years, and the corporate sector paid for it. The Indian government is reluctant to give a permanent legal guarantee for the MSP. In contrast, the US and Western Europe buy directly from the farmers and build their butter and cheese mountains. Even the prices of farm products at the retail and wholesale levels are controlled by the capitalist government. In short, not the principles of capitalization but well-worked-out welfare measures are adopted to sustain the farm sector in the advanced West.

Threat of monopsonic exploitation

The farmers would suffer double exploitation under a monopsony (more sellers less buyers) at the hands of corporate sharks.  They would pay less than the minimum support price to the producers. Likewise, consumers will have to pay more because the public distribution system is likely to be undermined as mandi (regulated wholesale market) procurement is would eventually cease to exist.

Plight of the Indian farmer

The heavily indebted Indian farmer has average income of only about Rs. 20000 a year (about Rs. 1666 a month). Thousands of farmers commit suicide by eating pesticides to get rid of their financial difficulties.

A study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 people involved in the farming sector died by suicide from 2018-2019, with several studies suggesting that being in debt was a key factor.

More than 86 per cent of India’s cultivated farmland is owned by small farmers who own less than two hectares of land each (about two sports fields). These farmers lack acumen to bargain with bigger companies. Farmers fear the Market Support Price will disappear as corporations start buying their produce.

Concluding remarks

Modi sarkar is unwilling to yield to the farmers’ demand for fear of losing his strongman image and Domino Effect’. If he yields on say, the matter of the farm laws, he may have to give in on the Citizenship Amendment Act also. Fund collection in some foreign countries has started to sustain the movement. As such, the movement may not end anytime soon. Unless Modi yields early, he would suffer voter backlash in coming elections. The farm sector contributes only about 15 per cent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy. But, it employs around half its 1.3 billion people. 

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