In the context of the open development of digital service trade, it is of great significance to explore how to use digital service import trade to promote high-quality innovation in manufacturing enterprises. This paper empirically analyzes the effect and mechanism of digital service import trade on enterprise innovation quality by using the data of Chinese industrial enterprises and the patent citation data of the China National Intellectual Property Administration from 2000 to 2015. It is found that digital service import trade has significantly contributed to the improvement of enterprise innovation quality, and is a new driving force and new path to boost the high-quality innovation of Chinese enterprises. Meanwhile, mechanism analysis reveals that: First, digital service import trade can accelerate the deep integration of digital technology and traditional industries through both supply and demand incentives, which is conducive to enterprises’ use of digital elements to achieve breakthrough innovation changes. Second, digital service import trade can drive the inflow and dissemination of global information technology resources, which is conducive to promoting information sharing, opening up information silos, and promoting the improvement of enterprise management efficiency, thus improving the ability of high-quality product development. Third, digital service import trade provides enterprises with more learning opportunities through knowledge and technology spillover, which stimulates enterprises to continuously improve their absorption and application capabilities of digital services, thus obtaining more knowledge spillover through digital service import trade and empowering enterprises to achieve high-quality innovation. Moreover, the heterogeneity test shows that, the innovation quality effect of digital service import trade is more prominent for start-up and growth enterprises, enterprises at both ends of the technology gap, and cities with low levels of digital infrastructure and high levels of intellectual property protection.
The findings not only expand the research scope of digital service trade at the micro level, but also provide new ideas for China to explore the realization path of innovative high-quality development: (1) China should promote the orderly opening of the digital service trade field and expand the import of high-end and new types of digital service goods to enhance the new dynamic energy of enterprise innovation quality improvement and accelerate the construction of a new pattern of high-quality development. (2) We can innovate “in-border” liberalization measures for digital service trade in cities with low digital infrastructure and high intellectual property protection, and relax the entry criteria for new digital economy business models for start-up, growth, and high-tech enterprises, to facilitate a virtuous cycle of continuous high-quality innovation. (3) In the digital service import trade, the manufacturing industry should accelerate the integration with the digital service industry to achieve digital transformation and upgrading, and enterprises should continuously improve their management efficiency and technology absorption capacity. (4) A sound intellectual property protection system should be established, with a good intellectual property protection environment as a favorable external condition for digital service trade.