New Zealand has managed to get APEC members to agree to tackle border delays slowing the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines – but it was not as successful with an attempt to get consensus on cutting tariffs for Covid essentials, Sam Sachdeva reports

An APEC agreement to speed up the movement of Covid-19 vaccines across borders sends a clear signal to the rest of the world about the urgency of the vaccine rollout, Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor says.

However, New Zealand has fallen short in a bid to get APEC economies to agree to cut tariffs on vaccines and related goods – with the United States essentially wielding a veto due to concerns about ongoing trade tensions with China, Newsroom understands.

Trade ministers from the organisation’s 21 member economies met in the early hours of Sunday to reach agreement on how to respond to trade-related barriers to the pandemic response, as well as broader issues within the global trading system.

After the meeting, chaired by O’Connor due to New Zealand’s role as host country, the ministers issued a joint statement agreeing to “expedite the flow and transit of all Covid-19 vaccines and related goods through their air, sea and land ports”.

The APEC members also agreed to implement “best practice” guidelines for customs officials, as well as embedding trade measures put in place during the pandemic, such as allowing customs forms to be submitted digitally and improving coordination between exporters and border agencies.

At a press conference on Sunday morning, O’Connor said the agreement would “send a clear signal to the wider world at a time when we need to take urgent action to ensure that vaccines get to each and every person across the globe.”

“APEC…[represents] over a third of the world’s population and over half of the GDP and half the trade, so what APEC says really does matter and the commitments through this statement will take us further forward.”

Newsroom understands New Zealand was also keen to secure a commitment to cutting tariffs on Covid vaccines and related supplies.

While that was supported by 20 of APEC’s 21 members, the United States objected to using such phrasing – apparently on the grounds it could oblige it to cut tariffs on goods from China.

Instead, the economies agreed to “consider voluntary actions to reduce the cost of these products for our people, particularly by encouraging each economy to review its own charges levied at the border on Covid-19 vaccines and related goods”.

He could not say exactly when the border changes would kick into full effect and how much they would speed up the import and export of Covid supplies, but said there was “essentially a sense of urgency” from all APEC members.

O’Connor said New Zealand had always been ambitious in the commitments it sought from APEC members, and argued the statement still required the economies to review all their related tariffs on top of cutting non-tariff barriers at the border.

He could not say exactly when the border changes would kick into full effect and how much they would speed up the import and export of Covid supplies, but said there was “essentially a sense of urgency” from all APEC members.

The ministers also agreed to work proactively on a temporary waiver of some intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, “as soon as possible” but no later than the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference starting in late November.

Asked whether that was a sufficiently ambitious timeframe, O’Connor said IP protections were just one element of delays to the production and rollout of vaccines.

“I’m sure that if necessary, action will be taken in that area, but there are many other ways that we can increase the production of vaccines and the rollout through commitments made in this agreement here and beyond.”

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai was among the meeting’s participants, with US President Joe Biden’s administration having expressed a desire to walk back the more protectionist tendencies of his predecessor Donald Trump, and O’Connor said all APEC economies welcomed the new US approach to trade.

“It was a very useful engagement last night which backs up that position.”

Green Party trade spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman told Newsroom it was encouraging to know the movement of vaccines and other Covid essentials would be improved, but she had expected a more significant agreement on tariffs.

Ghahraman was also concerned about the plan to wait until the WTO conference at the end of the year to address an IP waiver for vaccines, given the pandemic was still raging in many parts of the world.

“When you think about the death rate of this virus, it’s really quite frightening to just keep waiting and waiting … it’s frustrating to hear some nations saying, ‘Well this isn’t actually what the developing world needs for access’ instead of listening to what they’re actually saying is a barrier’.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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