Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's APEC leaders' retreat will be held virtually like US President Joe Biden's climate summit.

As the global Covid-19 environment darkens, the Government is hoping a surprise early meeting of APEC leaders can send a signal about the organisation’s readiness to tackle the big issues, Sam Sachdeva writes

So far, New Zealand’s hosting of APEC has largely flown under the radar of most Kiwis.

That is in part due to the virtual nature of proceedings, but also due to the fact that little attention is paid to most meetings of officials and ministers in any hosting year, with the real spark coming when the presidents, prime ministers and other rulers gather for the annual leaders’ week late in the year.

But in unprecedented times has come an unprecedented twist – New Zealand is having not one but two bites of the cherry, with an “informal leaders’ retreat” taking place late Friday night NZT ahead of the formal event in November.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will chair the discussion – the first time in APEC’s history that an additional meeting at the leaders’ level has been held, and what she said was a reflection of “our desire to navigate together out of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis”.

“APEC economies have suffered their biggest contraction since the Second World War over the past year, with 81 million jobs lost. Responding collectively is vital to accelerate the economic recovery for the region.”

The sense of urgency was made plain in APEC describing the event as an “extraordinary meeting”, with a number of international media outlets going further in talking of an “emergency pandemic meeting”.

Exactly what the meeting is meant to achieve in concrete terms was not quite as clear: in a statement announcing the event, Ardern spoke nebulously of “inviting discussion on immediate measures to achieve more coordinated regional action to assist recovery”.

But some modern history helps provide some useful background – even if the travails of recent APEC years, and its leaders’ weeks in particular, are well-known by this point.

The meeting seems designed to serve several purposes. The first is to send a signal that APEC remains relevant and ready to tackle the big questions; through that lens, the outcome of this meeting is less important than the fact it is happening at all.

In 2018, those around the table in Papua New Guinea found themselves unable to agree to a joint statement as US-China tensions bubbled over; the 2019 leaders’ week was cancelled following domestic unrest in Chile, while in 2020 Malaysia was forced to switch to a virtual format without the luxury of advance preparation.

Those disruptions have placed extra significance on the outcome of New Zealand’s host year, even without considering the need to tackle broader instability in the rules-based system at a time of global crisis and Great Power competition.

In that sense, the meeting seems designed to serve several purposes.

The first is to send a signal that APEC remains relevant and ready to tackle the big questions; through that lens, the outcome of this meeting is less important than the fact it is happening at all.

The retreat is also another chance for the United States to reinforce its pivot away from ‘America First’ Trumpism, with President Joe Biden set to take part in the proceedings.

There was praise for the US approach after June’s meeting of trade ministers, but a reminder that a protectionist streak is not unique to Trump came when the country objected to cutting tariffs on Covid vaccines and supplies.

Similarly delicate issues will need to be traversed at the leaders’ meeting proper in November, and the ‘informal’ retreat may offer a chance to build goodwill and test some of those sensitive areas while the stakes aren’t as high.

Covid waves crash

But there is sufficiently grim news in the here and now for leaders to discuss, as Covid cases spike around the world as the highly contagious and deadly Delta variant takes hold and some countries face third or even fourth waves of infection.

While countries like South Korea are implementing their most stringent restrictions yet, the United Kingdom is set to scrap the majority of its formal Covid restrictions next week despite The Guardian reporting the country could face at least one to two million new cases in the coming weeks.

The UK’s decision to ‘live with Covid’ and rely on its high vaccination rates could yet provide an example of the dangers in diverting from a collective approach, with fears that allowing such high levels of infection could allow even more dangerous, vaccine-resistant strains to develop.

While New Zealand would be protected from the most immediate consequences of such a scenario, the second-order effects could be profound with the Government’s options involuntarily narrowing to an invidious choice: keeping the borders closed indefinitely as part of a total elimination strategy, or allowing cases in and accepting a not-insignificant percentage of the population could face serious illness or death.

Thankfully, we are still some way from that worst-case scenario becoming reality – but nor is it as implausible as we would like it to be.

APEC will not be able to resolve that particular problem itself this week or even this year, but if the sense of urgency behind its extraordinary leaders’ meeting translates into action, its impact could be profound.

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

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