Ahead of APEC last year, New Zealand’s top trade diplomat Vangelis Vitalis spoke to Sam Sachdeva about keeping inhospitable hours, managing Great Power tensions and steering the Asia-Pacific through Covid-19.

Even with a face mask on, there is no mistaking Vangelis Vitalis as he strides through the lobby of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – thanks largely to his distinctive, gravity-defying hair.

MFAT’s deputy secretary for trade and economic issues shows up slightly late for his interview with Newsroom, deeply apologetic but with a jam-packed schedule that more than justifies the tardiness.

Free trade talks with the European Union (where he is serving as New Zealand’s chief negotiator) meant a 2am finish the night before, followed by an early wake-up for yet more negotiations, in this case the final stages of a trade deal with the United Kingdom.

Sleep deprivation has also come hand in hand with another crucial role he occupies, as the chair of senior officials’ meetings for New Zealand’s APEC host year.

When proceedings wrap up at the APEC leaders’ week in early November, about 350 official meetings will have taken place, with the virtual nature of proceedings meaning Kiwi officials and politicians have shouldered a “heavy burden” in accommodating 11 different time zones.

“Most of the meetings that I’ve chaired have been from midnight onwards: the temptation to put them at a more human hour for New Zealand, which would have been a terrible hour for people in the Americas, the Russians, and indeed most of the Asia Pacific was at times huge, right?

“Like, your fifth night in a row at 3am, you start to think ‘Well, you know, maybe I should change that’, and we haven’t done that, because I don’t think that’s right.”

That sense of fairness has driven the approach of New Zealand officials throughout its host year, Vitalis says, along with a “huge amount of responsibility for the institution” which provides the ecosystem, standards and guidelines which build confidence across the Asia-Pacific.

“That confers a tremendous, in a way a privilege, but a real responsibility on New Zealand that, you know, don’t break this thing – this thing has really delivered for the region, for our economy, in ways we sometimes don’t appreciate until we’re actually embedded in it.”

That sense of responsibility has been heightened by what Vitalis describes as the human catastrophe caused by Covid-19, with APEC economies suffering over a million deaths from the virus since the pandemic’s outset.

Avoiding ‘warm rhetoric’, managing Great Power tension

As part of efforts to deliver real action rather than “warm rhetoric” alone, trade ministers agreed in June to speed up the movement of Covid vaccines and other medical essentials across borders, while also applying best practice customs guidelines and embedding the less onerous digital approaches developed in the heat of the crisis.

Vitalis says those changes are already making a difference, with ‘green lanes’ being set up for medical equipment that was previously taking days to pass through borders and head towards the frontlines of the response.

A voluntary agreement to review tariffs on vaccines and related goods, while short of the more binding commitment New Zealand was seeking, also appears to be bearing fruit. While APEC members will officially report back on their efforts by the end of the year, Vitalis says a range of nations have at least temporarily lifted border charges on vaccines, protective equipment and other essentials.

But despite that work, there is still a significant disparity in vaccination rollouts across the region. An August trends analysis from APEC’s policy support unit said vaccination rates across members ranged from a high of 148 doses per 100 residents, to as low as one dose per 100.

The same report ​​noted “economies with faster vaccination rollouts coupled with sustained fiscal support measures are generally expected to recover faster and stronger” – raising the stakes of uneven distribution.

APEC isn’t the World Health Organisation and “can’t make pronouncements about where vaccines should go”, Vitalis says, but he does believe its work on trade measures can help to reduce those stark inequities.

Another important step was an agreement to support World Trade Organisation talks for a waiver of intellectual property rights which some have argued are making it harder for poorer countries to fund a vaccine rollout.

“Sometimes I need to say to one or other of those bigger economies, ‘Look, I understand your concern, I understand your sincerity, but the majority of the membership’s over here, we’re going to need to find a solution that’s going to work for you and is going to work for the wider membership’. And I’ve had to do that with the United States, with China, with the Russians, with all of the big players.”

Sending that signal was made considerably easier by the United States’ somewhat surprising decision to back a TRIPS waiver, part of the Biden administration’s efforts to undo the damage done to America’s reputation by his predecessor.

Vitalis says all 20 other APEC members have welcomed the “structured, much more predictable United States” on show so far this year, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ pitch last month to host the forum in 2023 a sign of its commitment to the organisation.

But Great Power tensions have still been on display as officials and politicians try to thrash out consensus on complex issues, putting the onus on Vitalis and other meeting chairs from New Zealand to find a way through that works for nations both big and small.

“Sometimes I need to say to one or other of those bigger economies, ‘Look, I understand your concern, I understand your sincerity, but the majority of the membership’s over here, we’re going to need to find a solution that’s going to work for you and is going to work for the wider membership’.

“And I’ve had to do that with the United States, with China, with the Russians, with all of the big players.”

While one might assume that task is made easier by the voluntary nature of APEC agreements, rather than the legally binding rules of free trade agreements, Vitalis is struck by the seriousness with which members take the talks.

And compared with the elasticity of FTA negotiations, which often stretch out over years, the tight time frames of political meetings in an APEC year act as “a very powerful discipline” for officials to put aside their objections and reach a deal.

The practicalities of having those informal conversations and pull-asides in an online environment is another matter.

Vitalis praises his IT and security colleagues for delivering “an experience as close as possible to meeting in person”, but the reality of not having everyone in the same room has been a complication.

“If you were in the room together, as chair, you might say, ‘Look, can I have a short break? And I’d like to speak to delegation X and delegation Y just over here’ – that’s much harder to do in a virtual setting.”

Vangelis Vitalis performs a hongi with Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta, after she presented him with a pounamu in recognition of his role as APEC senior officials’ meeting chair. Photo: Supplied

That spontaneity has had to be replaced with significant preparation. Vitalis pays particular tribute to Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor, who held bilateral meetings with each APEC trade minister – some more than once – at what were “terrible hours for him”.

“That was the secret of the success of the trade ministers’ meeting: people could see you’re serious if the minister is getting up at 11 o’clock at night, 12 o’clock at night to meet with delegation X to talk about, ‘So what are your priorities? Let me understand them’.”

While the pandemic response has been at the forefront in APEC talks, there are other important pieces of work: refreshing the organisation’s list of environmental goods which attract lower duties at the border, pushing for a voluntary standstill on fossil fuel subsidies, and taking climate change into greater account when undertaking structural economic reform, to name just a few.

Perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle to be completed is an implementation plan for the ‘Putrajaya Vision’ agreed last year (essentially a high-level outline of APEC’s priorities through to 2040).

“How do we translate this vision into a plan for the 21 of us over the next 20 years? What does that look like? What kind of living document can we produce that is crisp, clear, measurable and has got various milestones [and reviews] … that discipline of checking in and quantifying progress, I think is going to be a very important part of it.”

Vitalis has spent almost 30 years in the diplomatic space, working for the OECD and serving as New Zealand’s ambassador to the European Union and its permanent representative at the World Trade Organisation.

So where does APEC rank on his list of career highlights?

“This is easily number one – easily. I mean, ask me at the end of the year, but no question.”

Yes, he admits it has been bittersweet not being able to physically hold the event in New Zealand, but that can’t overshadow the significance of the year, and his role in it.

“I’m a genuinely big believer in the public good dimension of APEC, I think it’s a really important thing. And so for me, it’s without question the most exciting thing that I’ve done.”

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

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