The digital culmination of Aotearoa’s APEC host year may be overshadowed by in-person climate talks in Glasgow, but there is still plenty for NZ to be proud of – and much at stake in the final week of talks, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: It may seem odd to feel envious of Glasgow, but the officials responsible for New Zealand’s hosting of APEC could be forgiven for casting a jealous eye towards the wet and windy Scottish city this week.

The COP26 climate change summit is dominating global headlines and offering a glimpse of what an in-person event could have looked like here, with world leaders and celebrities strutting around and the eyes of the world drawn to proceedings.

In contrast, the low-key vibe of the APEC host year seems set to endure when the final meetings take place this week, while the digital format has had some shortcomings despite best efforts; “I’m on mute – the APEC motto!”, quipped Kiwi diplomat Vangelis Vitalis after forgetting to turn on his microphone at a media briefing on Friday.

Of course, the decision in mid-2020 to pivot to a digital event seemed wise at the time and doubly so now, as Auckland – which would have served as the main location for talks – continues to battle its Covid-19 outbreak. 

That will not stop diplomats from wistfully wondering what might have been, had the pandemic not stepped all over New Zealand’s hosting plans.

But taking those constraints into consideration, there is good reason to regard the year as by and large a success.

APEC Secretariat executive director Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria perhaps put it best on Friday: “As we have learned the hard way something is lost without travel, without the face-to-face conversations and the chance encounters.

“But Vangelis and his team have not only done so much to make our virtual meeting spaces hospitable and enjoyable, they have also paved what in my mind is the best path possible towards sustainable, digitally-enabled and inclusive recovery.”

“It’s easy to forget that only 18 months ago, many economies across the region were imposing export restrictions – they were preventing the export of face masks, of medical equipment, of syringes, of Covid-19 testing kits to one another.”
– Vangelis Vitalis, APEC officials chair

The pandemic response has been front and centre, and Vitalis (serving as APEC senior officials’ meeting chair) expressed particular pride in the way APEC economies had moved beyond warm platitudes to tangible outcomes.

“What we were trying to do this year, and I don’t mean just New Zealand, I think that 21 of us knew this was not the time for warm words or rhetoric, this was the time for actual action, to actually do something.”

A June commitment between trade ministers to speed up the flow of Covid vaccines and other essentials across the border had borne fruit, while 17 of the 21 economies had either reduced or eliminated outright tariffs on those items.

“It’s easy to forget that only 18 months ago, many economies across the region were imposing export restrictions – they were preventing the export of face masks, of medical equipment, of syringes, of Covid-19 testing kits to one another,” Vitalis said.

“I am really proud that this year, trade ministers said, ‘that needs to stop’… None of us has introduced any new export restrictions since that commitment was made at trade ministers’ level.”

There has been progress beyond Covid: officials have been updating the APEC list of environmental goods which attract lower duties and working to create a new list of environmental services which should receive the same benefits, while the rights of indigenous communities and women have received particular emphasis.

The largest piece of work facing APEC leaders is putting the finishing touches on an implementation plan for the “Putrajaya Vision” agreed to in 2020, a high-level outline of the organisation’s priorities for the next two decades.

“We are working on a set of individual and collective actions that will be measurable, that will be concrete, and that will be dynamic: in other words, this will be a living document that we will be able to review every five years to ensure that it genuinely is fit for purpose for our region,” Vitalis said.

APEC senior officials’ meeting chair Vangelis Vitalis says New Zealand’s host year has delivered not just warm words but tangible results. Photo: Supplied.

If Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can oversee agreement on that, as well as a clear articulation of what lessons the world should take from the Covid response within the Asia-Pacific region, she can probably consider her late night well spent (the leaders’ meeting will not wrap up until the wee hours of Saturday morning).

Unfortunately, Ardern won’t benefit from valuable face-time with world leaders in the way an APEC host usually does, instead speaking to Chinese President Xi Jinping (among others) in a pre-meeting phone call last week.

A New Zealand read-out of the conversation said Ardern and Xi “acknowledged the significance” of China’s bid to join the CPTPP trade deal, but Taiwan is set to use the APEC stage to make its own case for CPTPP membership, creating the potential for some awkwardness.

Several American Chambers of Commerce have urged US President Joe Biden to himself make a CPTPP entry bid at the leaders’ meeting, but that seems optimistic to say the least given Biden has plenty of domestic preoccupations and has shown no obvious urge to come back to the trade table.

Simply securing a solid contribution from both Biden and Xi would be useful, after the Chinese leader offered up only a pre-recorded speech at the informal leaders’ retreat in July.

New Zealand’s host year has itself brought a welcome solidity back to APEC, after the last few years were disrupted by Great Power tensions, domestic unrest in host countries and the Covid pandemic.

“We are in a good position to take the lead in turning what we’ve gone through into opportunities to build back more resilient and sustainable,” Sta Maria said. 

“Covid-19 has been a tragedy for millions, it would be even more so if we let its lessons go to waste.”

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

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