Plenty to chew over for region in wake of virtual APEC event

November 15, 2021 | 08:00
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New Zealand was the latest nation to try out virtual conferencing on a massive scale last week when it hosted the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference for 2021.
Plenty to chew over for region in wake of virtual APEC event
President Nguyen Xuan Phuc will attend the 28th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting from November 11-12 at the invitation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Thousands of business leaders from the 21 associated nations attended the two-day summit online for the main panel events as well as extra networking opportunities via a groundbreaking portal of informal hangouts and live meeting rooms.

After issues with hosting the event in Chile in 2019 and Malaysia last year, and despite the Delta coronavirus variant playing havoc with New Zealand’s plans this year, the Pacific island state was determined to see the event through.

Organisers stuck with plans for the event on November 11-12, with the venue at Auckland’s Aotea Centre becoming a live broadcast studio for the fully virtual event.

In all, APEC members account for nearly three billion people and about 60 per cent of global GDP, spanning the Pacific Rim from Chile and Russia to Thailand and Australia.

Many markets are still attempting to escape downturns that hit the region hard last year. Lingering outbreaks of pandemic infections, slow vaccination programmes, and issues with manufacturing and shipping have added to the uncertainty and pushed millions of the region’s most vulnerable people towards poverty.

“Unfortunately, there’s been rising protectionism around the globe and that has made for an incredibly challenging environment for us to be operating in,” said Vangelis Vitalis, chair of the event’s Senior Officials’ Meeting.

Before the event officially began, officials said they made significant progress in over 300 preliminary meetings. In them, APEC members agreed to reduce or eliminate some tariffs and border restrictions for vaccines, masks, and other medical products that were needed to end the pandemic, Vitalis added.

The APEC gathering followed in the shadow of the high-profile G20 summit in Rome and the COP26 summit in Scotland.

At the start of last week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admitted that a virtual event may not make as much of an impact as a traditional version.

“It means our ability to put New Zealand on the world stage isn’t quite what it would have been if we had an in-person event,” Ardern said, although she insisted that it did allow greater participation for business leaders.

Future at stake

On the eve of the summit, it was announced that two major pledges were within reach – making coronavirus vaccines more accessible and reducing carbon emissions.

But it was already clear that deep tensions were inevitable in a group that includes the United States, China, Taiwan, Russia, and Australia. Those tensions have raised questions about who could eventually join a Pacific trade deal, and whether or not the US will get to host a future round of meetings.

New Zealand’s Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor, said that members had committed to continue fighting the pandemic together.

“We all know that nobody is safe until we are all safe,” O’Connor said, noting that 17 APEC members “have either lowered or completely removed tariffs on vaccines and related products, making them easier to access.”

In a joint statement, ministers agreed to accelerate vaccine manufacturing and supply efforts as well as to aid the global sharing of vaccines. They also said they would look further into new methods to ensure people could travel safely within the region in an attempt to boost business, tourism, and also education.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, added that APEC strongly supports global climate commitments.

“We know that there is a role for APEC to play in combating climate change,” she said. “It was for this reason that ministers agreed to send a strong signal on the importance of halting further spending on fossil fuel subsidies.”

Although APEC was almost completely an online affair, PM Ardern met with over 120 youth delegates who were taking part in the forum and who wanted to express that people living in Pacific Rim countries want to see more ambition from leaders when it comes to taking on climate change.

The youth delegates also wanted to see cash offered to a shared fund to prepare for future pandemics and asked that tech companies be held accountable for protecting data and privacy.

“If the world is not ready to take bold action, then the world must be ready for the disastrous results of climate change,” Ardern said in response to the delegates.

Climate change was a key item on the agenda at the summit, which has overlapped COP26 and shines a light on how leaders and businesses might be able to lower emissions and combat global warming.

One such leader is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who highlighted in an APEC address last week the importance of managing climate change to ensure sustainability.

“Our carbon reduction action will require massive investment, thus creating huge market opportunities and room for cooperation. The business communities across Asia-Pacific are warmly welcome to join us in this endeavour,” President Jinping said.

Pacific consensus

President Jinping has other issues on his mind. On Monday he was due to have a rare encounter, albeit virtually, with US counterpart Joe Biden in the aftermath of APEC discussions.

Several political analysts said that Biden would be seeking to alter the course set by his predecessor, who veered away from regional trade deals to focus on internal matters.

However, for now, Biden has yet to reveal his hand when it comes to US-China relations, and is attempting to create new momentum in the region.

Meanwhile, likely to incur more deep discussion is the US offer to host APEC in 2023, which would be the country’s first since Hawaii a decade ago. Thailand is set to host next year.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Mahuta said last week that APEC was founded on consensus and that there was not yet a confirmed host for 2023. “We are hopeful that we will get there,” she said.

The likes of Russia are yet to officially support the US proposal, with the Russians in particular seeking assurances on representation first. China has also neither agreed nor rejected the US offer. Its foreign ministry said APEC is an important forum for economic cooperation in Asia-Pacific. “China will participate in this process of reaching consensus through negotiation,” it said.

By Quang Bao

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