US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, will have a rare virtual encounter this week, as they gather online with other Pacific Rim leaders to chart a path to recovery from the crisis brought on by the pandemic.
New Zealand is hosting this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, which will culminate in a leaders’ meeting on Saturday. The continuing outbreak of the coronavirus and associated travel restrictions have limited the meeting to the virtual realm for the second straight year.
As always, the 21 APEC members will seek areas where members can cooperate in reducing barriers to trade and economic development, rather than trying to settle long-standing disputes.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, host of the leader’s meeting, said in a statement the focus would be on “charting a path to recovery from this once-in-a-century crisis”.
In total, APEC members account for about 3 billion people and account for about 60% of the world’s GDP. They are widespread from Thailand to Australia, from the Pacific Rim, Chile to Russia.
Officials say they have made significant progress during about 340 preliminary meetings.
Vangelis Vitalis, chairman of the meeting of senior officials, said APEC members have agreed to reduce or eliminate a number of tariffs and limit holdups on vaccines, masks and other medical products, which are critical to fighting the coronavirus.
But great power friction is the inevitable backdrop for APEC’s closed-door summits, which include both Hong Kong and Taiwan in addition to communist-ruled mainland China as an economic forum.
Taiwan and China have both applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade grouping that Beijing has said will block Taiwan’s bid on the grounds that the democratically governed island it Refuses to accept that it is part of China.
Stephen Hodley, an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, said Biden wants to reverse the course set by predecessor Donald Trump, who rejected regional trade deals with his America First foreign policy approach.
Since Biden took office, Washington has shifted back to a more internationalist approach to trade liberalization, supporting global and regional efforts such as the rule-making World Trade Organization.
However, Biden has kept most of the trade, technology and investment restrictions that Trump has imposed on Chinese exports and companies, while also moving to counter Beijing’s sway in the region.
One such effort is a recently concluded new defense agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, which raised eyebrows because it did not involve New Zealand or other US allies. The development of nuclear submarines is a major part of the new defense regime, and New Zealand has a longstanding nuclear-free policy.
Hodley said the Sino-US rivalry can also be seen in the way the region is described, with China calling it the Asia-Pacific and the US switching to calling it the Indo-Pacific years ago, to counter India’s democratic rivalry. which is not a member of APEC.
In addition to all-time ongoing geopolitical tensions, the pandemic has increased uncertainty in a region that has long been seen as a vital engine of global growth.
Many economies are still struggling to emerge from the recession, which hit the sector hard in 2020, halting travel and many other activities. Prolonged outbreaks of COVID-19 infections, slow progress in vaccination, and other disruptions in both manufacturing and shipping have added to the uncertainty and pulled millions of the region’s most vulnerable people back into poverty.
“Unfortunately, protectionism is also on the rise around the world, and it has also created an incredibly challenging environment for us to work in,” Vitalis said during a media briefing.
He said there are areas of common ground, including improving environmental sustainability and increasing the untapped potential of indigenous groups.
New Zealand’s Trade Minister Damian O’Connor said on Tuesday that APEC should send a powerful message to the world ahead of the World Trade Organization meeting.
“We are facing the biggest economic shock in 75 years. We know trade will be a strong driver in our recovery. We cannot afford to divert our attention away from the institution that has underpinned APEC’s work since its inception. Can,” O’Connor said.
Prior to the Chief Leaders meeting, APEC will host a Youth Summit and its usual CEO Summit with leaders’ addresses and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney’s keynote address. Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will talk about how the pandemic has changed the world.
The pandemic APEC meetings lack the pomp and glamor of past individual gatherings. No fancy shirts or gala balls. New Zealand decided to go to the virtual summit last year. Malaysia also opted to host the 2020 APEC leader’s meeting online due to the pandemic.