Friday’s special virtual APEC summit was so modest in its aims that it was officially referred to only as an “informal leaders’ retreat on COVID-19.” From the outset, host Jacinda Ardern dampened down expectations for the meeting, warning reporters not to expect any significant breakthroughs.
In that respect, New Zealand’s prime minister was right. A joint statement issued after the meeting included vague commitments to accelerate the production and distribution of vaccines. There was also agreement on the need to restore international travel links and strengthen supply chains that had been disrupted by the pandemic.
Perhaps surprisingly, three of the biggest and most powerful APEC members – China, Russia and the United States – already agree that there should be temporary intellectual property waivers for COVID-19 vaccines. But other APEC members such as Japan and South Korea don’t – which explains why the consensus position of the 21 APEC economies at the meeting could only be to “support global vaccine sharing efforts, and encourage the voluntary transfer of vaccine production technologies on mutually agreed terms.”
Still, the success of the special APEC meeting was always the fact that it was being held in the first place.
The meeting added to Ardern’s growing diplomatic reputation as a consensus-builder, a role that she has been gradually developing since becoming prime minister in 2017.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Ardern maintained a busy international travel schedule. One of her first foreign trips in 2017 was to the APEC leaders’ meeting in Vietnam – the last in-person APEC meeting to be attended by both the U.S. and Chinese presidents. Ardern also made a high-profile appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in 2018, when she took her newborn baby with her into the meeting.
Those occasions gave Ardern the chance to make an initial impression on the world stage. But it was her compassionate response to the Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019 and the subsequent Christchurch Call initiative that saw New Zealand’s prime minister truly burnish her diplomatic credentials.
Friday’s special APEC meeting shared some similarities with Ardern’s Christchurch Call strategy. As with the Call’s narrow focus on the removal of terrorist and violent extremist material from the internet, today’s APEC event intentionally limited its focus to the current global challenge of COVID-19.
Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron, the other co-leader of the initiative, have resisted the temptation to turn the Christchurch Call into a general discussion about regulation of the internet – which would immediately create divisions amongst its extremely varied group of signatories. By keeping its narrow focus, the Call’s membership has steadily grown from its original 17, mainly Western supporters. Fifty-five countries from every major world continent are now signatories.
Significantly, the United States signed up to the agreement in May. At the time, Ardern and Macron co-hosted a virtual summit not unlike today’s APEC event – with the high-level participation of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and many other world leaders.
Like the Christchurch Call, today’s special APEC meeting reflected Ardern’s brand of pragmatic, broad-church diplomacy.
In a speech earlier this week, Ardern cited “inclusivity: that all countries in the region can participate” as one of New Zealand’s bedrock values. To that end, the APEC retreat brought Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Joe Biden together on the same video call. That in itself is an achievement.
While the origins of the pandemic have become politicized, the coronavirus response still serves as a unifying common denominator – especially given the current spread of new variants and the slow vaccine rollout for many APEC members. Amidst escalating geopolitical conflict between China and the West, the APEC meeting was in effect a confidence-building exercise. It was a reminder that despite the current heightened tensions, there are some underlying commonalities that everyone can agree on.
It could be the start of something more.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.