As New Zealand hosts a special APEC summit on pandemics, world leaders tune in.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and other world leaders will gather digitally for the Asia-Pacific trade organisation APEC, seeking concerted action to manage the COVID-19 epidemic and its economic consequences.

The current Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation host, New Zealand, said this week that it will chair the extraordinary meeting ahead of a formal assembly in November, the first time such an extra meeting has been conducted.

The summit emphasises rising worries about COVID-19, which is rampaging throughout the area and threatening countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Australia.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stressed the importance of the 21-economy group working together to navigate a way out of the pandemic in a call with Biden ahead of the meeting.

But tensions among APEC members – mostly notably between the West and China over the origins of the coronavirus, trade, Xinjiang and South China Sea – could yet upend the agenda.

A senior Biden administration official said the president will use the forum to demonstrate his commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“As one of the first opportunities he has to engage with many of these leaders, he will make clear that the U.S. has an enduring commitment to the region. He will put forward a vision for the region that is based on our values,” said the official.

Biden will also discuss how the region can work together to fuel the global economic recovery.

The meeting will include an ‘interactive’ Q&A session where leaders can ask questions or make comments, a format that is unusual for APEC leaders, where events are usually scripted.

“We expect a dynamic and interactive discussion among leaders. That is the intention of such a meeting,” said a regional diplomat. “We hope through this leaders’ meeting there will be a more concrete programme for mitigating the pandemic.”

The grouping includes the world’s three largest economies and impoverished nations such as Papua New Guinea, as well as members at vastly different points in the COVID-19 cycle, providing further challenges for building consensus.

That consensus model of APEC has been tested in recent years, with the group unable to agree on a communique at their 2018 meeting in Papua New Guinea, driven by differences between the United States led by former President Donald Trump, and China.

Protests forced the cancellation of the 2019 APEC conference in Chile, while the one in Malaysia last year was postponed as authorities scrambled to organise a virtual gathering as the epidemic gripped the world.

In June, APEC trade ministers promised to examine trade barriers and accelerate the cross-border transit of COVID-19 vaccines and related commodities, but fell short of New Zealand’s need for a comprehensive commitment to eliminate tariffs.

Within APEC’s boundaries, there have been approximately 50 million instances of COVID-19, with over one million fatalities. In 2020, APEC’s GDP will have decreased by 1.9 percent.


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