America’s back in the game
President Joe Biden planned to use the historic overnight Apec Leaders’ meeting – hosted virtually from Wellington by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – to stake out his administration’s commitment to multilateralism.
Since the US embarked on an isolationist “America First” path under former President Donald Trump’s regime, it has lost influence in Apec (the 21 economies that form the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group) and within other international forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN’s Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP), where the US Congress had to overrule him to remain a player.
Under the Biden administration, the US has rejoined the WHO, is preparing to play a role in forging the WTO into an organisation that delivers, and has signed up to the UN’s COP26, which will take place in Glasgow between October 31 and November 12.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s participation at the overnight Apec meeting demonstrated US leadership in the Indo-Pacific region and the president’s commitment – the United States’ commitment – to multilateral institutions.
Psaki outlined that as the president’s first engagement with many of the Apec leaders, particularly those in Southeast Asia, he would emphasise the importance he placed on the region, as well as his vision for a free and open IndoPacific.
Biden was also to provide an update to leaders on what the United States is doing to serve as an “arsenal of vaccines” for the region and to support all those suffering from Covid. And he planned to advance an economic agenda promoting shared prosperity, leveraging the region’s economic potential and building inclusive and resilient economies.
This would have been music to Ardern’s ears, as it underlines the emphasis she is bringing to Apec as a stabilising influence in the Asia-Pacific during a time of economic and social dislocation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and rising protectionist forces.
“This is the first time in Apec’s history that leaders have held an extraordinary meeting at leaders’ level, and it reflects our desire to navigate together out of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis,” her formal statement said.
She later reflected to this columnist that so often in leaders’ retreats, what she found of most value were the real-time briefings received from the likes of the IMF and the WHO. But this time Covid-19 would be a very specific focus, as she urged leaders to stay united to fight the virus.
There have been more than 50 million cases of Covid-19 within Apec’s borders, with over a million deaths. The region has registered more than 100,000 new cases every day since November 2020, and during this time more than 22 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty.
Apec-wide GDP contracted by 1.9 per cent in 2020, the biggest fall since WWII. While economic growth is recovering, around 81 million jobs have been lost due to the pandemic.
This underlines the importance of last night’s meeting.
The White House press secretary had earlier jumped the gun on Ardern by announcing that Biden would participate at the summit. Ardern had planned to announce the meeting – the first time an informal Apec leaders’ retreat has been held outside of the formal Apec Leaders’ Meeting which takes place in November – at her 3pm post-Cabinet press conference on Monday. Luckily for her, the parliamentary press gallery gave her the public breathing space to do so domestically.
On Monday, she highlighted that Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin would attend the retreat. But Chinese President Xi Jinping was the obvious missing major player.
Ardern danced on a diplomatic pin when I asked her about this outside Wednesday’s NZ Institute of International Affairs “Standing in the Future” conference in Wellington on Wednesday. She hadn’t seen a full list of participants and imagined it would be provided publicly ahead of the meeting.
It was not until late Thursday (NZT), that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying officially confirmed President Xi’s attendance, saying that at Ardern’s invitation he would attend the Apec Informal Leaders’ Retreat via video conference from Beijing.
“The retreat is held at the initiative of New Zealand, the host of Apec for this year. The theme is: Confronted by Covid-19, what are the opportunities for the Asia-Pacific region to collaborate to move through the health crisis, and to accelerate economic recovery in a manner that lays the foundations for a better future?”, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement.
Notably, there was no public positioning by President Xi ahead of the retreat.
At the Institute of International Affairs conference this week, Kurt Campbell, who is colloquially known as Biden’s “Asia Tsar”, said the United States does not seek a “cold war”. “We do not seek a harmful or deleterious competition with China.” Instead, the US was after a stable relationship where the dominant feature would be competition, but believed much competition focused on technical issues like 5G, artificial intelligence and computer sciences.
China had yet to respond to the reframing of the relationship.
But if Covid can help pull both nations back from the brink, it will be to New Zealand’s betterment.
And a feather in Ardern’s cap, also.
Since the US embarked on an isolationist ‘America First’ path under former President Donald Trump’s regime, it has lost influence in Apec and within other international forums.
Fran O’Sullivan’s analysis of the Apec Leaders’ informal meeting