Has the New Zealand government made a diplomatic blunder in converting the APEC summit it is due to host in July to a virtual event?
If it had been delayed and NZ had called a leaders’ summit in November, this country would have had presidents such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the US’s Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping together in Auckland. This would have drawn the global media’s attention to NZ and the country would have been punching above its weight in international diplomacy.
And NZ’s Jacinda Ardern would have been seen truly as a member of the world leadership club.
In bilateral meetings during the summit, Ardern may have succeeded in focussing Biden on the need for a free trade agreement between the US and NZ or with China’s Xi on how to build on the $30bn target for two-way trade.
In hosting APEC in person she may even have been able to influence an armistice in the trade war between the US and China.
APEC could have become a launching pad for global recovery from the Covid pandemic.
As trade expert Charles Finny sees it, the big value of APEC is the senior level interaction and the private discussions that are held on the sidelines.
“None of that can really happen online, in my view”.
Auckland will miss out on hosting the 21 Pacific Rim countries. The summit would have drawn thousands of officials, trade experts and lobbyists to the city, enabling hotels and the hospitality industry to regain some of the economic benefit lost during Covid lockdowns.
Even the senior officials meeting, known as Som, which has been taking place in recent weeks, in other times would have attracted 2000 people to the city.
The question being asked is whether Ardern – in concentrating so heavily on the impact of Covid-19 on the country – has misjudged the potential for real and substantial diplomatic gains coming from the personal interaction with world leaders.
Indeed there is some concern that damaging tensions have been allowed to creep into relations with our closest friend and ally Australia partly through the anti-Covid pandemic. The trans-Tasman bubble has not eventuated, though earlier it had seemed it might begin in March. Australia’s Scott Morrison has indicated he would go ahead with the bubble, but Ardern is still determined to “eliminate” Covid (and she is supported by the majority of New Zealanders).
Earlier the trans-Tasman tension was exacerbated when Export Trade Minister Damien O’Connor advised Australia “to follow us and show more respect” to China and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta suggested NZ could act as mediator between China and Australia.
The bad press those ministers got in Australia was compounded when Ardern’s sidekick on Covid, Chris Hipkins, was reported as saying that Australia, through its deportees to NZ, was sending its garbage back across the Tasman. Ardern had to get on the blower smartly to Morrison to cool things down before spanking her ministers.