Pacific Rim leaders including US President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping began virtual talks Friday to discuss urgent joint action against the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
The unprecedented online talks involving heads of state from the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group was called at short notice by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern is scheduled to host the annual summit of APEC leaders in November but said the extraordinary circumstances created by COVID-19 meant some issues needed immediate attention.
“It’s a unique opportunity to get APEC leaders together to discuss how we get our region through the health crisis and accelerate economic recovery,” she said ahead of the meeting, which began at 11pm (1100 GMT).
Ardern said better cross-border cooperation was needed as the world battles fast-spreading virus variants and an economic shock not seen since World War II.
“Responding collectively is vital to accelerate the economic recovery for the region,” she said.
The White House said in the lead-up to the talks that the United States intended to serve “as an arsenal of vaccines for the region”.
US officials also said it would be Biden’s first chance to meet many of the APEC leaders since he took office, allowing him to underline Washington’s broad goal for “a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
APEC nations collectively account for 60 percent of global GDP, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australia’s Scott Morrison among those attending the virtual meeting.
But most attention will be on whether Biden and Xi can set aside the rivalries of an increasingly fraught US-China relationship to cooperate on Ardern’s agenda.
Washington has accused Beijing of lacking transparency about the origins of the pandemic, adding to existing tensions on issues such as trade tariffs and the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Ardern has signalled she wants greater powers for the World Health Organisation, as well as the establishment of cross-border systems to rapidly identify and respond to future pandemics.
The New Zealand leader has also pushed for improved vaccine cooperation internationally, arguing that runaway outbreaks of the Delta variant in Thailand and Indonesia show why it is a mistake for countries to simply prioritise inoculating their own populations.
A key plank of Ardern’s plan is increased resources for the Covax programme, which was set up to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines but has struggled to secure enough doses for low-income nations.
As this year’s APEC host, she has already ordered officials to work on expediting the trade of COVID-19 vaccines and medical material across the region.
But Ardern this week played down expectations of major announcements from Friday’s meeting, saying it was primarily an opportunity to bring leaders together to collectively discuss current challenges.