Superpower rivalries were never far from the surface during Friday night’s APEC Covid summit.
The summit. presided over by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern from a customised TV studio high above Wellington’s Willis Street brought in 21 leaders via audio-visual to discuss the Covid pandemic.
But Ardern clearly had her hands full trying to contain the rivalries between the US, Russian and Chinese Presidents.
This was the first time the current three had been together (albeit virtually) at an international summit.
Russia’s President Putin promoted his country’s Sputnik 1 vaccine; Chinese President Xi unveiled a $3 billion Covid fund while USA President Biden, in a not-too-subtle poke at Xi, talked about his commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. (A geographic description which China rejects.)
Despite this, the chair, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, claimed in her post-summit press conference that there was “no tension”.
What Ardern did not tell journalists at the (very) early Saturday morning press conference was that President Xi — despite an earlier statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry — was not actually there even though the APEC official “family photo” showed him as being there.
In fact, his contribution was a pre-recorded video.
Putin was there, virtually, speaking from his official residence in west Moscow.
He said the priority was to increase the scale of vaccination.
And he had an offer to make.
“I would like to point out that four coronavirus vaccines have been created and are being used in Russia,” he said.
“All of them are safe and reliable.
“The high quality of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, has been confirmed in nearly 70 countries, which have officially approved its use for vaccination.”
What Putin did not mention was that Sputnik V is expensive, and Russia is charging for it.
It costs $US 9.75, or $US 19.50 for full vaccination, which is higher than $US 6.75 per dose for Pfizer, $US 3 per dose for AstraZeneca, or $US 10 for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Last month President Biden announced the United States would purchase half a billion new doses of Pfizer vaccines and donate them to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries.
The White House official “readout” of Biden’s comments to the summit (which was closed to media) says the President made clear that the United States was donating its vaccines, not selling them, and “underscored the importance of not attaching any political or economic conditions to the provision of vaccines.”
The Biden administration has also moved to support a South African – Indian proposal to temporarily relax the IP protection on Covid vaccines.
However, a handful of mostly rich nations that are home to pharmaceutical companies, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, Brazil and European Union members, have rejected the idea.
New Zealand supports the waiver. So does China.
“China supports waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and will work with other parties to push for an early decision by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international institutions,” Xi said in his message,
“There was discussion on the issue of waivers and many countries speaking in support of that, and you’ll see that APEC trade ministers supported taking that issue to the WTO and continuing to pursue that,” Ardern said in her post-summit press conference.
China also announced that it was going to give $US3 billion to Covid-affected countries.
China has been calling for closer international cooperation on vaccines to ensure that they are accessible and affordable in developing countries and that they become a global public good<” said President Xi.
“Overcoming the challenges of its own mass vaccination program, China has provided more than 500 million doses of vaccines to other developing countries and will provide another 3 billion US dollars in international aid over the next three years to support COVID-19 response and economic and social recovery in other developing countries.”
The Biden administration plans to donate 500 million Pfizer Covid vaccine doses to nearly 100 countries over the next two years, according to Reuters.
The United States is likely to distribute 200 million shots this year and another 300 million in the first half of next year to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union, it said.
The donations will go through the COVAX vaccine program that distributes COVID-19 shots to low- and middle-income countries. The program is led by the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the summit that it more APEC members should donate to COVAX.
“Countries whose vaccination programs are ahead should make their excess vaccine supplies available to others,” he said.
“Thus, Singapore intends to donate our vaccines under the Covax initiative to other countries.”
Singapore has also worked to develop a Digital Economic Partnership Agreement with New Zealand and Chile.
“We should cooperate on new areas of economic growth,” said Lee.
“Covid-19 has already accelerated the switch to a digital economy.
“Singapore has piloted digital economy agreements with like-minded economies New Zealand, Chile, Australia.
“These digital economy agreements align rules and standards and foster cross-border digital interoperability.”
New Zealand has approached this agreement much as it approached the formation of the Comprehensive Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, which it pioneered with the same partners along with Brunei in 2005.
The argument in Wellington is that it is most effective to build an agreement from a small base of like-minded countries and then expand out to the larger countries.
But last week, Bloomberg reported that the Biden administration was considering a digital trade agreement covering Indo-Pacific economies as the US sought ways to check China’s influence in the region.
Speaking to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs last Wednesday, White House Asia advisor, Kurt Campbell, appeared to confirm the speculation.
“We underscore and understand the theory that trade is the lifeblood of Asia and that countries in the region are looking to the United States to have an open, engaged and optimistic stance with respect to trade in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.
“I’ve said publicly before that we are exploring a lot of different things, but it’s still early days.
“I think one of those things is some engagement on digital.
“It’s too early to talk about details.”
If the US does try to lead an agreement in the region, it will present a challenge, particularly to Singapore and New Zealand, which have both tried to steer a middle course between the US and China.
President Xi’s comments to the summit suggested that it would be unlikely to support a US-led regional digital initiative.
“The global digital economy is an open and close-knit entity. Win-win cooperation is the only right way forward, while a closed-door policy, exclusion, confrontation and division would only lead to a dead-end,” he said.
“We need to ensure full and balanced implementation of the APEC Internet and Digital Economy Roadmap, further develop digital infrastructure, facilitate the dissemination and application of new technologies, and work for a digital business environment that is open, fair and non-discriminatory.”
Bloomberg, who broke the story about the Biden proposing a digital agreement for the Indo-Pacific, asked a question about it at Ardern’s virtual press conference on Saturday morning.
“I want to ask you about the possibility of a digital trade agreement for the Indo-Pacific area and the interest of the Biden administration in such a deal, whether this is something that was discussed and where there may be synergies or opportunities with a digital trade agreement to strengthen collaboration and integration in the region, including on solutions for the pandemic and for the health crisis,” Bloomberg correspondent, Eric Martin asked.
Ardern’s acknowledged that the matter had been discussed by the leaders but suggested that it was not a case of APEC countries joining a US agreement but rather the US joining an APEC agreement.
“On my call this morning with President Biden, I acknowledged that some of that architecture already exists for which we would welcome the chance to bring the United States into those agreements, which have a very high standard,” she said.
Because the Trump administration did not really engage with multi-lateral groupings like APEC, the return of an assertive US administration will come as something of a jolt to the APEC members.
That the UIS has returned to face a more assertive China only increases the pressure on small countries like New Zealand and Singapore trying to find a space between the two superpowers.