Apec ministers say free trade key to Covid-19 pandemic recovery

New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said there was overarching agreement on the need to avoid erecting trade barriers in response to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Pacific Rim trade and foreign ministers agreed at a virtual summit on Wednesday (Nov 10) that free trade and open economies will drive the region's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Ministers from the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) group met online to discuss their Covid-19 response ahead of a meeting of national leaders on Saturday (Nov 13), including US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor, hosting the meeting, said highlights included a plan to voluntarily freeze fossil fuel subsidies and commitments to liberalise tariffs on vaccines and other pandemic medical supplies.

He added that there was overarching agreement on the need to avoid erecting trade barriers in response to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

"It is free, fair and open trade that will help economies move forward out of this pandemic... we need openness to drive global growth, indeed it is trade that presents the solution to our challenges," he said.

"Some 81 million jobs have been lost across the region due to Covid-19 and the impact on supply chains has been significant, but Apec members have rejected protectionism during this crisis."

Apec's 21 member economies collectively account for almost 40 per cent of the world's population and around 60 per cent of the global economy.

The summit was originally slated to be held in Auckland, but is being held online for a second time due to Covid-19 after Malaysia hosted it virtually in 2020.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week conceded "it means our ability to put New Zealand on the world stage isn't quite what it would have been".

But she said the digital platform was easier to access than an in-person event, making participation easier for all concerned.

That allowed Ms Ardern to call an unprecedented early leaders' meeting in July, which carried out much of the heavy lifting on agreements surrounding international trade in vaccines and medical equipment.

Ministers and representatives at the virtual Apec Ministerial Meeting. PHOTO: APEC NEW ZEALAND 2021

When Apec leaders meet again early on Saturday (New Zealand time), topics will include how to reopen borders without spreading the virus, ensuring an equitable pandemic recovery and moving towards a carbon-free economy.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said Apec members had agreed to send a strong message about halting any increase in fossil fuel subsidies.

"These subsidies cost our economies billions of dollars a year, but the real impact is on our environment," she added.

The issue was highlighted at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, where the heads of 91 major global companies called for their elimination.

Debate on the virtual sidelines of the summit will be dominated by bids from China and Taiwan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership - a huge 11-nation free trade pact.

Beijing, which lays claim to Taiwan, would oppose any recognition of the island nation while Australia is unwilling to allow China into the grouping amid a festering trade dispute.

The United States will also be keen to use the event to reaffirm its commitment to trade in the Indo-Pacific after years of protectionist policies under former president Donald Trump.

Washington has offered to host Apec in 2023 after Thailand takes its turn next year, although the US bid is yet to be confirmed.

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