APEC leaders vow to accelerate equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines

Jul 17, 2021 – 05:27 KYODO NEWS

APEC signage on display during the APEC Informal Leaders’ Retreat at the Majestic Center on July 16, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand. As chair of APEC 2021, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is hosting the informal APEC leaders’ retreat, conducted virtually. (Getty/Kyodo)

SYDNEY – Leaders from 21 Pacific-Rim economies including Japan, the United States and China pledged on Friday to beef up the availability of COVID-19 vaccines to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and to provide the necessary ongoing support for their economies to recover.

“We will only overcome this health emergency by accelerating equitable access to safe, effective, quality-assured and affordable COVID-19 vaccines,” the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said in a statement issued after their informal virtual summit.

Emphasizing the role of extensive immunization as a global public good, they also vowed to “redouble our efforts to expand vaccine manufacture and supply, support global vaccine sharing efforts, and encourage the voluntary transfer of vaccine production technologies on mutually agreed terms.”

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin were among the attendees of the extraordinary meeting hosted by New Zealand, which currently holds the rotating APEC presidency.

During the talks, Suga conveyed Japan’s determination to hold a “safe and secure” Olympics from next week by taking all necessary measures to stem coronavirus infections, a senior government official said.

With regard to global efforts to ensure fair access to coronavirus vaccines, Suga stressed Japan has been working to provide millions of doses to other countries and regions through such channels as the U.N.-backed COVAX global vaccine sharing program.

The prime minister also expressed Japan’s continued commitment to expanding a “free and fair” economic bloc in the Asia-Pacific region, the official said.

Biden said the United States is a Pacific nation and will remain “deeply engaged in the region for generations to come,” according to the White House. His remarks came after his predecessor Donald Trump faced criticism for snubbing key Asia-Pacific meetings and pursuing a unilateralist “America First” agenda.

The United States is donating more than half a billion vaccine doses to more than 100 countries in need around the world, Biden said. He noted the importance of “not attaching any political or economic conditions to the provision of vaccines,” apparently in mind of countries such as China and Russia that are thought to be using so-called vaccine diplomacy as a way to boost their clout.

The informal meeting among the world leaders appears to have raised a strong expectation for desired outcomes to be realized before an official summit in the fall, including lower tariffs on vaccines moving across borders and an accelerated digitization of border paperwork to achieve widespread vaccine access.

“We have collective agreement to move beyond vaccine nationalism and we are focusing on all aspects of contributing to the global vaccination effort,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a press conference.

“Each of the economies will need to chart our own paths through the crisis, but none of us are alone, nor can we achieve the full potential of safe and healthy economies by going alone,” she stressed.

In the statement, the APEC leaders also vowed to continue to support their economies “for as long as necessary,” citing the historic significance of the fiscal stimulus already provided to cushion the adverse impacts of the pandemic.

APEC economies, which represent about 60 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, have suffered their biggest contraction since World War II over the past year, with 81 million jobs lost, according to Ardern.

The APEC leaders also touched on the importance of pushing for collaborative and practical solutions to safely reconnect the world, discussing the potential for initiatives such as vaccine passports, travel green lanes and quarantine-free travel bubbles.

Meanwhile, Xi in his remarks stressed the importance of promoting the liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment, calling for removing barriers, Xinhua News Agency reported.

“We must remove barriers, not erect walls. We must open up, not close off. We must seek integration, not decoupling,” Xi was quoted as saying.

The informal summit took place amid increasing U.S.-China rivalry, but Ardern dispelled notions that there was any tension between Biden and Xi, saying it “wasn’t an issue that I had to navigate as chair at all.”

Ardern declined to comment on questions regarding the role of APEC economies in countering China’s rising assertiveness in the Taiwan Strait, stating that security issues were not a topic of discussion.

The meeting, held ahead of a formal gathering planned for November, was the first additional summit meeting APEC has ever held since its founding in 1989.

APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.