‘Can you take yourself off mute’: Diplomacy in the time of Covid

The 28th floor of the Majestic Centre provides spectacular views of the capital from Wellington’s tallest building, but until a few weeks ago, visitors would usually find management training courses or an investment fund presentation.

Now the space is the heart of Apec 2021, the annual summit of 21 Pacific rim economies where officials and politicians spend countless hours in meetings working to advance their trade interests.

Once upon a time Apec was expected to draw thousands of officials, trade experts and lobbyists to Auckland, filling hotels and causing gridlock when the motorcades of world leaders sailed into town for the annual summit.

Even the senior officials meeting – known as Som, which has been taking place in recent weeks – would typically attract 2000 people to the host city.

With the onset of Covid, Apec 2020 host Malaysia was forced to immediately begin hosting meetings virtually.

New Zealand has followed suit, but rather than a hastily arranged video call, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has spent months preparing a professional venue with a series of meeting rooms, with different backgrounds and designs.

A heavy schedule of meetings takes place early morning or late at night, to counter the fact that different economies are operating across many time zones.

But Apec is not entirely without the problems which countless workers have faced in their own workplaces.

In the opening press conference, the executive director of Apec’s secretariat, Singapore-based Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, had to be interrupted by host Jehan Casinader for making the mistake the millions of others have become familiar with over the last year.

“Dr Sta Maria, can you please take yourself off mute?”

Earlier, Andrea Smith, MFAT’s deputy secretary, took a tour of the new Apec meeting rooms, run over a secure Microsoft Teams platform.

Delegates were being encouraged to break off for smaller informal meetings to try to replicate what would ordinarily take place through chance encounters on the sidelines of international meetings.

But Smith said the reason delegates were unable to meet acted as a unifying factor.

“Many of the people who are coming into them are actually in lockdown in their economy,” Smith said, with some officials taking part in the meetings from their homes, sometimes on their phones.

“It acts as a unifying reason to come together and a sense of common purpose.”

Vangelis Vitalis, New Zealand’s top trade official who has been chair of the senior officials meetings in recent weeks, said the context for this year’s event was one where the assumptions of global integration were in doubt, with existing problems exacerbated by Covid-19.

“This has been the sharpest spike in protectionism since the establishment of the World Trade Organisation,” Vitalis said.

As well as setting out an action plan to implement the Putrajaya Vision, an aspirational one-page document stemming from Malaysia’s Apec, Vitalis outlined New Zealand’s priorities around improving inclusion of women and indigenous communities in the economy.

Another “pressing and vital” priority was movement towards co-operation around goods and services related to responding to Covid-19, not only around direct tariffs, but also co-operation to enable the movement of vaccines and associated equipment to move quickly across borders.

“It is a depressing, objective fact that across our region, many economies impose tariffs, even on vaccines,” Vitalis said, with tariffs on vaccines of 6 per cent in some economies, 20 per cent on syringes, and 30 per cent on the cooling boxes used to store vaccines.

“We are imposing cost on our economies and on our people,” Vitalis said, “when we’re … meant to be trying to fight the pandemic.”

All of the Apec officials talked up the benefits of the online meetings.

Vitalis said while 2000 people would have ordinarily come to New Zealand for this month’s meetings, nearly 3000 took part in the virtual meetings.

Rather than a “sprawling” series of meetings in person, each session had been limited to three hours, with countdown clocks used to prevent delegates talking too long.

Delegates, he said, had shown a willingness to talk beyond the prepared statements which can bog down diplomatic events. “I’ve been struck by how willing people have been to interact.”

For media, the implications are mixed. Major summits usually provide an unusual level of informal access with senior figures and even chance meetings with world leaders.

Smith said that on one level, the virtual conference improved access for the media, with far larger numbers of journalists from around the region signing into the virtual press conferences. But as for future access for New Zealand media to leaders: “we’re still working on that”.

Others involved in the periphery said while it was clear Apec 2021 benefited from the experience of Covid now being a year old, there was no way around the fact that video calls will never be able to match face-to-face meetings, even among professional diplomats.

Stephen Jacobi, a former diplomat who advises New Zealand’s members of Apec’s business advisory council – who has visited every one of the 21 member economies of Apec – said New Zealand had developed an impressive platform and meeting schedule.

“I’m not going to lie and say there haven’t been some dull moments in any of the meetings,” Jacobi said, but he was impressed by the schedule of meetings, giving officials the chance to attend what they needed to around their day-to-day work.

But he acknowledged that it was hard to build a rapport with counterparts online, in particular when there were language difficulties.

“Video is fine when you’re dealing with people you already know, which by and large we are. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become.”

Former diplomat and trade negotiator Charles Finny said summits like Apec offered the chance for senior leaders and officials to build confidence in each other.

“The big value of Apec is that senior-level interaction and the private discussions that go on on the sidelines,” Finny said. “None of that can really happen online, in my view.”

Finny said that all diplomacy was affected by Covid, recalling the situation faced by diplomats when New Zealand went into lockdown in early 2020. Those with experience were fine, but those without existing networks were not.

“The ones that had been here for three years and had a network of contacts were able to operate just fine, but for those who had just arrived, it was terrible. Breaking through [without meeting] is very, very difficult.”

But Finny said that even when widespread international travel resumes, and face-to-face diplomacy is more common, the same scale does not need to return.

In the past it was not uncommon for delegations negotiating trade deals to consist of only five to 10 people, but in recent years it was not uncommon for this to swell 50.

It is “clearly overkill” for 10,000 people to travel for an Apec leaders conference, especially when it was clear that much of the day-to-day work can be maintained by video.

“If this can lead to some more discipline over the size of delegations, that would be a really good thing.”

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