As COVID-19 spread around the world, a question was asked: Can diplomacy work over a webcam?
By Vangelis Vitalis, APEC 2021 Senior Officials' Meeting Chair, and New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Deputy Secretary, Trade and Economic.
New Zealand is hosting Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2021. Three years of planning went into producing a physical event that would have brought 20,000 people to New Zealand.
By mid-2020 it was anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic might stop a handful of economies from attending, and work began on introducing a virtual aspect to the meetings so economies that couldn’t travel could still take part. Those plans quickly became the foundation for the first ever fully virtual APEC, with New Zealand announcing in July that the entire year would take place virtually.
COVID-19 forced our economy, APEC’s second-smallest by GDP, to rewrite our script and become one of the guinea pigs for digital diplomacy.
Why not postpone APEC 2021 and wait for things to get better? The work facing our 21 economies was too important to shelve.
Instead, New Zealand worked with Malaysia, which became the trailblazer for virtual APEC meetings when it made the shift online partway through its 2020 host year. They generously shared their lessons with New Zealand, and it has been up to us to build on them.
Across the year, New Zealand will host hundreds of meetings with thousands of delegates. Many will be happening at the same time, and it is up to us as hosts to ensure the right people are in the right meetings, that they are engaged, that the process is seamless, and that they still get that sense of New Zealand.
While physical APEC meetings tend to run for 2-3 days at six hours a day, and that can be hard going in a virtual environment. So a lot of work has gone into structuring our meetings, and bringing them down to manageable three-hour blocks.
We’re using digital technology in innovative ways, aiming to replicate the experiences and personal connections that APEC delegates, Ministers and Leaders encounter in a physical hosting year. This includes making time and virtual space available for in-person and small group discussions, and using digital content to welcome, host and farewell our guests and to showcase Aotearoa’s landscape and dynamic economy.
Hosting virtually has also allowed us to be more inclusive in our engagement – widening our reach to include a range of experts and stakeholders who might not ordinarily be able to travel and attend APEC meetings in an in-person host year.
Despite the pressure of having less than 6 months to restructure, regroup and embark down a fully virtual path, there was a collective drive to make it work – because it had to work. APEC’s primary goal is to support sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, to help turn policy initiatives into concrete results and tangible benefits for the region. This work is more important than ever as we respond to the challenges of COVID-19.
This year APEC is working on a regional response to COVID-19; including measures to allow medical supplies and vaccines to be easily traded across borders, and to ensure key supply routes remain open.
And as a forum, APEC must think about not only the short-term response to COVID-19, but also a sustained and sustainable long-term response.
That long-term thinking is reflected in the work that will contribute to APEC’s agenda for the next two decades.
Last year, APEC Leaders adopted the Putrajaya Vision 2040, which will become a 20-year roadmap – a living document that will change and evolve with the region. Officials from all 21 economies are now working on a plan that will bring it to life by outlining the concrete steps economies will take towards fulfilment of the Vision. It is crucial work that will help drive prosperity through innovation, sustainable and inclusive growth, and trade and investment.
As APEC 2021 progresses, so will our work to improve what we do and how we do it.
Can diplomacy take place through a webcam? Absolutely.
Will virtual meetings replace physical meetings altogether? It’s unlikely – however, they open a door to the possibility of a hybrid physical-and-virtual model which is more inclusive, and more environmentally sustainable.
As host of APEC 2021 it is on New Zealand to create an environment where people can join, work and grow together; to facilitate, build and advance relationships between economies, and turn policy initiatives into tangible results.
This is a crucial moment for our region and this valuable institution that we all care about deeply. It is a driver of economic and trade growth, jobs, income, innovation, regional integration and cooperation.
As host of APEC 2021 it is our job to not only support this important work, but to contribute to a long legacy in a way that makes APEC strong, more resilient, and even better prepared for whatever the future holds.
This article was first published by Diplomat Magazine.