New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta co-chairs the 2021 APEC Ministerial Meeting

Pacific leaders agree on vaccines but not on U.S. hosting regional summit

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Pacific Rim leaders agreed to do all they can to improve access to coronavirus vaccines and reduce carbon emissions, but failed to reach agreement on whether the U.S. should host talks in two years’ time.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping were among those taking part in the online meeting of 21 leaders at the end of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Saturday, which was being hosted virtually by New Zealand.

The focus was on areas in which the unlikely mix of leaders could find common ground. But the failure of the group to endorse a U.S. bid to host APEC in 2023 pointed to the deep divisions that lie just beneath the surface.

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A joint statement by the leaders obtained by The Associated Press before its planned release said APEC believes widespread access to vaccines is a priority.

“Because nobody is safe until everyone is safe, we are determined to ensure extensive immunization of our people against COVID-19 as a global public good,” the statement read.

The APEC leaders said they supported efforts to share vaccines equitably and to expand vaccine manufacture and supply, including through the voluntary transfer of vaccine production technology.

The statement also said APEC supports improving trade in COVID-19 vaccines and related medical products, including through streamlined customs procedures.

The deep rifts between some members of the group were highlighted this week by a warning from Xi against allowing tensions to cause a relapse into a “Cold War” mentality — as well as a behind-the-scenes struggle between the U.S. and Russia.

A Southeast Asian delegate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to publicly discuss the issue, said Russia had refused to support U.S. hosting the gathering unless some of its diplomats are removed from a U.S. blacklist or allowed to enter the U.S. to participate.

The delegate said the U.S. resisted Russia’s demands because issues involving America’s security are considered “non-negotiable.” The delegate added that China had stayed silent on the U.S. offer. U.S. officials also would not comment.

APEC works on a consensus basis so Russia’s objections were enough to derail the U.S. bid, at least for now.

In other areas of agreement, the group emphasized the importance of the World Trade Organization as an arbiter of trade rules. APEC said they wanted to see a pragmatic, multilateral response to COVID-19 at a WTO ministerial meeting later this month.

APEC also said that climate change posed “unprecedented challenges” to the world.

“We acknowledge the need for urgent and concrete action to transition to a climate resilient future global economy and appreciate net zero or carbon neutrality commitments in this regard,” the statement read.

In all, APEC members account for nearly 3 billion people and about 60% of the world’s GDP.

Many countries in Asia face the challenge of balancing Chinese and U.S. influence on the economic and geopolitical fronts.

China claims vast parts of the South China Sea and other areas and has moved to establish a military presence, building islands in some disputed areas as it asserts its claims.

Both Taiwan and China have applied to join a Pacific Rim trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Beijing saying it will block Taiwan’s bid on the basis that the democratically governed island refuses to accept that it’s part of Communist-ruled China.

Officials said they made significant progress during some 340 preliminary meetings. APEC members had agreed to reduce or eliminate many tariffs and border holdups on vaccines, masks and other medical products important to fighting the pandemic.