There are high expectations of Jacinda Ardern as she prepares to lead New Zealand's host year for Apec.
With global economies battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the stakes are high.
But Ardern has relished a concept proposed by Microsoft's Brad Smith that New Zealand — which will host Apec virtually through 2021 — will be a bridge uniting nations across the Asia-Pacific region.
Some 526 business leaders tuned in to their conversation about "Reimagining Apec" in yesterday's closing session of the first virtual Apec CEO Summit hosted from Kuala Lumpur.
The turnout for Ardern was second only to that for Chinese president Xi Jinping, who attracted 986 business leaders to his address on Thursday. Some leaders gave desultory addresses but Ardern had cut-through with her call for Asia-Pacific leaders to focus on "building back better" from a pandemic which would spare no economy.
The Kuala Lumpur Apec is the first major international event to be held virtually.
US President Donald Trump was a fortunate "no show" for the Apec CEO Summit, which was characterised as a series of dialogues.
While the defeated president was still expected to front for the Apec Leaders' Meeting, which was due to get under way around 8pm NZT last night, business leaders tuned into the CEO dialogues were spared another barrage of Trump histrionics.
Trump has yet to concede his defeat by Joe Biden in the recent US presidential elections.
A public speech on "The Future of Trade" from a political leader who has single-handedly done so much to upend the rules-based world trade order in favour of "America First", and ignited a trade war with China, would have landed on many closed ears. That is because Trump is now a lame duck leader and business and political leaders from the 21 member economies in the Pacific Rim know that.
Right now, trade is not the panacea for the economic impact that many nations are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. But it is critical.
Trump can still throw his metaphorical toys out of the cot. But the Apec rhetoric has moved on to contemplating what president-elect Joe Biden will bring to the table.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — who did speak in the CEO Dialogues on Thursday — expects the Biden Administration to include more multilateralists.
"I think that they will be more supportive of the WTO [World Trade Organisation] and of Apec," Lee said. "I am not sure that they will be more keen on throwing the doors wide open, or joining the CPTPP, because that depends on domestic politics too," he said, referring to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which New Zealand is also a member.
With Covid-19 raging in many countries — including the US — it is important that strong political leadership again comes to the fore.
That was the expectation from leaders across business, academia and media, who were surveyed by the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council before this year's Apec Leaders' Meeting.
Political leadership — or more particularly, the lack of it — was also seen as a major risk factor to regional growth by CEO respondents to the Herald's recent Mood of the Boardroom survey.
Lee is an astute player in the Asia-Pacific. His belief is that the United States — under Trump — had not been supportive of trade as a "win-win proposition".
"The attitude of the Trump Administration is that this is a win-lose proposition," Lee told CEOs. He said US trade policies under Trump had weighed on Apec progress in the past few years, which he termed "very slow". It was Trump who pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — later renamed as the CPTPP — in 2017.
When it comes to trade, the regional power balance has shifted. Just a week ago, the world's largest free-trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) — a 15-nation pact organised around Asean but backed by China — was signed.
New Zealand is also an RCEP member.
Xi filled the leadership vacuum at the virtual CEOs summit, saying that globalisation was "irreversible" and rejecting protectionism.
"We will not reverse course or run against historical trend by 'decoupling' or forming a small circle to keep others out," Xi said.
He said China would open up its "super-sized" economy to import more high-quality goods and services and sign free trade pacts with more countries.
Apec traditionally promotes the cause of free and open trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
The leaders' discussions are not public. But the big issue is the impact of the pandemic, which overshadows Apec's traditional agenda of trade, movement of peoples and the integration of economies. A communique is issued after the talks.
Previous Apecs have often been overshadowed by US claims that China was manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage.
But this time round Xi was able to portray China in a different light. This does not, however, mean that other leaders will accept the Xi rhetoric unchallenged.
China has placed restrictions on Australia's exports of beef, wine and barley as an upshot of a diplomatic clash over the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus, among other issues between the two countries.
There are concerns that China has weaponised trade rather than sorting the issues diplomatically.
The dynamics are difficult. But the opportunities for New Zealand leadership are immense.
• The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum brings together 21 Pacific Rim countries, accounting for about 60 per cent of global GDP.