Damien O'Connor and Grant Robertson have had a whirlwind introduction to some of the most powerful people in global trade and finance.
Kathryn Tai. Name check. Janet Yellen. Ditto. For those not yet up with the Apec play, Tai is the United States Trade Representative and Janet Yellen, US Secretary to the Treasury.
After nearly a year of spinning on what at times must feel like a virtual hamster wheel, both Cabinet Ministers will emerge on first-name terms from New Zealand's Apec hosting year, not just with the key Cabinet Members of the US Administration, but also with key players from Asia-Pacific nations with which New Zealand does major business.
Like China. South Korea. Chile. Australia and more.
As a close Apec observer said "Apec is gold for Cabinet Ministers from a small nation like New Zealand."
There is no way Ministers would normally chalk up visits to 20 countries within 12 months. But on top of the Apec ministerial meetings there have also been virtual bilaterals to advance New Zealand's interests.
The Cabinet Ministers haven't just got to host virtual meetings, as can be seen memorialised in "family photos" on the Apec 2021 website.
O'Connor has got to know Tai well, even detouring to Washington DC to meet her on his way to a G20 trade ministers meeting in May where the invitation also came courtesy of his Apec role.
The readout from that meeting read: "Ambassador Tai and Minister O'Connor discussed the importance of the US-New Zealand trade and investment relationship. Ambassador Tai reaffirmed the United States' strong support for Apec and commitment to working collaboratively with New Zealand as it finalises its Apec host year. Ambassador Tai and Minister O'Connor also discussed their shared commitment to work toward a successful 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation which starts later this month. They also discussed digital trade and the importance of ensuring that trade policies are resilient and inclusive, advancing the needs of workers, consumers, and businesses.
Ambassador Tai reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and and importance of collaboration among those with open, free, democratic systems."
Subsequent comments from some senior US State Department and USTR officials make clear that the work New Zealand has done to advance Apec this year has been accorded high praise.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson has yet to get out of New Zealand — indeed even Wellington — let alone visit international counterparts. But he had a call with Yellen in September.
The readout from that meeting said, "Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen spoke with New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. Secretary Yellen welcomed the ongoing collaboration between Treasury and New Zealand across a range of common priorities, and thanked Deputy Prime Minister Robertson for New Zealand's efforts as host of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) this year. The Secretary looks forward to continuing to strengthen the relationship and to working closely with New Zealand to advance shared interests such as fostering a strong and inclusive recovery from the pandemic."
These statements might appear anodyne. But they contain sufficient diplomatic code to indicate that behind the scenes a significant shift is under way to bolster the WTO as O'Connor has suggested.
More details will have to wait until next week's Apec ministerial meeting.
With Robertson, the readouts he would have received in his recent Apec Finance Ministers' meeting would have underscored his later comment that though economic activity across the region has rebounded and vaccination rates are increasing, managing the complexity of Apec's economies is a significant challenge as members face plenty of headwinds, some of which can be influenced directly through individual and collective actions.
"The pandemic has caused a rapid rise in public debt and demands for new spending continue to grow as we recover. More than ever, we need to use our resources effectively, while implementing structural reforms to lift living standards."
That fiscal headroom is getting tighter. In the year and a half since the global pandemic started the Asia-Pacific economy has undergone an extraordinary decline but is set to post a sharp recovery this year thanks to unprecedented policy support and the remarkable innovation and manufacture of vaccines.
The forecasts will be disclosed in the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council's State of the Region report next week. The Singapore-based Apec secretariat will also release its annual trends analysis on Monday covering regional economic trends and a chapter on climate change, which is topical in view of COP26 and New Zealand's priorities.
Leveraging Apec to build the personal brand and reach of senior ministers has been a deliberate strategy by New Zealand. Getting on a first-name basis with these two powerful women is a coup. The trick is to continue to leverage the dividend from Apec once the cavalcade passes.
• Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) operates as a co-operative, multilateral economic and trade forum. It is the world's only international intergovernmental grouping committed to reducing barriers to trade and investment without requiring its members to enter into legally binding obligations. Apec achieves its goals by promoting dialogue and arriving at decisions on a consensus basis, giving equal weight to the views of all 21 members.