Jacinda Ardern is proposing to invite major Asia-Pacific leaders together for an informal Apec meeting in July to chart a regional pathway out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are big issues for leaders and their nations — or "economies" in Apec parlance — as the Asia-Pacific gears up for a full resumption of international trade and travel.
Vaccine programmes are now under way within the 21 Apec member nations. But big questions persist: Can agreement be reached among leaders to facilitate the export of vaccines instead of putting up protectionist measures like the EU? What is the conditionality about opening up the movement of peoples between countries? Will the Apec business travel card be accepted with a requisite vaccine, or, not? Will "essential workers" get priority? If so, what defines "essential"? And should Apec's list of essential goods — medicines and the like — simply be expanded and certified digitally?
This is just a snapshot of the plethora of near-term challenges confronting a region which is preparing to come out of what will be by July essentially an 18-month lockdown.
Ardern will be looking to this informal Apec meeting to send a signal, possibly even a declaration, that leaders are ready to make a meaningful joint response on Covid.
On her guest list will be powerful world leaders like US President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore), Scott Morrison (Australia ) and Justin Trudeau (Canada), and leaders of other Apec member economies: Brunei Darussalam; Chile; Hong Kong, Indonesia; Japan; Republic of Korea; Malaysia; Mexico; Papua New Guinea; Peru; The Philippines; Singapore; Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. It is a big responsibility for the 40-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister. She may be the youngest of the "Apec Leaders' Club" but Ardern has international cachet which stretches well beyond New Zealand's borders. Which is just as well given the task ahead of her — and New Zealand — to pump back relevance, energy and momentum into an organisation which has come close to becoming moribund at leaders' level and has struggled to gain traction in recent years.
The timing for the informal three-hour meeting has yet to be locked in. Like everything else in New Zealand's year of hosting multiple Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings it will be held virtually.
It is Ardern's hope — and that of her relevant Cabinet ministers Grant Robertson (Finance), Nanaia Mahuta (Foreign Affairs), Damien O'Connor (Trade) and senior officials like foreign ministry deputy secretaries Vangelis Vitalis and Andrea Smith — that New Zealand, in its hosting year, can leverage Apec to inject dynamism into the regional trade agenda where resistance has been building against economic integration and instead reverting towards onshoring, and, keeping supply chains open and flexible.
This is all overshadowed by the geo-strategic rivalry between the United States and China where leaders need to modify their positions if the multilateralist agenda is to be reimagined and strengthened.
Putting the lipstick back on Apec is no easy task.
It is one of the few international fora — outside of the WTO and UN-associated institutions — where New Zealand leaders can rub shoulders on an equal basis with powerful international political leaders and play a defining role.
Take a look back at the last three years to get some insight into the magnitude of the task ahead of Ardern: In 2018, Papua New Guinea's biggest ever international event was a washout, dominated by friction between the US and China. There was no consensus on trade and leaders failed to issue their usual joint communiqué.
In 2019, Chile cancelled its Santiago summit due to widespread anti-government protests. When the baton passed to Malaysia last year, the Covid pandemic intervened resulting in a late switch to hold Apec virtually. Malaysia also struggled to produce a meaningful consensus but leaders did pledge their support for an open, dynamic, resilient and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040.
A declaration on essential goods — a list of goods that can be traded without falling foul of tariffs and other protections — was agreed. It is notably very similar to the one signed between New Zealand and Singapore six months earlier.
It is important to recognise that agreements formed at Apec are non-binding. This is both a strength — in that it enables rivals like the US and China — to reach commonality without being held to a legal agreement; and a weakness if leaders decide not to play ball.
NZ's highly-rated officials do see Apec as an incubator of good ideas. In 2021, many of those ideas will no doubt have a Kiwi origin.
Top of mind will be to keep the agenda moving forward towards freer and open trade within Apec economies ultimately resulting in FTAAP — the proposed free trade agreement of the Asia Pacific which has long been a goal.
But more immediately questions like how trade and climate change intersect; how the World Trade Organisation will regain its mojo and what to do about digital trade given the policy faultlines that have emerged between China, Russia and the US will also come into play.
New Zealand has to write an implementation plan for the Apec Putrajaya Vision which was endorsed in Malaysia last year. The acid will come on to Vitalis and his Apec senior officials group which has been meeting virtually this week (from all 21 economies) to hash out a plan for endorsement by leaders in November.
New Zealand's Abac group (Apec Business Advisory Council) members have been providing sterling leadership via Rachel Taulelei and her team ensuring business does challenge officials and leaders to lift the level of ambition around nailing outcomes.
Fundamentally, Apec is a long game. It is New Zealand's challenge to give it a very big nudge.
We may not get to have a personal gawk at Biden, Xi, and Putin when the November meeting comes round, but if New Zealand can inject a new sense of purpose within Apec it will be a race well run.