New Zealand will press the 21 leaders of Apec countries to agree to the free movement of essential medical supplies in a bid to bolster multilateralism and combat rising vaccine nationalism, the country’s foreign minister has told the Financial Times.
Nanaia Mahuta said New Zealand would use its chairmanship of the Apec Forum this year to promote a joint agreement covering the movement of goods, including personal protective equipment, across borders.
“If we can eliminate tariffs, non-tariff barriers, any import restrictions, improve trade facilitation to advance a protocol in that [essential goods] space — that is one very tangible area where we show that not only have we learned from our experience but that we are trying to improve,” said Mahuta.
She said the pandemic highlighted the importance of international collaboration, citing the example of how scientists had worked to fast-track the development of Covid-19 vaccines. It was now vital that governments “lean into multilateralism” and eschew vaccine nationalism to permit the free flow of vaccines to vulnerable countries, Mahuta added.
Governments scrambled to source masks, gloves and other PPE last year as coronavirus outbreaks around the world caused a surge in demand. They are now competing to source Covid-19 vaccines, a trend that prompted Italy to block a vaccine shipment to Australia last month.
Mahuta, the first Maori woman to be appointed foreign minister and a champion of indigenous rights, also said the pandemic had caused governments to reassess their priorities in foreign relations. Human rights were taking priority after a period during which trade and economic growth had dominated the space, she said.
“People want to see their economies getting through challenging times but not to the detriment of certain population groups within their own countries,” she said, calling on governments to pursue a more ethical approach to trade and their economies.
Mahuta said Wellington would continue to speak out on human rights abuses by Beijing, despite concerns it could damage economic relations with its biggest trading partner. The foreign minister last week signed a joint statement with Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, criticising Beijing over reports of human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region, where more than 1m Uyghurs have been detained.
“We have a maturing relationship with China,” Mahuta said. “We respect the fact that they are a significant trading partner for New Zealand. However, on human rights, it is a ‘no surprises’ approach that we take. We are consistent in the way we advocate on issues.”
Wellington has managed to avoid the type of breakdown in bilateral relations with Beijing that Australia has suffered over the past year.
Mahuta played down the prospect of using New Zealand’s chairmanship of Apec to try to broker a detente between the two countries, saying there was a limit to what could be done given that the organisation’s meetings would not be held in person this year because of Covid-19.
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