Pacific Rim leaders agree to step up COVID vaccine sharing

Leaders of Asian Pacific nations agreed on Friday to step up COVID-19 vaccination sharing efforts as China said it has pledged $3 billion in international aid to support coronavirus response efforts in developing countries.

The virtual retreat for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders included U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Russian President Vladimir Putin, gathering at a moment when the delta variant is spurring a spike in infections around the globe.

“There were two things that came through very strongly from the leaders. One was that this pandemic has a while to run and that there is significant work by all of us to be done, and it needs to look beyond our domestic borders,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who hosted the informal retreat. “The second strong theme was agreement and acceptance … that this will not be the last pandemic we experience and that preparedness is critical.”

Xi told leaders in their private session that Beijing would spend $3 billion on helping poorer countries’ COVID-19 response over the next three years, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. China reports it has provided more than 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to other developing countries.

Vaccine sharing has proved to be a divisive issue among members of a forum that says its primary goal is to support sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Biden administration has fallen short on its goal of delivering 80 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the rest of the world by the end of June as a host of logistical and regulatory hurdles slowed the pace of U.S. efforts.

Taiwan, an APEC member that China claims as a renegade territory, has accused Beijing of tying the delivery of coronavirus vaccines to political demands. The government of the self-ruled island says China has intervened to block vaccine deliveries to Taiwan from fellow APEC members Japan and the United States.

China has accused Australia of interfering in the rollout of Chinese vaccines in former Australian colony Papua New Guinea. Both Australia and Papua New Guinea are also APEC members.

The leaders also pledged to move forward on taking action to lower costly tariffs that complicate the movement of vaccines across borders ahead of APEC’s meeting set for November. Vials, syringes and packaging frequently face significant tariffs, what Ardern described as “a very real problem that APEC economies have the ability to remove.”

Biden had planned to use the retreat to talk to leaders about his administration’s efforts to serve “as an arsenal of vaccines to the world” and how members of the alliance can collaborate to bolster the global economy, according to a senior Biden administration who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The U.S. has shipped more than 53 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to more than 30 countries and territories, with plans to ship at least 30 million more as soon as recipient countries sort out regulatory and logistical hurdles. They mark the Biden administration’s down payment on a plan to buy and donate 500 million more doses for the world over the coming year.

The U.S. has donated 4.5 million vaccine doses to Indonesia, 2 million to Vietnam and 1 million to Malaysia, and 3.2 million doses will soon be delivered to the Philippines. The White House says donations to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea will soon be delivered. Laos and Cambodia are the only countries among those eight vaccine recipients that are not APEC members.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the “important meeting” came at a critical time as the world is facing a resurgence in COVID-19 infection numbers and international cooperation against the pandemic had entered a new stage.

“We hope all parties can uphold the vision of an Asia-Pacific community with a shared future, carry forward the Asia-Pacific partnership, send a positive message of fighting the coronavirus with solidarity and deepen economic recovery and cooperation,” Zhao said.

APEC nations lost more than 80 million jobs during the pandemic as the global economy lilted amid restrictions and lockdowns.

Biden spoke by phone with Ardern on Friday ahead of the leaders’ retreat and discussed U.S. interest in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region, according to the White House.

The Biden administration has put a premium on tending to relations with allies in the Pacific early in his administration.

One of his first high-profile acts of diplomacy as president was hosting a virtual summit with fellow leaders of the Quad — Australia, India and Japan — a group central to his efforts to counter China’s growing military and economic power. And he hosted Suga and South Korea President Moon Jae-in for the first in-person foreign leader meetings of his presidency. South Korea is a APEC member, and India is the only country in the Quad that is not.

Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.