Jacinda Ardern wants to use New Zealand’s time in the diplomatic spotlight to quickly eliminate tariffs on vaccines
Jacinda Ardern wants to use New Zealand’s time in the diplomatic spotlight to quickly eliminate tariffs on vaccines, syringes and other medical supplies, with her nation arguing the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed trade barriers that are potentially damaging to human health.
- The average tariff on vaccines across the Asia-Pacific region is 6 per cent
- Veteran NZ diplomat Vangelis Vitalis says removing tariffs vaccines and related supplies is crucial
- He says it is hoped the tariffs are dropped before the APEC summit in November
The NZ Prime Minister will also demand nations accelerate the passage of life-saving vaccines across international borders.
Ms Ardern is the host leader of this year’s APEC summit, a gathering of 21 Asia-Pacific economies that include Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States.
NZ’s chief APEC negotiator, veteran diplomat Vangelis Vitalis, said the summit would aim to make practical and potentially long-lasting changes to trade cooperation.
“None of us knew that vaccines or syringes had these kind of barriers in place,” Mr Vitalis told journalists at a briefing in Canberra.
“The benefit of APEC is that it can highlight that information and say, ‘Do we think this is a sensible thing to be doing at a time of pandemic.’
Mr Vitalis said the average tariff on vaccines across the Asia-Pacific region was 6 per cent. On syringes it is 20.7 per cent and on masks 8.6 per cent.
Tariffs on refrigerated storage containers for vaccines was 30 per cent on average across the APEC region.
Mr Vitalis said NZ hoped APEC members’ trade ministers would move to eliminate these tariffs when they met next month, ahead of the leaders meeting in November.
Hope leaders are spurred by pandemic
Tariffs are found on surprisingly mundane products, such as soap, with the average tariff across APEC member nations at 27 per cent.
“I’ve never seen our system move so quickly, during that pandemic, when we realized that we had a prime minister who was saying, ‘stay safe by washing your hands’, and we were imposing this additional cost on it.”
Any commitment to drop tariffs would be voluntary only, Mr Vitalis said, but he said a sense of urgency in a pandemic might spur leaders into action.
“This crisis needs to be dealt with now. Hence, this is the power of APEC,” he said.
“It’s the ‘APEC effect’ that says, boy, look at this, this is embarrassing, we’ve got to deal with this.
“And then what we hope is the APEC effect will drive us all not to feel embarrassed about that and actually do something about it.”
APEC ministers will also be asked to drastically reduce the amount of time vaccine supplies is stuck on borders.
Mr Vitalis said while it can take between three and nine days for vaccine supplies to pass customs in some APEC nations, chilled food was moved across borders within six hours, as dictated under the regional free trade agreement, RCEP.
“That’s something that we need to address,” he said.
“As major food producers, Australia, New Zealand, we think that’s a really good thing. But surely we need to be thinking about something similar for vaccines.”
Fossil fuel subsidies also in sight
More challenging will be New Zealand’s intention to use its chairing of APEC to pause fossil fuel subsidies, which Mr Vitalis amounted to $US400 billion and rising.
“So in other words, we cap the quantum of fossil fuel subsidisation that could occur, and then what we hope is that that will trigger the discussions we need to do at APEC over the next 20 years that would drive actual reform through that process.”
In January, just a week after his inauguration, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order for federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies while and instead identify new opportunities for clean energy innovation and deployment.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan said Australia’s priority was removing tariffs on environmental goods and services.
“We have already removed tariffs on medical supplies in response to COVID-19, so we also strongly support this initiative,” he said.
“We will engage constructively with all APEC members on New Zealand’s other priorities for this year’s APEC.”