I was a participant in Apec’s Voices of the Future in 2012, held in Vladivostok, in Russia’s far east. The world looked considerably different back then.
Hu Jintao addressed the CEO Summit as President of China, Hillary Clinton gave a speech as US Secretary of State, on behalf of then-President Obama who was campaigning for the upcoming election, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was part of an education panel discussion, before having to depart early after of the death of her father.
As a New Zealand Voices of the Future delegate, I spent time with Prime Minister Sir John Key just ahead of his bilateral with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the two were set to discuss the free trade agreement between New Zealand and Russia (negotiations were suspended in 2014).
Key spoke candidly about what it was like to represent New Zealand, a small economy, as an equal at the Apec table and engage with the world’s most powerful leaders.
Of course, one of the highlights of travelling to Apec was the cultural immersion and the people I met.
Russia went all out hosting Apec — US$21 billion was spent getting the city ready for the summit, vodka and caviar were prominent features at networking events, and a US$9 million firework display at the closing ceremony was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen.
At the summit’s gala dinner, I was introduced to the father of one of the Russian Voices of the Future participants. He was surrounded by bodyguards, and, unbeknown to me, was the Russian Energy minister.
I gave him my last remaining gift from NZ — an Ecoya candle. In exchange, he reached into his jacket pocket and handed me a large gold coin, minted to commemorate the new 1800km-long gas pipeline to Vladivostok.
Fast-forward nine years and it is NZ’s turn to host Apec. Things look so different now, with the pandemic requiring the summit to be delivered live over a virtual platform.
This year, I am the content producer for the Apec CEO Summit, as well as MC for the Voices of the Future programme. While the pandemic has meant attendees miss out on a visit to New Zealand, technological developments allow them to still experience NZ’s characteristic values of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga — a shared sense of humanity and connectedness — and work together on the issues that matter to them.
In 2012, when I helped write a declaration to Apec leaders on the issues we were most concerned about as future leaders, I was nominated by my peers to present our work, which was broadcast live on Russian TV. I spoke about the opportunity for SMEs to transform the economy of the Apec region, and encouraged leaders to support smaller organisations to grow. While the process of writing the declaration was a good one, I doubt Putin ever saw it.
This year feels like the dawn of a new era, in many ways, in digital diplomacy. As Apec chair, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will spend time next week with Voices of the Future delegates, receiving their declaration and hearing what matters to them, ahead of her meeting with leaders of the 21 Apec economies.
It is the next generation, after all, who are the biggest stakeholders in the work that Apec is doing.