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SOM 1 is as much of a ballet as it is a cluster of meetings.
Vangelis Vitalis choreographs a show involving
21 economies, 1500 officials and 73 meetings.

SOM 1: Where hard work begins,
after coffee

The Asia-Pacific’s senior officials have their first formal meeting of the year this week.

Supported by as many as 1500 policymakers, business leaders and experts, Senior Officials’ Meeting One – known as SOM 1 – is a weeks-long cluster of meetings for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). It began on February 18, and concludes with a meeting of all senior officials on March 12.  

There will be three Senior Officials’ Meeting clusters throughout 2021. They will lay the ground work for ministers’ meetings, track progress and be the forum where officials bring to life the declarations and directives from the region's leaders and ministers. Each of the three clusters involves not one, but dozens of meetings.

The language is chunky and acronyms spill across the many pages of material. For seasoned New Zealand diplomat and trade negotiator Vangelis Vitalis, this is all familiar territory.

As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Deputy Secretary, Trade and Economic, Mr Vitalis has a lengthy CV listing roles like “chief negotiator”, “representative to the World Trade Organisation”, and “ambassador”. On top of that he’s a father, husband, fisherman, and longstanding (and suffering) supporter of the Wellington Phoenix Football Club.

This year, he adds a new title to that CV: APEC 2021 Senior Officials’ Meeting chair. 

Vangelis Vitalis: Husband, father, football aficionado, fisherman, and the SOM chair for APEC 2021.

In a world of acronyms, briefing papers, and meetings at unsociable hours, Mr Vitalis explains what his role is and why these meetings are so important for New Zealand and the entire Asia-Pacific region.

“They are the peak moment for senior officials to get together,” he starts off. Then a smile appears.

“Let's be honest with each other. Watching the meeting is not the All Blacks versus Australia, and it's not even the Wellington Phoenix versus Sydney FC,” he says, referring to his favourite sport teams. “It's a little slower paced, but nevertheless this meeting does perform a really important function.”

At SOM 1 this year, work will begin to plan how APEC will achieve the recently signed Putrajaya Vision 2040. Senior officials must agree on how the vision will be implemented in time for Leaders’ Week in November. It’s crucial work that, once agreed, will be delivered over two decades – driving prosperity through innovation, sustainable and inclusive growth, and trade and investment.

This lynchpin of the vision is referred to simply as the “Implementation Plan”.

In a region of 3 billion people, those working on this vision hope its effects will be life-changing.

And it all begins at SOM 1.

Mr Vitalis says as far as meetings go, “it’s definitely not just another day at the coalface”.

It starts with coffee

Each SOM meeting will begin at either 3pm or 12am New Zealand time and run for four hours, though many will go over time. By the time he takes his seat in a blacked-out room in front of a screen of delegates, Mr Vitalis will have spent days and many hours reading material to prepare for the meeting.

He says the preparation is critical - he doesn’t take the role for granted. It’s not one where you can “somehow skate along”.

Before a meeting, Mr Vitalis’ calendar will have blocks of meetings with senior counterparts in other APEC economies to hear their views and discuss the work ahead. There are papers and reports to read, planning and thinking to do.

And the half hour before the meeting? Nothing.

Immediately before a meeting, Mr Vitalis will walk through central Wellington to a café where he can be on his own.

“I like to take half an hour where I don't read anything to do with the meeting. I need to clear my head and calm the nerves.”

Over a single shot of espresso, Mr Vitalis will read something unrelated to what he’s going to be talking about. “And then I have to confess that I do watch a highlights reel of the Wellington Phoenix games of the previous weekend.”

He admits sometimes they are not so much highlights. “They can sometimes be a little bit depressing, but it does help me not think about the meeting.”

He says it’s that short moment of disconnection, and the single-shot espresso, that get him energised for the hours ahead.

When he sits in front of the camera Mr Vitalis will be running on the adrenaline of the meeting. Regardless of the time “it's the working with colleagues, listening to interesting ideas, and being able to work with that energy that you get from your colleagues who are working across multiple time zones themselves, that definitely helps carry me through”.

Crunch time

There are two reasons why these Senior Officials’ Meetings – starting with SOM 1 and its 73 meetings – are so important, Mr Vitalis says.

First, they allow New Zealand to hear from the other 20 economies, about “what's on their mind in terms of the big substantive agenda items that we've got to deal with this year”.

Secondly they are where officials discuss and focus in on the sheer volume of work they have to deliver through 2021, and how they deliver the Implementation Plan the Putrajaya Vision depends on.

“That Implementation Plan will be a 20-year programme of work for APEC, so it's an opportunity for New Zealand to inform and shape what this looks like. But we absolutely don't do that on our own.”

Mr Vitalis says he will be working with his colleagues across the Asia-Pacific, listening to what they think needs to be in that Implementation Plan, what New Zealand should be doing to monitor progress, which bits need to be tweaked, which bits need a little bit more work, “and which bits, frankly, they don't want to see in there at all”.

As that work continues, there are myriad working parties and groups meeting under the umbrella of Senior Officials’ Meetings.

“That ranges from the digital work, through to the sustainability and inclusion work, women's economic empowerment, and of course, the vital work of economic structural reform which involves finance officials, to food security agenda for agricultural officials … so there's that very large group of meetings across a wide range of issues that happen.

“That then gets fed into that Senior Officials’ Meeting, which I chair, and we then try to bring the threads together.

“But the key thing that we've got to do is to monitor and track that progress.”

It’s a mammoth task, Mr Vitalis says.

“There is a responsibility to make sure that you're fully consulting with all of your colleagues in the other 20 economies and that's a really important function that gets fulfilled by these sort of meetings. I take this consultative and listening part of the role very seriously

“If we didn't have those meetings, we'd have to invent some other process by which we could check in with our colleagues.  That monitoring and listening function is really important, I think, not just for us as chair to hear views of others, but also for others to feed their views to us.”

The delicate dance of chairing

With so much to discuss, and having to deliver an agenda that will shape the Asia-Pacific for the next 20 years, Mr Vitalis will be busy as chair. The role will be challenging, requires focus and preparation.

“I am very excited. I'm actually very honoured to do the role, but I am also, if I'm honest, quite daunted as well by the responsibility.

“It is a challenging prospect to be working with 20 other economies - both major and smaller economies across the region - and to have that responsibility on me.

“And this is a crucial moment for our region and this valuable institution that we all care about deeply as a driver of economic and trade growth, jobs, income, innovation, regional integration and cooperation.”

He will have to facilitate and broker compromises. Being chair also involves being fair, and consistent throughout, regardless of whether the economy is big or small. And being chair means not preferencing the New Zealand view. Everyone, he says, must be treated fairly and equally.

“I am very committed to that notion of fairness and being consistent in how I engage with all – and I do mean all – of my counterparts regardless of the size of their economy,” he says.

New Zealand has a responsibility to deliver substantive outcomes, and also a meaningful response to the pandemic. “That responsibility certainly weighs heavily on me, but even more so is the thought that we are, together, writing the Implementation Plan for our region for the next 20 years for this very, very important institution,” Mr Vitalis says.

“So, in addition to feeling excited, and daunted. I also feel the weight of that responsibility very heavily on my shoulders, but it is one I'm very much looking forward to.”

The measure of success

The ultimate yard stick for APEC 2021 will be delivering the Implementation Plan that delivers the Putrajaya Vision for the next 20 years. 

There is a web of other actions that will also contribute to the success of the year, Mr Vitalis says. He rattles off priorities - responding to Covid-19, supporting the WTO, sustainability and inclusion, addressing the climate challenge, and also looking at what the “explosion” in the digital economy will mean for economies.

The measure of success will come from producing concrete actions that can in turn produce meaningful benefits.

There’s a personal measure of success Mr Vitalis is aiming for too. He wants his colleagues – the senior officials from all 21 economies – to feel like they were all heard and consulted - fairly, “that there was no fear or favour whether you were a large economy, or a small one like ours”.

“We are confronting some of the biggest challenges that we've seen in generations. And it's not just the health impact of Covid, but also the economic effects.

“I am really committed to delivering a set of outcomes that all 21 of us can look at and say, ‘Yes, together we made a difference here in a crucial year for the region’.”