SINGAPORE - The annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will be held online Dec. 4 due to the coronavirus pandemic, an Asian diplomatic source said Friday.
The APEC summit was originally scheduled to be held Nov. 12. But Malaysia, the current chair of the regional forum, has decided to postpone it by about 3 weeks and hold it virtually, according to the source.
The source added that the leaders of the 21 member economies are expected to hold their meetings either during midday hours or in the evening Kuala Lumpur time.
Malaysia is expected to formally announce the date soon.
The host's original plan, drawn up before the pandemic, was for an in-person summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Putrajaya on Nov. 12.
But as the pandemic has made international travel difficult with no end in sight to the global spread of the virus, the country later decided to host the gathering online, according to multiple sources familiar with the plan.
Still, one of the main challenges for Malaysia in organizing a virtual summit would be "how to accommodate leaders across all the time zones," with members spanning several continents, one of the sources said.
APEC, which accounts for about 60 percent of world gross domestic product and about 48 percent of world trade, groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
For Malaysia, the decision to hold the APEC summit this year did not come easy.
According to one diplomatic source, Malaysia had initially wanted to postpone its hosting of the summit until next year.
"Malaysia had wanted to continue its chairmanship into 2021 because the pandemic makes it difficult to do ministers or leaders meetings," the source said.
But New Zealand, which will take over from Malaysia as the next chair of APEC for next year, was not keen on the idea. Thailand, which will chair APEC in 2022, was also unwilling to wait another year, according to the source.
In fact, the source said, New Zealand has already informed member economies that the summit it is due to host next year will be virtual.
As it opts to host an online summit, another challenge facing Malaysia, another source said, will be to negotiate a leaders' declaration "virtually when leaders and their delegates are unable to hold pull-aside meetings and communicate directly in person."
This year marks the end of the "Bogor Goals," agreed upon by APEC leaders in 1994 for the region to achieve free and open trade and investment by 2010 for industrialized economies and by 2020 for its developing member economies.
At this year's summit, the leaders are expected to launch a Post-2020 Vision for the regional forum. Malaysia is in charge of drafting the statement.
APEC trade ministers already met virtually on July 25 and pledged to work to ensure a free flow of essential goods to fight against the pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the global economy.