An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Regional relationships about more than trade

Like many of you, I used the Christmas and New Year break to reflect on the last 12 months – a period that proved again the old axiom that ‘the only constant is change’.

It was instructive for me to look at the columns that generated the most reader reaction in 2017.

The columns you felt motivated to respond to were on: the need for our Asia conversations to expand beyond trade, why tensions in the Korean peninsula matter to New Zealand, the need to recognise the potential of Kiwi children of Asian ethnicity, and the worryingly polarising Asia debate in Australia.

To me, the interest shown in both the importance of expanding our Asia conversation beyond trade, as well as the relevance of tensions in the Korean peninsula to New Zealand, validates the view that New Zealanders can be pretty transactional in our approach to Asia. Selling goods seems to be our key association with the region, which is understandable, but not enough.

People thought I was a bit callous in saying New Zealand’s interests in the DPRK were primarily about trade disruption in the region.  I wasn’t trying to say that.  My own view is history will judge all of us very badly for letting the humanitarian tragedy that is the DPRK exist on our watch’.

We know Asian cultures put a premium on relationships. With that in mind, I have advocated a more mature New Zealand approach — one that fosters building deep relationships and understanding over the long-term, rather than on short-term financial gains.

I do see the correlation between interest in recognising the potential of kids of Asian ethnicity and the need for a more deliberate approach in our engagement with Asia. Countries don’t sleepwalk to their future, they need to shape it.

Based on the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s two reports — ‘Starting Strong: Nurturing the potential of our Asian under-fives’ and ‘Losing momentum: School leavers’ Asia engagement’, there are things we can do to ensure our children are equipped with Asia-related skills and knowledge that will help them thrive in a future where Asia will play an increasingly important global role.

It was encouraging to hear BusinessNZ CEO Kirk Hope reinforce the need for an Asia-competent workforce. However, he was almost a lone voice – and we hope more business leaders will speak up about this need.  At the end of the day, New Zealand businesses will benefit most from an Asia-capable workforce, so their voice should be among the loudest in articulating the need for Asia-related skills.

I have to emphasise that we’re not just talking about China here. There is no question China is hugely relevant to us, but it would be a mistake to make China a shorthand for all of Asia. The cultures, languages, peoples and languages of Asia are so diverse we cannot view Asia as a single entity.  In 2018, we simply have to be more sophisticated than that.

Finally, I was cautiously optimistic to read the wide array of views on the piece about the polarising China debate in Australia. It was reassuring to see readers engage in such a discussion – quite a spirited one in fact.

Understandably, people have varying views – good, as that is part of a healthy democracy. However, I reiterate what I wrote in July about our national conversation on this issue — that it should be done in a rationale and considered way. Personally, I don’t think Twitter is the best forum!

This is a space where the Asia New Zealand Foundation wants to play a part — in creating an environment where diverse views on Asia issues are heard.

We can’t escape the conversation on China’s influence in New Zealand. This and the wider topic of Asia’s rise will play out for some time.

There will be positive and negative aspects to the rise of Asia. What are these and how do we, as a country, maximise the former and minimise the latter?

Countries have been dealing with their changing neighbourhoods for centuries.  For policy wonks, it is exciting stuff.  What is different is that we have had a several-decades-long period of unusual stability in our region which looks like it may be coming to an end. So, there is a ‘new normal’.

The conversation about New Zealand’s relationship with Asia is not one limited to diplomats and ministers, as it used to be. It is a change that will touch all New Zealanders — in schools, in jobs, in their communities, business, education, sports foreign policy, tourism, immigration and any other sector you want to name.

So, it is important stuff and worth all of us taking some time to think about.

This article was originally published by Fairfax Media

23 January 2018