I have just returned from our Track II (non-official diplomacy) dialogues in two of our current priority countries, Thailand and South Korea, both of which are grappling with significant change.
Thailand Track II
Our Thailand visit overlapped with the crowning of Maha Vajiralongkorn as Thailand’s new King, 50 days after the death of his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The Foundation held its inaugural dialogue with the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok as part of the anniversary of the 60th anniversary of Thailand-New Zealand diplomatic relationship. The dialogue featured sessions on topics like political reform, trade and economic development and regional architecture.
During other meetings in Bangkok, I was particularly struck by the discussions about Thailand’s demography. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that will see its working-age population shrink over the next decade. Analysts are also concerned about the country falling into a middle-income trap.
Korea Track II
In Seoul, we witnessed public protests calling for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal. These were family-friendly protests, quite different to the student protests of the 1980s. Later in the week, Park was impeached by the nation’s National Assembly over accusations she shared classified documents with her long-time confidante Choi Soon-sil.
During my time in Korea I headed out to witness the protests in central Seoul
It was my first visit to South Korea since I was posted there for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the 1990s. Although Seoul has changed considerably since that time, I experienced a sense of deja-vu about some of the issues dominating the news media. When I finished my posting in 1996, the big topics were reforms of the chaebol (family-owned conglomerates like Hyundai and Samsung), the deployment of Patriot (surface-to-air) missiles, political corruption, and North Korea. On this visit, the big issues were the reform of chaebol, the deployment of THAAD (terminal high altitude air defence) missiles, political corruption, and North Korea.
South Korea is concerned about the possible impacts of the Trump presidency – Trump has previously threatened to pull troops. He has also suggested South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons, something it could technically do quite quickly. There are concerns too about a renegotiation of the KORUS FTA agreement with the United States.
Outside of our Track II discussions with the ASAN Institute, I was also able to attend a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the New Zealand-Korea FTA. There was a buzz in the room about what this has achieved for New Zealand business, despite South Korea having some tough economic times. One of the biggest successes has been New Zealand kiwifruit, which previously faced a high tariff in comparison to the competition from Chile.
The year in review
All in all, it’s been an exceptionally busy year for the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Among the personal highlights for me were a meeting of our Honorary Advisers in Malaysia, and visiting China, Indonesia and India as part of the Prime Minister’s business delegations. Former Prime Minister John Key has been a strong supporter of the Foundation and its work. I would like to express our thanks for his years of engagement on Asia issues.
In August, the Foundation held its first activity with Timor Leste, taking 12 young New Zealand leaders to the country for our Timor Talks. This followed our successful “15+15” dialogue with Indonesia’s Habibie Center earlier in the year.
We were also pleased to be able to host a public speaking engagement by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Our research reports – including the India and New Zealand: Growing our Connectivity reportlaunched shortly before John Key’s visit to New Delhi – have supported public conversations about New Zealand’s relationship with Asia.
The Foundation has opened its doors to a wider audience through our popular Asia After Five events. We’ll be continuing these events in 2017 and we plan to expand this initiative to centres beyond Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. We’ve also grown our networks through the education programme, have launched Experience Asia evenings and days to help increase Asia capabilities in our schools, and held our first cultural capability workshop for sports teams travelling to Asia.
The Foundation held its first performing arts tour to Asia for theatre professionals, an initiative that was covered by Thailand newspaper The Nation. Over the course of 2016, we’ve supported some 60 arts and culture projects building links between New Zealand and Asia, as well as more than 20 reporting trips by New Zealand journalists around the region.
We’ve increased our range of business internships in Asia and continued strengthening business links between New Zealand and Southeast Asia through the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative.
We have exciting new initiatives and activities planned for 2017.
Thanks for being part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation family in 2016 and we look forward to working with you next year.