I’ve recently returned from my first visit to Asia in over two years; a trip that took in a North Asian and Southeast Asian capital: Seoul and Bangkok – two cities that have been on very different trajectories over recent years.
The objective of this trip was to reconnect in person with a range of stakeholders - including thinktanks, local journalists, Honorary Advisers, academics and commentators - and to demonstrate the Foundation’s interest and engagement in the region after a long period limited to virtual connections.
Along with the Foundation’s senior adviser research Dr James To our first port of call was Seoul, a city I have known well in the past but which has gone through such profound change that it is fundamentally unrecognisable from the place I first visited 30 years ago as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s first Korean language trainee.
While many of the big issues remain largely unchanged – the North Korea situation, gender equality and income inequality to name three - as I wrote in my latest Stuff article, my overriding feeling on seeing the modern, fashionable, exciting international city that Seoul has become is ‘what have we in New Zealand been doing over this period?’ The visit reinforced this sense that New Zealand has been, comparatively, treading water while South Korea surges ahead.
Our visit to South Korea was timely, coinciding with US President Biden’s visit to Seoul, the announcement of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo, and missile testing by the DPRK – all of which framed up our many conversations on South Korea’s economic, social and foreign policy developments.
Compared to South Korea, Thailand felt largely unchanged from past visits. There is a sense that while an entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Southeast Asian nation, the country has been held back in recent years by political instability and military interventions in the democratic process. A case of two steps forward and one (sometimes two) steps back.
Despite this, the mood in Bangkok felt reasonably optimistic. Thailand was getting through the peak of Omicron, enjoying a relatively good economy and the landslide victory of independent opposition supporter Chadchart Sittipunt as the new governor of Bangkok set an upbeat political scene.
Our visit took place just days after the APEC Trade Ministers Meeting in Bangkok, and Thailand signing up as a founding member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), alongside New Zealand and eleven other countries.
A disappointing and slightly concerning trend we noted during our visit to both countries was the limited and out-of-date perception most people we encountered had of New Zealand.
While almost 20 years since the final movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, it still remains the first touchstone most people noted, followed by New Zealand’s old 100% Pure marketing campaign and sheep. The only reasonably recent addition to New Zealand’s international brand is Jacinda Ardern.
Some work will have to be done in this space if we don’t want to be having the same conversations about Lord of the Rings, 100% Pure and sheep in another five, ten or twenty years’ time. While there is considerable effort and investment in the New Zealand Story we are using overseas it is clear there is a long way to go in updating perceptions.
I’d like to thank New Zealand’s Ambassador in South Korea, Philip Turner, and his team at the New Zealand Embassy and Ambassador Jonathan Kings and the team at the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok for all their work in securing an excellent set of calls and for hosting us.
On Monday, the Foundation’s Chair Dame Fran Wilde returned from Singapore where she met with stakeholders and attended key regional defence and security forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue along with the Foundation’s director research and engagement Suzannah Jessep. The event was hosted by Foundation Adviser Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen.
From Singapore, Suz, who is a former Deputy High Commissioner to India, flew to India and is currently visiting Delhi and Mumbai for further engagements. Keep an eye on the website for Suz’s account of the Shangri-La Dialogue and her India visit.
Our Asia Media Centre manager Graeme Acton will be partaking in the East West Centre’s International Media Conference 2022 next month and related events including the EWC International Conference on 1 July. Graeme will be reconnecting with contacts at the East West Centre and promoting the Foundation as well as the AMC, meeting new contacts from across Asia-Pacific media organisations, academia etc. This is the pre-eminent conference of its kind in the region, attracting very high calibre speakers and delegates from across Asia. The conference theme this year is: ”Making Connections in a Zero Trust World”.
I’ll round off this ED Update with a quick mention of the upcoming launch of this year’s Perceptions of Asia survey on 22 June. As key stakeholders of the Foundation we hope you will keep an eye out for the announcement of this year’s data and share with your wider contacts.
Mā te wā