Pip McLachlan: The year in review

Asia New Zealand Foundation's director engagement and research, Pip Mclachlan, reflects on her first year in the role.

Pip McLachlan speaking to an audience at Victoria University

New Zealanders more Asia savy than they give themselves credit for

The Foundation has existed for over 20 years – our mandate is to equip New Zealanders to thrive in Asia. It’s a big challenge.  A year into my role covering research and engagement, I’ve been struck by how much New Zealanders are hampered by a lack of confidence in engaging with Asia and Asian peoples. 

A few weeks after I started at the Foundation last year, we released our annual Perceptions of Asia and Asian people survey. There was a headline statistic from this report: eight out of ten New Zealanders said that Asia was important to New Zealand in cultural, economic and social terms; however, two-thirds said they knew little or nothing about Asia.

Having been in this job for almost a year, I think New Zealanders are under-rating their knowledge of Asia. Compared to twenty years ago, Asia is a much bigger part of New Zealanders’ lives, be it in the work they do, the people they know, the food they eat. There is an element of ‘the more you know, the less you know’.

 I think New Zealanders are grasping the significance of Asia and its diversity – and are hesitating to claim they know much about it.

Building NZers' confidence with Asia

Europe was usually the destination of choice for Generation Xers, such as myself. This is changing. Over the Christmas lull, we promoted the findings of our #AsiaOE research. Two-thirds of young New Zealanders considering an OE are thinking of Asia as a destination. The Foundation’s Leadership Network includes hundreds of dynamic and talented young(ish) New Zealanders whose interaction with Asia has been life-changing. But there is still a significant number of young New Zealanders who don’t feel confident travelling to Asia – language barriers being seen as a significant obstacle.

We’ve got some more research coming out this year that will help bring this kind of lack of confidence into the light. We’ll be launching this year’s Perceptions of Asia survey next month. We’ve also commissioned research into the ‘Asia-readiness’ of our school leavers, following on from a survey we did in 2013. This will be accompanied by research on the growing numbers of New Zealanders or Asian ethnicity who are under five years old – and what their experiences are like in early childhood. We’re hoping this research will generate some good discussion among New Zealanders – policy-makers, parents, educators, community groups – about what we can be doing to grow young New Zealanders’ confidence to engage with Asia.

We are also looking to broaden out narratives on Asia-related issues in New Zealand. In April, we will be launching case studies on Asian investment in New Zealand – focusing on issues like its longevity and the impact it has had on the wider community. 

No shortage of important issues up for discussion 

Coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I’ve really enjoyed growing our track II, or informal diplomacy, programme. It’s been a very humbling experience working with our international relations experts beyond the hallowed halls of the Ministry. I was already a ‘believer’ in the cause, having seen track II in action during my time at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing.  We were able to have conversations that went beyond the usual dot points.

This past year has included engagement with counterparts in Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea, as well as the ASEAN network of Institutes of Strategic and International Studies. We’ve convened onshore roundtables on the South China Sea and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

There’s certainly no shortage of issues to discuss! The tectonic shifts underway at present mean it’s a particularly significant time for informal diplomacy. We’ll be wrestling with big issues and what they mean for New Zealand’s foreign, trade and security policy. It will be interesting to see how much of Bloomberg’s Pessimist’s Guide to 2017 is relegated to the dustbin of history, and which bits become reality.

A well-acknowledged challenge in track II engagement is growing the ‘gene pool’ of participants.  I’ve learned from my year in the job that this is a difficult nut to crack. We are doing what we can to encourage young New Zealanders to consider postgraduate research on Asia-focused international relations and trade. We have launched postgraduate research grants, with an eye to supporting this research. The first three recipientswere confirmed in December - the next round of grants opened on 1 February, and we are looking forward to getting some strong interest