Simon Draper is a business columnist and executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
OPINION: While it’s been a bit of a bumpy start to the year, it’ll probably be no surprise to readers that my optimism has been buoyed by the Government’s announcements of the time frames for reopening New Zealand’s borders.
Border restrictions have helped keep New Zealanders safe over the past two years, but they also continue to take an enormous toll on separated families, as well as our tourism and education industries.
More broadly, I worry that New Zealand’s sense of its neighbourhood is fading, and that we risk losing sight of important developments in Asia that impact us.
In the two decades leading up to the pandemic, New Zealanders’ overall familiarity, knowledge and confidence about Asia grew significantly – helped by increased business ties, growing numbers of immigrants, visitors and students from the region, and the fact many thousands of us jumped on planes to explore Asia.
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But without those face-to-face ties, and time spent on the ground, we risk treading water in our relationships in Asia and our understanding of its region – or even going backwards.
And as New Zealand finds itself at this juncture in its international engagement, the Asia New Zealand Foundation sees an opportunity to reflect on New Zealand’s relationships with Asia.
Some two decades ago, the government spent a year thinking about New Zealand’s future with Asia. At the request of then-prime minister Helen Clark, the Asia New Zealand Foundation initiated a series of workshops dubbed Seriously Asia.
Along with senior guests such as Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong (then the deputy prime minister and now the prime minister), she heard from a wide range of New Zealanders about what they wanted from our relationships across Asia – in the business, cultural, security, arts, sustainable development sectors and other areas.
The project culminated in a whole range of proposals and engagements designed to strengthen New Zealand’s relationships with Asia, involving government agencies, the private sector and non-profits alike.
The wide-ranging outcomes of the Seriously Asia initiative included the decision to significantly grow trade relationships with Asia, educational initiatives and increased Asia-related resourcing in a range of agencies.
In the two decades since, New Zealand’s engagement with Asia has changed dramatically. Partly because we had a plan, and partly because Asia’s rise as the centre of innovation, trade and wealth has outpaced anything we thought likely 20 years ago.
A big driver has also been that New Zealand itself has changed. At the time of the 2001 census, about 7 per cent of New Zealanders identified with at least one Asia ethnicity. This had grown to more than 15 per cent of the population by the 2018 census.
So we are, by choice, a different country. And of course, New Zealand trades with Asia more than it trades with any other region in the world. By a long way.
Yet as much as our relationship with Asia has changed, I continue to be surprised at how hard it is to sell the Asia story. In fact, it is almost getting harder.
It is always a wake-up call to realise how uninterested most people are with what’s happening beyond our shores (this is not, I’d note, unique to New Zealand). People have busy lives, with their jobs, family, the pandemic, interest rates and inflation to worry about. They have limited capacity to engage beyond the immediate. And so the amount of information about Asia getting through seems vanishingly small, even as developments happen that impact our lives.
Asia-related conversations over barbecues almost always focus on China. You might hear one or two negative sound bites people have picked up, but little more than that. Kiwis are better informed on Kim Jong-un’s weight loss than they are about New Zealand’s closest neighbour in Asia: Indonesia and its 274 million people.
The research we’ve done shows that New Zealand’s attitudes towards Asia have trended positive over time, and that we say we want to know more. But that sentiment is not reflected in how we educate New Zealanders, where our media sources come from, or where we put our collective efforts as a country.
What we know, however, is that no matter what New Zealand chooses to do or not do, Asia is going to continue to change apace. Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Korea are charging ahead, Japan is back and China still has a long way to go in its growth path. Others across the region face challenges, but also present a staggering amount of opportunity.
And when it comes to the big issues of the day for New Zealand – climate change, pandemics, human rights, indigenous issues, trade and investment, and the rules-based order – what the countries of Asia do and how they react will be material for New Zealand.
Indeed, even more material than in the past. So what to do?
One thing the Asia New Zealand Foundation is doing in 2022 is revisiting Seriously Asia – to have a look at what we said we would do, and what could be done differently. And most importantly, what should we collectively do in the coming 10-20 years to make sure New Zealand is able to maximise the opportunities and minimise the challenges that all of Asia present for New Zealand?
And while business will be a large part of this, it is not alone. Security, sustainability, innovation, education, people and culture are all going to be a significant part of this, because no sector is going to be unaffected by Asia.
The plan worked well last time, but it’s time for an update.