Opinion & Analysis

NZ's Relationship with Asia

Simon Draper is the departing executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.

OPINION:  By the time this article is published I would have finished the best job I’ve ever had and be off on some new adventure, I hope.

I came to the Asia New Zealand Foundation because when running New Zealand's UN Security Council campaign, I was intrigued that most of New Zealand's quality UN support came from Asia. 

I was keen to better understand what it is about New Zealand that is interesting to Asia, and after nearly eight years in this role I think I have a partial answer. 

But I also have a lot more questions about New Zealand itself.  

I started my diplomatic career in Asia as the first Korean language trainee for the Government in the early 1990s, when New Zealanders talked about North Asia, South-East Asia and South Asia – well that has changed.

One of the first things that I realised in this role is that New Zealanders now just talk about Asia, when they actually just mean China. China dominates all of the Asia conversations despite New Zealand having long and extensive relationships with a range of Asia countries like Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Singapore and India.

I find it worrying too that these relationships are almost exclusively talked about in terms of money and trade. Well, Asian countries didn’t vote for New Zealand because of the size of our economy.

New Zealand is increasingly a country where if you can’t measure something, it has little value. So those ‘soft’ things like genuine connectivity through a range of real people to people interactions are regarded as superfluous to relationships.

I think that’s misguided, and at times it’s been strange for me to be the dinosaur in the room talking about relationships having ‘ballast’, ‘many threads to take up strain’, etc when it was clear tourist numbers and export dollars are the sole indicators when we collectively assess a relationship.

This helps to explain why for example Asian language departments in New Zealand universities are closing, despite the fact as a country we will need more Asian language proficiency not less.

Talking with a lot of New Zealanders in a wide range of fields we do know that Asia is going to have more impact on Aotearoa than any other region in the coming 20 to 30 years, even more than it has in the last 20 to 30 years. Just about every dataset I have seen points that way.

I am also confident that what we have done in the past is not going to be sufficient as regards engagement with Asia in the coming decades.

So, if you sense some frustration in my voice, you’d be right. But you should also hear some optimism. A great pleasure of this job has been getting outside the Auckland and Wellington bubbles and into the regions meeting young people. Young people will be the key for New Zealand's engagement in Asia, whether those in positions of power help them or not.

Asia is now the number one travel destination for young New Zealanders. The soft power of gaming, movies, social media, food, language, and sports means young people are learning about Asia in new and interesting ways.

Secondly, New Zealand has a higher proportion of citizens of Asian origin that any other OECD country – this diaspora has skills, knowledge and connections back into Asia that will help non-Asian New Zealanders engage with Asia. I can only see that connectivity growing stronger.

Simon Draper has been with the Asia New Zealand Foundation since 2016/ image ANZF

Thirdly, our research shows Māori have an ‘edge’ in engaging with Asia – the cultural connectivity between Māori and Asian peoples means we have something other countries trying to engage with Asia don’t have. It may presently be largely hidden from view, but it’s a great asset to have.

Lastly, there are the Asian peoples themselves and the trajectory they are on. I’ve been lucky enough in the last eight years to engage with a range of Asian people from across that diverse continent. They invariably have been smart, energetic and looking for opportunity. It is that energy and enthusiasm that I believe will carry us along.

So, I think we will get there, and be more engaged with Asia. 

But lets be clever about it, lets invest the time, energy and money required to accelerate the process of understanding and benefitting from what is the most exciting, dynamic and innovative region in the world. 

The most important decisions in the coming decades will be made in Asian capitals.   

Finally, why was Asia keen to vote for us in the UNSC? I think it’s because of the investments we made decades before I came on the scene – commitments and investments New Zealand made through military support to Malaysia, Korea and Singapore when they needed it, the Colombo Plan, and support for decolonisation projects across the region.

Most of this was, of course, over 50 years ago, so its relationship capital than has been drawn down.

As I exit my current role my hope is that we will make new Asian relationship investments and that we will as a country understand that in Asia relationship doesn’t just mean ‘we want to sell you stuff’. There are so much more exciting and interesting things in Asia than just that.

+ This article originally published in The Post 


- Asia Media Centre