Opinion & Analysis

NZ's Growing Asia Knowledge Gap

Six months ago, I moved to New Zealand with my family from Scotland. Seeking new challenges and opportunities, we were drawn – among other things – to the country’s values and way of life. 

For someone who teaches and writes about China and India’s international relations, I was also excited by the prospect of living in a country that is in the Asian region.  New Zealand’s large – and in particular Auckland’s – Pasifika and Asian population was a further attraction.  We witness this dimension of life here on a daily basis – especially its cultural and culinary dimensions – and it is wonderful to be part of.

What has been more striking however, has been the diminishing emphasis upon learning about the region that New Zealand is part of. 

Notwithstanding the various designations of it – Asia, Asia-Pacific or the newer Indo-Pacific – this learning and knowledge appears to be in decline. 

Through conversations with academics, think-tanks, and businesspeople the consistent narrative is that the study of the region is being obstructed as retiring regional experts are not replaced by universities, courses of study are cut or merged into other regional focuses, or government funding is being gradually cut. 

This seems to be especially the case for my own interests – China and India – despite these two countries looking set to significantly dominate the world in the emergent Asian Century. 

In this context, and indeed even without it, this decline of knowledge creation in New Zealand is worrying. 

Furthermore, given that by many measures  New Zealand could be considered a major Indo-Pacific power in terms of its economic and development status, it is also deeply counter-intuitive.

It is difficult to imagine many other middle-power countries restricting their understanding of their local environment, especially when that environment can help it thrive economically, politically, culturally or militarily

From my perspective, and underpinning these observations, there are several critical dimensions of contemporary global affairs that all countries – regardless of which region they are in but especially those in Asia itself – must be aware of.  The necessity for such awareness will only grow exponentially as the twenty-first century progresses:

  • The establishment of Asia as the world’s pre-eminent geopolitical stage. The region not only now produces most of the world’s economic and military power but is witnessing the rise of two great Asian powers in the shape of China and India.  In addition, it contains the United States, Japan and – arguably – Russia.  The dynamics between these entities will directly influence how current and future global issues are dealt with.  By extension, this will impact upon New Zealand.
  • Asia is becoming the epicentre of a new international order. The region today contains the world’s most important centres of power, barring perhaps the European Union.  It is these countries, and their various bilateral and multilateral ties, that will determine the core values upon which it is based and the prevailing way in which diplomacy functions locally, regionally, and globally.  These elements will intrinsically affect New Zealand’s economic, military and culture outlooks.
  • Asia is at the forefront of growing (global) authoritarianism. The region’s foremost powers have either ingrained (such as in China and Russia) or seriously accelerating (the United States and India) authoritarian tendencies.  In all these countries, human rights are being eroded to the detriment of core freedoms of expression, association and information.  Recognising and protecting themselves from such a portent is essential for any democratic country, such as New Zealand.

The only way for New Zealand to have an informed, influential, and independent voice concerning all of these dimensions (and the many others that will arise in the future), is to build, maintain and enhance a specific Asia-centric knowledge base.

This base needs to be wide-ranging in scope – be it political, economic, cultural, social or linguistic – and be able to  accurately advise the country’s leaders of all backgrounds and at all levels in society.

Producing such well-informed individuals and groups rests with improving education in all spheres, not just in schools and universities, but also the ongoing training of the country’s public servants and politicians.  This instruction also includes businesspeople, and indeed New Zealand’s entire multi-ethnic and very pan-Asian population, in its remit.

At its heart, achieving such an outcome requires committed long-term investment that spans all political parties and a consistent cross-partisan outlook which states that understanding Asia is essential to the country’s short, medium and long-term future. 

Without it, there is a growing risk that New Zealand will be left behind, with its reputation and diplomatic skills being significantly undercut. 

Rather than being a major regional actor, Wellington could well find its standing and influence in the region diminished.

- Asia Media Centre