Jefferson Fellow 2017: Philippa Tolley

RNZ Insight executive producer Philippa Tolley participated in the East-West Center’s 2017 Jefferson Fellowship, which included travel to Hawaii, Japan, China and the Philippines. (Photo: Philippa Tolley)

The topic for this year’s Jefferson Fellowship, “Trade, Security and Strategic Relationships in Asia Pacific and the Future of the US Role”, was an absolute winner.

With US President Donald Trump still in the first few months of his Presidency, what journalist wouldn’t leap at the chance to hear experts, academics, officials and politicians work at separating campaign rhetoric from the largely-still-unfolding policy when it comes to trade and security!

Would the US be as isolationist as suggested by the oft-heard slogan “America First”? The pledge to withdraw from TPP was a done deal, but could or would bilateral agreements fill its place, and could or would the remaining 11 members salvage the agreement? With North Korea continuing to test missiles, how were security relationships faring? And as China hosted an international forum to explore its Belt and Road initiative (BRI), what role did it see itself playing in this altered environment, and how was the rest of Southeast Asia responding to this possible altering in the balance of power?

News as it happened

Protest against constitutional change in Japan

People in Tokyo protesting against the government's attempts to amend the nation's pacifist Constitution. (Photo: Philippa Tolley)

The nations we visited as part of this year’s Jefferson Fellowship were ideal to try to eke out greater understanding of a range of issues and questions. For me, it was an added bonus that I had never been to Hawaii, Tokyo, Beijing, Shenzhen or Manila. But another huge plus was that our visits and briefings tied in with news events.

We were in Tokyo the same time Prime Minister Bill English was there for trade talks and TPP11 discussions. Another North Korean missile test was fired not long after we visited the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and just before our trip to Beijing. This gave us the opportunity to tie in what we were hearing with news coverage, and gave a depth and focus to any post-briefing questioning.

The programme organised by the East-West Center taps into its strong networks around the region, and the organisers were able to secure interviews and talks from an impressive array of individuals that would be simply beyond the reach of an individual journalist from New Zealand. From ex-TPP negotiators via Skype from Washington, to a Cabinet Secretary in Tokyo, to the Chinese military in Beijing, and a drug rehabilitation centre in Manila, the range of individuals was truly impressive.

As a maker and editor of radio documentaries and web content, the challenge of making stories about trade and strategic matters come alive and be accessible to the audience is a huge challenge. Because of this, it was such an advantage to be in country experiencing the sights and sounds, and to be able to record them, rather than rely on often dry, although important, phone interviews. At the same time, the whole group was becoming better informed about how different parties react to different issues, and to some of the nuances that help shape debate, policy and decision-making.

An enriching exchange of ideas

Philippa Tolley (centre)

Listening to questions of other journalists, and understanding why they were interested in different topics was a whole new learning experience in itself. (Photo: Philippa Tolley)

An unexpected part in this learning process was the fellow journalists I travelled with.

Heading off to spend three weeks with 13 journalists from 11 different countries, I was excited, but also a little trepidatious. Could this turn out to be a juggle of conflicting personalities and bear a likeness to group-travel, brochure-holiday gone wrong?

I thought I would make some great contacts, but the daily chat about what we'd done, seen and heard was enormously enriching. It helped develop a greater understanding of some of the big issues were delving into. Everyone had their own focus and audience back home, but listening to each other's questions, and understanding why they were interested in different topics, was a whole new learning experience in itself. The fact they were all such great people was an added plus, and one that means they are all open to acting as an ongoing resource when it comes to perspectives from their own countries.

While we covered the main topics of this trip in depth, I was grateful for some of the additional “sidebars” thrown in. Be it the robots being tested at a nursing home in Japan as part of plans to deal with the nation’s super-ageing population, early-morning tuna auctions, or speaking to a wife whose husband had been shot dead as part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs – these opportunities helped to round out our experience.

Issues of the day

The big topics we focused on in this trip – trade, security and stability – are going to be at the forefront of the news agenda for the foreseeable future, and the Asia-Pacific region is only going to grow in importance to New Zealand.

I now have a better understanding when it comes to covering these topics and can see the wider regional implications involved. All the countries we visited drive headlines here.

New Zealand’s relationship with China will likely be in focus in the run up to this general election. Tokyo is a strong ally of Wellington in the effort to secure an agreement over a TPP11, and New Zealand’s links with the Philippines are also developing – not least through the number of Filipinos who find employment here and its growing popularity as a tourism destination for Kiwis.

Having had the privilege of taking part in this Fellowship, I can a see a myriad of potential stories, and I will be able to approach them all with more robust analysis and some excellent contacts.

RNZ Insight executive producer Philippa Tolley participated in the East-West Center’s 2017 Jefferson Fellowship, which had the theme “Trade, Security and Strategic Relationships in Asia Pacific and the Future of the US Role”. The Asia New Zealand Foundation funded Tolley’s participation in the programme, which included travel to Hawaii, Japan, China and the Philippines.

– Asia Media Centre

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