NZ & Asia relations: Interests, Identity and Values

At a time of US-China tensions, which are unlikely to abate with the new administration in the White House, New Zealand’s engagement with both powers is in the spotlight, and with it, the relationship with Asia. Do identity, values and security link NZ to the US and the West but only trade to China and the rest of Asia?  Or can New Zealand’s engagement with Asia embrace identity and values? Historian Malcolm McKinnon has this analysis. 



Asia, especially East and Southeast Asia, has long been the focus of New Zealand trade and security interests. 1989, the founding year of APEC, is a benchmark, a reminder that New Zealand’s engagement was structured around initiatives in which Japan’s economic power was matched by the US’s strategic power. ‘Asia-Pacific’ embodied that, as ‘Indo-Pacific’ these days embodies ideas of oceanic power.

But Asia-Pacific also reached out to ASEAN, with its mixed history of alliance and non-alignment, and to the communist states of mainland Asia.

It was an economic and security enlargement, generating an intricate web of institutions and arrangements, for which ‘ASEAN centrality’ provided a glue.

This ‘complex interdependence’ (as per Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye), has been successful for thirty years. On the strategic side it is under acute strain, but on the economic side it persists.

China’s success in dealing with Covid, and its economic recovery, suggest that such regional interdependence will not wane, however much strategic tensions counsel ‘decoupling’. The determination to sign RCEP before the end of the year is also indicative.


The investment in the Asia-Pacific regional project has been a non-negotiable of every New Zealand government since 1990.

But public awareness in New Zealand of the regional architecture and indeed, identification with the region, is low.

A 2015 survey of New Zealand journalists found just two percent were Asian (8/504) and no less than 86% were European/Pakeha.

Surveys of boards of directors, top law firms and the public service would also find a disconnect between the size of the Asian-origin New Zealand population and its representation in such institutions.

The pandemic, with the knowledge that the New Zealand response paired it with East Asian states rather than Europe or North America is perhaps a first time when a sense of commonality crossed familiar cultural boundaries. 

Whether it persists remains to be seen.


 At no point in the last thirty years have regional governments effectively encouraged a debate about values.

To the extent there has been such a debate in New Zealand foreign policy, it has been framed globally rather than regionally.

The last twelve months have not made a values conversation with Asian states any easier.  

New Zealand has spoken up on the Rohingya, on Hong Kong, and on the Uyghurs, but in concert with Western rather than Asian states (Japan aside).

That is no reason for giving up on the endeavour of finding common values, but the issue is how we speak with Asia, rather than at Asia. 

One way forward is through nationalism, that protean political phenomenon. 

Asia is home to three major expressions of it – anti-colonial, communist or socialist, and democratic. Add to that list a fourth with which some Asian governments have a fraught relationship – minority nationalism. 

Exploring nationalism is a way of exploring the extent of commonality between New Zealand and Asia.

 Anti-colonial nationalism

National independence is central to many Asian nationalisms.

Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia all commemorate the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 and the determination that colonial rulers should not return.

Anti-colonial nationalism shaped the Asian Relations Conference 1947 and the Bandung Conference 1955, the bedrock of non-alignment

‘Independence’ has been a by-word in New Zealand foreign policy since at least the 1980s.  

October 28th was the 185th anniversary of  He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, forerunner to the Treaty of Waitangi. 

It could be a starting point for a deeper understanding of national independence in Asia.

Communism, socialism, and the nation. 

Communist states sought to emancipate peoples through revolutionary transformation.  To that end Communists pursued literacy, public health and food security. Freedom of expression and opinion were ranked lower.

Debates in New Zealand about child poverty, Maori and Pasifika deprivation and the cost of housing indicate that economic and social rights are part of this country’s national identity.

That’s shared with Communist China and Vietnam and with other Asian countries which place a high value on social and economic well-being, including Singapore and Taiwan.

Democracy, dissent and nationalism

Democratic transitions have shaped recent Asian history: Thailand in the 1970s; the Philippines after 1986; South Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s; Taiwan in the late 1990s; Indonesia in 1998; Myanmar (partially) in 2015, Hong Kong (abortively) in 2019-20 and Thailand again in 2020.

Despite the rhetoric of some Asian leaders, there is nothing un-Asian about political opposition. New Zealand could do worse than stress the ‘Asian-ness’ of democracy; and there’s no reason to think that any country is ‘immune’. The title of Jiwei Ci’s "China’s democracy: the coming crisis" (Harvard University Press, 2020) is indicative.

 Minority nationalities

 Asian nations cherish independence but what about those populations within the boundaries of a nation-state with a distinct identity?

 Many Asian governments (if not only Asian governments) have poor records of dealings with such peoples.

 Crown-Maori relations in Aotearoa offer a pathway but the substantive parallels are few. One dilemma is that while the nation-state is central to the international system, the age of ‘national independence’ has passed; the UN has admitted just four members since the year 2000.

That said, some governments have made head way – the Philippines in Mindanao; Indonesia in Aceh. To the extent that New Zealand governments accept the primacy of the nation-state in the international system, they can put effort where most can be accomplished – into ‘internal’ self-determination.

 Ways forward

Here are three suggestions:

 - First, greater New Zealand participation in ASEAN. This may be an unattainable goal, or even an inapt one, but thinking about it would foster useful discussion.

- Second, support for a regional human rights court. Asia stands out for the lack of such a court. Africa, the Americas, Europe all have them. ASEAN has an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – the cupboard there is not completely bare.

- Third, and addressing identity as much as values, a New Zealand media bureau in the region (probably Singapore), and participation in the biennial ASEAN Games. These would be ways of turning the media’s attention to the region, as nothing else.

That there are hurdles to even low profile initiatives goes without saying.

But that’s no reason not to reflect, analyse and act.


This is an adapted and abridged version of a talk given to Asia Forum on 28 October 2020; readers are welcome to contact the writer and/or the Asia Forum for the full text of the talk.

 - Asia Media Centre