Opinion

When influential leaders from Asia come calling

Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Indonesian students on Wellington's waterfront. (Photo: Facebook/Joko Widodo)

The visits of Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo were a missed opportunity for New Zealand, writes Roberto Rabel.

OPINION: Over the past week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted visits by two prominent Asian leaders.

Both the President of Indonesia and the Prime Minister of Vietnam decided to piggyback on an Australian-ASEAN summit to stop by New Zealand. While receiving some attention, these visits were a missed opportunity to highlight to New Zealanders the importance of these nations and of the wider ASEAN grouping to which they belong.

President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) leads the world’s fourth most populous country and third largest democracy, which is New Zealand’s closest Asian neighbour. What happens in Indonesia matters for Southeast Asia, as almost half of ASEAN’s people live there. With more Muslims than any other country, Indonesia has also been a vital exemplar of moderation and tolerance for the entire Islamic world.

Jokowi himself has an inspiring back story as a charismatic mayor who outwitted the Indonesian political establishment to win the presidency, earning the epithet of “the Indonesian Obama”. Some of the high hopes that accompanied his 2014 victory have since foundered on the complex realities of Indonesian politics. Jokowi has had to compromise with powerful domestic players, in the process embracing a stronger nationalistic stance than many had expected, while still pushing elements of his agenda – such as his grand vision of the Indonesian archipelago as a “Global Maritime Fulcrum”. Of late, there have been worrying sectarian trends in parts of Indonesia, but it is worth remembering that more Jihadis travelled from Belgium to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria, than from Indonesia.

“These visits were rare chances for New Zealand leaders to press our national perspectives before key Southeast Asian decision-makers on home soil – and for the media to provide in-depth analyses of the vibrant economies, cultures and societies these leaders represent.”

New Zealand’s two-way trade with Indonesia amounted to almost $1.8 billion last year. There is potential for that to grow significantly, as well as prospects for strengthening co-operation in other areas where there are already links such as education, geothermal development and disaster relief. Above all, there needs to be a broad-ranging political, economic and cultural relationship based on wider understanding in New Zealand of this often-overlooked Asian giant.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s country is another important regional actor. Although governed by a communist regime like China, Vietnam is not in thrall to its large neighbour – as highlighted by this month’s historic visit to Da Nang by an American aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson. However, Vietnam is not about to become a pawn of Washington; it stands as an independent-minded strategic player that manoeuvres deftly between the United States and China. Vietnam is likely to play an increasingly pivotal role in regional geopolitics.

Moreover, with almost 100 million people, Vietnam is the most populous (albeit poorest) ASEAN member of the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Shared membership of this agreement will offer more opportunities for New Zealand to pursue trade, education and investment links with this economically dynamic country.

The fact that these two visits were book-ending an Australian-ASEAN summit highlights the importance our trans-Tasman neighbour attaches to the now 50-year-old regional grouping. Shortly before the summit, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute issued a paper calling for Australia and New Zealand to join the organisation through creation of a new category of ASEAN Community Partners. Although Jokowi surprised other summiteers by welcoming Australian membership of ASEAN, the consensus view was that the suggestion was premature.

Having gone virtually unnoticed on this side of the Tasman, the proposal is even more premature for New Zealand. Nevertheless, it is still vital for New Zealand to focus more on ASEAN, both as the key regional organisation in the Asia-Pacific and as a collection of national partners for New Zealand as we face an increasingly challenging geo-political and economic environment in the wider region.

“In an Asia-Pacific region characterised by an assertive China, an unpredictable US, and rising nationalism more generally, it is imperative New Zealand has the sort of broad-ranging relations with our closest Asian neighbours that can accommodate some differences.”

Yet no major announcements resulted from either visit signalling step changes in our relations with Vietnam and Indonesia.

It is also true that New Zealand does not see eye to eye with the two countries on all issues. The Greens and others are critics of Indonesian control of West Papua, which Indonesia considers part of its sovereign territory akin to China’s views on Tibet. Vietnam is a one-party state without a free press and with differing views on human rights to New Zealand.

As a country that values its own independent foreign policy, New Zealand must respect and deal not only with like-minded states but also with ones that do not share all of our views. In an Asia-Pacific region characterised by an assertive China, an unpredictable United States, and rising nationalism more generally, it is imperative that New Zealand has the sort of broad-ranging relations with our closest Asian neighbours that can accommodate some differences. It is also important that a wide spectrum of New Zealand society appreciates that reality.

These visits were rare chances for New Zealand leaders to press our national perspectives before key Southeast Asian decision-makers on home soil – and for the media to provide in-depth analyses of the vibrant economies, cultures and societies these two leaders represent. That opportunity may have been missed, but there remains scope to follow up with broader relationship-building with these and other ASEAN countries, beyond the valuable ongoing activities of some officials, businesspeople and academics.

The previous government had a formal ASEAN Strategy but it needs refreshing and deepening. The Ardern government would do well to engage with New Zealanders to develop an updated strategy that maximises opportunities for connecting with our Southeast Asian neighbours. It should include more effective leveraging of state visits when influential Asian leaders come calling.

Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel is a Professorial Fellow at the Centre of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre