NZ has big role in shaping Asia

Asian leaders know more about New Zealand than just hobbits.


Asian leaders know more about New Zealand than just hobbits.

OPINION: Whenever a famous person visits New Zealand, journalists like to ask them what they think of New Zealand. We Kiwis lap up reports of movie stars developing a taste for our local chocolate, wine or fashion designers.  

I thought I’d share with you a few high-level views of New Zealand provided by members of our Asia Honorary Advisers Network when they gathered in Auckland last week. Hailing from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam (several of our advisers from other countries were unable to attend), they mentioned Lord of the Rings more than a few times – but they also had views on New Zealand’s role in Asia. 

Chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the network was created some two decades ago as a way for the Asia New Zealand Foundation to open doors in Asia and ensure our work has credibility and relevance. Some of the advisers have connections with the Foundation going back to two decades. We’ve recently welcomed several new advisers to the network, but we’ve previously had members who first came to New Zealand as Colombo Plan students in the 1960s.

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.


Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.

Our meeting in Auckland last week saw them spending time alongside our New Zealand Honorary Advisers. These eminent advisers from a range of sectors helped provide an update on social, political and economic developments in New Zealand.

“Jacinda-mania” cropped up several times in the discussions. One senior business leader informed us that the election of a young female prime minister was big news in her country, where Ms Ardern was seen as an inspiration to women. “No offence, but the New Zealand election never made the news in Korea before.”

Another adviser was impressed by what he had read about Ms Ardern’s sense of compassion. “I think that’s what we need now in our leaders – not only in Asia but around the world.”

Jacinda-mania put New Zealand's elections on the news pages of Asian countries for the first time.


Jacinda-mania put New Zealand’s elections on the news pages of Asian countries for the first time.

Several had read Ms Ardern’s recent foreign policy speech – and noted its emphasis on values. One of our Southeast Asian advisers noted that New Zealand stood for certain values (such as a rules-based system) but that it would face more challenges in upholding those values as the power balance in the region changed.  “Those values are not being discarded – but they are overshadowed and eclipsed at this time by other interests.”

China was beginning to offer new ways of doing things, which would present challenges for New Zealand, he said. “The choice is not between the US and China. The choice will be to whether we can hold up the established rules – or if something else will come up in its place.” New Zealand could “fight the good fight” – but it needed a plan B. 

A recurring theme was New Zealand’s role as an “honest broker”. The advisers saw New Zealand as having a useful voice on issues such as the South China Sea dispute. They mentioned New Zealand’s high level of transparency and its ranking as the least corrupt nation as examples of where it had something to offer Asian countries. 

One of our advisers described New Zealand as being in a unique position, with an Anglo-centric heritage but geographically close to Asia. It could even help explain Asia to Americans or Europeans, he suggested. “New Zealand must be a key player in shaping Asia while recognising Asia will shape New Zealand.”

We also heard about demographic, economic and technological trends. Dominant incumbents in many sectors were being disrupted by technological advances. Blockchain would enhance the traceability of goods, impacting on global value chains – and these value chains were challenging traditional ideas of sovereignty. 

Our advisers agreed youth would play a critical role in building understanding between Asia and New Zealand, particularly as anti-globalisation sentiment increased.   

This went beyond simple “I believe the children are our future” sentiment. Several advisers pointed out that millennials were less constrained by geographic borders than previous generations. Shared interest in issues like social equality and sustainability – and increased access to social media to discuss those issues – meant they were more likely to find common ground with their international peers, regardless of physical borders. 

While there was some healthy realism about how much New Zealand could help address some of Asia’s challenges, overall it was clear Asia will not be immune from some of the complexity sweeping the world. New Zealand would need to play some sort of role, whether it wanted to or not.  

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

 – Stuff

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