A Policy A Day: New Zealand’s Role in Asia

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that — after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available here. Enjoy!

Today’s post is by Ash Stanley-Ryan

No New Zealand political party has a particularly exciting foreign policy right now — if they even have one. Most are either a very narrow approach (see: Labour’s refugee quota and immigration policies) or a series of platitudes that we already do (see: NZ First’s foreign affairs pledges). National has a trade policy, but no announced foreign affairs policy. To be honest, that’s because it can be hard to see how the rest of the world impacts your life compared to something like a train to Auckland Airport or a big tax cut, and political parties target low-hanging fruit like these because they’re flashy and draw electorate seat votes.

What happens around the world does affect you though. We’re a tiny little country on the bottom of the world which imports a pile of the things you use every day. We rely on our neighbours and especially, we rely on Australia and on Asian states. We have policies on Australia, which is great [Editor: even if their policies on New Zealand aren’t so great]. We don’t have such strong policies on how to approach Asia, which is bad. Asia as a region is immensely important to us and will continue to become more important. Where we do have policies, they tend to be inward-looking and see Asia as a “big bad”, rather than as an opportunity.

That’s why for me, a policy that would swing my vote is one that understands and grows our role in Asia. I want to see a policy proposal which does three things:

  • Acknowledges that Asia is key to the future of our foreign affairs;
  • Focuses on preparing New Zealanders to engage with Asian stakeholders, countries and businesses;
  • Does this, and provides opportunities for New Zealand, whilst upholding our core values.

Pretty much every number or figure in this article is drawn from research by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. If you want to go learn more about the NZ-Asia relationship, they’re a great place to start with.

Like it or not, Asia is our future:
There’s a lot of angst in New Zealand about Asia and Asian people, particularly in the context of immigration and purchasing of property. I’m not going to address this beyond saying that even though investment from Asia is growing, the region only accounts for ten per cent of foreign-owned assets in NZ. Australians own 30%, and another 20% is from the UK. It’s much more likely that someone from Australia [Editor: or New Zealand] is going to buy your dream house and price you out of the market.

Whether you think foreign investment is good or bad, however, it’s going to increase, particularly from the Asian region. This isn’t just because investment is seen as good; it’s also because Asia and Asian states are becoming more important to us, and the world, all the time. They’re economically important — ASEAN was our fourth-largest trading partner in 2015. China’s growth means that if you account for purchasing parity (read: what your hard-earned $$ can get you in this late-stage capitalist world) they’re the largest economy on Earth. Some Asian states have created their own international development bank, India is positioning itself to be a leader in renewable energy, and Japanese inventors file more patents than anywhere else in the world.

Economic leadership is one thing, but Asia’s emerging superpowers lead in other ways too. For example, China’s global influence is growing steadily, partly through targeted investment in developing countries. They don’t have the largest armed forces in the world or the most well-equipped, but measuring a country’s importance by its military power is only one metric. China has positioned itself to be a world leader, and the perception of a leadership gap in the world order at present could boost its rise.

What does that mean for us? Basically, that any policy which pretends Asia is “just another area of the world” is a bad one. Asia is our backyard, and our backyard is full of developing world powers who happen to also be key trade partners. Whether you like the idea or not, New Zealand cannot and should not pretend that the Asian Century isn’t a thing. Instead, we should have a clear policy towards it that acknowledges and embraces our role with Asia.

Because it’s our future, we need to be prepared to engage with Asia:
New Zealanders have a confused attitude towards Asia. 70% of New Zealanders agree Asia is important for us. However, only a third of New Zealanders think they have a decent knowledge of Asia. This is important because people who know less about Asia are both less warm towards Asia in general and more negative towards Asia in specific areas. A little bit over 50% of New Zealanders tend to recall negative news about Asia, focused mainly on house prices and immigration. Negative opinions on the influence of Asia are more common in provincial cities.

The results are worse with school leavers: only 37% feel that learning about Asia will be important for them, a fifth of students feel they know nothing about Asia, and over half feel they are unprepared to engage with Asian people and cultures in New Zealand [Editor: understanding Asia goes beyond attending the Lantern Festival once a year and eating “ethnic” takeaways on Friday nights]. This means people are leaving school unprepared to engage with a region that’ll be key to their future.

For a country that acknowledges Asia is important to us, our readiness and interest in engaging with the region is surprisingly weak. Saying “Asia is important” is only half what needs to happen: it’s like going “yes, we care about the environment” and then taking no action to give effect to that. It’s weak at best and actively harmful at worst.

A policy towards Asia needs to include a focus on preparedness to engage. This means emphasising, at school, university and the workplace, the role Asia plays for us and the opportunities it presents. This should be focused on two broad sub-policies:

1. Equipping New Zealanders to learn about and understand our Asian neighbours (an education policy);

2. Promoting the opportunities Asia presents for us, linking New Zealand businesses and individuals (a trade and foreign affairs policy).

Engagement shouldn’t mean compromising our values:
If statistics and figures switch you off, then good news: this entire section is pure, uncompromising moralism.

New Zealand’s values can be a difficult thing to nail down, partly because we have the benefit of being a country where you’re free to think whatever you like about what those values should be. There are a couple of things that are more or less universal:

  • Democracy and the rule of law (this means the government doesn’t steal you off the street in broad daylight and if they do you can sue them);
  • Human rights and a “principled” approach, meaning we prioritise rights and freedoms here and abroad;
  • Being a constructive partner — one thing New Zealand is well known for internationally is helping others to solve their problems, as well as competently balancing the interests of our overseas partners with one another.

One of the challenges engaging with the Asian region presents to us is that many countries there come from a fundamentally different value system. Whether that’s political — Vietnam, Cambodia and China for example — or social, like the Japanese approach to work-life balance, it means we can’t treat Asia as a homogenous entity where every country is the same, or approach every country within it the same way we’d approach, say, Australia. This makes cultural understanding important: our approach to countries needs to be appropriate to the country or region we’re working with.

That doesn’t mean that our core values should fall to the wayside though. A New Zealand that didn’t promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights would be a very different place to live, and all three have their purpose defeated if they’re only promoted selectively [Editor: #kiwivalues]. This is the final part of the policy puzzle for me: New Zealand should continue its strong and consistent stance on key issues, even if on occasion that means calling out a partner state for rights abuses.

Conclusion:
In short, policy towards Asia is something I want parties to tease out more. It’s not a pretty, low-hanging topic that wins votes. It runs the risk that people hear the word “Asia” and immediately switch off or think “housing prices”. That doesn’t make it unimportant though. I would love to see and vote for a party that can show it’s prepared to work with our neighbours. These kinds of policies are normally determined post-election, but in this case, I think a clear, pre-election promise of preparing New Zealand for the future is a better one.

Ash Stanley-Ryan is a fifth-year law and international relations student at Victoria University of Wellington, with a focus on international law. He is a member of UN Youth New Zealand, the Successor Generation Initiative, and the Asia NZ Leadership network (but his views are his own).