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Phil Goff Speech - Serious stocktake

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Speech Notes

26 November 2003

Serious stocktake

Address to Seriously Asia conference
Grand Hall, Parliament
12.15pm, 26 November 2003

New Zealand has undergone huge changes over the last 40 years in its view of the world, its trading patterns and indeed the composition of its community.

Today we are a nation proud of our Pacific identity, viewing the world from the perspective of being within the Asia-Pacific region and very much a multicultural society.

My own electorate epitomises that change. When I was elected in 1981, it was a traditional community, overwhelmingly European with some Maori and Pacific Island peoples. Today, it is made up of over 60 ethnicities. More than one in four of my constituents are Asian, predominantly Chinese and Indian.

New migrants from Asia have injected energy, diversity, fresh ideas and strong values about work and education into the community. New Zealand has also expanded its political, diplomatic, economic, educational, tourist and people to people contacts with Asia.

Asia is no longer a foreign and little known place. More New Zealanders travel to, and work in, Asia. Many of our consumer products are sourced from Asia, and Asia today is the destination for a third of our exports.

Tourism and international education, as well as migration, have given us a large and visible Asian presence.

While our relationship with Asia has moved forward over recent decades, there is a feeling that more recently some of the momentum in progressing the relationship has fallen off.

The financial crisis in Asia in 1997; the emergence of the threat of international terrorism, and the SARS epidemic have all to a degree interrupted our focus on the opportunities in Asia. Over the last two years our rapidly rising exports to Asia have peaked and fallen back.

New Zealand cannot afford to lessen the energy and commitment we should be putting into our overall relationship with Asia.

Asia constitutes half the world’s population. It accounts for nearly a third of the world’s purchasing power. Its economies are growing three to four times faster than those of Europe and North America. This creates an enormous potential for marketing the goods and services we produce.

The growing strength of Asian economies are in turn matched by a growing confidence of its countries as participants in the international political arena.

New Zealand needs to engage fully with Asia. As a strength, New Zealand can draw on a history of constructive engagement with the region.

We have made solid and constructive defence contributions to the security of countries such as Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.

Today we are active in cooperating with Asian partners in the new threats to stability – terrorism, people smuggling, trans-national crime and the longer-term problems of environmental degradation and growing pressures on natural resources.

While small, our development assistance through, for example, the Columbo plan and recently the Mekong Institute, has been useful. New Zealand aid experts under government schemes, Volunteer Service Abroad or other organisations, are to be found in most of the developing countries of Asia, and most often in some small village at the end of a country road.

New Zealand has been a solid contributor to regional organisations such as the Asian Regional Forum and APEC, building a reputation as a partner nation with interests in the affairs of the region.

New Zealand’s reputation and image in the region is largely positive. It appeals as a small, open economy and country that is easy to deal with.

It is seen as a clean, green, and beautiful country, a destination for tourism and a producer of quality agricultural products. We need to enhance our reputation for also producing innovative and high-tech products, using for example the success of our film, boat building and biotech industries.

Politically, we have a reputation for being an independent and positive world player. We maintain a busy schedule of political consultations with Asian countries at both ministerial and officials’ levels. There is now a very active network of sister city links. People-to-people and institutional contacts have never been more frequent or wide-ranging.

A new strength is our New Zealand Asian communities; the knowledge, language skills and network of contacts they have in their countries of origin.

The complementarity of our economy with those in Asia, and our geographic location as part of the Asia-Pacific region, are further advantages New Zealand can draw upon.

There are also, however, weaknesses and risks.

New Zealand’s small size is an impediment to achieving some of our objectives. So is our relative distance from Asia. We lack a critical mass of resources, both human and financial. Many of our competitors for influence and markets in the region are larger, stronger, better endowed and closer. New Zealand’s challenge is to keep on the radar screen of Asia’s decision-makers, and the onus is on us to make the running.

History and culture sometimes give us different perspectives. Misunderstandings arise from inadequate knowledge of other ways of life. New Zealand’s national weakness in learning foreign languages is an impediment to close personal and working relationships with Asian partners.

Although we have been very successful in diversifying markets and products, New Zealand is still economically vulnerable because it remains heavily dependent on exports of primary commodities, which are subject to wide fluctuations in value. Over the long-term, their value has declined in relation to services, manufactures and other value-added products.

Over the years we have tried to compensate for this structural weakness by working to liberalise trading rules and by participating in trade-facilitating arrangements such as APEC and the WTO. But proposals to create new groupings such as an East Asia Free Trade Area, which do not include New Zealand, are cause for concern. New Zealand’s nightmare would be a world increasingly divided into exclusive trading blocs from which it was locked out.

We need actively to push the advantages of AFTA-CER as well as pursue bilateral free trading arrangements.

Our security is also affected by events in Asia. Terrorist attacks that directly touched New Zealand families have made security issues a core element of our foreign policy. Events on the Korean Peninsula, deteriorating relations last year between India and Pakistan, and the potential for conflict across the Taiwan Strait also remind us of longstanding tensions and fragilities in the region. They have potential to damage the region and our own interests.

What then is the way forward for New Zealand to promote our relationship with Asia?

Taking the long view is very important. New Zealand is a young country, and New Zealanders are impatient for results.

People in countries with more than 2000 years of recorded history – like China, India or Vietnam - have a very different mind-set. They invest in relationships for the long term. They value cooperation and collaboration. They look for consistency in policy and practice. They will not be rushed into decisions.

We have to learn patience and persistence.

Assiduous cultivation of personal and institutional relationships is key to achieving our objectives. Contracts and treaties have their place in international business and diplomacy but they are not sufficient nor will they be effective without the foundation of personal or institutional commitment to the relationship.

In most parts of Asia, a personal intervention can carry huge weight in dealing with a problem or in advancing a project – but only if sustained effort has been put into developing trust and confidence between the parties.

Some New Zealanders have done this brilliantly; others struggle to overcome a legalistic approach to doing the business.

This is true also in political and academic relationships.

Knowledge and understanding are critical to effectiveness in relationships, especially in Asia. Our effectiveness is reduced by limitations in our knowledge and understanding of its countries and peoples. Satellite television and the internet have made access to information about Asia much easier.

But impressions and information are not the same as understanding. As one of the contributors to the Seriously Asia website put it, in our dealings with Asia, we New Zealanders need to do more listening and learning, not just selling and telling.

We need to do better in integrating Asia into our school curricula, in developing our own research capabilities on Asian issues, and in teaching Asian languages.

We need to draw on the wisdom and experiences of our Asian communities to up-skill other New Zealanders. We must do more to support Asian settlers during their adjustment to a new life in New Zealand and to work with them to strengthen our knowledge of Asia and our connections in Asian countries.

We have the political challenge of ensuring all New Zealanders are aware of the importance of this relationship and the contributions that migrants, students and tourists make to our country.

We need to avoid the damage of populist and self-interested political appeals to ethnocentrism, which feed on ignorance.

In building people to people relationships, we need to fully utilise the benefits of educating students and officials in New Zealand. ELTO, English Language Training for Officials, has been brilliant in developing empathy with, and understanding of, New Zealand by its now nearly 500 graduates.

A positive experience by all students of their life and education in New Zealand builds more goodwill for us in Asia than could be achieved by almost any other means, as the Columbo Plan has shown.

Finally, the conduct of international relations is a government responsibility but in today’s world the activities of non-governmental entities can affect the quality of particular relationships for better or worse.

The activities of a few private language schools have raised questions in China about the quality of New Zealand’s whole education system. Avoiding these sorts of problems in future means we have to strive to coordinate public and private sector activities better in order to maximise the benefits and limit potential damage. Governments can give a lead to the wider community but they also rely on the energy, commitment and good sense of individuals and groups to ensure these results are achieved.

This Forum is an opportunity to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of our current approaches to dealing with our neighbours in Asia. It should take a comprehensive look, spanning the whole range of governmental and non-governmental activity and the inter-play between domestic and external policies.

I look forward to this afternoon’s session and further discussion on how to advance these ideas.


All Phil Goff’s media releases and speeches are posted at

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