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PM Speech to Seriously Asia Conference

Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister - Keynote Address to Seriously Asia Conference

Grand Hall Parliament 9.30 am Wednesday 26 November 2003

The aim behind this conference has been to re-energise New Zealand’s relations with Asia.

It’s not that those relations are in crisis – far from it.

But there is a concern, which I share, that we are not yet maximising their potential.

And there’s also the reality that the nations of Asia matter far more to us than our small, geographically isolated, trading nation does to them.

We know the importance of Asia to our security and prosperity. But for the nations of Asia, we are the merest blip on the radar screen.

That puts the onus on us to make the running in building the relationships, and some solid work has been put in at many levels over the past half century to do just that.

But relationships need to be updated and renewed. They need sustained effort. They also need to be multifaceted to give them underlying strength.

With respect to the nations of Asia, many of our perceptions are badly out of date. Our focus has often been overly narrow, around our trade interests. That narrow focus can be compounded by short term agendas – which see us losing interest when the Asian economic tide is out. But interest once lost in us is hard to rekindle.

So I welcome the thrust of the submissions to the Seriously Asia Conference. They urge us to:

commit long term to our Asian relationships make them sustainable develop a broader understanding here of Asia’s peoples, societies, and cultures, and promote more positive engagement between the Asian communities here and our other communities. The way in which people from Asia are greeted and treated in this country will have a bearing on how we are perceived in the region and on our interests there.

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New Zealand’s close engagement with the affairs of Asia goes back to World War Two.

We fought in the war in the Pacific, and were part of the occupation of Japan.

We fought in Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam.

We joined Britain and Australia in defence arrangements with Singapore and Malaysia which endure to this day.

Through the Colombo Plan we helped educate a generation or two of leaders, professionals, and business people.

We established longstanding development assistance programmes in South East Asia.

We developed a network of embassies and high commissions right around the region, extending to China in 1972.

We looked for opportunities for dialogue with emerging regional organisations, becoming a dialogue partner with ASEAN, a participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum on security issues, and a member of APEC.

After Britain joined the EEC, Asia’s importance to us as a market increased greatly. Today, the nations of Asia account for one third of our foreign trade and one fifth of our foreign investment. In the service industries, one third of our tourism revenues and eighty per cent of our international students are coming from Asia.

In our schools, Japanese became one of the most widely studied foreign languages.

At local body level, sister city linkages flourished.

Through much of the 1980s and into the late 1990s, East Asia looked like a series of endless opportunities for New Zealand.

But the Asian financial crisis, and Japan’s stagnating economy shook business confidence in the region’s potential.

Add to that the bombshell of September 11 2001, and the necessary attention the government here has had to pay to terrorism and counter-terrorism. That has seen us somewhat preoccupied with initiatives and debates with other western nations, and with the affairs of the nations of the Middle East and Central Asia.

In retrospect it seems that the combined effect of the Asian economic crisis and the shock and aftermath of September 11 has led to a plateau in our relationships with the region. It’s that plateau we now need to move off, and fast, or we will lose touch with the new dynamic in and the dynamism of Asia.

The reality is that if our relations are stalled, we will miss out on opportunities, and misunderstandings between us will arise.

Some of the effects are already apparent. For example:

While East Asia is growing at five to six per cent a year, the share of New Zealand’s exports which goes to Asia has fallen. It may well be that we have found better opportunities elsewhere, but for the medium and long term there must be more growth potential in Asia than in what are described as the more mature markets of the US and the EU. Our largely unregulated export education industry grew very quickly, raising issues of sustainability and quality. When the bad headlines were repeated in Asian media, there seemed to be few reserves of goodwill for New Zealand to draw on. The antics of this country’s anti-immigration politicians cause our country considerable grief off shore. And the decision of the hosts of this year’s Sister Cities Conference to exclude the Chinese delegation sent further unwelcome messages.

In this age of globalisation and instant communications, we won’t successfully attract people’s business if, at the same time, we have loud voices objecting to the presence of their students, tourists, and migrants.

So, as a nation, we have some serious thinking to do about the shape of the relationship we want with Asia. The future of it is in our hands.

Rationally, the only option is to engage, and to do so quickly. Asia is moving on without us, and it’s our job to make ourselves relevant to and engaged in its future.

New relationships are being forged in the region right now.

ASEAN is deepening its own economic integration, and is intensifying its economic and political links with the big north Asian economies and with India.

China’s fourth generation leadership is reaching out in new ways to its immediate neighbours and to New Zealand and Australia. China appears to be driven by a desire for peace and stability which will enable it to focus on its own economic development. It is in the market for new forms of economic and trade agreements, including with New Zealand. These are opportunities we must grasp.

An emerging East Asian economic community could embrace two billion people. As an outward looking, trading economy we need to be part of any such development.

Meantime we need to breathe new life into our political and economic relationship with ASEAN, while also pursuing the closer economic relations with China and with Thailand which are currently on offer.

The value of the Seriously Asia project has been to invite open debate about the nature and future of New Zealand’s relations with a part of the world which is enormously important to us.

Debate about our international relations is often initiated only at times in crisis, as in the post September 11 period, and in the long drawn out debate over Iraq, both before and since this year’s war.

As I indicated earlier, our relations with Asia are not in crisis.

But, they do need new momentum, if our country is to be part of the dynamism of the region.

Seriously Asia has been able to create some fresh interest in our engagement in the region. It’s encouraging that the website attracted 1000 hits a week over the past three months.

But of most interest were the 230 thoughtful submissions, resulting in more than 260 specific action proposals. Those ideas challenge not only central government, but also local government, business, education and research institutions, NGOs, and the media to consider how, singly, and jointly as New Zealand Incorporated, we can contribute to building more productive and sustainable relationships with Asia and its peoples.

It will be up to each individual and sector represented here today to consider how they might make that contribution.

For the government’s part, we can identify the following mission: to put New Zealand’s relations with Asia on a more strategic, coherent, and consistent basis, with the aim of:

building relationships which consolidate our political and security influence enhancing our economic and people-to-people links by strengthening a New Zealand Incorporated approach ensuring that our domestic policies reinforce our external policies by welcoming the people of Asian origin who, temporarily or permanently, are residing in New Zealand.

In government, we will need to give some thought to how we step up to that task. It may require the establishment of a dedicated ministerial taskforce to co-ordinate across the departments and agencies which can contribute. Many have direct relationships with Asian counterparts, or are involved in different forms of marketing there, but there has been little conscious co-ordination of their diverse efforts.

A more strategic and co-ordinated approach would need to be underpinned by robust policy development and analysis.

Unfortunately, not only in New Zealand, but also globally, there has been a worrying trend of “dumbing down” foreign policy establishments, as constrained resources have been called on to meet rapidly growing volumes of routine business and new demands.

In New Zealand’s case, there were continuing constraints and staff cuts since the 1980s, while at the same time the events, issues, and regions of interest to us became much more complex. Thus the conduct of our foreign relations can end up being underpinned by only minimal policy analysis which has been formulated from a New Zealand perspective.

That is especially problematic at times of rapid and significant change, as in Asia at present, when we may well be operating with an arguably inadequate understanding of how our interests are being affected or could be affected.

This public sector deficit has not been compensated for by the presence of focused think tanks. To the extent that our academic institutions have such centres, they are unco-ordinated. The Track Two activities which New Zealand is involved in are useful, but we probably do too little to maximise their utility to New Zealand Incorporated.

A recent review of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s baseline has led to a decision to inject more funding over time to rebuild its capacity. This is of critical importance for a well informed foreign policy and for reinforcing MFAT’s capacity to lead in strategy development.

Our objective must be to be able to set well informed government-wide objectives for our Asian relationships, co-ordinate our own activities better, and link with other stakeholders to maximise our joint effectiveness as New Zealand Incorporated.

Greater integration of effort could also commend itself in other areas. Two examples come to mind:

1. I understand that Asia 2000 is proposing the creation of a New Zealand Asia-Pacific Regional Business Network by acting as a co-ordinating point for all the current region-oriented structures we have – ABAC (the APEC Business Advisory Council); PECC (the Pacific Economic Co-operation Conference; PBEC (the Pacific Basin Economic Council), and the APEC Study Centre. That would be a sensible focusing of resources. 2. Spread through our universities are pockets of excellence in the study of Asia. One of the insights gained from the contestable process followed for the establishment of the seven Centres of Research Excellence was that virtual centres, linking the specialists across institutions, gave critical mass. The turnout and range of papers presented at the New Zealand Asian Studies Conference in recent days suggest that on a nationwide basis we have that critical mass. Perhaps we need to consider how to cluster it by virtual means to best effect?

Overall in seeking to re-energise relations with Asia around sustainable and well informed and resourced strategies, we need to overcome two main challenges.

The first is that of scale: we are a small nation, and the task and the region are huge.

That is why so much emphasis must go on smart strategies and co-ordination, both within government and within the wider New Zealand Incorporated.

The second is of the degree of difference: so many of our interests lie in Asia, but fourteen of every fifteen New Zealanders are not Asian. The challenge therefore is to build relationships which are professional, mutually respectful, collegial, collaborative, consultative, and friendly.

In the final analysis too, we need strong and intimate relations because we are neighbours. That concept of neighbourhood must be able to over-ride differences which might stem from ethnicity, religion, culture, or political system. That means our future in the region can be assured.

I look forward to the outcomes of the conference.

© Scoop Media

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