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New Zealand’s prosperity depends on Asia – expert

A leading foreign policy expert says it’s time for New Zealanders to think more broadly about this country’s engagement with trading and security partners in Asia.

Professor Robert Ayson of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, says that while New Zealand’s economic and security interests have been encouraging a closer connection with Asia, we also need to be emphasising common values with our Asian partners for stable, long-term engagement in the region.

“At the moment we are heavily focused on how New Zealand can boost its prosperity. That seems to be the driving factor in our regional engagement,” says Professor Ayson, who will deliver his inaugural professorial lecture on Tuesday 19 July.

“We’ve had the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, a couple of years of slow growth—the Government is understandably very focused on what our international connections can mean for advancing our economy. This encourages us to think about our material interests as we engage Asia, but where do we end up when we add values into the mix?”

Professor Ayson says that while our engagement with Asia can be justified on interests alone—our prosperity and security depend on it—emphasising shared values can help deepen cooperation.

“If we want a sustainable long-term approach that is going to cope with the swings, shocks and crises of international relations, then we need to look seriously at the values that motivate us, as well as the interests.”

He says that we often find it easier to talk of values with traditional partners such as Australia, Britain and the US.

“When engaging with these like-minded countries we speak naturally about shared values, but we also need to think about the values we share with Asia’s rising powers who are changing the region we are part of.”

He says finding common ground with our newer partners in Asia is challenging, but not at all impossible.

“I think we do have common values. We share democratic values with the likes of India, Japan, Korea and Indonesia for example. And in its deeper engagement with the global economy China is increasingly part of a rules-based international system. There are also the values that are implicit in free trade and open access and the avoidance of armed conflict that we share with many of those countries.”

Professor Ayson says New Zealand’s engagement with a changing Asia will be our most important foreign policy issue over the next 50 years.

He says New Zealand and Australia have an interest in seeing the US and China accommodate each other so as to avoid conflict, and should therefore emphasise the values in our foreign policy that help facilitate this.

Professor Ayson agrees that putting values in foreign policy can sometimes cause division, rather than cooperation.

“There are the arguments that we should only engage with democracies, or that we shouldn’t engage with China because of its human rights record. These arguments don’t dominate the current debate. But public sentiment could make these real issues again, and so I think we need an approach which is ready for that challenge.”

He says he wants to go beyond the argument that an emphasis on values may harm some of our economic and security interests and prevent us from engaging with some of the countries that matter.

Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies and directs the Centre for Strategic Studies in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington. From 2002 to 2009 he directed the Master’s program in the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

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