NZ needs to move beyond students, soldiers in Southeast Asia – report

Southeast Asia is familiar territory for New Zealand: it educated its elite and defended its shores.

However, New Zealand needs to move beyond students and soldiers in Southeast Asia and with ASeAN, says a report.

New Zealand needs to boost its relationship with Southeast Asia and not rely solely on China for its economic growth, the report from the Asia New Zealand Foundation (Asia:NZ) says.

The report – Beyond Soldiers, Students and Sentiment: New Zealand, Southeast Asia and ASEAN – says the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is increasingly important to New Zealand’s trade routes, both in the region and through it to north Asia – including China.

“New Zealand’s economy security relies on the security of the region of Southeast Asia, in which New Zealand has both a stake and a role,” writes report author Dr Andrew Butcher, Asia:NZ director of policy and research.

New Zealand has a long history of engagement with Southeast Asia, including security and defence contributions. In education, the Colombo Plan brought students from the region to study in New Zealand, creating “deep and long-lasting” goodwill.

But New Zealand’s visibility in Southeast Asia is “remarkably low and does not appear to go much beyond the ‘students, soldiers and sentiment’ that characterised the bilateral relationships 60 years ago,” Dr Butcher writes.

The report discusses the need for balance in New Zealand’s economic ties with Asia. Economic relationships with the 10 countries of ASEAN not only “diversify New Zealand’s basket of FTAs”, but could also protect New Zealand from negative impacts if China’s economic growth slows.

Asia:NZ’s Perceptions of Asia tracking surveys show awareness of ASEAN countries is low amongst New Zealanders. ‘Beyond Soldiers, Students and Sentiment’ is the first in a series of reports aimed at increasing knowledge and understanding of the region.

In an audio interview accompanying the report, Terence O’Brien, a senior fellow at the Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies, says New Zealand needs to work hard to boost its engagement with Southeast Asia on all levels, not merely trade.

“For most of the 20th century, our international security and our international prosperity interests were taken care of by our relationships and alliances with major western countries.

“What’s happening now as we are move into the 21st century is that this marriage made in heaven between our economic interests and our security interests is actually being broken. Our economic interests now principally lie with countries that were not previously ones from whom we sought security. We have to enlarge our security-type relationships, defence relationships with key nations in East Asia.”

There are also strong people-to-people links between the region and New Zealand. Domestically, New Zealand’s population is becoming more diverse and more Asian, says the report. At the 2006 census, 11 percent of New Zealanders identified themselves as being ethnically Asian; this is projected to grow to 16 percent by 2026.

In the past five years New Zealand has had its first Asian cabinet minister  and its first Asian Governor-General. Robert Didham estimates that there are perhaps 8,000-12,000 New Zealanders in Southeast Asia, compared with approximately 50,000 Australians. In 2006 there were nearly 60,000 people born in Southeast Asian countries residing in New Zealand and about ten times that number (600,000) in Australia.


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