Pivoting to Asia-Pacific: What’s in it for New Zealand?

This opinion piece by Victoria Provost Professor Wendy Larner was first published in the Dominion Post.

The Government’s announcement that three Centres for Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPEs) will be established is a milestone in New Zealand’s coming of age as an Asia-Pacific nation.

CAPEs are cross-institutional centres of excellence in the language, culture, politics and economics of countries or groups of countries within the Asia-Pacific region. Victoria University of Wellington will host two of them— dedicated to Latin America and South East Asia – working in partnership with other universities and partners such the Asia New Zealand Foundation and the Latin America New Zealand Business Council. Victoria will also be a partner in the third CAPE, hosted by the University of Auckland and focused on North Asia.

But why are these centres needed at all?

Before World War II, New Zealand was Britain’s farm. We had a secure market for our products, and we built a society on the bedrock of this relationship. How times have changed.

China is now easily our largest market for export goods, taking more than $9bn worth in the year ending June 2016. By contrast, the United Kingdom ranks fifth, taking $1.6bn of our export goods over the same period.

New Zealand’s economic pivot towards Asia-Pacific over the last few decades has been profound. But as China’s growth slows, and we look to develop additional markets in the region, we need major investment to ensure New Zealand cements existing relationships and establishes new ones.

The South East Asia CAPE aims to help New Zealanders engage with and do business with the ten countries in ASEAN, and Timor Leste. ASEAN is New Zealand’s fourth largest trading partner, after Australia, China, and the European Union, and takes ten per cent of our total exports.

The initial focus for the Latin America CAPE will be on Chile, Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and Argentina, as well as wider regional issues. There is huge potential to build on current business links with these five countries. Indeed, relations between New Zealand and Latin America today are at their strongest point in history, as evidenced by trade flows, diplomatic engagement and people to people links.

The three CAPEs represent a $34.5m investment over four years by the Government. It’s an investment well worth making when you compare the size of the markets in Latin America and Asia against New Zealand’s lack of readiness to take advantage of these opportunities.

A 2015 Asia New Zealand Foundation report found that although 82% of Kiwis believed it was important to develop cultural and economic ties with Asia, almost two-thirds of Kiwis also admitted they knew little or nothing about the region.

Perhaps more concerningly, there’s a similar lack of cultural understanding among the next generation of New Zealanders. A 2013 report found the majority of Year 12 and 13 students felt ill-equipped to engage with the peoples and cultures of Asia. Only 9% were ‘Asia Ready’, although 60% of these students thought it was important to be taught about Asia. Clearly more work needs to be done.

At the most basic level, language barriers need to be overcome before we can engage in meaningful ways with our partners in the Asia-Pacific region. But how do we incentivise students to learn these languages? Is this something for direct government intervention or does it need to form part of a broader shift in emphasis away from Anglo-Saxon culture in secondary and tertiary curricula towards the cultures in this region?

And while economic success depends on greater cultural understanding, it is also inevitably bound up with establishing stronger political links and preparing ourselves for future shifts in the regional security dynamic. Equally, our future prosperity relies on understanding the significance of broader trends in the world economy and changes in international economic structures.

Work has already begun on addressing these and other issues. At Victoria, for example, the Confucius Institute promotes Chinese language teaching and cultural exchange, the School of Languages and Cultures offers regional expertise, we host the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre and are home to the Victoria Institute for Links with Latin America.  More recently, we have brought together a cross-disciplinary group of researchers to think about how we can help New Zealand get ‘Asia ready’.  It is this multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach to understanding the Asia-Pacific region that will be central to the success of the CAPEs.

Today’s students – tomorrow’s leaders – need to be able to speak the languages, understand the perspectives, and see the world through the eyes of the people they are dealing with. Only then will they be fully prepared to partner with our Asia-Pacific neighbours.